By Linda Johnsen
God bless celebrity marriages! Top stars will easily spend $2,000,000 on their wedding-and then shell out another $200,000 to their lawyers when they split up two years later. These days, rather than visiting their minister for premarital counseling, savvy couples meet with their attorney to work out how they'll divide their assets when they divorce. You select your bridal gown, choose a beautiful venue for the reception, and hammer out your pre-nup. Today many of us Americans marching down the aisle, promising to cherish each other "till death do us part," really mean we'll cherish each other till we find someone else we like better. "I wanna know what love is," goes the song. I don't think it's this. I guess I'm old fashioned: if you can turn it on and off like a faucet, I don't believe it's love. But wait! We're all yoga students here. Isn't yoga all about nonattachment and renunciation? What can the yoga tradition teach us about love?
The classical Vedic tradition divides life into four stages: studentship, marriage, retirement, and renunciation. First, as a child you learn what you need to know to flourish on this planet. Second, you find a job, get married, and raise a family. Third, you start getting older, you begin pulling back from your worldly responsibilities, and increasingly turn your focus to spiritual life. Fourth, when the body begins to fail, you abandon material life all together, focusing exclusively on your inner work as you prepare for death. Many of the famous sadhus (ascetics) of India skip directly from stage one to stage four. A lot of yoga texts are written by these adepts, so unsurprisingly their works (like Patanjali's Yoga Sutras) reflect a renunciate's viewpoint. This has given some Western practitioners the mistaken impression that yoga is anti-family. But many other Indian scriptures, such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana as well as the holy Veda itself, hold the perspective of working men and women living with their families. Yogic practices were integrated into their lives long before they reached the state of renunciation. In traditional Vedic society, giving your word was literally a sacred pact. Breaking a marriage vow, or any promise spoken before God, was unthinkable. By our current Western standards that seems draconian, but it did give Vedic culture tremendous stability. In this ancient society, love (prema in Sanskrit) was not confused with moha (romantic attraction). To our horror today, we learn that people in India rarely selected their own mates; their parents did the choosing for them. They felt that sexual attraction was not necessarily the best basis for marriage, since the giddy delight of romantic infatuation almost always ends as quickly as it begins. (Witness the astounding divorce rate in our own romance-oriented culture.) Rather, marriage was based on a heartfelt social commitment, which formed a context in which genuine love could grow. It's not that mutual attraction wasn't important in India; it simply wasn't all-important. I certainly wouldn't have wanted my parents to pick a husband for me! Yet there's a lot to be said for making marriage a form of spiritual practice, a yoga of love. When I look at couples whose marriages have endured-couples who are authentically happy, not just sticking together out of habit or a co-dependent bond of mutual misery-it's easy to see Spirit at play. There is a relaxed attitude of easy-going trust, yet the sense that they can rely on their partner under any circumstances is firm as rock. Given what a turbulent experience life can be, this trust makes their home a tranquil refuge, a sort of castle of the Golden Era ensconced within the squalor of an angry and malefic Iron Age. Recently I was amused to watch one of the happiest couples I know arguing about which TV program to watch. Jim wanted to see Law & Order. Lindsey wanted to watch a documentary about the Yellowstone super-volcano on Nova. "Let's watch Nova!" Jim insisted. "No, no, no-turn the channel to Law & Order," Lindsey kept saying. No matter what they tell you on the commercials, I couldn't help thinking, real love is not about how sexy you look. It's about sincerely wanting your partner to be happy, and ungrudgingly making the sacrifices, large and small, to make sure that happens. Lindsey and Jim have stepped out of the cramped quarters of their own desires into a broader universe of authentic caring. They see each other's quirks as charming rather than annoying. They are comfortable with disagreeing; different points of view strike them as interesting, not as sparks for a fight. Both of them have been attracted to other people during their 30 years of marriage, but neither of them acted on it. They didn't consider a passing fancy worth disrupting the happy home they've created for themselves and their children. There is a cheerful maturity to Jim and Lindsey that I find refreshing in our egocentric culture. In India the second stage of life, marriage and parenthood, is called grihasta ashrama. During this time of life, we yoga students have the opportunity to turn our home (griha) into a center of peace (ashram) where meditation and active service both flourish. The sattvic atmosphere resonates not with clinging, needy love, but with a vibrant love that nourishes and supports family life and spiritual practice.
Love in a Time of Dissolution
When my teacher Swami Rama blessed a couple, he would counsel them that in our tradition marriage is a lifetime commitment, ending only when one of the partners dies or when, by mutual consent, the two separate to undertake sannyas, devoting their remaining years exclusively to spiritual practice. And yet the divorce rate in the yoga community is no less than in Western culture at large. People change, circumstances change, values change, and perhaps inevitably, our partnerships change. In an odd way, we're all renunciates in America now, wandering and unattached. We have more relationships than ever, yet we've never been more alone. Maybe we burn karma faster this way. Or maybe chasing a romantic fantasy is how the ego runs away from the lack of love it senses in itself. The ego fears boredom, distracting itself from its own emptiness with exciting new experiences and a parade of new partners. Most of all, the ego fears being alone. One of the great benefits of a lasting happy marriage, other than providing a stable environment for one's children, is that you have a loving, familiar partner at your side through the increasingly difficult years of old age and infirmity. What a comfort! Yet Swami Rama cautioned us that at the time of death, our spouse will not accompany us. This is a journey each one of us must undertake by ourselves. Ultimately, each of us and the partner we love will be separated by divorce or death. These departures can be wrenchingly painful. Therefore the tradition urges us to love fully but without attachment. When I first became involved with yoga, I met numbers of young people who misunderstood the call for "nonattachment" to mean that yoga condoned multiple commitment-free relationships. Yet authentic spiritual masters demonstrate that there is no commitment in the universe more unshakable than that of a guru to his or her disciple. The teacher's love is unbounded even by space and time, reaching out across lifetimes. Those of us in committed relationships can learn from this, to love inexhaustibly. Still we must be prepared to calmly let go when our paths inevitably wend their separate ways. The inner pilgrimage is silent and solitary. In the final stage of life we learn to embrace that which has no form, but which endures after all forms have dissolved away. The yoga tradition encourages us to seek out the companionship of our own Self. Much of the time our attention is so fully engaged with the people in our lives that we neglect our higher Self, that part of us sages tell us does not dissolve at death. That, after all, is the true Lover, and the source of all love. There can be no loneliness when we directly experience our true nature. The love we seek so urgently from others envelops us from within. Learning to attune to that inner radiance makes all the difference during crises in life, when otherwise we can feel hopelessly isolated. Ironically, it's by turning to the Self that we directly experience the indivisible unity between master and disciple, between devoted husband and wife, and between all beings everywhere.
The Embrace of Spirit
During near death experiences, some people have reported they were completely enveloped in light and love. Mystical experiences also speak of infinite compassion. One saint I interviewed told me that during her first experience of samadhi, deep meditative absorption, she viscerally experienced the very essence of the cosmos as unlimited love. That single experience transformed her entire life. From that moment on, she could imagine no other way of living than selfless service and meditation. Yoga scientists speak of God as nirguna, completely transcendent, consciousness so pure it borders on total emptiness. At other times they speak of this same Supreme Being as saguna, full of divine qualities, resonant with unconditional love. We are so distracted by the scenery, the images that unveil themselves before our eyes, the dramas that play out in our relationships, that we miss the all-embracing clasp of Spirit. Perhaps we'll experience it at the moment of our death. But why wait? Perhaps paradoxically, as yoga students we are called on to cultivate both prema (love) and vairagya (detachment). Both, the sages say, are qualities of the divine. We uncover these same qualities in ourselves when we discover the divine within. Some of our celebrity heroes model a cheap imitation of love, sparkling and valueless as faux diamonds. It ecstatically embraces an attractive partner, but soon this fraudulent love runs thin, and finally runs out. The lover is then discarded like an outfit that's gone out of style. Today many of us remarry as often as our grandparents used to schedule dental appointments. Loving is not what it used to be. But love itself, real love, is always the same. Real love is not something we fall into, or fall out of for that matter. Swami Rama called it "the most ancient traveler." It's beginningless and endless, present everywhere, but sensed most powerfully where it is most welcome. We should spend more time in meditation, cleaning out more space in our hearts, so that genuine love can take up residence there. Then the futile quest for perfect satisfaction in one failed relationship after another will be replaced by tranquil joy. Then, like the saints, we will pass the time simply sharing the love gleaming in our soul.