One of the most common email topics people who read my blog send my way is some variation of the question “I’m on the spiritual path, and it’s affecting my closest relationships. How do I navigate this consciously?” In response to these questions, I’ll be posting a series of blogs on the topic of Relationships on the Spiritual Path.
For most of my life, I valued relationships that are easy. You know the ones, where someone finishes your sentences for you, anticipates and meets your needs before you have them, sits with you peacefully and wordlessly because there’s nothing to “process,” and offers you comfort. These people rarely have conflict with you. They validate and value you. They’ve got your back. They’d do anything to avoid hurting you. They uphold your image of yourself or even uplift it. They remember your birthday and bring you soup when you’re sick. You feel like you’re resting in a nest of feathers when they walk in the room. It’s just so easy to be with them.
I still value these kinds of relationships—deeply. In fact, I’m almost becoming nostalgic for those kinds of relationships. Yet, there’s a potential shadow side to this kind of relationship. In choosing people who validate our self-image, we may be looking outside ourselves for evidence of our worthiness, wholeness, and “enough”-ness.
Yes, we are tribal beings, and we need one another. But we also need mirrors who are willing to reflect back to us the blind spots that often drive our behavior unconsciously. These limiting beliefs and self-sabotaging behaviors that we inherit in childhood may cause us to create and recreate our own suffering—over and over and over again. We need people who love us enough to say “Can you see how you’re creating yet another heartbreak with yet another lover who is likely to betray you?” Or “Can you see how your boss treats you the same way your father did—and you let him?” Those brave enough to lovingly help us see our blind spots are nuggets of gold, though those relationships may not always feel like a fuzzy pair of warm bunny slippers.
A Conscious Relationship to Judgment
Increasingly now, my relationships are mirrors that help me see that which I have trouble seeing alone. If I get triggered, there’s a good chance that it’s because I’m seeing something in the person I love that is a disavowed shadow part of myself. If I’m inclined to judge, I better be willing to point that finger right back at myself and own how I might be that very thing I would judge. Byron Katie said. “No one can hurt me. That’s my job.” She also says, “If I think you’re my problem, I’m insane.” I get the wisdom in this perspective, which invites us to own our part in any conflict, as I described here. This mindset takes us out of our victim story and invites us to go into spiritual inquiry about why we’re triggered.
But I think we can take that perspective too far. Perhaps sometimes people just do cruel or hurtful things, and it’s appropriate to feel angry and hurt. That hurt is like the pain you feel when you touch a hot stove. The hurt is saying “Be careful around this person. This person may not be trustworthy. You might need to keep your distance—or wear oven mitts.”
I don’t buy the New Age jargon that says that all triggers we experience are an out-picturing of our own shadow, and all judgment needs to be abolished. We are human. If someone takes a machete to a child, we are going to judge. If your best friend sleeps with your lover, you may understand how it happened, and you may even feel compassion for those who betrayed you, but at least for a while, you’re still likely to judge. To judge the judgment seems like a lot of wasted energy. Perhaps the invitation is to examine the judgment, be aware that you are judging, feel what you’re feeling entirely, and avoid the temptation to use the spiritual principle of non-judgment as a sort of spiritual bypass. Question the judgment, own your part in it, and make appropriate decisions about inspired actions and boundaries. Then let it go. Holding onto resentment is toxic. Forgiveness is the medicine the soul needs, but premature forgiveness is yet another form of spiritual bypassing. First, you have to feel what you feel—all the way. Genuine forgiveness arrives in its own time, when it’s ready, when love sweeps through and replaces resentment, anger, hurt, and judgment. I don’t think you can rush this process. You can just open your heart and invite it in.
Reframing the Heart’s Armor
Perhaps part of living and loving in conscious relationship is the ability to hold with gentleness the wounds of ourselves and the wounds of our beloveds. Maja Apolonia Rodé takes a compassionate and enlightened stand for the protective parts of the personality that help us survive. (She is also one of those people who I trust to both hold me when I need comfort and grow me when I need a kick in the pants.) Maja writes:
One day I had done some inner work with the help of a counselor, which was about honoring and valuing some young part of myself. The next morning as I was sitting quietly, it came to me that I was letting go of a layer of protection around my heart. And in that process of letting go it was like saying goodbye to a spirit guide who came to help me when I experienced a trauma as a child in which I didn’t receive protection or support from the adults around me. Nobody stood up for me when I needed someone to do that.
That guide had remained there to protect that innocence since I was three years old. As it left, it was like saying goodbye to an old friend who had supported and loved me my whole life—with tears and deep gratitude in parting. That guide was committed to being there until I was truly up to the task of standing up for this innocent part of me. And until that moment, I hadn’t been up to the task. I had not been able to hold my innocence and authenticity that deeply until then.
What I appreciated about the experience was a deepening awareness that what we might label as ‘ego protection’ is actually a movement of love. I saw that layer of protection as a being/guide, and while it took energy to host that guide in my body-mind, it was doing an important service for me. It was also beautiful to see that that protection could only be let go when I was truly able to honor and stand up for that part of myself. That was the loving commitment of that being, to give itself in service to me until I could do that service for myself. I got to see that whatever inner protection/defensiveness is there, that is protecting something deep and authentic that I need to accept and honor and properly care for within myself. Until I can honor and accept that part of me, it will remain unconscious.
A Definition of Love
My new definition of love includes both soul growth and refuge. “Love is having the courage to push the limits of soul growth in oneself and another while comforting the scared, triggered inner child, so she feels safe enough to let down her armor.” Let us invite our loved ones to help us grow as much as we’re ready. Let us do the same for those we love. But we must remember, as Rachel Naomi Remen says, “You can’t force a rosebud to blossom by beating it with a hammer.” If we get pushed too far into the pain of our shadows, may we blessed with comfort and nurturing. We are all doing the best we can.
Rumi writes, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
May we all be brave enough to unguard the heart with the right people, to practice discernment so we can protect the inner child who is too afraid to lie exposed, to take risks that blow the heart open wide for those who have earned entry into your most vulnerable spaces, and to invite all of our relationships—even the challenging ones—to be portals for awakening that crack us open and cleanse us from us all that is not love.
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