Intimacy | Relationships | Charnel Ground

My teacher John Welwood was recently published in post about love and relationships for Lion’s Roar. The work was adapted from a talk given at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. The whole article is fantastic and you can find it here on John’s page or here from Lion’s Roar.

Below, I am going to pull a few of my favorite paragraphs:

“Although modern relationships are particularly challenging, their very difficulty also presents a special arena for personal and spiritual growth. To develop more conscious relationships requires becoming conversant with how three different dimensions of human existence play out within them: ego, person, and being. Every close relationship involves these three levels of interaction that two partners cycle through— ego to ego, person to person, and being to being. While one moment two people may be connecting being-to-being in pure openness, the next moment their two egos may fall into deadly combat. When our partners treat us nicely, we open—“Ah, you’re so great.” But when they say or do something threatening, it’s “How did I wind up with you?” Since it can be terribly confusing or devastating when the love of our life suddenly turns into our deadliest enemy, it’s important to hold a larger vision that allows us to understand what is happening here.”

Can you think back to a time when you and your partner met person – person? Ego – ego? Being – being?

“Many of us have a cartoon notion of relational bliss: that it should provide a steady state of security or solace that will save us from having to face the gritty, painful, difficult areas of life. We imagine that finding or marrying the right person will spare us from having to deal with such things as loneliness, disappointment, despair, terror, or disintegration. Yet anyone who has been married for a long time probably has some knowledge of the charnel ground quality of relationship— corpses all over the place, and jackals and vultures roaming about looking for the best piece of flesh. Trungpa suggests that if we can work with the “raw and rugged situation” of the charnel ground, “then some spark or sympathy or compassion, some giving in or opening can begin to take place. The chaos that takes place in your neurosis is the only home ground that you can build the mandala of awakening on.” This last 4 sentence is a powerful one, for it suggests that awakening happens only through facing the chaos of our neurotic patterns. Yet this is often the last thing we want to deal with in relationships. Trungpa suggests that our neurosis is built on the fact that “large areas of our life have been devoted to trying to avoid discovering our own experience. Now [in the charnel ground, in our relationships] we have a chance to explore that large area which exists in our being, which we’ve been trying to avoid. That seems to be the first message, which may be very grim, but also very exciting. We’re not trying to get away from the charnel ground, we don’t want to build a Hilton hotel in the middle of it. Building the mandala of awakening actually happens on the charnel ground. What is happening on the charnel ground is constant personal exploration, and beyond that, just giving, opening, extending yourself completely to the situation that’s available to you. Being fantastically exposed, and the sense that you could give birth to another world.” This also describes the spiritual potential of intimate involvement with another human being.”

I love how John describes so clearly and eloquently the dynamic of intimacy that many couples are stuck in. They love one another and are deeply pressing on the triggers from childhood wounding that so desperately want to be healed but hide away with little consciousness.

“Sooner or later relationship inevitably brings us to our knees, forcing us to confront the raw and rugged mess of our mental and emotional life. George Orwell points to this devastating quality of human love in a sentence that also has a charnel ground flavor to it: “The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, and that one is prepared in the end, to be defeated, and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.” This then is the meaning of the charnel ground: We have to be willing to come apart at the seams, to be dismantled, to let our old ego structures fall apart before we can begin to embody sparks of the essential perfection at the core of our nature. To evolve spiritually, we have to allow these unworked, hidden, messy parts of ourselves to come to the surface. It’s not that the strategic, controlling ego is something bad or some unnecessary, horrible mistake. Rather, it provides the indispensable grist that makes alchemical transformation possible.”

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“Two partners not holding themselves separate, while remaining totally distinct — “not two, not one”— may seem like an impossible challenge in a relationship. Bernard Phillips, an early student of East/West psychology, likens this impossibility of relationship to a Zen koan— a riddle that cannot be solved with the conceptual mind. After continually trying and failing to figure out the answer, Zen students arrive at a genuine solution only in the moment of finally giving up and giving in. In Phillips’ words: “Every human being with whom we seek relatedness is a koan, that is to say, an impossibility. There is no formula for getting along with a human being. No technique will achieve relatedness. I am impossible to get along with; so is each one of you; all our friends are impossible; the members of our families are impossible. How then shall we get along with them?..If you are seeking a real encounter, then you must confront the koan represented by the other person. The koan is an invitation to enter into reality.” In the end, to love another requires dropping all our narcissistic agendas, movies, hopes and fears, so that we may look freshly and see “the raw other, the sacred other” — just as he or she is. This involves a surrender or perhaps defeat, as in George Orwell’s words about being “defeated and broken up by life.” What is defeated here, of course, is the ego and its strategies, clearing the way for the genuine person to emerge, the person who is capable of real, full-spectrum contact.”

If this doesn’t make you stop and think about your own experience on the planet and relationships, I am not sure what will.

Adapted from a talk given at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. Copyright 2008 by John Welwood. All rights reserved.

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