page thirty: The Love of My Life
One of my spiritual teachers in India gave me a definition of love that has taken me years to understand. It was a small group that he was leading and most of us were in our twenties. Someone in the group was talking about the difficulties she was facing in her newly wedded life. Hers was an “arranged marriage,” which simply means the families had set up their first meeting after confirming that their individual requirements in a partner were met and of course, that their horoscopes matched.
In response to her issues, Swamiji, as we referred to our teacher, opened up a discussion on love and what we thought it was. Various thoughts, opinions, and feelings flowed between us all. Swamiji was a monk. He was single, having taken the vow of celibacy, and dressed in ochre as was the tradition. He did not participate in the discussion until someone from the group asked him what would be the “spiritual definition” of love.
Swamiji said,” Love is a stand you take to keep your heart open.”
Wait…what? A silence fell upon the group. We had talked about strong emotions, matching vibes, mutual agreement, shared goals, intellectual compatibility. But here was our teacher telling us it was a choice we make? Like it is under our control?
“It is a stand we take? What about our feelings? And what happens when we don’t agree with someone?” One of the ladies in the group asked.
“Or don’t even like them?” piped in another.
“True Love is different from the emotions that are evoked when we are in mutual agreement. It is bigger and more abiding.” Swamiji replied. “Like comes from your conditioning, from your upbringing, and where you are in your life now. What you like today may change tomorrow. You may and will outgrow many of your current concepts. Relationships built on “like” are as impermanent as your preferences.”
I listened, intrigued. Unlike the others in the group who were either married or were waiting for the right match to be made by their families, I had already met the love of my life. Krish was my neighbor and friend and over the years it had grown into something else. He was off on a 2-year assignment in Boston and we were keeping our relationship quiet for now. But I was secretly feeling smug that I was going to avoid an arranged marriage which I had always seen as loveless.
“Swamiji,” I began. “I thought in an arranged marriage there is no love at first and that it only grows over time. Don’t you agree?”
“Yes and no,” Swamiji began. “In any marriage whether arranged or not, love happens when hearts meet. But most people need to have their conditions met before opening their heart. In arranged marriages, as the person grows on you, you feel safe to open your heart. In friendships and romantic relationships, you open yourself up to someone who has already met your conditions. Either way, your heart opening is conditional. You are leading from the ego, not from your heart. When the ego no longer feels safe, it shuts the heart down, which is why most marriages lose their luster over time.”
I didn’t agree with him. I believed our love was deep and unchangeable but said nothing. In any case, Swamiji was a monk and would not know, I decided, and let it go as we moved on to discuss other things.
Years have passed since that conversation but it is one that I return to time and again. Thanks to Swamiji’s words, I now notice and recognize the signs of my heart shutting down. When there is disagreement or a point of conflict, my ego steps in and blocks my heart, seeking to protect me from feeling the discomfort. Wherever possible, I have pushed away or walked away, not wanting to deal with the distance between our unique humanity. But that’s not where the growth has happened.
It is the closest relationships - people I simply couldn’t walk away from, that have given me the opportunity to reflect deeply on Swamiji’s teachings and apply them to my life. If Love is a stand that I take to keep my heart open, how do I take that stand when so-and-so is saying something or behaving in a way I don’t like? Does keeping the heart open mean I am condoning this? How do I put up my boundaries without also shutting my heart down? Can love and dislike co-exist?
I wish I had asked Swamiji these questions back then but I guess I was not ready for the answers just yet. It is only in later years, struggling through life’s challenges, that I found the answers myself, in the teachings of the Gita. The entire Gita is about raising one’s consciousness through conflict and it lays out a road map of three stages for this journey of growth.
In the first stage, there is separateness. Self vs Other. At this stage one puts one’s own needs first and ignores the other. Conversely, one could also ignore one’s own needs and put the other’s needs first. At this stage, the heart is barely open and the ego is in charge.
In the second stage, there are two. Self And Other. The relationship expands to make room for mutual adjustments and individual differences. The heart is more open here but the ego is ever ready to jump in and take control as and when necessary.
It is in the third stage that the real magic unfolds. Self = Other.
The Gita says that this stage is arrived at after long and sustained yoga, the contradictory posture of remaining open to another while also holding one’s own. We could call this balancing act the Yoga of Love — arrived at through mindfulness practices such as compassion for self and another, listening from the heart, maintaining openness and curiosity, combining honesty with kindness, and so on. After years that seem like lifetimes of hard work, the heart finally opens wide as the ego surrenders in trust. We enter the paradox. Loving the other we find greatest happiness for ourself. Giving we receive, and receiving we give. Even our differences are embraced as being exactly what we need for our shared wellbeing.
As my marriage with the boy next door, the love of my life, continues to grow and ripen, I can see clearly our journey over the years. Swamiji was right in that the “love” that we started off with, had large elements of conditionality in it. Over the years the dissimilarity in our upbringing, our habits, and our approach to life in general, has challenged my ego that likes things to be predictable and to my liking.
Choosing to let things go and to keep the heart open is not always easy but definitely a blessing. In using this and other relationships close to me as the yoga mat to practice the teachings, I find big changes in both— my life, and myself. Less conflict between “love” and “like” within has led to more harmony outside. I have become a better listener, less judgmental, and kinder.
Through the very challenges that my ego resisted, I have finally found the true love of my life. It lives in my heart where it has always been and now it can be shared with everyone.