The “Field” Beyond Tantra: Physical Immortality and People Unlimited

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,

there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" 
doesn't make any sense.
Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi - 13th century

My lifelong interest in all things physical, from extreme sports, to jumping off of stages while playing loud guitars, eventually led me to the healing arts, yoga, and the study of Tantra. By learning to listen to and speak the truth of my own body via tantric practices (and accept and allow others to speak theirs), I have come to consider Tantra an essential expression of being alive.

As a tool (“tra”) to expand (“tan”), Tantra enables the practitioner to open into deeper and deeper experiencing of the many disparate elements of reality.   By incorporating conscious movement and breath-work to maintain awareness in high states of arousal, the student of Tantra comes to understand that sexual energy is the most direct means we have of connecting with the universal energy of Life itself.  He or she learns how to conduct their own life force to access clarity and joy moment by moment, breath by breath.

And yet,  sickness, aging and death are still “inevitable”.   Or are they?

When my good friend and fellow Tantra teacher Laurie Handlers invited me last year to meet her “immortal group of friends” in Phoenix,  I laughed.  But I had to admit to her that I was feeling a profound sense of well-being in her company, as I always did during our visits. She said, "I think you're immortal... you should come meet some others”.  I laughed again, and so did she!

She explained that physical immortality is not some far distant goal in a future beyond this world, but a bodily feeling, in this moment, that we are timeless, and free of any obligation to die. What is the sense, she argued, of doing all these tantric practices, just to “die healthy”?

Just as Tantra teaches that the sexual embrace does not have to end with a “little death” (le petite mort), Laurie spoke very passionately about life being more than a race to a finish line with an exhausting and final ending.  If our very cells have the power to self-replicate, what exactly “stops” them?  Could it be that our passive acceptance of our own death is a root cause of unworthiness and separation between people?  Is involuntary death actually a blight that underlies poor relationships, even war itself?

Whoa — how exactly do we take the death out of life?  Ninety percent of our media news is death-oriented, our so-called spiritual leaders promote endless ways of coping with it, billions of us are praying to our dead ancestors, and our daily conversations are saturated with death’s logic.  Either we’re getting “older now”,  or grieving our loved one’s passing, or accepting our own fate and making a will — death is very LOUD!

Enter People Unlimited Inc (PUI), a group of about two-hundred self-selected individuals from all walks of life who have come together for the express purpose of “...ending separation between people in order to promote and vivify the innate value and ability of the human body to transcend all limitations of disease, poverty, aging and death.”

It’s been almost two years since I have come to Phoenix to be with this eclectic gathering, and instead of trying to describe what People Unlimited Inc is, I’ll start by saying what it’s not.

People Unlimited is not really a group, or a “community” in the sense of people coming together to share a common belief system.  There are no beliefs here!  No right-doing or wrong-doing!

Likewise, it is not a “practice”, and there are no teachers or teachings, and no books to study.  Unlimited living is a radical departure from self-help, and has nothing to do with spiritual enlightenment, and even less to do with mental understanding.

Philosophic and psychological speculation is routinely (and usually uproariously) called out at a PUI event.  The egoic mind that habitually seeks to know and control is not coddled; “coming from the gut” is more than a platitude.

No gurus, no path, no remedy — just people walking together, supporting one another to really go for their own unlimited Life.  My own experience is that almost everyone I have met since arriving here exudes the same luscious sense of well-being that I first became aware of with Laurie.  Inexplicably, I have moved beyond longstanding habits (craft beers, minimal exercise and lack of sleep) to realize a health and vibrancy that I have not felt since I was a teenager.

By an organic process of simply coming together several times a month and freely expressing our lives to each other,  the people in this new movement act on the revolutionary proposition that life is unlimited, and given the right environment, organic, physical immortality is the next step for humankind.

I have come to believe (if I may use that word), that those of us who have found ourselves together in People Unlimited are creating a unique “field” of awareness or Life that is unprecedented in human experience.

I have awakened to this physical intelligence that is at once brand new and very familiar — it’s like getting reintroduced to a long-forgotten relative — only this time, it’s me!

Connecting Sex and Spirit (and Sendai)

What is Tantra?

slated from Sanskrit, the word Tantra means "to weave" or "expand", and is a practice of accepting the highs and lows of life (and love), and weaving together the seeming opposites of spirit/body, good/bad, and even birth and death.

Moreover, Tantra is a physically-based spiritual path that accepts and celebrates the body as a temple. And yes, that includes sexuality. Tantra understands that the very energy of Life is sexual and can be used as a doorway to the

So what does any of this have to do with the triple-tragedy in Sendai?

I received a letter late last night from a friend of a friend, a young American woman who was teaching English in Sendai, and her account of the patience and tenderness with which she and her Japanese neighbors are living with one another stopped me in my tracks. She was literally describing what Tantrists call
sacred space.

In the midst of all the chaos, grubbiness and hunger, she and her fellow survivors are living free from alienation and blaming. When one of their houses suddenly gets the water back on, owners put out a sign to announce to any and all who may need it. Doors are left unlocked and open (safer in all the aftershocks), and no one is concerned about looting. Strangers ask one another if everything is okay.

Life there has resumed a richness and a slowness that the elders describe as "the old days, when people used to help each other". The skies and roads are quiet, and the stars are abundant.

Big Energy

As I looked back and forth from my feeble attempt at a blog entry last night to her wonderful letter, I must admit, I had a moment of doubt. Was there anything I could possibly say about "connecting sex and spirit" that would have any relevancy in light of such profound changes as she described? Such BIG energy?

Big energy changes everything.

Tantra acknowledges that sexuality might be about the only “big energy” we humans are aware of, or, at least, able to feel. The moments of birth and death could also be included, although being born and dying have a lot to do with sexuality.

We typically don't get much practical instruction and opportunity to become proficient at these major life occasions, much less "master" them. Nevertheless, we have all had our "moments", whether it was a wake or a birth, or losing ourselves in mind-blowing cosmic embrace. And many of us have experienced the peculiar still point that often opens up in time of catastrophe or sudden loss. None of us are strangers to Spirit.

"The" Practice

The simple perspective of noticing and honoring Spirit in all our human moments is a primary way that Tantra ushers in the same richness and slowness that my friend was describing in Sendai. As it turns out, our body-minds are geared for repose and compassion, but short of a major life intervention, we have to
practice the dance of life.

It's always considered extraordinary when people come together to help each after a calamity, but what if this is our natural state of being? It's interesting to me that peace, love and tolerance is socially "weird". Similarly, why is it that our sexuality is commonly at odds with such peace and spirit?

For me, Tantra has been a way to thread together all these disparate aspects of life. The specific practice of
moving the life force that I've always associated with sexuality to other parts of my body has been major. Practicing relaxation in high states of arousal in Tantra has also helped me stay calm in other circumstances of my "real" life, whether parenting or dealing with a difficult client.

In a full-blown catastrophe? We'll see.

PS - This Tuesday's Meetup Group in Prescott AZ,
Connecting Love and Spirit, will be a chance for those of you in the area to learn specific exercises to connect with your own capacity to create the sacred in your life!

PPS - a copy of the letter from Sendai is here:

Tools For Intimate Communication

"For one human being to love another is the most difficult task. It's the work for which all other work is preparation" Rainer Maria Rilke

"Do not wait; the time will never be "just right." Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along." George Herbert

The Long and Grinding Road

With the exception of learning how to "slow dance" in my 7th-grade guidance class, I never learned a thing about how to communicate with the opposite sex (girls) in my formative years. My father, bless his nervous heart, tried his best in those far-flung days of 60's radicalism to assure me that anything between a man and a woman was okay, "as long as you're both in love and use rubbers". Meanwhile, the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" droned on as the background music for my raging hormones. ("Why Don't We Do It In the Road?" was also in heavy rotation.)

Just where, pray tell, does one go to learn about "love"??

Many years later, following marriage, fathering and divorce, I stumbled upon Margot Anand's Sky-Dancing Tantra, and a simple exercise called "Intentions, Fears and Boundaries", a specific practice for speaking the truth with one's lover. And yes, it set me free, but not all at once.

The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off (Werner Erhart)

The very idea of talking, much less telling the truth in my intimate moments just seemed, well, weird. Wasn't it sufficient that my lover and I were entwined and breathing heavily, our words made obsolete by the overwhelming passion we were feeling? I remember as a young man actually practicing a kind of reckless abandon in my love-making, imagining that the fewer words spoken, the better.

Over the long haul, my way of loving without communicating in words degenerated into a tangle of false pretenses and an actual avoidance of relationship. I felt unable to ask for what I really wanted, and resented it when my partners did. Maybe love conquers all, but as a lover, I was as genuine as a costumed Napoleon!

Slowly Moving Beyond Resistance

What I came to understand as I confronted Margot's teaching was that my "strong silent type" persona was actually an elaborate way of hiding that gave strength to my negative feelings. Needless to say, my unspoken fears and anxieties prevented me from feeling safe and relaxed in the bedroom, and were even backing up and poisoning the other parts of my primary relationship!

Even though I resisted at first, I discovered that sharing these same feelings with my partner in an atmosphere of trust and sincerity dissipated their power. And as I listened to my partner truthfully expressing her deep feelings, it became obvious to both of us just how much more energy was freed up for our love-making as our bond of authenticity deepened.

As the goal of Tantra is to penetrate experience as deeply as possible, ("ecstasy"), our personal concealment of feelings become exposed as a fundamental split of the Self - they prevent us from wholeheartedly participating in love-making, or any other activity for that matter. The basic Tantric practices of creating sacred space and speaking our truth are incredibly useful tools for opening our hearts and growing into who we really are. Again, the link for a PDF to these readily accessible exercises is HERE.

"In the Spirit of Intimacy", Our Introductory Class To Tantra

Diana and I are teaching these fundamentals of Tantra, just as they were taught to us by Margot Anand, in our opening series of Meetup group gatherings in Prescott Arizona, from now through April. For more info on our In The Spirit Of Intimacy classes, visit our Prescott Tantra Meetup Group site (and join!); drop a line to; or leave a message for us at 928-445-7501.

Glenn and Diana

Awakening To (Inner) Joy - February 22

Ardhanarishvara "Thou and She art each the half of one body."
~ Pushpadanta
"You are your ideal lover." ~ Barbara Carrellas

As Diana and I began to plan our opening sessions for the Prescott Tantra Meetup Group, the obvious question was where, exactly, does one launch into this whole adventure of sexual/spiritual discovery that we call "Tantra"? And we both had to admit, after all the years we've spent practicing Sky-Dancing Tantra together, that the only real place to begin is with oneself.

In this first of our four-part series "In the Spirit of Intimacy", we'll be sharing practices and exercises that you can use from you-to-you to open up to self-generated energy and pleasure. Discover if you can actually free yourself from needing someone "else" to turn you on. We will invite you to test our theory that you are the principal source of your own pleasure. No one can give you sexual ecstasy (or spiritual realization, for that matter); it comes from within.

Awakening to your own inner joy and loving yourself has nothing to do with being self-absorbed and narcissistic, quite the contrary. Giving to yourself first means welcoming yourself as the most honored quest in your own heart. By nurturing yourself fully, you free and expand your nurturing to others, most notably your lover. "Love your neighbor as yourself" , indeed!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Creekside Center, 337 N. Rush St, Prescott AZ
7:00 - 9:00 pm
Donations Graciously Accepted!

Questions/Comments: Diana at 928-445-7501/Glenn at 507-649-2488
  • Meet with like-minded others in a safe and supportive environment as we explore, communicate and celebrate the body-based spiritual path of Tantra.

  • With simple and fun exercises of breath, movement and communication, we will rediscover the deep wisdom of the whole body, and open to trusting the spiritual nature of our human sexuality.

  • Join us and celebrate the union of the masculine and feminine in yourself and in all your relationships!

  • Rediscover and feel how sexual energy is the physical expression of your higher consciousness

  • No nudity or explicit sexual activity. Held in a space of respect, safety and serenity.

"Our sexual energy is the source of our life force energy and a primary key to a happy life. What we'd like to do is awaken the inner sexual being that we often keep stuffed down in that one little lower part of our bodies and allow it to move freely throughout the entire mind, body and spirit. The part of ourselves that we call our sex center is our creative center, our life force center.

There really is no such thing as going-to-the-store energy, doing-our-work energy, and then - over there somewhere else - *sexual energy*. It's all life-force energy. Tantra is the practice of using that so-called sexual life-force energy all the time in ways that nurture us. We are all capable of feeling a lot better, but you have to be willing to learn how to feel, and it all starts with you.

We have all spent so much time looking for our ideal lovers, wondering if we've found that person or if we ever will find that person. You can stop looking - you've found them! And the best part is, you will always be there for you , you'll never leave you, you'll always want sex when you do, and - your parents would probably even approve of your choice." ~ Barbara Carrellas

Practicing Ecstasy - In the Library!

Diana and I hosted our first gathering of the Prescott Tantra Meetup Group today at the Prescott Public Library. After we discussed ancient and modern Tantra, breathed to our bellies, danced wildly and meditated silently, we danced again, just because we could. In the library!

What was abundantly clear to us all today was the simple "okay-ness" of our human sexuality, and it's connection to spirit, or the Divine, as Diana likes to call it. Ranging in age from 20-something to 70-something, our large group quickly broke out in laughter and giggles as we did the "pelvic walk", moved our aroused energy up to our hearts, and hushed to a prayerful stillness as we exchanged appreciations in the concluding Puja circle.


Thanks to all of you for showing up and BEING, and thank you to Peter and Lewis from the Prescott Healing Arts Association for sponsoring our event.

Our Tantric Meetup Group moves to it's permanent address at the Creekside Center in Prescott later this month. Watch this space for details, and join up (if you so desire) at the Prescott Tantra Meetup Group.

Namaste` dear hearts,
Glenn and Diana

"How can we hope to heal the planet, save the rain forests, establish peace among the nations and religions, when the universal symbol and activity of human love is poisoned in our individual minds? How can love flourish when our religions tell us sex is sinful, and that our flesh is the enemy of our spirit? The damage caused by the condemnation of sex, is incalculable: violence, rape, emotional afflictions, perhaps even war itself." ~ Margot Anand

"Sex lies at the root of life, and we can never learn reverence for life until we learn reverence for sex." ~ Havelock Ellis

Tantra 101

A friend who reads this blog asked me today for some Tantra soundbites, something *simple*. "Okay", I said.
  • The worldly and the spiritual are not separate. In tantra, worldly enjoyments are not to be shunned. “What is here is everywhere. What is not here is nowhere.” (Vishvasara Tantra) As Alan Finger put it, “Every cell in your brain reflects a star in the cosmos.”

  • In Tantra, we practice approaching life (and love) with a relaxed body, an open heart, and a peaceful mind. As we become stable in states of arousal, we can weave this ecstasy into everyday life.

  • The underlying reality of existence is feminine (Shakti); this divine feminine force resides in our bodies at the base of the spine and is known as Kundalini. Tantric practices are designed to awaken this infinitely intelligent, creative, evolutionary energy.

  • We are all born with certain limitations. Through tantra, we engage in a process of transformation that, as I heard Gary Kraftsow once put it, “metabolizes dysfunction in body, mind, and speech.”

  • The body is a living shrine, and each chakra (energy center) a sacred temple. In other words, to access the Divine, investigate inside.
  • And lest we take this all too seriously, I find it helpful to remember that Tantra is about naked awareness: not something to believe in, but something to try out for yourself. As the Buddha used to say (so I'm told), "Come and see."
"Forget about sex. Just play first. Dance, sing, read to each other, breathe together - communicate. Don't count on sex to be the door to intimacy. It's the other way around: first develop intimacy skills. Then make love to enjoy them." - Margot Anand

Intimate Relationship as a Spiritual Crucible

Diana and I came across this article a few years ago in the Shambala Sun magazine, and when we looked at it again tonight, we agreed it was every bit as fresh and relevant in light of the "new" economic turbulence affecting all our relationships.


Living with someone we love, with all the joys and challenges, is one of the best ways to grow spiritually. But real awakening only happens, says renowned psychologist John Welwood, in the charnel ground where we acknowledge and work with our wounds, fears, and illusions.

While most people would like to have healthy, satisfying relationships in their lives, the truth is that everyone has a hard time with intimate partnerships. The poet Rilke understood just how challenging they could be when he penned his classic statement, “For one person to love another, this is the most difficult of all our tasks.”

Rilke isn’t suggesting it’s hard to love or to have loving-kindness. Rather, he is speaking about how hard it is to keep loving someone we live with, day by day, year after year. After numerous hardships and failures, many people have given up on intimate relationship, regarding the relational terrain as so fraught with romantic illusion and emotional hazards that it is no longer worth the energy.

Although modern relationships are particularly challenging, their very difficulty presents a special arena for personal and spiritual growth. To develop more conscious relationships requires becoming conversant with how three different dimensions of human existence play out within them: ego, person, and being.

Every close relationship involves these three levels of interaction that two partners cycle through—ego to ego, person to person, and being to being. While one moment two people may be connecting being to being in pure openness, the next moment their two egos may fall into deadly combat. When our partners treat us nicely, we open—“Ah, you’re so great.” But when they say or do something threatening, it’s "How did I wind up with you?" Since it can be terribly confusing or devastating when the love of our life suddenly turns into our deadliest enemy, it’s important to hold a larger vision that allows us to understand what is happening here.

Relationship as Alchemy

When we fall in love, this usually ushers in a special period, one with its own distinctive glow and magic. Glimpsing another person’s beauty and feeling, our heart opening in response provides a taste of absolute love, a pure blend of openness and warmth. This being-to-being connection reveals the pure gold at the heart of our nature, qualities like beauty, delight, awe, deep passion and kindness, generosity, tenderness, and joy.

Yet opening to another also flushes to the surface all kinds of conditioned patterns and obstacles that tend to shut this connection down: our deepest wounds, our grasping and desperation, our worst fears, our mistrust, our rawest emotional trigger points. As a relationship develops, we often find that we don’t have full access to the gold of our nature, for it remains embedded in the ore of our conditioned patterns. And so we continually fall from grace.

It’s important to recognize that all the emotional and psychological wounding we carry with us from the past is relational in nature: it has to do with not feeling fully loved. And it happened in our earliest relationships—with our caretakers—when our brain and body were totally soft and impressionable. As a result, the ego’s relational patterns largely developed as protection schemes to insulate us from the vulnerable openness that love entails. In relationship the ego acts as a survival mechanism for getting needs met while fending off the threat of being hurt, manipulated, controlled, rejected, or abandoned in ways we were as a child. This is normal and totally understandable. Yet if it’s the main tenor of a relationship, it keeps us locked in complex strategies of defensiveness and control that undermine the possibility of deeper connection.

Thus to gain greater access to the gold of our nature in relationship, a certain alchemy is required: the refining of our conditioned defensive patterns. The good news is that this alchemy generated between two people also furthers a larger alchemy within them. The opportunity here is to join and integrate the twin poles of human existence: heaven, the vast space of perfect, unconditional openness, and earth, our imperfect, limited human form, shaped by worldly causes and conditions. As the defensive/controlling ego cooks and melts down in the heat of love’s influence, a beautiful evolutionary development starts to emerge—the genuine person, who embodies a quality of very human relational presence that is transparent to open-hearted being, right in the midst of the dense confines of worldly conditioning.

Relationship as Charnel Ground

To clarify the workings of this alchemy, a more gritty metaphor is useful, one that comes from the tantric traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism: relationship as charnel ground. In many traditional Asian societies, the charnel ground was where people would bring dead bodies, to be eaten by vultures and jackals. From the tantric yogi’s perspective, this was an ideal place to practice, because it is right at the crossroads of life, where birth and death, fear and fearlessness, impermanence and awakening unfold right next to each other. Some things are dying and decaying, others are feeding and being fed, while others are being born out of the decay. The charnel ground is an ideal place to practice because it is right at the crossroads of life, where one cannot help but feel the rawness of human existence.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche described the charnel ground as "that great graveyard, in which the complexities of samsara and nirvana lie buried." Samsara is the conditioned mind that clouds our true nature, while nirvana is the direct seeing of this nature. As Trungpa Rinpoche describes this daunting crossroads in one of his early seminars:

It’s a place to die and be born, equally, at the same time, it’s simply our raw and rugged nature, the ground where we constantly puke and fall down, constantly make a mess. We are constantly dying, we are constantly giving birth. We are eating in the charnel ground, sitting in it, sleeping on it, having nightmares on it... Yet it does not try to hide its truth about reality. There are corpses lying all over the place, loose arms, loose hands, loose internal organs, and flowing hairs all over the place, jackals and vultures are roaming about, each one devising its own scheme for getting the best piece of flesh.

Many of us have a cartoon-like notion of relational bliss: that it should provide a steady state of security or solace that will save us from having to face the gritty, painful, difficult areas of life. We imagine that finding or marrying the right person will spare us from having to deal with such things as loneliness, disappointment, despair, terror, or disintegration. Yet anyone who has been married for a long time probably has some knowledge of the charnel ground quality of relationship—corpses all over the place, and jackals and vultures roaming about looking for the best piece of flesh. Trungpa Rinpoche suggests that if we can work with the "raw and rugged situation" of the charnel ground, "then some spark or sympathy or compassion, some giving in or opening can begin to take place. The chaos that takes place in your neurosis is the only home ground that you can build the mandala of awakening on." This last sentence is a powerful one, for it suggests that awakening happens only through facing the chaos of our neurotic patterns. Yet this is often the last thing we want to deal with in relationships.

Trungpa Rinpoche suggests that our neurosis is built on the fact that:

…large areas of our life have been devoted to trying to avoid discovering our own experience. Now [in the charnel ground, in our relationships] we have a chance to explore that large area which exists in our being, which we’ve been trying to avoid. That seems to be the first message, which may be very grim, but also very exciting. We’re not trying to get away from the charnel ground, we don’t want to build a Hilton hotel in the middle of it. Building the mandala of awakening actually happens on the charnel ground. What is happening on the charnel ground is constant personal exploration, and beyond that, just giving, opening, extending yourself completely to the situation that’s available to you. Being fantastically exposed, and the sense that you could give birth to another world.

This also describes the spiritual potential of intimate involvement with another human being.

Another quote with a similar feeling comes from Swami Rudrananda (known as Rudy, a German teacher who was a student of the Indian saint Swami Nityananda), further describing how to work with neurosis in this way:

Don't look for perfection in me. I want to acknowledge my own imperfection, I want to understand that that is part of the endlessness of my growth. It’s absolutely useless at this stage in your life, with all of the shit piled up in your closet, to walk around and try to kid yourself about your perfection. Out of the raw material you break down [here he is also speaking of the charnel ground] you grow and absorb the energy. You work yourself from inside out, tearing out, destroying, and finding a sense of nothingness. That nothingness allows God to come in. But this somethingness—ego and prejudices and limitations—is your raw material. If you process and refine it all, you can open consciously. Otherwise, you will never come to anything that represents yourself … The only thing that can create a oneness inside you is the ability to see more of yourself as you work every day to open deeper and say, fine, “I’m short-tempered,” or “Fine, I’m aggressive,” or, “Fine, I love to make money,” or, “I have no feeling for anybody else.” Once you recognize you’re all of these things, you’ll finally be able to take a breath and allow these things to open.

Rudy suggests that we have to acknowledge and embrace our imperfections as spiritual path; therefore grand spiritual pretensions miss the point. In his words, "A man who thinks he has a spiritual life is really an idiot." The same is true of relationships: beware of thinking you have a “spiritual relationship.” While loving connection provides a glimpse of the gold that lies within, we continually corrupt it by turning it into a commodity, a magical charm to make us feel okay. All the delusions of romantic love follow from there. Focusing on relationship as a spiritual or emotional “fix” actually destroys the possibility of finding deep joy, true ease, or honest connection with another.

Sooner or later relationship brings us to our knees, forcing us to confront the raw and rugged mess of our mental and emotional life. George Orwell points to this devastating quality of human love in a sentence that also has a charnel ground flavor to it: “The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, and that one is prepared, in the end, to be defeated, and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.”

This then is the meaning of the charnel ground: we have to be willing to come apart at the seams, to be dismantled, to let our old ego structures fall apart before we can begin to embody sparks of the essential perfection at the core of our nature. To evolve spiritually, we have to allow these unworked, hidden, messy parts of ourselves to come to the surface. It’s not that the strategic, controlling ego is something bad or some unnecessary, horrible mistake. Rather, it provides the indispensable grist that makes alchemical transformation possible.

Rudy suggests that we have to acknowledge and embrace our imperfections as spiritual path; therefore grand spiritual pretensions miss the point. In his words, "A man who thinks he has a spiritual life is really an idiot." The same is true of relationships: beware of thinking you have a “spiritual relationship.” While loving connection provides a glimpse of the gold that lies within, we continually corrupt it by turning it into a commodity, a magical charm to make us feel okay. All the delusions of romantic love follow from there. Focusing on relationship as a spiritual or emotional “fix” actually destroys the possibility of finding deep joy, true ease, or honest connection with another.

Sooner or later relationship brings us to our knees, forcing us to confront the raw and rugged mess of our mental and emotional life. George Orwell points to this devastating quality of human love in a sentence that also has a charnel ground flavor to it: “The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, and that one is prepared, in the end, to be defeated, and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.”

This then is the meaning of the charnel ground: we have to be willing to come apart at the seams, to be dismantled, to let our old ego structures fall apart before we can begin to embody sparks of the essential perfection at the core of our nature. To evolve spiritually, we have to allow these unworked, hidden, messy parts of ourselves to come to the surface. It’s not that the strategic, controlling ego is something bad or some unnecessary, horrible mistake. Rather, it provides the indispensable grist that makes alchemical transformation possible.

This is not a pessimistic view, because some kind of breakdown is usually necessary before any significant breakthrough into new ways of living not so encumbered by past conditioning. Charnel ground, then, is a metaphor for this breakdown/breakthrough process that is an essential part of human growth and evolution, and one of the gifts of a deep, intimate connection is that it naturally sets this process in motion. Yet no one wants to be dismantled. So there are two main ways that people try to abort this process: running away and spiritual bypassing.

The problem with running away when a relationship becomes difficult is that we are also turning away from ourselves and our potential breakthroughs. Fleeing the raw, wounded places in ourselves because we don't think we can handle them is a form of self-rejection and self-abandonment that turns our feeling body into an abandoned, haunted house. The more we flee our shadowy places, the more they fester in the dark and the more haunted this house becomes. And the more haunted it becomes, the more it terrifies us. This is a vicious circle that keeps us cut off from and afraid of ourselves.

One of the scariest places we encounter in relationship is a deep inner sense of unlove, where we don’t know that we’re truly lovable just for being who we are, where we feel deficient and don’t know our value. This is the raw wound of the heart, where we’re disconnected from our true nature, our inner perfection. Naturally we want to do everything we can to avoid this place, fix it, or neutralize it, so we’ll never have to experience such pain again.

A second way to flee from the challenges of relationship is through spiritual bypassing—using spiritual ideas or practices to avoid or prematurely transcend relative human needs, feelings, personal issues, and developmental tasks. For example, a certain segment of the contemporary spiritual scene has become infected with a facile brand of “advaita-speak,” a one-sided transcendentalism that uses nondual terms and ideas to bypass the challenging work of personal transformation.

Advaita-speak can be very tricky, for it uses absolute truth to disparage relative truth, emptiness to devalue form, and oneness to belittle individuality. The following quotes from two popular contemporary teachers illustrate this tendency: “Know that what appears to be love for another is really love of Self, because other doesn’t exist,” and “The other’s ‘otherness’ stands revealed as an illusion pertaining to the purely human realm, the realm of form.” Notice the devaluation of form and the human realm in the latter statement. By suggesting that only absolute love or being-to-being union is real, these teachers equate the person-to-person element necessary for a transformative love bond with mere ego or illusion.

Yet personal intimacy is a spark flashing out across the divide between self and other. It depends on strong individuals making warm, personal contact, mutually sparking and enriching each other with complementary qualities and energies. This is the meeting of I and Thou, which Martin Buber understood not as an impersonal spiritual union but as a personal communion rooted in deep appreciation of the other’s otherness.

A deep, intimate connection inevitably brings up all our love wounds from the past. This is why many spiritual practitioners try to remain above the fray and impersonal in their relationships—so as not to face and deal with their own unhealed relational wounds. But this keeps the wounding unconscious, causing it to emerge as compulsive shadowy behavior or to dry up passion and juice. Intimate personal connecting cannot evolve unless the old love wounds that block it are faced, acknowledged, and freed up.

As wonderful as moments of being-to-being union can be, the alchemical play of joining heaven and earth in a relationship involves a more subtle and beautiful dance: not losing our twoness in the oneness, while not losing our oneness in the twoness. Personal intimacy evolves out of the dancing-ground of dualities: personal and trans-personal, known and unknown, death and birth, openness and karmic limitation, clarity and chaos, hellish clashes and heavenly bliss. The clash and interplay of these polarities, with all its shocks and surprises, provides a ferment that allows for deep transformation through forcing us to keep waking up, dropping preconceptions, expanding our sense of who we are, and learning to work with all the different elements of our humanity.

When we’re in the midst of this ferment, it may seem like some kind of fiendish plot. We finally find someone we really love and then the most difficult things start emerging: fear, distrust, unlove, disillusion, resentment, blame, confusion. Yet this is a form of love’s grace—that it brings our wounds and defenses forward into the light. For love can only heal what presents itself to be healed. If our woundedness remains hidden, it cannot be healed; the best in us cannot come out unless the worst comes out as well.

So instead of constructing a fancy hotel in the charnel ground, we must be willing to come down and relate to the mess on the ground. We need to regard the wounded heart as a place of spiritual practice. This kind of practice means engaging with our relational fears and vulnerabilities in a deliberate, conscious way, like the yogis of old who faced down the goblins and demons of the charnel grounds.

The only way to be free of our conditioned patterns is through a full, conscious experience of them. This might be called “ripening our karma,” what the Indian teacher Swami Prajnanpad described as bhoga, meaning “deliberate, conscious experience.” He said, “You can only dissolve karma through the bhoga of this karma.” We become free of what we’re stuck in only through meeting and experiencing it directly. Having the bhoga of your karma allows you to digest unresolved, undigested elements of your emotional experience from the past that are still affecting you: how you were hurt or overwhelmed, how you defended yourself against that by shutting down, how you constructed walls to keep people out.

Another term for directly engaging our karma might be “conscious suffering.” This involves saying “yes” to our pain, opening ourselves to it, as it is. This kind of yes doesn’t mean, “I like it, I’m glad it’s like this.” It just means, “Yes, this is what’s happening.” Whatever comes up, you are willing to meet it and have a direct experience of it. For example, if you’re hard-hearted, you have a full experience of that. Then you see how acknowledging this affects you and what comes from doing that.

Bhoga involves learning to ride the waves of our feelings rather than becoming submerged in them. This requires mindfulness of where we are in the cycle of emotional experience. A skilled surfer is aware of exactly where he is on a wave, whereas an unskilled surfer winds up getting creamed. By their very nature, waves are rising fifty percent of the time and falling the other fifty percent. Instead of fighting the down cycles of our emotional life, we need to learn to keep our seat on the surfboard and have a full, conscious experience of going down. Especially in a culture that is addicted to “up,” we especially need our “yes” when the down cycles unfold—to be willing to fall apart, retreat, slow down, be patient, let go. For it’s often at the bottom of a down cycle, when everything looks totally bleak and miserable, that we finally receive a flash of insight that lets us see the hidden contours of some huge ego fixation in which we’ve been stuck all our life. Having a full, conscious experience of the down cycle as it’s occurring, instead of fighting or transcending it, lets us be available for these moments of illumination.

While the highlands of absolute love are most beautiful, few but the saints can spend all their time there. Relative human love is not a peak experience nor a steady state. It wavers, fluctuates, waxes and wanes, changes shape and intensity, soars and crashes. “This is the exalted melancholy of our fate,” writes Buber, describing how moments of I/Thou communion cannot last too very long. Yet though relationships participate fully in the law of impermanence, the good news is that this allows new surprises and revelations to keep arising endlessly.

Relationship as Koan

Relating to the full spectrum of our experience in the relational charnel ground leads to a self-acceptance that expands our capacity to embrace and accept others as well. Usually our view of our partners is colored by what they do for us—how they make us look or feel good, or not—and shaped by our internal movie about what we want them to be. This of course makes it hard to see them for who they are in their own right.

Beyond our movie of the other is a much larger field of personal and spiritual possibilities, what Walt Whitman referred to when he said, “I contain multitudes.” These “multitudes” are what keep a relationship fresh and interesting, but they can only do that if we can accept the ways that those we love are different from us—in their background, values, perspectives, qualities, sensitivities, preferences, ways of doing things, and, finally, their destiny. In the words of Swami Prajnanpad, standing advaita-speak on its head: “To see fully that the other is not you is the way to realizing oneness … Nothing is separate, everything is different … Love is the appreciation of difference."

Two partners not holding themselves separate, while remaining totally distinct—“not two, not one”—may seem like an impossible challenge in a relationship. Bernard Phillips, an early student of East/West psychology, likens this impossibility of relationship to a Zen koan, a riddle that cannot be solved with the conceptual mind. After continually trying and failing to figure out the answer, Zen students arrive at a genuine solution only in the moment of finally giving up and giving in. In Phillips’ words:

Every human being with whom we seek relatedness is a koan, that is to say, an impossibility. There is no formula for getting along with a human being. No technique will achieve relatedness. I am impossible to get along with; so is each one of you; all our friends are impossible; the members of our families are impossible. How then shall we get along with them? … If you are seeking a real encounter, then you must confront the koan represented by the other person. The koan is an invitation to enter into reality.

In the end, to love another requires dropping all our narcissistic agendas, movies, hopes, and fears, so that we may look freshly and see “the raw other, the sacred other,” just as he or she is. This involves a surrender, or perhaps defeat, as in George Orwell’s words about being “defeated and broken up by life.” What is defeated here, of course, is the ego and its strategies, clearing the way for the genuine person to emerge, the person who is capable of real, full-spectrum contact. The nobility of this kind of defeat is portrayed by Rilke in four powerful lines describing Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel:

Winning does not tempt that man
For this is how he grows:
By being defeated, decisively,
By constantly greater beings.

In relationship, it is two partners’ greater beings, gradually freeing themselves from the prison of conditioned patterns, that bring about this decisive defeat. And as this starts reverberating through their relationship, old expectations finally give way, old movies stop running, and a much larger acceptance than they believed possible can start opening up between them. As they become willing to face and embrace whatever stands between them—old relational wounds from the past, personal pathologies, difficulties hearing and understanding each other, different values and sensitivities—all in the name of loving and letting be, they are invited to “enter into reality.” Then it becomes possible to start encountering each other nakedly, in the open field of nowness, fresh and unfabricated, the field of love forever vibrating with unimagined possibilities.

This essay is adapted from a talk given at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. Copyright 2008 by John Welwood. All rights reserved.

John Welwood, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist who has been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for more than thirty-five years. Although not explicitly autobiographical, this article traces his journey through his twenty-year marriage. His books include P
erfect Love, Imperfect Relationships: Healing the Wound of the Heart.

Intimate Relationship as a Spiritual Crucible, John Welwood, Shambhala Sun, November 2008.