Last time we looked at practices for the shadow and how to recognise projections that cause problems in your relationships. In this post we explore the nature of love and how to bring spiritual practice into your most significant relationships, including deep friendships, partnerships, and family.
Everyone lives in a network of relationships of varying depth and connection, and they’re fundamental to how you form as an individual. You can’t become yourself without interaction with other people. The better you know yourself, the better your relationships will be, and vice versa.
Most of what goes on in relationships is unconscious unless you make the effort to be aware of how you’re relating to each other. Good relationships take time to build and involve a willingness to listen and meet the other halfway with empathy and compassion.
Everyone needs a different amount of interaction with their fellow humans – extroverts and introverts, for example – but most are somewhere on a spectrum between the extremes. Some are natural loners: weirdoes, like me, who prefer to be alone for long periods of time. Others are highly sensitive to stimuli and get overwhelmed by too much noise and socialising.
To make the most of your relationships, you need to figure out what your ideal mix of interaction should be. Society is heavily focused on couples but regardless of the propaganda, it’s not compulsory. If you’re not in a relationship (and okay about that), it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a miserable, lonely life!
Practices for Relationships include things like:
- Love and Compassion
- Conscious Relating – marriage, family, etc.
- Sacred Sexuality – Tantra, Kundalini yoga, etc.
- Sangha – see Community
Meister Eckhart said, “The essence of everything is relationship”, and the foundation of all relationship is love. There’s only one word for love in the English language, which is a bit limiting so it’s often misused and mixed up with other words beginning with ‘L’ – i.e. Lust! The ancient Greeks had more words to choose from, including:
- philia – for the mutual love and affection of friends, usually between equals, as in “brotherly love”
- philautia – for self-love, a basic self-respect and compassion for yourself
- storge – for the love between children and parents
- epithymia – for a feeling of desire, yearning, or lust
- eros – for sexual love or passion
- agape – for selfless and unconditional love, similar to metta or loving-kindness in Buddhism, or love of the Divine
Eros is the word we usually associate with romantic relationships because it’s the root of the word erotic, so it gets tangled up with lust and physical sex. But the sexual desire of eros isn’t necessarily the same thing. Lust objectifies the other and makes them inferior, while eros includes admiration and respect.
At best, eros can approach agape and become a mystical recognition between two souls. For Plato, seeing the beauty of another person meant appreciating the ideal of Beauty itself. So eros could take you beyond the physical into knowledge of the transcendent level of reality through love.
This is also reflected in the Greek view of eros as a primal creative force. In The Soul of Sex, Thomas Moore says:
“In Greek literature eros is nothing less than the magnetism that holds the entire universe together, and human love in its many forms is simply a participation in that greater eros.”
Hesiod described Eros as the primal god of love. He was born from Chaos with Gaia, and the power of his love allows creation to take form. Eros was also known as Phanes in Orphic mythology. He was the primal creator of life and the first being to hatch from the Cosmic Egg when it split to create the world. Phanes means ‘to bring light’ or ‘to shine’, and he had four eyes so he could see in all directions, representing knowledge of everything.
The later Hellenistic myths reduced Eros to the son of Aphrodite, who fell in love with Psyche. This Eros was depicted as a beautiful youth with wings and a bow and arrow. But eventually he was reduced further into the fat little cherub often shown firing an arrow into a heart. Oh, how the mighty have fallen!
So love is the great outpouring of creation and it constantly seeks connection and relationship. In fact, you can’t have love unless there are separate beings who can relate to each other. But love isn’t a feeling – it’s an action. Love is what you do. In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm says:
“Love, in principle, is indivisible as far as the connection between ‘objects’ and one’s own self is concerned. Genuine love is an expression of productiveness and implies care, respect, responsibility and knowledge. It is not an ‘affect’ in the sense of being affected by somebody, but an active striving for growth and happiness of the loved person, rooted in one’s own capacity to love.”
To love something or someone is an expression of the desire to relate, to understand and to know. This is why philosophers are called lovers of wisdom, lovers of Sophia, and the knowledge they seek is the truth of who they are. And that truth is love.
Love is who you are on the deepest level, your true nature as spirit. You love because you are love – if you’re aware of it. If you can let go of all the other stuff that keeps your true Self hidden, you can return to your natural open state of loving-kindness and compassion, and then everything you do will be an expression of love. (see Ethics)
When you lose touch with your true nature it creates a void that many attempt to fill by getting love from someone else via relationships, family and friendships. This puts a lot of strain on your relationships because you expect too much from them. You’re asking others to give your life a sense of meaning and purpose, rather than finding that truth within yourself.
This is often expressed in a desire for romance and the search for true love: If you could just find the ‘right’ partner, your life would be perfect and you’d live happily ever after! This is clearly nuts and yet this approach to relationships has become an obsession in Western culture. In We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, Robert Johnson describes being ‘in love’ as:
“a whole psychological package – a combination of beliefs, ideals, attitudes, and expectations. … When we are ‘in love’ we believe we have found the ultimate meaning of life, revealed in another human being. … Life suddenly seems to have a wholeness, a superhuman intensity that lifts us high above the ordinary plain of existence. … [It] includes an unconscious demand that our lover or spouse always provide us with this feeling of ecstasy and intensity.”
Obviously, there aren’t many who can live up to these expectations and so our relationships often end in disappointment and disillusionment. But this is a good thing because it provides an opportunity to understand what’s really going on and learn to build real relationships based on genuine love rather than the fantasy version.
Robert Johnson explores how this might work using the 12th century myth of Tristan and Iseult – a “high tale of love and death” about lovers who want to merge their souls and become one. It’s a thoroughly depressing tale and the blueprint for many romantic stories since, Romeo and Juliet being the obvious one.
This myth, and the ideal of romantic love was inspired by the practice of ‘courtly love’ spread by medieval troubadours and their songs of knights going on quests and writing poetry for their beloved. It was all very chaste and pure, and was inspired by the gnostic religious movement of Catharism which was sweeping through Europe at the time.
The Cathars had a dualistic view of reality that saw the physical world as evil and believed that true love involved the worship of a feminine saviour who mediated between God and man. This was a reaction against the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church which was busy suppressing the feminine and persecuting anybody who disagreed.
The ‘purity’ of the Cathars fed into the myths of the time and transformed our attitudes towards love, relationships, and women. In the fantasy of romantic love, women are seen as the embodiment of the goddess, or a representation of a man’s soul. But as long as a man projects his anima onto his partner, he’s not relating to her (or him) as an equal or even as a human being.
Women also project soul qualities onto their partners, so the problem exists on both sides. This doesn’t bode well for relationships unless we can understand these myths as symbolic, rather than trying to act them out in real life.
The story of Tristan and Iseult represents the inner union of the sacred marriage between the soul and spirit. So the myth of romantic love is really a secular substitute for religion – the longing to return to the Divine or oneness with your true nature.
Marriage, or partnership, is a symbolic representation of the inner union of opposites, the conjunctio of alchemy. The partners stand for the King and Queen (regardless of gender!), or Sol and Luna, masculine and feminine. The union is represented by the Self or spirit that transcends opposites. More here: The Difference between Soul and Spirit
In any relationship, the Self is where two people meet as one – a communion of spirit that also joins the couple with God (or whatever you want to call it). This recognition of union isn’t limited to marriage or intimate relationships, but can potentially include every encounter with another person, and even animals, trees, birds, and so on.
In A Complete Guide to the Soul, Patrick Harpur agrees that we can only love each other when we love something that transcends who we are as individuals. He explains that real love only works:
“providing that each person also loves something greater than the other, as if love must circulate through the other to the Source of love and back again in a dynamic reciprocal process.”
However, none of this means you have to be perfect or pure or chaste. Romantic love fails because it projects the idealised soul onto a real, living person, and no fantasy ever survives a collision with reality. For more on how to take back that projection, I highly recommend We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love by Robert A. Johnson.
There are many practices you can do to make the realisation of inner union the bedrock of your relationships. Simply spending time together in silence and meditation can reinforce the mutual awareness of your true identity as one. But you’ll also need to make space for less enjoyable practices, such as shadow work, if you want to build a mature and equal partnership.
All relationship practices require effective communication and the willingness to listen to each other without judgement, and without imposing your ideas about what you think they’re saying. Relating consciously means listening with an open heart and being willing to look at things from alternative perspectives.
This isn’t about agreement or avoiding disagreement and conflict. Everyone has a different perspective on life and you don’t have to see things the same way in order to get along or love someone. You can be in conflict without it being a problem, and you can learn from each other if you’re willing to listen and not take everything personally.
A good basic practice that you can use with any relationship, including passing acquaintances, is to see everyone as a Buddha as you go about your day. Or as an embodiment of spirit, or Christ consciousness – whatever works for you.
If you want to go deeper, you can explore the world of sacred sexuality to nurture intimacy and vulnerability in a committed partnership. In Sanskrit the tantric term for sexual union is maithuna, which refers to the practice of using sex to build energy to serve the process of awakening. It involves a ritual coupling where you become one with the divine principles of Shiva and Shakti in union.
The idea behind tantric practices is to transform sexual energy into spiritual energy which is then used to achieve liberation, or moksha. But it won’t work if you’re attached to desire or fixated on technique. The original tantric practices were never just about sex – they’re part of a whole tradition that weaves together various teachings within a system, such as Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist, and so on.
In The Direct Path, Andrew Harvey presents five interconnected laws for the practice of tantra and sacred sexuality:
- Both lovers should be spiritual practitioners dedicated to service in love of the divine
- The masculine and feminine sides of both lovers should be in harmony and their love should encompass all levels: body, heart, soul, and spirit
- There should be radical equality between the lovers and neither should have power over the other
- There must be total trust and fidelity between the lovers, beyond any doubt
- The practice should be grounded in profound love, not in technique or even sexual pleasure
It’s also worth noting that these practices are incredibly powerful and potentially dangerous and not to be dabbled in. They can bring up intense energies and profoundly dark shadow material that has to be integrated before you can continue. It’s a very challenging path and not to be undertake for fun.
For more on working with sexual energy, read this excellent series by Lisa Erikson on the Mommy Mystic blog.
In Christianity, the union of soul and spirit is called a Mystical Marriage where the soul is married to Christ, and this applies whether you’re male or female. The soul is the bride and Christ is the bridegroom – reinforcing the view that the soul or anima is feminine regardless of gender.
The term was used by St John of the Cross and his mentor St Teresa of Avila to describe a mystical union with God achieved through a process of purgation called the Dark Night of the Soul. It’s usually associated with saints, but it also applies to anyone who wants to align their soul with God via grace.
Mystical marriage is an example of how the ritual coupling of sacred sexuality can be internalised and practiced on a symbolic level. It’s interesting how much erotic language can be found in religious texts, but as Thomas Moore explains in The Soul of Sex, the two are inextricably linked:
“I place special emphasis on Bernini’s artistic interpretation of St. Theresa, on Sufi erotic mystical poetry, and on Tantric teachings and imagery. Although we don’t understand the full mystery of these profound amalgams of sex and spirit, we can still be inspired by them to find our own ways toward erotic ecstasy in religion and genuine piety in sexuality. Without an awareness of the religious base of sex and the erotic nature of religion, our sexuality must necessarily remain inhumane and incomplete, because, as paradoxical as it may appear, a religious sensibility is the absolute foundation for a humane and humanitarian life.”
You don’t have to be in a relationship to achieve this balance between sex and spirit – it can be done by working with these energies within yourself. Some choose to make this the central part of their spiritual practice by taking a vow of celibacy – either for a short period of abstinence or as a life-long commitment.
As Thomas Moore suggests, being celibate doesn’t mean living a joyless life devoid of sexuality or connection with others. The word ‘celibate’ just means unmarried. So in a similar way to the word ‘virgin’, the deeper meaning of celibacy is more about self-containment and self-possession.
Celibacy means containing your subtle energies and learning to use them in a different way. When practiced consciously, it can give you greater energy and focus which you can then channel into creative work or service to others. Focusing and containing your energy can also bring insights into your true nature and accelerate your progress along the spiritual path.
The network of your relationships extends far beyond your partner and family, so next time we’ll explore practices for Community…
Read the whole series here
More relationships on film:
- Chocolat – Healing the Past
- The Fisher King and the Quest for Redemption
- The Fountain and the Road to Awe
- The Intouchables and the healing power of friendship