By Suma Varughese
There’s a way out of the conflicting interests that seem to mar modern relationships. And the answer lies in looking inward
Anu is unmarried and lives alone. Struck with terminal cancer, in all probability, Anu will die alone. Estranged from her parents and with few friends to call her own, Anu’s death, when it comes, will be a requiem not so much for cancer, but for that deadly 20th century illness laying waste the lives of millions across the globe: alienation.
An August 1995 Time magazine cover story notes: ‘Suicide is the third most common death among young adults in North America, after car wrecks and homicides. Fifteen per cent of Americans have had a clinical anxiety disorder. And pathological—even murderous alienation is a hallmark of our time.’
Even given its proclivity for bad news, the daily newspapers paint a grim portrait of a civilization with a canker in its heart. Child feticides, murders, bride burning, child molestation, thefts, scams, game-fixing, environment degradation, riots, poverty, divorces, teenage crime, promiscuity, stress and anxiety, are all testimony to a species out of keel with itself, others, with nature and with the universe. Relationships across the board have crumbled.
THE WRITING ON THE WALL
Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, totes up some grim statistics illustrating American social trends, usually a forerunner for world trends. ‘In the 1990s,’ says Goleman, ‘the rate among newlyweds predicted that two out of three marriages of young people would end in divorce.’ Meanwhile, ‘for those born after 1955, the likelihood they will suffer from a major depression at some point in life is, in many countries, three times or greater than for their grandparents… And for each generation, the onset of a person’s first episode of depression has tended to occur at an ever earlier age.’
Here in India, the cocoon of the all-embracing family has long since shredded. Says Armaity Desai, an administrator at the Yoga Institute, Mumbai: ‘Relationships are under greater stress today because of the materialistic culture which is breeding more greed, selfishness and intolerance.’ Adds meditation teacher Behram Ghista: ‘Today, children have difficulty with parents, parents with children, and husbands and wives with each other.’
According to Mumbai high court advocate, Ketan Upadhyaya, the rate of divorce has shot up by 75 per cent over the last 10 years. The hardened stance and lack of emotional bonding is visible in all class and age groups. A small-town journalist, resettled in Mumbai, rues the impossibility of making friends within the industry.
‘Everyone is so competitive,’ he says. Actor Rahul Bose likens today’s Mumbai with the 1980s New York. ‘Greed is God and everyone’s snorting cocaine.’ You could take a spiritual view of it as a spokesman of the Kalki movement does, placing blame squarely on Kalyug, typically characterized by ‘a breakdown of all relationships’ or you can look at it as Daniel Goleman does: ‘These are times when the fabric of society seems to unravel at ever-greater speed, when selfishness, violence and a meanness of spirit seems to be rotting the goodness of our communal lives.’
Whichever way, the prognosis is bad. So how did we get this way, and what is the way out?
LOSING OUR LINKS
The industrial and scientific age have re-created the world as we now know it, a world of burgeoning complexities and specialties, almost incapable of being understood holistically. Matter is divorced from mind and spirit, the earth from heaven, and man from God and mankind. With nothing to link us together, we have lost sight of the whole and slipped into the illusion that we are alone in an alien and even hostile universe.
The current impasse in relationships is further cemented by the fragmentation of social structures. The flux from agricultural to urban centers severs our links with culture, tradition and community. Lonely and lost in big cities, separated from everything that gave our lives stability, meaning and continuity, we have become more and more alienated from life and people. In the barren wastes of city life, our emotional lives dwindle and die.
Today’s man has been reduced to either labor or consumer, the earth to natural resources, countries to markets, and profit is the purpose and ultimate justification of all interaction. So where is the space for selflessness, altruism and disinterested service? Psychologist Erich Fromm notes in The Art of Loving: ‘Man’s happiness today consists in ‘having fun’… The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast.’
Further alienation in relationships is caused by our headlong dependence on technology. Technological inventions have ripped through our web of interconnections and established an illusion of self-sufficiency. Household gadgets have allowed for the existence of the nuclear family sans servants. Home entertainment like TV, music systems, CDs and home theatre permit us to derive our enjoyment alone at home. Automobiles let us slice through human traffic encased in a bubble of privacy, while home delivery and telescoping have further limited our interaction with people. In the computer age, we are rapidly reaching the stage when we will even be able to work in the privacy of our homes, and network if we must, with our Internet buddies.
As a metaphor for our times, Internet friendship couldn’t be more apt. Faceless; voiceless, it is possible for us to manipulate our identity, for the other person is unlikely to know which parts of us are authentic and which not. It is friendship without risk or intimacy. A virtual friendship, an illusion of one. Is it any wonder that deprived of human warmth, we are swamped with loneliness?
THE CHANGING FACE OF RELATIONSHIPS
If the advances of the 2Oth century changed the role of relationships in our lives, social revolutions such as the women’s lib, the cult of the individual, and even the human potential movement have redefined its very nature. A good relationship today is not one that just lasts but one that coexists with self-respect, individuality and the need to grow. The rules and narrow certainties of the past have given way to a more fluid, open-ended approach.
Many women, with their enhanced levels of self-respect, have upset the traditional power equation between the sexes. They are staking their claim to be regarded as equals in the relationship with an equal right to work outside the home. In many ways, this change is the most visible reason for the convulsions in relationships. The double-income couple may have more money, but child rearing has suffered, leaving many children condemned to the sad loneliness of latchkey existence. It has also created stress between the couple, as household responsibilities must be juggled with those of the workplace.
THE ME GENERATION
Popularized by such writers as Ayn Rand, the cult of the individual asserts the right of the individual to put his interests ahead of that of the community, spawning the Me Generation and culminating in the unabashed hedonism of the 1980s. Because it pitted individuals against each other and against the system, individualism became a crucible of conflict, with damaging effects on relationships. Husbands and wives saw no reason to put the other’s interest ahead of their own or even that of their children, and vice versa.
The human potential movement with its stress on self-actualization, liberation, mukti further rocked the boat. In search of the perfect relationship, ‘for peace, happiness and harmony, individuals meet and part, unwilling to settle for less. Often, the seeker ‘outgrows’ a relationship and must perforce let it go to continue his spiritual quest. Given these diverse and wide-ranging factors, what hope is there for relationships today? Turning the clock back is futile, but what is the way forward?
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
The seeds of the solution lie in the problems themselves. The numbing intensity of alienation is alerting more and more individuals to the need for pushing beyond material progress. The quest for happiness and peace of mind is giving impetus to the New Age movement. And by questioning the status quo, social revolutions like the women’s liberation are paving the path for more authentic, integral relationships that work for both parties. If lifelong marriages, the implicit obedience of children or one-job careers are no longer the norm, it is because individuals are questioning old values, which sacrificed growth and change for stability.
Marriages of yesteryears often lasted because the couple, more often the wife, had no choice. Tradition-bound parents used to exploit children’s obedience and inhibit their growth. Power equations were unbalanced and submission often enforced. If relationships are in a flux today, it is because there is a reaction against the enforced rigidity of the past. To make relationships work today, we have to look for a way to straddle both stability and fluidity, constancy and change. What could the way be?
FROM A LARGER PERSPECTIVE
It’s clear that when individual interests are pitted one against the other, relationships cave in. Man is pitted against woman, the parent against the offspring, the employer against the employee, capitalism against environment, and so on. The great challenge of our times, therefore, is to look for a way that will correlate individual welfare with general welfare.
The need is for a vision that will fuse the contradictions and conflicts between the two and move towards unity. Such a perspective does exist. Indeed it underlies all traditional wisdom. I refer to the spiritual understanding, which asserts that we are part of a whole. That the universe is one entity and all that is in it is intimately interconnected. Not only does this mean that we are already related, it also means that I cannot possibly act without regard for your interests, for your interests are ultimately mine. In sharp contrast to the individualistic view of life, which separates, this one integrates.
Says Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living course: ‘True intimacy is to take for granted that you are intimate. They belong to you and you to them. Don’t make an effort to convince the person that you. Love them and do not doubt even a little whether they love you or not.’ Taking responsibility for the universe opens us to the possibility that our external conflicts in relationships are a reflection of our own internal conflicts. That it is lack of knowledge of ourselves that prevents us from seeing the other as ourselves. As conflicts are created by us and not by the external world, the solution to happy and harmonious relationships is to know ourselves.
This view is also advocated by psychotherapists such as Rani Raote. She comments: ‘The root cause of poor relationships is inadequate knowledge of self. How can I have a better relationship with my child when I don’t know why I get angry with her?’ Author Shakti Gawain writes in Living in the Light: ‘My true relationship is my relationship with myself—all others are simply mirrors of it. As I learn to love myself, I automatically receive the love and appreciation from others that I desire.’
Going within helps us become aware of our feelings, needs, desires and thoughts. It also makes us aware that the cause of our conflicts rests not in the events and circumstances of the outside world but in our reaction to them. When our partner throws a tantrum, we don’t have to yell back. Being aware of choices in behavior leads us to take responsibility for relationships.
When a relationship is in conflict, we check where we went wrong rather than where the other did; and we take the first step in fording the breach without regard to who is in the right. Our greater awareness of our internal states also inches us towards first accepting and then controlling them. As the conditioning obscuring our whole and perfect selves dissolves, we begin to love and trust ourselves more and more. We become more true to ourselves. Our defenses drop away and we allow ourselves to be more vulnerable.
In time, fear dissolves, allowing us to lift the barriers that separate us from others. With nothing to fear and much to give, we pour ourselves into our relationships. Complete within ourselves, we love unconditionally, wanting nothing in return. As we continue our internal journey, we reach an apex when we see ourselves in the other. There is none other than me, say the enlightened ones. All is me.
MOVING BEYOND OURSELVES
If knowing the self is one way of knowing the other, the reverse is also true. Knowing the other can be a guide to the self. All relationships can teach us about ourselves. ‘Love is active penetration of the other person, in which my desire to know is stilled by union,’ writes Erich Fromm. Or take Kahlil Gibran’s observation in The Prophet: ‘All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.’
I found that to be particularly true in my own case, when the end to an unhappy relationship focused my attention so intensely on happiness that I succeeded in wresting its secret from the innermost core of my self: Our happiness lies in focusing on that of others. Focusing on the happiness of others helped me vault across the narrow barriers of personal feelings, thoughts and desires that separated me from others.
Moving beyond the ego helped me to see situations uncolored by self-interest and helped me resolve conflicts. My relationships have become living and dynamic, existing as they do for the sheer joy of communion. The route I seem to have traveled is reminiscent of Osho’s words in Love and Relationship: ‘Only by your own experiences will you one day be able to go beyond all relationships. Then you can be happy alone. And the person who can be happy alone is really an individual.’
NEW AGE SOLUTIONS
In a world of flux and change, in the growing, paradoxical world of the New Age where to hold is to destroy and letting go is the only way to have, the key to a successful relationship is to move beyond the need for it. The search for completion that is behind our burning quest for love can only be over when it leads us back to ourselves. The primal union between the self and the Self, the atma and parmatma, is the source of all completion, and the purpose of all relationships.
In his book, The Celestine Prophecy, James Redfield explains this movement of the search for completion from other people to ourselves through the analogy of energy. Conflicts occur because we compete for limited energy by stealing each other’s energy, he says, through different forms of control and domination. Only when we access the unlimited energy of the Universe, are we free to let go of control and, therefore, conflict. He attributes the blissful feeling caused by love to being plugged into each other’s energy.
However, as we struggle to hold on to these blissful states by controlling the other, conflict enters and disintegrates the relationship. Romantic love, no matter how short-lived and imperfect, is the closest many of us get to the joy and bliss of merging with the Divine. It is for this reason that the West, particularly, deifies it.
In India too, we seem to be importing the western obsession with romantic love. To see romantic love as only a precursor to divine love, Shakti Gawain suggests that every time we feel a romantic or sexual charge, we remember that it’s the Universe we are feeling. She continues: ‘In new-world relationships, the focus is on building your relationship with yourself and the universe. You communicate to keep your channel clear and to give yourself more of what you need.’
Her suggestion on how to conduct relationships is to ask honestly for what we want and express how we feel. If rejected, we express our feelings of hurt and then let go. The bottomline, then, is that all relationships exist to enable us to grow and to know ourselves better, helping us, in turn, to develop better relationships. Seeing life as a growing process, rather than as a static state, helps us acknowledge that relationships too are subject to growth and change.
Many relationships flounder because we expect them to retain their intensity rather than allowing them to run their own course. Says Shakti Gawain: ‘If we tune into ourselves, trust ourselves, and express ourselves fully and honestly with each other, the relationship will unfold in its own unique and fascinating way… At times it may take you closer to one another. At other times it may take you further apart.’
In Love and Hate, Osho says, ‘You have been given the idea of a permanent love which is going to destroy your whole life… real love is as uncertain as your life is uncertain.’ The truth, paradoxical as always, is that the more we want relationships to last, the less they will and the more willing we are to let go, the more they survive.
SPACE TO GROW
Marriage counselors and psychologists stress the need for space within a relationship. Space is that willingness to acknowledge the other as an individual in his own right, and not the repository of one’s own needs and desires. Reverend Patrick Moti Lal, presbyter-in-charge, Cathedral Church of the Redemption, Delhi, cites the case of the Singhs. They follow different faiths, he a Sikh, she a Christian. Notwithstanding her devotion to her own faith, his wife has brought up the children as Sikhs, practicing the rites and rituals of their faith, even down to the specific sweets made on each occasion.
Reverend Lal prescribes tolerance, love, understanding and mutual respect as the foundation for a successful relationship. A relationship that has space would also accommodate the inherent differences between man and woman. Says Daniel Goleman: ‘Marital therapists have long noted that by the time a couple finds their way to the therapy office, they are in a stage of engage-withdraw, with his complaint about her ‘unreasonable’ demands and outbursts and her lamenting his indifference to what she is saying.’
The reason, says Goleman, is that women have been brought up to be more emotionally open than men. The solution for men is not to sidestep conflict or offer solutions too fast, but to genuinely listen and empathize with the feelings behind their wives’ complaints. For women, Goleman suggests that instead of attacking their husband, they merely pinpoint the particular act that upset them and why.
And they must learn to place the complaint within the context of safeguarding and enhancing their relationship. Goleman also suggests that we counteract the formation of negative stereotypes (he is thoughtless; she is a nag) by recalling incidents that prove otherwise. Above all, there is the need to listen to each other. He suggests a technique called mirroring, in which the spouse repeats what the other says, down to its emotional subtext.
A relationship that safeguards the other’s individuality and self-respect is what most gurus and counselors define as true love. In Be Still and Know, Osho says: ‘You will not depend on anyone in particular and you will not allow anybody else to depend on you. You will not be dependent and you will not allow anybody to be dependent on you. Then you live out of freedom, out of joy, out of love.’
Adds Erich Fromm: ‘Mature love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality.’ He describes four qualities of such a relationship. They are: care (the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love), responsibility (feeling responsible for one’s fellow human beings as well as for oneself), respect (the ability to see a person as he is), and knowledge (to respect a person we must first know him).
MAKING RELATIONSHIPS WORK
How do we get to this stage? Easy solutions don’t exist. Fromm suggests the cultivation of discipline, concentration, patience and a supreme concern with the mastery of the art of forming relationships. By practicing these four qualities in all aspects of our lives, we may one day acquire mastery over the art of loving.
Richard Bach celebrates such a relationship in his book, The Bridge Across Forever. ‘ A soulmate is someone who has locks that fit our keys and keys that fit our locks. When we feel safe enough to open the locks, our truest selves step out and we can be completely and honestly who we are.’ This then is journey’s end.
Through the paradoxical route of embracing the fluid and ever-changing nature of relationships, by letting go of the need for them or for permanence, by using them to bore into the deep recesses of ourselves, we access a permanent, unswerving love. A love that lasts, not just through one lifetime, but forever. Or so say those in touch with the spirit world.
In The Tenth Insight, James Redfield writes about the soul groups each of us belongs to, souls linked through time and space, and who form the support group for those among them who have taken birth. In The Laws of the Spirit World, messages communicated to Bombay-based medium, Khorshed Bhavnagri by her departed sons, Vispi and Ratoo, the one message constantly reiterated is: ‘Real true love never dies, not even after earth death… Love is eternal, death is just a transition.’
Not only is this an enormously satisfying conclusion, it also stresses the importance of relationships. One can wonder at our concern with amassing wealth and possessions which will not last beyond our death, when we could be concentrating on those that do: our capacity to love and our relationships with others. To come down to more mundane levels, relationships are vitally important for our earthly well-being.
Our emotional health, so intimately connected with that of our mental and physical aspects, is best nurtured and nourished through human warmth and interaction. Freud defined the mature individual as one capable of love and work. At the end of this long journey of discovery what can we take back with us?
Only this: that while the odds in today’s society are loaded against the formation of a network of intimacy, the final choice is ours. We can take responsibility for our relationships and work towards investing them with life and dynamism. We can use them to grow. Through them we can move towards health, happiness and harmony. And unravel the secrets of life and love.
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