Finding Spiritual Depth in Our Relationships

Source: Pixabay image by Cuncon

According to Attachment Theory and neuroscience, we’re wired with a need for connection. Human beings don’t  thrive without safe and secure relationships. If we inquire more deeply into this longing, what is it really? Might it be synonymous with a spiritual longing that lies at the very heart of what it means to be human?

The word “spirituality” may conjure up something otherworldly or transcendent. We may see it as pursuit of practices that connects us to some larger presence that we call God or enlightenment. But instead of pursuing a vertical spirituality of transcendence, what would it look like to pursue a horizontal spirituality that invites us to be awake in our everyday lives and relationships?

Horizontal Spirituality 

Martin Buber is a renowned Jewish spiritual philosopher who had a revelation after a tragedy. One day while absorbed in prayer in his room, a student visited. Buber listened, but was distracted by his desire to return to his spiritual practice. Buber was later horrified to learn that the student had apparently killed himself!

The realization that he was not fully attentive to this man’s suffering was a pivotal moment in shaping Buber’s vision of bringing spirituality into relationships. The essence of faith, he realized, is not “the pursuit of ecstatic experiences but … a life of attentiveness to others, the life of ‘I and thou’ in encounter.”

Buber then wrote I and Thou, which discusses how maintaining a fully open and non-judgmental presence with others is at the heart of spiritual life.

Meditation and spiritual practice can very beneficial. But as I explain in my book, Dancing with Fire, these practices don’t necessarily improve our relationships. We need to learn how to dance artfully with our feelings and longings as an important part of any spiritual path.  

In A Path with Heart, meditation teacher and psychologist Jack Kornfield reveals how meditation can divert us from our important human feelings:

Meditation had helped me very little with my human relationships. … I could do loving-kindness meditation for a thousand beings elsewhere but had trouble relating intimately to one person here and now. I had used the strength of my mind in meditation to suppress painful feelings, and all too often, I didn’t even recognize that I was angry, sad, grieving, or frustrated until a long time later.

Kornfield’s disclosure reflects the experience of many people who have discovered that meditation practice doesn’t automatically convert into a healthy emotional life and healthy relationships. Meditation alone is not enough.

In the same vein, meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach writes that meditation alone wasn’t enough to heal the emotional wounds of many of her students:

They assumed their feelings of inadequacy would be transcended through a dedicated practice of meditation. Yet even though meditation has helped them in important ways, they find that deep pockets of shame and insecurity have a stubborn way of persisting.

Making Room for Feelings 

Mindfulness means being present to what we’re experiencing in the moment. It’s easy to use meditation to let go of unpleasant feelings too quickly rather than being spaciously present with them — not too close or too far away.

Focusing, developed by Eugene Gendlin, is a kind of mindfulness practice that guides us to be present with our feelings and hearing what they might be trying to tell us without being overwhelmed by them. Somatic Experiencing, developed by Peter Levine, is a helpful way to heal from trauma by engaging with our feelings skillfully.

Mindfulness is a gentle practice of welcoming whatever we’re experiencing, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Meditation teacher Jason Siff explains how he allows feelings such as anger, fear, hurt, and longing to arise:

Sitting still with those feelings, I learned how to tolerate them and, eventually, how to quietly and gently explore them.

However diligently we might meditate, pray, or repeat affirmations, the undertow of old traumas and emotional wounds may undermine our spiritual aspirations. Feelings are a doorway into our emotional life and a bridge that connects us with others.

Making room for the full range of our human emotions allows us to find more peace with them. As we become more gentle with feelings that might be difficult or troubling, we become more comfortable with ourselves. Accepting ourselves positions us to see and accept people as they are rather than judge or analyze them. We cultivate more satisfying human relations as we become more relational with ourselves.

Being Relational

Our spiritual potential isn’t to achieve some extraordinary state of consciousness removed from daily life. Rather, it’s about opening to the precious gift of being connected and alive in this moment. As Buber discovered, spirituality is about living with an available and undefended heart. As Buber put it, “All real living is meeting.” The sense of connectedness that comes from living in our depths can satisfy a deep, sacred longing.

Moving toward liberation means dancing gracefully with the life that flows within us and outside us. Our life then becomes our meditation rather than being restricted to when we’re sitting on the cushion. Living with more openness, presence, and joy, we become more intimate with life. This intimacy becomes our spiritual practice.

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