Lately, each day, 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 a life perfumed by a love so pure, deep and strong that it eclipses everything else. These last few months, my wife, Chameli, and I have discovered together that the crucible of this fiery love we share is big enough and strong enough to completely contain everything that is going on in the world.
The last couple of months have been characterized in our house by two contrasting things, which on the surface seem disconnected, but deeper down turn out to be very connected indeed.
The first thing is the fact that we have a new president in the United States, the likes of whom we have 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.
The second thing is our marriage. Our marriage holds the coziness of winter, just like an extremely soft mattress and perfect comforter enveloping us in such a way that nothing other than contentment remains. It has always been pretty amazing, partly because I am lucky enough to live with a woman who is beautiful, awake, humorous, deeply loving and understanding.
But something more has happened in our marriage during the last couple of months that transformed 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.
I’ve discovered that personal, intimate love might be the most important and transformative practice we can use to get through these current rocky times and to make the greatest difference in restoring sanity to the world.
Love has not always come easy for me, at least not in the 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.
I’ve had no problem feeling love for humanity or the divine. I love Jesus, Buddha and Mother Teresa, no problem. Feeling love for the person on the other side of the bed is where my challenge begins.
Almost 15 years ago, I had been recently divorced from the mother of my children. We had joint custody, and they were with her that week. I was utterly alone.
I’d also just finished yet another failed relationship; one that had started off well, but then floundered and crashed on the rocks.
I was sitting on the deck of my countryside house, looking up into a star-studded sky. It was almost completely quiet. Then I had one of those rare thoughts which ended up changing the entire rest of my life.
I thought: 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 were to die one day, look back on my life, and realize I never truly loved in an undefended courageous way, that would definitely, without a 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, this recognition shocked me. I realized in that moment that my ladder had been leaning against the wrong wall. I had put too much importance on meditation, spirituality and being a teacher. I’d accepted my weakness in personal relationships 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 life well spent.
Three weeks later, I was traveling in Sweden and met a young woman who had just returned from a trip to India. I described to her my realization about love, and she confided in me that she’d had almost the exact same experience about three weeks previously.
She had been sitting by the banks of the Ganges, in Rishikesh, feeling meditative and holy. And then, in a moment much like mine, she reflected: “How is it 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 and timing of our experiences, we took a little walk in the forest together, comparing notes on the challenge we each faced to transform love from the universal 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 “practice relationship” together.
We experimented with ways to practice and get better at love, discover what gets in the way of love and to learn how to let it go. Within a few weeks, our commitment showed signs of dramatic success. We met up again in Sweden that summer and in the fall she came to visit me in California.
One year after meeting, we decided to seriously commit to this experiment in learning to love, and we tied the knot with wedding rings.
Chameli and I have been participating in this grand experiment for 15 years.
From our first conversation until today, our commitment has always been primarily to love itself. The commitment to each other, or to the relationship is secondary.
It has not been an endless honeymoon. We have come close to ending it all, several times. We have discovered gaping areas of incompatibility in our personal habits. There have been times when we think the other is the sweetest, kindest, best person ever born. And there are plenty of other times when we just can’t bear the sight of each other.
Pulsing through these ups and downs, like a full river carrying whatever falls into it downstream, has been the 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 onto: 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: this has permanently shifted the relationship between us, and it is overflowing into the rest of our lives and into the relationships we have with other people.
Then there is the latest stage, which perhaps is 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 each of us thinks we can make. Everything, every moment, is an opportunity to deepen the practice of learning to love, with no exceptions.
This whole journey has left me absolutely and irreversibly convinced that the most powerful difference we can make in the world starts with the influence of love in our bedrooms and in our homes.
Love starts with paying attention and listening deeply to the one closest to us. It accumulates and blossoms into the only hope we have to create a better, more sane world together. We cannot really love the world or even help it until we learn to love, up close and personal.