By Chintan Girish Modi
When one partner takes to the path and the other does not, a marriage can go through heavy weather. How it is resolved depends on the relationship and the willingness of the seeker to embrace it as a spiritual practice.
Twenty-one years ago, when Anand Tendolkar married Anuja, he seemed a promising young man, ready to flag off a successful career in the corporate world. It was an arranged marriage. But trouble started brewing soon after. The first seven years were spent ‘being aghast’ at how different they were. Twelve years ago, he had a heart attack. There was much introspection about how life was shaping up, and he decided to focus more actively on spirituality. He began conducting corporate workshops on self-awareness, team-building and unlocking human potential. There was a strong need to ‘convert others’ to his way of thinking. He even went through a phase of feeling superior about being on the path. This put a strain on the marriage, with each trying to change the other. It’s only in the last seven years that they’ve really started celebrating their differences.
How does embarking on a conscious path of seeking impact our existing relationships? Most human bonds are based on underlying needs, drives and expectations that we are often unconscious about until seeking forces it into the open. Moreover, as new experiences and influences alter us as human beings, the changes are bound to reflect in our dealings with others. This creates fresh challenges, which we can address and resolve only once we wake up to them.
And it is particularly true of marriage, with its unique inter-personal and socio-cultural dynamics.
Looking back, Anand thinks up a humorous yet pertinent analogy. ‘I tell Anuja that she thought she was buying herself a suited-booted MBA. But when she got home and took off the wrapper, she found a kurta-clad reiki teacher instead.’ The relationship began growing when they realized it would be too boring to live with a clone. Today, he is grateful to his wife for the adjustments she made. All the self-righteousness on his part seems to have vanished. There’s a realisation that different individuals may have different needs. ‘Spirituality can be very seductive; so one has to be on guard. It is meant to bring people together, but the converse can happen too. One shouldn’t allow it to become an escape route. It is about engaging more with the world,’ he says.
Seeking is usually perceived to be a solitary activity. It is associated with one’s search for deeper meaning and a will to connect with the Self in a focused way before one eventually transcends even that to experience true wholeness. And marriage, by its very nature of being, involves an alliance with another person. It comes with its own needs, priorities and issues. Can the two actually be compatible?
Ivan Granger, a computer programmer and webmaster of www.poetry-chaikhana.com, has been married to his wife Michele for 15 years. He has weathered many challenges in attempting to strike a balance between a sincere path of seeking, and the daily challenges of marriage. But with experience he has come to acknowledge that these challenges can fill one’s life with a greater sense of wholeness, when confronted with openness and awareness. Ivan remarks, ‘At a certain point along the path, a seeker must break with society on an energetic level. One doesn’t have to become a renunciate – though that is a possible approach – rather, one has to step free from society’s limited notions of reality and social roles. One must, with great internal balance, step beyond what might be called ‘the consensus reality’. Ultimately, one must step beyond the false notion of a limited or egoic sense of self.’
The conflict arises because, as Ivan says, most of our social institutions, especially marriage, depend on the idea of a stable individual. And this appears to be at odds with seeking, which is essentially a process of growth, discovery and exploration of much unfamiliar territory. This was the area of Ivan’s greatest struggle through the first several years of his marriage. ‘How do I free myself from limiting definitions of self, and at the same time, be a loving and responsible partner who is more or less the same person every day? I also quickly came to the frustrating realisation that, in a marriage, whether or not you have children, a kind of nesting instinct kicks in. You naturally want a certain amount of material comfort as a couple. That brings you into the demanding world of work and career… and another societal role you have to enact but not identify with. I certainly struggled with questions of time and energy, trying to balance all of that without losing my fundamental spiritual focus.’
Nikhil Dasgupta (name changed) decided to file for divorce, after it became evident that conflicting interests were proving to be disruptive to both partners – physically, mentally and spiritually. He had been married for 18 years. Having been a freelance human resource consultant for a number of years, he has lately found himself getting interested in areas like teaching and writing. He loves to experiment and learn new things. But his wife is very career-oriented. It was an arranged marriage. ‘What you expect at 25 is largely shaped by the people around you, especially parents and friends. What you experience in your 40s can be very different,’ he says.
Dasgupta believes that two individuals moving in a similar direction are likely to have a more vital relationship. If one partner opts to move along a path of conscious growth while the other is unwilling, the opposing priorities and interests can often derail a relationship, he observes.
Psychotherapist Uma Ranganathan points out that both partners need to be aware of themselves and of their feelings for each other. Only such awareness can enable them to deal with conflicts and sort out differences before they become unmanageable. Uma says, ‘The question really is, whether spiritual seeking and a search for awareness lead to marital discord, or whether marital discord comes about when a genuine spiritual or inner connection between two people is lacking. Doesn’t it happen that individuals turn into seekers because there is something already missing in their lives?’
Learning to Communicate
Gaps in communication are hugely responsible for the problems that couples go through. There’s a need to work on the marriage together. Mehroo Kotval, a human resource consultant, suggests that we need to put a sense of ‘relatedness’ into our relationships. ‘Spirituality is about respecting the energies of the people we come in contact with. It’s about a celebration of life – not just me and my God.’
She believes that the solution lies in asserting ‘boundaries’ and communicating what one feels when these are aggressed upon. Mehroo shares the story of a couple. When the wife realized that the spark in her marriage was waning off, she conveyed it to her husband, and they agreed they needed to talk. So, they went off on a holiday and discussed aspects of the other’s behavior that were causing resentment. They managed to spot what was going wrong, and by actively working on it, turned the holiday into a second honeymoon.
Communication becomes easier when we are prepared to reinvent and renegotiate roles according to the needs of both partners. Mehroo makes a distinction between ‘role taking’ and ‘role making’. Very often, we step into one-size-fits-all kind of roles that are pre-determined for us by society. A healthier marriage makes space for both partners to understand their mutual needs and figure out a balance that will work effectively to help their growth.
There’s another significant issue in balancing marriage and seeking: sex. The issue becomes more pronounced if the seeker embraces celibacy. Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr Dayal Mirchandani affirms that it can be very difficult for the non-seeking (if one can use that word) partner to put up with this. ‘Sexual intimacy is an important part of the bond that couples share. Restricting this can cause conflicts within the marriage.’
The solution, says Ivan, is to see sex as a spiritual tool. He adds, ‘Though several spiritual traditions are wary of sexual experiences because they think extreme sensuality can externalize awareness and cause a dissipation of vital energies, I began to understand that sex can also awaken and focus spiritual energies. I began to understand how intimacy could be about the touching of hearts, rather than a surface experience.’
Uma adds, ‘True spirituality deepens the bond between people; it doesn’t destroy it. However, this does not mean that two individuals who are not suited to each other should continue to live with each other. In this case, a peaceful parting might be best, where the two realize that living together is not right for them.’
What stops most couples from recognizing when a relationship is over is the powerful social pressure to make it last. We are led to believe that marriages are permanent, and experience much heartbreak when it proves not to be so. We can also experience insecurity because something we’ve cherished for so long, is being taken away. Although a permanent relationship is definitely an ideal, it is also necessary to acknowledge that not all marriages are meant to be permanent.
In his book Soul Stories, Gary Zukav writes of a ‘new way of relating’ that is based on harmony, co-operation, sharing and reverence for life. This is a ‘spiritual partnership’ – a partnership between equals for the purpose of spiritual growth. What the partners share is a commitment to growth, not an oath to stick together for the rest of their lives. They can decide to move on when their lessons from the partnership are complete. As Zukav mentions, ‘The issues don’t exist anymore. The healing is complete. No scar tissue remains. Not even a trace of it.’
Others believe that marriage and seeking are eminently compatible and anyone experiencing or generating a troubled relationship cannot claim to be spiritual. Says a friend who prefers to remain anonymous, ‘One cannot be arrogant or supercilious and claim to be spiritual at the same time. True spirituality is compassionate and forgiving. For me, the ultimate gift of spirituality is peace. If you are seeking truth and others are getting damaged, you better seek something else. Spirituality can’t be destructive,’ he says.
How one can reconcile these viewpoints is to acknowledge that while it may be very rough going in the first few years of seeking to be in a relationship with someone disinterested in spirituality, the willingness to hang in there and weather the storm can eventually lead one to a place where the marriage itself becomes a part of the path and therefore each challenge only makes one more loving, accepting and accommodating. When one reaches this stage, the marriage is usually quite safe. However, the path is long and complex, and many may not succeed in getting there. Further, according to spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, and author of The Power of Now, when one partner is enlightened and the other is not, one of two things happen. Either the other also gets transformed, or if their negativity is too extreme, they will part like water and oil.
Ivan struggled for several years, before he came to recognize that ‘the complex balancing act of a relationship, because it was so difficult for me, was perhaps the most important spiritual practice I was engaged in.’ Even when he was on the brink of leaving the marriage, an instinct kept him working at it. The process taught him how to co-operate and act with a sense of stability. It led him out of his comfort zone to discover what he was really capable of. ‘It also forced me to be assertive about what was truly important to me in my ongoing spiritual quest. There were times when I needed to be alone and do ‘strange things’ as part of my spiritual practice. I had to learn to create space for that within my marriage too, even when my wife didn’t always understand.’
At the same time, there are many who use spirituality as an excuse to be released from the duties and responsibilities of the householder life.
Homemaker Kamla Modi recalls her late friend Roshankumari Muradia, a lady who had set her mind on ‘renouncing the world’. Despite stiff opposition from her family, she went ahead with her decision and got initiated as a sadhvi. ‘Everyone was against it because she had a child. It wasn’t fair. But Roshan was obstinate. She once brought me a white sari, and said that we should renounce the world together. When I refused, she said that I’d be stuck in the kitchen for life.’
Within the realm of his experience, psychiatrist Dr Dayal Mirchandani has observed that a lot of people get hurt, not just the spouses or relatives. He says, ‘It can be a very bad situation for the child. It may hurt the child deeply, and even shorten his/her life.’
The bottomline then is that the seeker must cultivate the discrimination that will help him to discern his motives in choosing to let go of a relationship or to recognize when a relationship is truly over, as opposed to going through a rough patch. This is no easy task for the ego has an infinite capacity for self-deception. But the unwavering practice of awareness can shine light on obscure motives and drives, and help us to arrive at the right decision.
In it Together
On the other hand, when couples choose to explore spirituality in unison, this shared interest can charge the relationship with openness and joy. They celebrate their marriage and deal with its challenges as important milestones on the path. Jawahar and Daksha Baxi, married for 33 years, are an interesting case in point. Both are chartered accountants. Jawahar is more focused on his career as a poet now, while Daksha works with an international law firm, specializing in international taxation. Having explored the spiritual path together, particularly with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, their marriage reverberates with beautiful levels of harmony. ‘When you are spiritual, you don’t look for the small physical problems. Most of your problems are gone when you understand that you are not this body. You connect as souls. The goals are not material, so there are no ego problems as well. You really become a karmayogi.’
Advait Adhikari (name changed), a medical doctor, feels that marriage is a powerful tool in shining light on one’s own issues. ‘The universe is a mirror that reflects only what is incomplete or unassimilated. If you get angry at something, that is because it reflects something within you that you haven’t yet acknowledged or dealt with. Life gives you repeated chances to work on your issues, and marriage is one of the most important ones.’
He adds, ‘If spirituality is practiced with sincerity, it can help the marriage. You are able to rise above anger and other negativities.’ However, Advait is convinced that many on the spiritual path aren’t prepared to engage with the ego at all. And that is perhaps why their relationships suffer.
This realisation doesn’t come easily. It requires a commitment on the seeker’s part to examine even those parts of himself that seem forbidding or uncomfortable to approach. Five years ago, Ivan was wrestling with the terrifying thought that ‘maybe this was all I would ever be: a nice but flaky man who was following a haphazard spiritual path, who had some computer skills but not much of a career, who loved his wife but was still figuring out the basic structure of a marriage after more than ten years together.’
It took a confrontation with himself to bring a sense of release and freedom. ‘The person I thought of myself as being, just vanished. It was then that marriage and the spiritual path truly reconciled for me. I stopped trying to fit myself into a preconceived notion of a ‘spiritual seeker’ or a ‘husband’ or a ‘computer programmer’ or whatever. For all of my adult life until then, I had kept one foot out the door, prepared to leave if I felt trapped by other people’s definitions of me. But the thing was, in my quest for a spiritual life, I wasn’t really present for it. When there was no ‘Ivan’ left, there was no need to run away because there was nothing to protect. Even now the balancing act isn’t gone, but it has become more of a game. Even when it is difficult, it is a delight. And I’m more able to be present for it.’
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