Why the Dharma of Love? A personal reflection
The seeds of Dharma of Love can be found in my own history, beginning in my early twenties when I had my first difficult relational breakup. I’d had a couple of relationships by this point, but this was the first time that I had really felt “in love.” I imagined spending my life with this woman, yet that future turned out to be purely imaginal. My initiation into heartbreak, sadness, and grief, was difficult to bear in my young brain and naive mind. I felt the intensity of loss throughout my body, and a shadow came over my days.
Travel seemed like the perfect antidote to my despondency, so I leaped at the opportunity to travel with an old high school buddy to the exotic lands of Nepal and Thailand. I joined him in a small village on the Annapurna circuit and lived for five weeks with a warm and generous family who grew the food they ate. Their hospitality and the spectacular Himalayan mountain views were truly awesome, yet I was shocked, and even a little frightened, to find out that even the most beautiful vista I had ever witnessed wasn’t enough to make my heart feel better. My mind seemed a sadistic tormentor, replaying both painful and pleasurable events with my ex, and imagining the grim and lonely future that awaited me once I returned from my sojourn.
I thought, “Part of the problem is this cold weather. I’ll find a beautiful beach on a remote island, and then I’ll be able to fully relax.” It was December in the Himalayas, and we had been living in a slate house with no heat or hot water for over a month.
Continuing my delusions of a geographical cure, I headed to Thailand, in search of the ultimate beach.
I did find a remote island with a pristine beach and crystalline water, yet much to my dismay, my mind would not rest. I couldn’t find ease, or peace or any deep relaxation. My heart was still broken, and it colored my ability to enjoy the serene scene in front of me. I felt trapped in my own body, in the midst of an existential crisis. Feeling desperate, I signed up for a ten-day silent meditation retreat in a renowned Buddhist monastery in the “forest tradition” of the early monastics. From those ten days, both excruciating and sublime, the most important insights were that there is a path out of suffering, and that my mind and my situation was in fact workable, and that I didn’t have to be a slave to my thoughts and feelings, no matter how dark or gloomy they were. As the kind and generous nun who I met with regularly to check in on my retreat experience reminded me, “they’re only thoughts…they’re only feelings.” I learned from direct experience that this was indeed true. It was liberating and empowering and was precisely the medicine that I had been searching for to ease my soul.
Fast forward a quarter of a century, I had diligently maintained my meditation practice since Thailand. After a couple of “close calls” with relationships that I thought would be life-long but ended nevertheless, I was finally with the woman who would become my wife. We were still in the early days of our courtship, yet intuitively I knew that this was the real deal. We seemed to fit like a husband and wife should, and she felt the same way. At the time, I was in my early forties, a professional psychotherapist, and a bit arrogant about all of my meditation experience and mental equanimity. I had fallen into the trap of what Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called spiritual materialism, his warning about not using the spiritual path as another means to stoke one’s ego.
As our relationship progressed, I was shocked, embarrassed, and humbled to find my unresolved psychological and emotional material emerging in simple interactions with my wife-to-be. Issues that I thought I’d worked through in my years of individual therapy and thousands of hours of meditation would squirt out, color my mind and emotions, and drive my behaviors, certainly not for the better. Fortunately, my loving partner, a trained psychotherapist herself, was kind, compassionate and loving, and also sincerely interested in growing and working on her own issues. Over time, both of us had profound, and sometimes painful opportunities for learning to become more mature adults who better understand ourselves, each other, and how to really love.
These experiences with Rachel were also the catalyst for both of us to study relationship professionally. We trained for years as couple therapists with a brilliant and renowned psychologist studied the latest neuroscience, and logged thousands of hours of clinical time with couples in our office. We learned to support them in finding their way toward a deeper, lasting love, replete with greater ease, freedom, and joy. We became trainers of couple therapists and specialists in the field of couple therapy. We continue to learn all that we can about relationship, marriage, pair bonding, and committed partnership.
What continues to get my attention, both personally and clinically, is the danger of spiritual bypassing; the process of using spirituality as a means to avoid the emotional messiness and vulnerabilities that are naturally and inevitably evoked through the close emotional and physical proximity of intimate relationship. I now believe that these two paths – of spirituality and emotional growth – are not two distinct journeys, but one; both are woven with fibers of self-development and maturation, along with meditation and other practices that help us move beyond the self. Emotional pain is not to be avoided, but studied and learned from.
Relationship is the perfect training ground for this endeavor.
In the twenty-first century, genuine spiritual insight and lessons are no longer the exclusive domain of caves, monasteries, ashrams, temples or even meditation cushions, but also belong to a committed relationship in the midst of daily life.
We still believe in meditation practice, yet we have learned through our own experience and from working with hundreds of couples, that the real integration of our highest human aspirations takes hold in our moments off the cushion, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, and sometimes, even in the car.