Good day, everyone!
I've been in conversation recently with someone about spiritual practice and relationships with other people. I'm thinking the topic is of general interest, and so I decided to pull out an excerpt from my latest response to her in this blog. Enjoy!
Here is the response:
Thank you for the interesting conversation. You raise some excellent questions, which I will attempt to address here:
In terms of the way I live my life and in particular my relationship with other people:
I no longer live outwardly as a monk, but inwardly I still approach life very much as a monk would do. To me, everything is spiritual practice. My aim is to see as deeply as I can into life as a human on this earth, to live as freely and authentically as I am able, to care for my human nature with unconditional love and acceptance, and to serve in any way Life offers for me to do. I do not have the common orientation to life, which is to get for "me" as much as possible as a compensation for the unnatural emptiness that comes from the forced separation from our authentic nature, which is an aspect of our socialization as children. I do not (ideally--this is a work in progress for me as it is with everyone) engage with life and other people in order to distract myself from internal issues that need to be attended to and to meet inauthentic needs. There is a big difference between the authentic needs of the human and the false needs of the ego. The ego needs to avoid presence and authentic connection. The authentic human needs real connection and compassionate presence. I attempt to live in such a way that my true needs are met and ego's needs are ignored and neglected. That's the way to true happiness, from what I can see.
So what does that look like, practically? As much as possible I choose to spend time only with people who want the same thing I do (to be authentic and to connect authentically, without ego). I absolutely love to connect with people heart to heart, and I do that whenever I get the chance. I do not choose to spend time with people, however, who are seeking to get their ego-needs met. So for example, let's say someone heads out to participate in a bar crawl (one of your examples) because they are lonely and want to get away from their loneliness for a time, or because it's an opportunity to distract and avoid something that's going on in their life, or so they can show off how cool or sexy or successful they are for a few hours. I have no interest in participating socially with people who are acting with these sorts of motivations, because there is nothing in it that helps me towards my stated goal, which is to go beyond ego and live from my authentic nature. I would gladly engage with any of these folks professionally and help them find a truer way of dealing with the challenges in their lives, as that would be good for me and my practice, but I see no point in engaging directly with their conditioning. Now, I'm way into putting myself into interesting situations as a practice challenge, as you mentioned, in order to see what happens and to see what comes up within me to work with. A person could do anything at all with that attitude of mind. I don't need to do that in a case like this, however. I've done that plenty already through my life, and I feel finished with it. Besides, life continually puts non-optional situations in front of me where I must engage socially with people who don't do practice, and that's plenty.
This is not a choice I'm making from the conditioned personality (at least so far as I can tell, and one can never know for sure about such things). It is a choice I'm making from awareness and experience. There is no avoidance in it, in other words. You asked if I ever do things to get out of my conditioned comfort zone. Yes. My whole life is that. My karma would have me living under a rock somewhere, avoiding all responsibility, wasting time and dissipating energy in various ways, and surviving life until I die. It has required a tremendous amount of work to find the courage and the willingness to act in opposition to that karma, and to participate in the world. Not all that many years ago it would have been unthinkable that I would be out here on my own, supporting practice in the way that I do. Every day I work to push through the karmic constraints that would restrict self-expression and participation in life, and to put myself out there in ways that expand my experience of myself and my role in the world. It's essential that I do this for my own health and well-being. To choose the karmic way would result in misery over time.
Recently I've been spending time with people in the area who used to practice with my teacher and who, like me, have decided to look for guidance and support elsewhere. I spent the afternoon on Friday with an amazing woman whom I've known for 25 years or more through the monastery where I trained. I've practiced with her on retreat countless times through the years, and yet this was the first time we've ever spoken personally. It was beautiful to get to know her in a new way, and to process shared experiences from the past. Recently I spent a day with an ex-monk--someone I lived with and trained with for the 5 years she spent with me at the monastery. Here again this was the first time we had ever spoken, and it was so good and healing to connect with her once again. Next week I'm going to take another ex-monk out to dinner, and then participate in her sitting group the following evening. I'm in communication as of a couple days ago with a local Buddhist group I'd like to be a part of who do work with people who are dying and their families. They also offer green burial and have a cemetery they maintain. I would like to have a local community to practice with and to serve with, and I'm hoping this group will provide that opportunity for me. And then of course there is my growing relationship with Sara as I care for her in her illness, which is very sweet and good. These are the sorts of things I'm doing to meet the needs that are not met through my professional relationships with people (and those relationships meet some deep needs as well).
The one area where I do not feel clear is in regards to women and intimate relationship. I entered the monastery at 29, and, since there was no opportunity to explore relationship there, I was required to put the issue of relationship aside (in any practical sense) until I emerged again at 48. This is a place where I feel my education is unfinished, and I would like to continue to explore until I feel clear where relationship fits into the rest of my life, if at all, and if so what form is best for that to take. Since I left the monastery nearly five years ago I've learned a ton about myself in relationship, about how to skillfully do relationship, and about my sexuality, all of which has been incredibly interesting and helpful. There's more to do, however. The framework for this, as with everything, is spiritual practice. I want to have a variety of experiences that will help me understand what relationship is and what it can be, and how relationship fits within a life devoted to practice.
I haven't addressed all your questions, but I'm going to stop here and move on to other things. Thanks again for the conversation, and have a beautiful day!