by Arjuna Ardagh: The last couple of months have been characterized in our house by two very different things…
which on the surface seem disconnected, but deeper down turn out to be very connected indeed. The first thing, of course, has been the fact that we have a new President in the United States, the likes of whom we have really never seen before. People who were feeling tired of business as usual in Washington see this as a good thing. Everyone else is totally freaking out. More about all that later. The second thing which has characterized this winter so completely, just like an extremely soft mattress and perfect comforter might envelop you so completely that nothing other than comfort remains, has been my marriage. It has always been pretty amazing, partly because I am very lucky to live with a woman who is beautiful, awake, humorous, deeply loving, understanding…. I could go on and on and on. No one who knows Chameli has ever argued with the fact that I am a lucky man. But something even more has happened in our marriage the last couple of months, that took it from really great, to unbelievably indescribably, off-the-charts, pinch-myself-to-see-if-I’m-dreaming, amazing.
The coexistence of these two things has been an extraordinary ride. Each day lately I have been waking up to a world more out of balance than anyone could have expected or imagined, overwhelmed with conflict, misunderstanding and cruelty to people who see things differently. And each day I also wake up to yet another day perfumed by a love so pure, and deep, and strong, that it eclipses everything else. Chameli and I have discovered together, these last months, that the crucible of this fiery love we share is big enough and strong enough to completely contain, for us, everything that is going on in the world.
Hear me out a little bit and I’ll explain to you, as succinctly as I can, how I have discovered that personal, intimate love of this kind might be the most important and transformative practice and discipline you need to get you through these current rocky times, and to make the greatest difference to restoring sanity.
First a little background. Love has not always come easy for me: at least not in a personal, you-and-me, kind of a way. Sitting silently with eyes closed in “meditation” has always been quite easy: perhaps a convenient alternative to the more rocky terrain of personal intimacy. Love humanity? No problem. Feel love for the “divine”? Also okay. Feel love for Jesus, or Buddha, or Mother Teresa? Not a problem. Feel love for the person on the other side of the bed? Now the challenge begins.
Almost exactly 15 years ago, I was sitting on the deck of my house. I was recently divorced from the mother of my children. We had joint custody, and they were with her that week. I was alone. Very alone. I had also just finished yet another relationship, that started off well, but then floundered and crashed on the rocks. I was sitting on the deck of my house, looking up into a star-studded sky. It was almost completely quiet: I live in the countryside. Then I had one of those rare thoughts, or reflections, which ends up changing the whole of the rest of your life. It went like this. If I die one day, never reaching the highest peaks of enlightenment, or not becoming incredibly rich, or healthy, or any of the other usual markers of success, I could totally forgive myself. I could look Saint Peter straight in the eye at the pearly gates with relaxation and say “I honestly did my best.” But if I was to die one day, look back on my life, and realize I never truly loved in an undefended courageous way, that would definitely, without doubt, indicate a wasted life. I would not be able to look Saint Peter in the eye at all. Sitting under the stars on my deck, that recognition came as a shock. I realized in that moment that my ladder had been leaning against the wrong wall. I had put so much importance on meditation, on spirituality, and then on being a teacher. I had just accepted my weakness in personal relationship as inevitable. Everything changed for me that night. I was deeply shaken. My way of living permanently shifted to a different metric for how to evaluate a well spent life.
Three weeks later I was traveling in Sweden. I met there a young woman who had just returned from a trip to India. She heard me speak about my moment on the deck, and then confided to me that she had almost exactly the same experience, also about three weeks previously. She had been sitting by the banks of the Ganges, in Rishikesh, feeling very meditative and holy. And then, in a moment very much like mine, she reflected, “How come it is possible for me to feel all this universal love, sitting alone in India, but I can’t sustain it in personal relationships: with my boyfriend, my parents, even my friends?”
Struck by the extraordinary similarity of our experience, that had happened on almost exactly the same day, we took a little walk in the forest together, comparing notes on the challenge we each faced to bring love down from the universal and into the personal. We parted ways, but maintained an email connection, and every now and then spoke on the phone.
As our friendship deepened, we both realized that we shared a deep, serious commitment to learning how to love, for real. So finally we decided to enter into a kind of a contract, just as you might make a commitment with a friend to go to the gym together every day for 30 days and support each other to work out, no matter what. We decided to enter into a “practice relationship” together. We would experiment with ways not only to practice and get better at love, but to also discover what gets in the way of love, and learn how to let it go. Our commitment showed signs of being dramatically successful, within a few weeks. We met up again in Sweden that summer, and then in the fall she came to visit me in California. One year after meeting, we decided to take the commitment to this experiment in learning to love even more seriously, and we tied the knot with wedding rings.
Chameli and I have been in this grand experiment now for 15 years. From our first conversation, right up to the present day, our commitment has always been primarily to love itself. The commitment to each other, or to the relationship is secondary. Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not painting for you here a picture of endless honeymoon. We have come very close to ending it all, several times. We have discovered huge gaping areas of incompatibility in our personal habits. There have been times when we think the other is just the sweetest, kindest, very best person ever born. That is usually after sex, and those feelings pass pretty quickly. And there are plenty of other times when we just can’t bear the sight of each other. But pulsing through all these ups and downs, like a full river carrying whatever falls into it downstream, has been this undying commitment to learning how to love more deeply.
It has gone through many stages of intensity. It started with: this works some of the time, when we remember to practice. Then it moved to: it always works when we remember to practice. Then it moved on to: it always works when we remember to practice, and… lo and behold… it overflows sometimes into the rest of our lives as well. Then it moved on to: is has permanently shifted the relationship between us, and it is overflowing into the rest of our lives: into the relationships we have with other people. Then there has been this last stage, which perhaps was precipitated by the urgency we see in the state of the world. This big river of love we have created together has overflowed its banks. It is no longer about a marriage, or anything personal. This is about a transformed relationship to oneself, to why we are alive. It has awoken a fresh view of what kind of contribution, what kind of difference we each think we can make. Everything, every moment is an opportunity to deepen the practice of learning to love. No exceptions.
This whole journey has left me absolutely, irreversibly, convinced that the most powerful difference you can make in the world starts with the most powerful difference you can make in your bedroom, in your home. Love starts with paying attention, listening deeply to the one closest to you. It accumulates and blossoms into the only hope we have to create a better saner world together. You cannot really love the world or even help the world till you learn to love up close and personal.