Editor’s Note: We received a letter from a TZF reader that included the following inquiry: “I am about to get married to someone who is on a spiritual path similar to mine. We are concerned about the effect our marriage will have on our spiritual practice, and vice-versa. We are interested in your opinion about whether marriage and spiritual work are compatible, and if so, how do we fit them together?” Our reply, edited for publication, is reprinted here. As you read it, please keep in mind that what applies to one, may not apply to another. Thus, we believe the suggestions made here were relevant to our correspondent. We believe they may be relevant to others. But certainly they will not be relevant to everyone. The Universe is infinite in its variety. Thank God! (For more on that thought, please click here.)
As with much of life, there are two answers to your question, a short one and a long one. And, except for their length, they are identical. The short answer is: If the two of you are truly in love with one another — which means that there is nowhere either of you would rather be than in the other’s presence, and there is nothing either of you has or could ever have which you do not ache to give to the other, and there is no person and no thing more important to either of you than your shared love — then that is enough. Your love, which is God, will see to everything else. As corny as that sounds, it is true, it has always been true, and it will always be true.
Now, for the long answer. The Universe is a closed system, a seamless whole, without any parts. It is One Thing, composed of only One Thing, Itself. If any piece of it (as if there were such a thing as “a piece of it”) is happy, then the entirety of it is happy. If any piece of it is unhappy, then the entirety is unhappy. Thus, if you or I stub our big toe, we say “My toe hurts” when, of course, it is not the toe which hurts, but we. The pain may have been caused by a trauma at the toe, but the pain is not felt by the toe. We feel it. We, who are the entirety, hurt. The Universe — God — is like that. Properly configured, marriage is like that.
You and I perceive our reality as if it were composed of parts. You, me, my house, countries, planets, trees, telephones, hunger, happiness, days, wars, toes, and so on. We draw arbitrary lines around each of these so-called parts, separating them from each other, and we name them, and we consider that we live among them. A herd of parts, so to speak, inhabiting the same environment (which we also consider to be a part). But it is not so. We are not a part living on a part in the company of other parts. There are no parts. All of the apparent parts, including ourselves, are actually an entirety, a seamless whole, and that whole is what we are. Thus, the reality is an entirety; the appearance of parts is an illusion. Indeed, the appearance of parts is the illusion.
Consider a seesaw. A seesaw is a plank that is balanced in the middle and whose ends are seats. If we cut a seesaw in half, our minds tell us we are left with two halves of a seesaw. But, in fact, there is no such thing as half a seesaw. A seesaw cut in half simply yields two shorter seesaws. Thus, it is impossible to separate or isolate the parts of a seesaw, for a seesaw has no parts. And yet it is the ends of a seesaw, and how they relate to each other, that makes a seesaw a seesaw; otherwise, it is just a board.
Relationships are like that. Although we speak of them as if they were composed of parts (people), they are not. And neither are they a matter of choice. Just as every board is effectively a seesaw, so is every aspect of the universe in relationship. The fact is, relationship is the nature of existence. Relationship is not a choice we make; it is a reality we face. Either we embrace it, and soar, or we resist it, and wither.
Our sole and entire existence is in the context of our relationships — with each other, with our lives, with the universe, with reality, with God. It is impossible to exist outside of some kind of relationship, just as it is impossible for there to be one end of a seesaw and not the other. The ends of a seesaw exist solely in relationship to one another, and so do you and I. Similarly, although we talk of them as if they existed independently of each other, there exist no such thing as male and female. Male and female are not two distinct or unique sexes or genders. They are two apparent halves of the same whole. Like heads and tails on a coin, like yin and yang, male and female compose a single, seamless entirety, and they exist separately of one another only in the landscape of our minds.
This is what Issa (Jesus) was talking about when he observed, in response to a question about marriage and divorce, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Matthew 19.3). [See Note 1] In other words, what was created Whole in the beginning is forever Whole, and unalterably so. We may practice divorce if we like, Jesus (Issa) is saying here, and sometimes it may even be appropriate and necessary that we do so; but never forget that divorce is ultimately impossible, for everything being one, nothing can be sundered.
All of this is contrary to what we have been taught, and what we have dutifully learned, since early childhood. Our parents, our school teachers, our scout masters, our government authorities, our friends and neighbors, and, too often, our priests, all teach us, either by lesson or by example, that we are one among many, that not only are we separate and apart from everyone and everything we perceive, but to acquire what we need and want, we must compete with all the others, for there is only so much to go around. We are even separate and apart, they teach us, from God, who lives happily in heaven while we live miserably on earth. These people seem to mean well, some even seem to love us, and so we believe them, just as, in their turn, they believed their authority figures. Now, how many bruises later, we awaken one day, and choose a different Teacher, one who will help us unlearn all that, and remember the Truth. That, in a nutshell, is what the spiritual process is about, and marriage is a fertile environment in which and by which to accomplish that.
By definition, marriage is about union, two becoming one, discarding our separative identity for an active, flourishing awareness of shared abundance in unity. In marriage, we learn to extend our boundaries beyond ourselves, to feel blessed when another is blessed, to hurt when another is in pain, eventually to erase the boundaries altogether. Clearly, that is the underlying definition of every true spiritual practice as well. Thus, in marriage, two friends come together in love at an altar [See Note 2], and say to one another, and to God, “Today, we perceive ourselves as two, but we wish to see ourselves as One, as You do. We realize that it will be difficult, sometimes even painful, to shift from our current perspective to Your Vision, but we are confident that, with Your Certain Help, we can do it. Therefore, here, now, in Your Presence, the two of us freely, unconditionally, and joyfully commit ourselves to that process, whatever the price and however long it may take, and we promise You, ourselves, and one another, to honor this commitment above all others.”
Clearly, entered into rightly, marriage itself provides a spiritual path, a suitable yoga, a way to God. And so, the answer to part one of your question — Will marriage interfere with your spiritual practice? — is: Not only need your marriage not interfere with your spiritual practice, but, properly considered, your marriage can itself be your spiritual practice. If both of you are so inclined, your spiritual practices and your relationship will merge in marriage until, before long, they become one and the same thing. You will undoubtedly still set aside times to sit, to read, to chant, to pray, to fast, and so on, as you had done before, but increasingly you will discover that the challenge and the discipline, not to mention the rewards, of crafting, in the acknowledged Presence of the Divine, a mutually meaningful, nourishing, and fulfilling life together, is as demanding and powerful a spiritual practice as any anywhere.
The second part of your question is: If it can be done, how is it done? Certainly, there are as many answers to that question as there are successful unions. Our own experience suggests the following rules. If at first they seem outrageous, unrealistic, even perhaps impossible, remember that so do virtually all spiritual practices and postures, at first.
To apply this rule, fill in the blanks with your first names, so that it reads, for example, Adam-and-Eve is One Word, or Napoleon-and-Josephine is One Word. Right away, you should be able to sense the implications. What was two words, “Adam” and “Eve” (or “John” and “Mary,” or “whoever” and “whoever”), each word separately representing the separate persons we perceive, is now “Adam-and-Eve” – one word representing one person. What was two is now one.
Consider a corporation. Before the law, a corporation is an entity, even a person, unto itself. It may appear to an observer to be no more than a name at a letterhead, without any buildings, vehicles, land, or other physical presence, but it can earn income, buy and sell property, inherit estates, go bankrupt, invest in the stock market, and owe taxes, just like a flesh-and-blood person. Further, a corporation exists independently of the people who created it. A corporation exceeds and transcends the sum of its parts, and, regardless of the intentions or activities or even the life span of its founders, it continues to exist until it is dissolved according to the authority before which it was created.
In this sense, marriage is a corporation. The two of you come together before God, and you marry. That event creates a third entity, the marriage. Once declared, the marriage exists in its own right, and it is greater than the combination of the two of you. It does not belong to you. If anything, you belong to it, and it belongs to God. Indeed, in a very real sense, it is a manifestation of God. Marriage is an organic entirety that apparently consists of two people, two parts, but which in fact is a seamless whole. “You” and “I” as separate individuals cease to exist (as if they ever did exist), and are replaced by a seamless “we” (which is all there ever was anyway). From now on, “we” is all that matters. “We” becomes your home, your life, your identity. It is who you are, and where you live. Everything either of you does, whatever it may be, and however private may seem its nature, is done not for yourself or to yourself, or even for or to the other, but for or to “us.” Everything — regardless of which of you may seem to be the actor — is done in concert, by “us.” From now on, the question foremost in both your minds is not “Is this good for me?” or “Is this good for the other?” but “Is this good for us?”
And you ask that question not as an expression of burdensome self-sacrifice — as in, “Naturally, I’d rather do something else, but now that I’m, uh, moan, whine, groan, married, I guess I’d better not” — but rather in the spirit of enlightened self-interest, fully aware that what keeps the relationship healthy and whole serves you because the relationship is the ground in which you now grow. So, you do this not for another, but for yourself. There is no element of sacrifice to it. Again, consider a corporation. The officers and employees of a healthy corporation know that when the corporation thrives, they thrive. And so, out of pure self-interest, each of them willingly serves the interests of the corporation, and that service serves them all.
Further, you ask that question, and you answer it, together. Just as, in a corporation, decisions are taken by the board in the boardroom with all the accouterments of the corporation, including the corporate seal, in plain view, reminding everyone present who they are, why they are there, and what they serve. Just so, from now on, you make decisions together, in the context of the relationship, as and for the relationship, confident that what serves the marriage serves you, and what doesn’t, doesn’t.
“(Name)-and-(Name) is One Word” is not a constricting, alien concept we impose begrudgingly on our lives. It is the true nature of reality. Remember, the two of you do not exist as you currently perceive yourselves. It is inescapably True that there is no such thing as “a person,” much less “two persons.” Such things exist only in our egoic, separative perception. All that exists in Truth is relationship. Thus, again, like a seesaw, you and I exist only in relationship. You and I are our relationship. And it is only in relationship, initially with each other, and ultimately with all of Creation, that we can be in relationship with God. To claim a relationship with God when we are unable to relate to Creation at any level, is fundamentally a lie. In marriage, by learning truly to relate to ourselves (which means learning to be ourselves), and to relate to one another (which means encouraging and allowing the other to be himself or herself), and to relate rightly to the relationship itself, and by learning that somehow all three of those phenomena are actually one and the same thing, we finally come into a true relationship with God. As a discipline, practicing “(Name)-and-(Name) is One Word” will set a marriage onto that path, and will carry you There.
Rule #2 is a logical corollary to Rule #1: Whatever either of you has or had or will ever have, is now and forever “ours.” Everything belongs to the relationship. Everything tangible and intangible, without exception. Period.
Rule #2 applies to stuff, whatever its description. Look at it this way: By entering into a marriage as described here, the two of you have become in effect disciples in a sacred relationship, just as if you had joined a holy order. You are monks, and whatever once belonged to either of you, or will ever belong to either of you, now belongs to the sacred order, which is your relationship, the marriage.
Rule #2 also applies to non-stuff, as well. Like friends. From now on, whatever friends either of you has must be “our” friends. That does not mean that you must both associate with them, but it does mean that you must both agree that they are friends of the relationship. And it applies to activities, like hobbies and vacations. Again, this does not mean that these things must be performed together, but it does mean that doing them separately must be demonstrated to serve “us.” It is a contradiction in terms to be in this kind of a relationship, and to have a “private life” that is private from one another. The relationship, the two of you, may have a private life that is private from everyone else; indeed, the relationship’s life should be private. But not private from one another.
And, clearly, rule #2 applies to information. There are no secrets in this kind of relationship. Whatever either knows, both know. This is an essential aspect of Rule #2, and so you must make this absolutely clear to yourselves, and, when necessary, to your friends and to your former family. Nothing is allowed to come between the two of you, not even someone else’s secret. Conversely, the relationship’s secrets are not shared with anyone else, unless both of you agree that doing so serves the relationship.
Rule #2 applies to employment or professional activities in this way. Every relationship needs a healthy, happy, nourishing physical environment — a home — in which to thrive. Houses cost money, and so do many of the other things which comprise a home. Therefore, one or both of you will need to work in the marketplace, where money is earned. Thus, the legitimate purpose of a profession is not to fulfill some personal, inherited or acquired ambition, however lofty, but to provide the stuff the relationship needs, including shelter. Thus, like everything else in this marriage, the purpose of employment is to serve the relationship.
At the same time, it is obviously necessary that the house and other stuff so acquired become a home, otherwise it is just a place. The transformation of a place into a home is a mystical process, and cannot be accomplished halfheartedly or by a hired interior decorator. To be sure, the process requires some stuff that costs money, but mostly it requires time and enthusiasm. Therefore, as the two of you decide together how the relationship will earn money to purchase and maintain a place, remember that the function of transforming that place into a home must be acknowledged, provided for, and honored. It makes no difference which of you does which, or if you devise a formula by which each of you does some of both, but it is essential that this transformation process not be overlooked or discounted. In fact, of all the skills that relationship awakens in us, learning how to turn a place into a home (how to be ourselves happily and wholly anywhere, anytime, and to embrace without prejudice whatever environment and circumstance we find ourselves in) is one of the most powerful, enduring, and godly.
It does not matter how well intentioned the two of you may be, there will be arguments. There is no point in trying to avoid them by denying them. In fact, it is better to allow arguments to run their course, because the alternative is almost always a false peace, in which one or the other of you pretends not to be angry, which accomplishes nothing. Besides, pretending is a form of lying, which is withholding information, and therefore a violation of Rule #2. (Under some circumstances, it is okay for a couple to lie in concert to others, but it is never okay for them to lie to one another.)
What Rule #3 means is that, once started, an argument must be allowed to continue uninterrupted until both of you agree it is over. Thus, an argument goes on however long it takes. And as long as it goes on, neither of you is allowed to leave the premises, or to go behind a locked door, or in any other way to disengage. You remain in each other’s physical presence, however angered, until each of you, freely and genuinely, acknowledges to the other that the argument has been satisfactorily resolved. A corporate board meeting, especially where grievances are being aired, is not over until it’s over; otherwise, the corporation will surely suffer, and that costs everyone.
Also, applying Rule #2 to Rule #3, arguments are no one else’s business. They are yours to have together, and no one else is invited to participate, either directly or indirectly, before, during, or after. In fact, unless you both specifically agree, nothing about the relationship is anyone else’s business, and that most definitely includes parents and all other relatives. After all, from now on, the two of you have only one parent, which is God, your Mother and your Father, the Mother and Father of your marriage. Besides, no one else has any need to know what goes on within your relationship. The only exception to this rule is if one of you resorts to physical violence. Then, someone else, preferably a professional, will almost certainly need to be informed. But the use of physical violence is so serious a violation of the relationship and of everything the relationship represents that its occurrence automatically suspends all the rules, possibly even dissolves the relationship itself.
Further, applying Rule #1 to Rule #3, it is clear that never is either of you solely to blame for any argument, or solely credited with resolving an argument. That is, everything the two of you do, you do together, acting as and for the relationship, including getting into, carrying on, and getting out of arguments. Here, there are never any one-way streets. Everything is shared and mutual. “We stumbled, we picked ourselves up,” is the only acceptable log entry.
Finally, about arguments, consider this: If handled improperly, they threaten the health of the relationship, and that is a violation of all the rules, and therefore unacceptable to both of you. At first, you will undoubtedly argue as you did as children, mindlessly shouting and screaming. To get a measure of that, try this experiment: Someday, agree in advance that each of you will conduct your next argument observing yourselves in mirrors. That is, not looking at one another, but at yourselves, making note of your own facial expressions and gestures as you carry on. You may be surprised, not to say appalled, by what you see. Or, agree in advance to turn on a tape recorder during an argument, and watch how courteous, even magnanimous, the two of you suddenly become! Early on, you will want to consider together whether the techniques and posturing each of you regularly employs in arguments are fair and appropriate, even for arguments. If you decide not, then learn how to argue, preferably by teaching each other, but otherwise by reading a book together or attending a course together.
Throughout the spiritual process, there takes place a lot of energy movement, within each of you and between the two of you, as together you learn to redefine and release everything you have ever known and believed and worshipped. This process creates tremendous tension, which from time to time must erupt, and often it will be as arguments between you. The more the two of you become aware of that fact, the less staying and swaying power will your arguments have, until eventually they are over as soon as they begin. But until then, you must let them be, for the energy they represent must be allowed to flow, and loudly is better than not at all, so long as both of you are assured that all the fault and all the credit are shared, and it is never over until you both agree it’s over. In this regard, be reminded again that your allegiance is not to yourself, not to your pride, not to your honor, not even to one another, but to the relationship. Serving that serves God, which awakens you. Keep your eyes on the Prize.
Like virtually everything else in life, all of this is far, far easier to say than to do. But it can be done, and the two of you can do it, if you want to. Successful relationships are the result of the same dynamic as every other success in life: Choosing your priorities properly. If you will both decide that you want to do this more than you want anything else, and you then push all the rest of your desires down at least one rung, and keep them there, you will succeed.
Throughout, please remember that marriage is a process. What occurs when you utter the words “I do” is simply the beginning. It is from there that you work towards becoming truly married. Thus, do not expect to adopt readily, or even to like, these procedures. If they make sense to you, then consider them as targets to reach for. That is, start from where you are now, being who you are now, and undertake these as you would any other spiritual practice. Do them as well, as faithfully, and as enthusiastically as you can, until they become your nature, and no longer necessary.
In sum, be to one another a devoted and loyal best friend, and you will soon discover that you have become each other’s student and teacher, and that your relationship has become your practice and your path. Once again, in the words of the Teacher, the two shall become one. Seek that reality, and God will do the rest.
Note 1: The
author of Matthew tells us that the question concerning the lawfulness of
divorce was put to Issa (Jesus) as a test, in an attempt to catch him in an inconsistency,
and thereby belittle him. In other words, local religious politics. It is
not uncommon to hear or read exchanges with Realized Teachers,
like Issa (Jesus), in which participants pose such questions. Generally speaking,
it seems to us that questioners are not looking so much for an inconsistency
in the Teacher as they are for a justification of their own cherished practices.
Teachers, of course, instantly see through these maneuvers, for no matter
how cleverly devious we may think ourselves, we are transparent as glass
to them. Commonly, they will respond by raising the focus from the mundane
to the cosmic, just as Issa (Jesus) does here. Thus, asked about divorce court
procedures, he replied about the inviolability of the One. Again, this is
typical of Teachers. You ask them what time it is, and they respond about
the Nature of Eternity! On the one hand, of course, that is their function
as Teachers – constantly to draw our attention to the Real Issue – but
on the other, one must remember that, from their perspective, the cosmic is the
mundane. Their interest in local squabbles could not be dimmer. Just so,
consider Issa’s (Jesus’) rebuke of his disciples when they suggested that he burn
down a Samaritan village, which, because of just such a squabble, refused
to receive him (Luke 9.52). The scriptures of every tradition seem full of
instances like that where students and disciples of the various Teachers,
seekers like you and me, simply do not get it. (For a preposterous consideration of the
divorce question raised at Matthew 19, please click here.) [Return to
Note 2: All marriages, indeed all events, in which God is consciously included as a participant are performed at an altar, whatever the appearances. That is, God’s invited presence is itself sufficient altar. As regards so-called “civil marriages” conducted in town offices, they are, strictly speaking, a commitment made to the state, a man-made entity that perceives the two persons as two, and always will, and that therefore has no role in the spiritual process. Thus, a civil marriage serves legal purposes, a marriage before God serves spiritual purposes. Now, that does not mean that a couple seeking a spiritual union must marry in some kind of church before some kind of ecclesiastical authority. The manner in which we bring God into the Celebration (not to mention into our lives) is up to us (and God), and no one else. After all, being infinite, God is as much the town clerk as the priest, the town hall as the temple. So, a civil marriage may be or can become a spiritual marriage. It is not the ceremony, or the site of the ceremony, that signifies. It is the mindset of the celebrants; what the two think they are doing, and why. In a word, if a couple wishes its marriage to serve as a vehicle to Union or Self-Realization, at some point and in some conscious way an invitation must be sent to the Divine. [Return to text]
How do I love thee?
Let me count the ways. Elizabeth Barrett Browning
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
How do I love thee?
Let me count the ways.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
There was a time when I was a woman and he was a man;
Still love grew until there was neither he nor I.
Only I remember faintly there was a time when there were two;
But love came between and made them one.
”Cat in The Garden” by N. Russell
What you and
I call life
– conditional or separative existence –
is not about doing things.
It is not even about doing things well.
It is about doing things together.
In a word, life is about relationship.
So, far better is it that you and I should come together
to do something, even ineptly,
than to have someone else do it perfectly,
and you and I never touch.
In relationship, there is no individual experiencer.
No me, no you. Only we.
The perception “I experience some thing” expresses “I am me, and you aren’t me.”
And that is the illusion.
Finally, consider this: In this culture, and perhaps everywhere, it seems that female babies are raised to be mothers, and male babies are raised to be little boys. The patterns produced by this phenomenon can be extremely disruptive to adult relationships, particularly marriage. Fortunately, they can be undone, but it takes a lot of love, gentleness, and patience. Happily, the effort is worth it.
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