I love writing about relationships. They’re this universal that everyone can identify with.
There’s this meme regarding relationships that I’ve encountered in the yoga/ new-age / alterna-living spheres that goes something like this: in evolved or enlightened people, all love relationships become unconditional love relationships, where we behave in a purely selfless manner, like we would with our own child. There’s various terminology for this thing- one I remember is the term “special relationships” as indicating “un-evolved, selfish relationships.” But you’ve probably encountered the idea if you’ve had much exposure to new-agey thought.
To clarify: I know there are some really legit thinkers and be-ers out there in the new age world. But there’s also a lot of bunk.
I agree with a small part of this idea: enlightened people most likely experience love in an unconditional way, extending to all people, animals, plants, and life. Enlightenment itself, while perhaps definable to some, is unknowable to most, and mostly defined by what it is not. Most people have never even encountered an enlightened person up close.
But we all know plenty of awake, evolving, self-actualizing, and open-minded people. These are levels readily accessible to just about everyone. And I believe we can glimpse enlightenment- I think peak experiences are just that – but seeing something is not the same as being.
Remember: If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha.
I hesitate to dilute words, to weaken their meanings by overuse. For instance, the word fluent. I’m fluent in English. I’m not fluent in Arabic or German, despite the fact I can read and write, converse, and understand. There might come a time when I could be fluent, and it would probably require immersion for years. But it would not be like English.
In popular usage, the word fluent has been diluted to mean: able to read, write, converse, and understand – regardless of the inherent fluidity the word implies. Forgive the digression into language analogies. It relates to abstract words like awake, evolving, enlightened.
As said, I believe we can glimpse higher states. But if a core aspect of enlightenment is that it doesn’t require effort to maintain, then striving for it is naturally at odds. Emulating it doesn’t get you closer to it. Or does it? Again, the language analogy. Emulating fluency gets you closer to fluency.
And I’m reminded of a saying from AA (I think it’s from AA, never been, only heard) – a proverb, or bit of advice, that says, “Act as if.” Meaning, act as if you are healthy and normal.
This applies to readily to any part of life we are aiming to improve. Act as if you care about your health. Act as if you believe in yourself. Act as if you love yourself. Act as if you trust your partner.
Behavior makes things real. Or realer.
I remember a quote from a Tom Robbins book. I can’t find the original, or it’s morphed in my mind, but here is a more complex version of the idea. In my memory, there’s a grandma warning her grandson against getting into bad thinking habits of self-pity or complaining- because these habits form patterns in your brain and lead to true depression as the well-worn grooves grow deeper. Be careful of your thought patterns.*
So to wrap back around.
- I started with a thesis: “This alterna-meme suggesting romantic relationships should strive to be unconditional is false.”
- Then I discussed the idea of enlightenment, evolving, awaking, self-actualizing
- Followed by a explanatory digression on the dilution of words
- Next, the idea of “Act as if”
- And finally, the importance of building good brain pathways.
Leaving it to look like the logical conclusion would be that I’ve disproved by thesis and really, we should all be striving for selfless relationships via the strategies of building good brain pathways and acting as if.
But there. The argument falls apart at the word should.
(Do you want to know something strange? I can’t figure out how to say should in Arabic. Despite the fact that it’s a word used all the time in English, my Arabic-speaking friends tend to use should in English incorrectly, which indicates the translation is not direct. While there’s a word present in the dictionary:
I have my doubts that the meaning meaning-expanse and usage are the same, as I’ve never knowingly heard an Arabic speaker use that word, and the translation for must or duty [ يجب ]are more commonly used. Just to contrast to German, where should is very directly and etymologically related to sollten, and, in my experience, used the exact same way should is in English. I’d be curious to hear from linguists or speakers about other language families.)
How do the ideas of “Act as if” and should interface? What happens if we behave selflessly- as if there is unconditional love- in a romantic relationship if this isn’t yet the truth?
The difference between “acting as if” with one’s health or one’s self-esteem and with one’s relationship is the other person. It creates a lie. If I behave “as if” I feel unconditional selfless love in a romantic relationship, it’s the same as lying to my partner. Just because I hope, someday, to have evolved enough to actually experience selfless, unconditional doesn’t mean that pretending I do now is the right tactic.
One can “act as if” with oneself, without it being a lie. I can know my self-esteem is kinda shoddy, but decide to behave as if it’s not, all without deceiving myself. But one can’t act as if with another person in a romantic relationship without deception. If I decide that I’m going to keep my feelings to myself, and allow my partner to believe that I selflessly support them and will stay with them no matter what- unless I’ve also simultaneously managed to brief them on my true feelings, and the fact that the facade of selfless love is just a facade until the potentiality maybe occurs that I become enlightened- well, it’s a lie.
If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha.
I fully believe we can and do experience unconditional love in romantic relationships. The love is always, there, but if the structure or the parameters of the relationship are breached, the relationships may not longer end up classified as romantic. (I’m sure this is a familiar feeling to many….) For these purposes, romantic means a somewhat structured relationship that includes both love and sex. Obviously, one could love romantically and unrequitedly, but that’s outside the parameters of the defined relationship.
Most of our important relationships have clear boundaries. Mother, father, son, daughter. Clearly boundaried relationships. Even if the relationship is terrible, the boundaries are immutable. (I don’t want to have a semantic argument about this one, you know what I mean.) Then there’s friend – a highly mutable relationship, but expectations and boundaries are still rather clear. Boyfriend/ girlfriend / lover / partner / husband / wife. Just the definition- the expectations and the rules are unclear. How does one be a good partner? It seems so much more mysterious than good friend. And often, we’re trying to find part of ourselves through the other.
Daniel and I visited his grandparents this past week just north of Miami. This is their sixteenth year of spending the winter in Florida, and we got to compare notes on the drive down. This is also their 58th year of marriage- and they look completely happy with each other, in sync, trying to tell each of us the same story at the same time, as it occurs to them simultaneously. Grandpa explains, with a smile, that she doesn’t hear so well and hasn’t even noticed that she’s telling Daniel the same story he’s telling me.
Romantic relationships, when happy, are about that simultaneous partnership to support each other in our growth, in becoming the next version of ourselves. It has to be a two-way street.
*If anyone knows which book this quote is from, I’d love to know. I’d guess it’s a thesis Robbins wrote about in several books. Or maybe, the quote I’ve linked is the correct one, and it just got super-distilled over the past decades of memory.