A fine friend and fellow blogger, Keith Yancy, recently mused on the following question: What if people invested as much energy and patience in their spiritual relationship with God as they do with their human relationships with people?
As a spiritual searching, not-so-sure-what-to-call the bigger forces, Unitarian Universalist gal, I might have worded the question somewhat differently, replacing “spiritual relationship with God,” with “spiritual practice: Why do we invest so much energy in our relationships with others and so little into our relationship with the greater being/greater good/God/whatever? One could state that pouring time into human relationships is pouring effort into a greater being, and, depending on the approach to relating to other, I’d agree. But investing only in those external relationships is not the sole (or soul) answer. Now I’ll take my turn to explore Keith’s question.
Much of the relationship improvement advice coming from books and the media seem centered on getting what one wants for him or herself. They may talk about the other’s needs in the relationship, and a few really focus on the connection between two people built on compassion and unconditional love, but most are all about me, me, me. When my marriage was crashing, I read a few of these advice books for couples in distress, but I found little that resonated spiritually. Much of the advice focused on what to say to make your opinion/needs/desires known to the other. Many did hold some standard but decent advice regarding communication, and I have no beef with any of that. Deep listening is a skill that’s poorly cultivated by many in a time of email, tweets, texts and distracted cell phone conversations. Sitting down to talk face-to-face with all those nonverbal cues present isn’t our norm any more, and I do think learning communication skills is helpful for any relationship.
But being in relationship is far more than reflective listening and “I” statements. Being in relationship with others requires a solid relationship with something/someone beyond our ego, beyond what we generally think of as self. I maintain these relationships need to be rooted in a sense of something beyond self and other. Is that other God? If you like, although I think any sense of connection with the universe and humanity will do, theistic basis or not. That connection takes effort and time. Whatever one calls that greater reality, cultivating a relationship with it/him/her/them takes work. And, just like our human relationships, that relationship with the divine (that’s my term at this point of life — please substitute your favorite term, be it God, ground of being, the universe, whatever) isn’t passive and receptive. It’s an active, dynamic relationship, just like healthy human relationships are.
Sure, the divine isn’t going to wander off and find new friends or leave you for a younger, more attractive partner if you blow the divine off for a few years. In my (UU, nontheological) understanding, the divine is always there, available for that connection. Not critical, demanding, father-like, mother-like, impatient, expectant, or any human trait, but merely existing. It’s when I make the connection that the relationship blossoms.
Again, I agree with Keith that folks on the whole just don’t work at that connection. Sure, we may talk about what is bigger than us, read about the words and ideas people have used to label and limit the divine, go to church and hear about it, even spend time blogging about it. But that’s not forming a relationship, any more than talking about a person, reading about relationships, naming relationships, going to talks about relationships, and writing about them is.
The relationship is in the relating. For me, that means meditation, generally mindful meditation. It’s not a language in which I’m fluent (more on that in another post), but I’m learning how to touch that divine that connects the greater reality. It’s awkward and slow, not always what I want to do, and yet incredibly enriching.
And the relating change my relationships. For in building a connection with the greater reality, the divine, I can more easily see that divine in others. Our services at UUCF close with the word Namaste. Namaste can be interpreted in many ways, but the interpretation that stick with is, “The divine in me recognizes the divine in you, and when we recognize the divine in each other, we are one.” Note the order of that. Recognizing the divine comes first. Unity comes when that recognition occurs. Our human relationships depend on that recognition of the divine in self and other, which, perhaps ironically, melts the division and self and other.
I don’t have this down perfectly or even close. It’s not always easy to push aside ego and egoic agenda and reach toward the divine in myself, the stranger on the street, my neighbors, or even my children. That difficulty is human, but the more I cultivate the relationship with the divine in me, the easier time I have recognizing the divine in others. When I recognize the divine in others, I’m more likely to listen well, to be compassionate, to act and speak with love. All that deepens my relationship with the divine.
There’s a simplicity and beauty to the circular nature of the relationship with the divine and our relationships to each other. I nurture my relationship with the divine, and I find it easier to see that divine in others. As I attend to the divine in others, my relationship with that bigger reality deepens. Both relationships need attending to, and I’m apt to find little fulfillment in either if I’m not giving that attention. The fulfillment comes in giving the attention to each.
Perhaps that’s what it comes down to. Attention. We live in a fast-paced times, and fast fixes are the norm. Fast, relatively effortless fixes. But slowing down to give the attention to the greater reality, to sit and bathe in that reality, is by far a more sure fix to the disconnection and distance so many feel. And this attention is, I’d argue, our soul purpose.
What follows is a list of relationship books. Not the typical get-what-you-want relationship books, but books that, in my opinion, approach relationships with a Namaste attitude. All address mindfulness, some with more Buddhist than others. Regardless of your religious bent, I’d bet you can gain from a mindful approach to the relationships in your life.
True Love (Thich Nhat Hahn)
Buddhism for Mothers (Sarah Napthali)
Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting (Myla and Jon Kabat-Zin)
Hand Wash Cold: Instructions for an Ordinary Life (Karen Maezen Miller)
Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce (Gabriel Cohen)