It snowed here in up-state New York last night. A heavy drift blew up the Locust tree outside my window, nearly covering the little Buddha that sits at its base. Only his head pokes out of the snow bank this morning, like some crowning newborn. His topknot and curls stand out regally. He looks especially content there so alone.
He’s always alone, now that I think of it. You never see “Buddha and wife”. You never see him in a group. St. Francis is always shown alone with his birds, though I hear that as a youth he was quite a flirt. Sikh founder Guru Nanak is always painted alone, even though he was married to Sulakhani and was the father of two. Why is the spiritual journey always taken alone?
Is this really such a good idea? Think about a fellow like Ramana Maharshi. At the age of 16 he laid himself down on the floor of his bedroom, crossed his arms in the death pose, held his breath, and pretended to have died. “If my body dies”, he says to himself in a fit of astonishingly bad metaphorical reasoning, “something remains.” So to find “that which remains” he grabbed the few Rupees he had, hopped a train to Mt. Tiruvanamalai, and found a secluded meditation spot in the shade of a Hindu temple. There he remained for months on end, clad only in a loin cloth, deeply alone.
He survived by India’s custom: passers-by respectfully left bowls of food and water for the nearly naked holy boy. He remained within a few miles of that temple for the rest of his life, living on India’s veneration of its silent sages, and eventually came to be regarded as a mahapurusha, a ‘great being’. I have no doubt that he found the Self beyond the self, the formless Brahman, and that he became a great guru.
Yet despite the progress he made as a silent sage-boy and later as a guru, because of his life choices he missed some enormous spiritual opportunities, I think. He never held a job, so he never had to learn to answer an angry boss. Once the ashram grew up around him, he became its absolute dictator. (Nice gig!) He had ‘devotees’, but no peers. That means that not one person ever really questioned, doubted, squabbled with, or even gently confronted him. He never had to work out a difference with a wife or even a college dorm-mate. Not once. He never negotiated a deal or even decided on a room layout with somebody else. His opinion was never questioned.
It was a charmed life. But such charm leaves some huge lacunae. Every human being in his ashram bowed to him with admiring respect. Even outsiders who came to visit him were potential devotees. What this all means is that he probably never had a single peer to peer friendship.
Nor did he ever marry. He no doubt died a virgin. No lover ever jilted him. No one ever asked him to articulate a feeling he did not know he felt or make himself even slightly vulnerable. And no one, not one person, might even hint that he might be wrong or foolish or just the teeniest bit blind to his own motivations.
Ditto for the great Christian mystics. Once Athanasius, St. Benedict, St. Frances, St. Theresa, Meister Eckhart or even Mother Theresa of Calcutta had become renowned saints, people tended to look at them fairly doe-eyed, and to hang on every word. Their decisions, wise or foolish, and their blindnesses also went largely unchallenged.
What would such a context do to a psyche? How would one learn to be intimate, to deal with conflict, to confront adversity? How might he or she learn to deal with some catty office mate or with a challenging budget? As Pir Vilayat Kahn, head of the Sufi order in the West, once put it:
of so many great teachers I’ve met in India and Asia, if you were to bring them to America, get them a house, two cars, a spouse, three kids, a job, insurance, and taxes…they would all have a hard time.
Modern lives are just complicated! Though we live in apartments and houses right next to each other, we neither dress, believe nor think alike. We talk every day with people of the opposite sex, who may disagree with us, and they may (occasionally) be right! If we live in a big city, we hang out with Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and with folks who are lapsed from each. On the bus we stand very close to, and are jostled up against, lots of others, some of whom are our spiritual path-mates, most of whom are not.
When you and I meditate, alas, no one puts bowls of food in front of us. So we have to get up from our cushions and go earn a living. In ancient times we’d have to plough the fields or tan the hides. Today we have to commute to the office, fix the car and pay the gas bill. Some of us have to wake up night after night to rock a colicky baby. We all get called on our foolishness and, if we’re smart, grow from it. Our decisions rarely go unchallenged. And we often do have to work out with others what colour to paint the bedroom, where to spend the income, and maybe which religion in which we’ll enrol the children.
Many spiritual seekers and teachers today have been married or in seriously committed relationships. And as it turns out, we’re not especially good at it. Virtually every spiritual teacher that I know personally—and I know quite a few—has gotten at least one divorce. There is no study yet, but my sense is that the odds for staying happily married are no better among serious spiritual teachers and seekers than average. Very possibly worse!
I’m thinking of this today because my friend Jen, who leads wonderful retreats to Egypt and India, emailed me yesterday that she just left her husband of 15 years. “Honestly”, she emailed simply, “he could never understand me.” Since their separation four months ago, my spiritual psychologist friend Rita hasn’t been able to say anything nice about Teddy, her husband of 18 years and father of her three. And I think of Ethan, a wise Presbyterian minister and a dear friend who’s still married after two decades. But he and his wife neither really talk nor have sex, and he complains to me often about it all.
Wonderful people, excellent facilitators, yoga teachers and preachers all. But when I think about the spiritual goal that’s right for today, surely this can’t be it!
Psychiatrist and student of mysticism Arthur Deikman offers what he half jokingly calls his ‘spiritual leaders’ test’. It has only one question: “How are they with their spouse?” As a group we are failing.
Gautama Buddha faced the challenge of freeing himself and escaping the clutches of the demon, Mara, with inspiring courage. But let’s face it, he summarily left Yasodhara, his wife, and Rahula, his son, thereby committing history’s first recorded spousal abandonment. Never again would he face the spiritual challenge that is intimacy. What would he have done—no really, what would he have done—if Yasodhara, or any Mrs. Buddha, asked him, “Where do you really hurt inside, Gautama dear?”
Honestly, I can’t imagine what he would say. In all the Pali Buddhist literature, I don’t know a single passage that describes how, after his night of enlightenment, he had an honest-to-goodness moment of doubt or even a regular old human emotion. Or where he acknowledged even the teensiest shortcoming.
“Tell me, dear Sakyamuni, where you are tender? Do you have even a vague feeling?” Could he name even a single second in which he felt inadequate—to himself, to her, to his people’s yearnings? Could he name a specific moment of enjoyment? Or vulnerability?
And what would he say if she asked, as Yasodhara may very well might have, “You love all people, Gautama dear. Do you love me in any special way?”iii
Given what we know today about human emotion, is such invulnerability really what we want? To be able to sit in detached and preternatural calm, with love for all beings, may be an escape from the real challenge of intimacy.
Real everyday life, especially life in relationship, is just more complicated, and more interesting. Jack Kornfield, in his wonderfully self-critical A Path with Heart, describes coming back from his years in an Asian Buddhist monastery. Although he returned from the monastery, he says,
clear, spacious and high, in short order I discovered, through my relationship, in the communal household where I lived, and in my graduate work, that my meditation had helped me very little with my human relationships. I was still emotionally immature.
Me too. By the early nineties I had come to understand silence and had woven much of it into my own personal psyche. But doing so was not enough. I was still too cut off, too inside of myself. Only if I could somehow learn to live the ease of enlightenment within and through my marriage, my friendships and all my relationships, I thought, might it be enough. But what would it mean to live enlightenment within relationships?
This article is excerpted from Enlightenment Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be: A Journey of Discovery, Snow and Jazz in the Soul, Robert K.C. Forman, ISBN-13: 978-1846946745
- Many Buddhist temples in Asia have rows and rows of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as objects of worship. But since they are believed to live in different ‘pure lands’ and at different times, they are not interacting as in a group.
- Kornfield, After the Ecstasy the Laundry, (NY; Bantam, 2001), p. xxi.
- See Connie Zweig, Romancing the Shadow, NY: Wellspring/Ballantine, 1999.
- Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart, p. 6.
Dr Robert K.C. Forman writes with the authority of a lifetime of personal mystical experience, and international renown for his books, articles and workshops about spiritual experience and the path. He hasn’t missed a day of meditation in 40 years. He broke through to the first major life shift he sought during a nine-month meditation retreat, just two years after beginning Transcendental Meditation.
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