When I was six, the cutest boy in my class, Hughey Wise, asked me to meet him after school. I showed up; he didn’t. Maybe, in the way of six-year-old boys, he’d decided it wasn’t cool to spend the afternoon with a girl. Maybe he had a dentist appointment. I never found out, because neither of us ever mentioned it again. It was my first recognition of the unreliable nature of romantic agreements and the sheer unpredictability of human relationships.
Clearly, this unpredictability riles all of us from time to time, and it is at the heart of many of the questions I get from readers. So I’ve decided to do this special column of answers to questions about love. Of course, I’m not a therapist or life coach, and the intention of this column is not to offer advice that will help you "fix" your love life. The question-and-answer format simply seems the best way to look at some of the problematic aspects of romantic connection and to see how we can use them for deeper spiritual practice.
Of course, people rarely ask for advice when things are going well. They look for help in times of upheaval or stasis or loss. The good news is that help is available: the wisdom of yoga, which can help you let go of your expectations and fantasies and discover love’s unconditional essence.
Set Love Free
I am having trouble letting go of a relationship that is over. We had a soul-mate connection but an unsatisfying and stormy relationship, yet I keep hoping that it’s not quite over. I am still in love, and my instinct is to nurture the love. How do I let go?
In our culture there’s a basic assumption that being in love means we are supposed to walk off into the sunset together. The truth is that two people can be close, love each other deeply and romantically, and not be suited to have a long-term relationship. In fact, having a soul-mate connection is not necessarily a good platform for a permanent relationship. If you accept the idea of karma, you can view that strong sense of connection as a sign that you share an intense karma from the past. The feeling of being soul mates can actually be the karmas drawing the two of you together so that you’ll work out some unfinished business or help each other in some specific but limited way.
Paradoxically, being willing to accept the fact that you may not be a couple is the first step toward keeping the love while letting go of the suffering. There may still be pain—loss and endings are painful. By accepting the loss, however, you open the door for a different kind of flowering, between either you and this person or you and someone else.
So, here’s my suggestion: Every time you feel the love and pain of the relationship, formally offer it up to the universe or to God. Do this over and over, and you’ll begin to notice that your love is being freed of its clinging, possessive quality and becoming more a tender feeling.
When this happens, another possibility emerges. The soul-mate quality in the relationship can develop into a deep friendship. You can then free yourself from romantic expectations and the pain they engender, and genuinely wish the person well. That takes time and attentiveness to your own mind. I’d suggest working with your mind and heart through the following inner practices.
Set aside 30 minutes when you can be alone in your room or in nature. Go into your heart center. Imagine that this person is there with you and say, as if to him, "I release you. I offer our relationship and the love I have for you to the universe."
Stay with this thought or prayer until you feel a shift or release. There may be tears, emotional release, and pain. At some point you should get a sense of letting go. It doesn’t have to be a big letting go—just a small release will do. Then, whenever you think of him, have the thought, "I release you and our relationship to the universe." Send him loving kindness by saying or thinking, "May you be happy; may you be healthy; may you be free." Whenever you wish him happiness, wish the same for yourself.
Second, along with that, I strongly suggest that you keep noticing the thoughts and fantasies that come up around this person. Practice seeing them as passing thoughts, instead of identifying with the thoughts and the patterns of feeling. Once you can see a thought as simply a thought—not necessarily a truth—the next step is to let it go. In Sanskrit, certain kinds of thoughts are called vikalpahs, sometimes translated as "dreams" or "fantasies." One vikalpah that really hooks us is the dream of the perfect love, the perfect relationship. If we identify with that fantasy, it can become an escape for us—a kind of alternate universe that we enter over and over again, effectively preventing us from inhabiting the places and situations of our "real" lives. Fantasy keeps us out of the present. When we practice the mantra If only I were with him, I’d be happy, we make our happiness unreachable, unattainable, outside ourselves, and outside the moment in which we are living. Working with the thoughts—noticing the thought arising, recognizing it as simply a thought, then letting it go—begins to break this pattern and takes us back into our present.
I recently attended a meditation retreat, where I became drawn to another attendee. The last day, during a partner exercise, we looked into each other’s eyes and fell in love. This unexpected eruption of romance feels both compelling and destabilizing. It’s called our long-term relationships into question on all levels. What should I do?
Nearly everyone in the yoga world has, at one time or another, fallen into a retreat romance. There’s a natural intimacy that comes from sharing the retreat space: The heart is open; the mind is focusing inward and is often longing for distraction. I’ve known people who actually got married while in the throes of just such a spiritual romance. Some of these marriages worked; others exploded when the couples had to face their differences.
The most important action to take right now is to do nothing. For the next month use this experience as a way to learn about yourself and to be fully present with whatever feelings arise. It’s common to avoid strong emotions like love, fear, desire, sadness. Instead, you might find yourself fixating on the stories that you associate with the feelings, which might go something like this: "I’m a terrible person for having these feelings" or "If I could fall in love like this, it means that my long-term relationship is flawed."
Yet such stories are spins on reality and not necessarily true. Narratives about the meaning of an experience are often based on unconscious default settings or on ways of seeing the world that you picked up from your family and culture. When you become a yogi, you might superimpose yogic principles and values on top of your old values. When you go through an emotional upheaval, you might find yourself caught between several competing narratives. The yogic ideal of detachment wars with the cultural ideal of romance; the desire for a new adventure fights with your wish for stability and depth of commitment. The conflict between these narratives can send you jumping through endless mental loops and spinning between alternatives, leaving you confused, fearful, and uncertain.
To complicate matters, your story about an experience can both define and direct your emotional response. If you feel a rush of anger at someone’s careless words, your interpretation of their motives and of your reaction will determine whether you get into a conflict with them. Likewise, if your heart melts one day while in someone’s company, you might interpret that feeling as a signal to pursue a romantic encounter. The way you choose to interpret things will deeply affect the future of that encounter.
But when you put the story aside, emotions are simply emotions. At the heart of all these emotions is energy itself. Love is a particular kind of energy. Sadness is another. Anger is another. Each of these emotions has a characteristic felt sense—for anger, perhaps a hardness in the heart or the gut; for love, a melting, rippling heat in the heart; and for sadness, a sinking, heavy feeling through the chest.
In times of upheaval one of the most powerful things that you can do is to practice catching each wave of emotion as a felt sense in the body, without acting on it or attaching to it. This is a kind of meditation practice; you keep bringing your attention to the sensation of the emotion in your body, just as you would bring your attention back to the breath again and again. You sit in the felt sense for as long as you can, noticing the stories and thoughts that arise, constantly bringing attention back to the present moment and to the feeling of the emotion in your body. As you do this, the feeling will begin to change. It might dissipate, or it might just lead to a different series of feelings. It’s in that gesture of learning to be with emotions as sensation and energy, and then letting them shift, that you will begin to recognize the path you are meant to follow. Being present with the feeling of emotion without getting swept away in the story lets you act from a place of authentic instinct, rather than from the excitement and confusion of your stories about romance and betrayal.
I’m in a relationship, but recently I’ve been attracted to an unsuitable man. For a while it served as a fantasy, making me feel alive and enhancing my creativity. Now it is taking up too much energy. How can I get rid of this obsessive fantasy?
You are intuitively recognizing the double-edged quality of romantic fantasy. Any sort of fantasy is distracting, removing you from being present and often covering issues that you need to resolve. But fantasies can also be a doorway into the mystical that yogis have used to recondition their inner world.
In other words, there’s a gift in romantic longing if you can follow it past the personal and discover its deepest source. Romantic feelings compel us precisely because they so powerfully connect us to the experience of unconditional love. In his book We, psychologist Robert Johnson argues that romantic love is displaced love for God. And certainly, the great romantic passions of life have a God-touched quality, which is one reason that Rumi’s poems about his love for his beloved companion, Shams, speak so deeply to us.
The Bhakti Sutras, a great text of Indian devotional literature, teaches that any human emotion serves as a way to love God. God can be loved as a friend, as a parent, even as a child. And the sutras say that the most powerful form of devotional love is the romantic style of devotion, called madhura bhakti (literally, "sweet devotion"). The intensity and longing in romantic love creates a powerful fire in the heart. When that fire is turned inward and is directed toward God or toward the inner Self, then it can transform our character, open our heart, and move us into great depths of surrender and adoration. I’m telling you this as a prelude to suggesting a way to work with these fantasies.
There are two approaches to dealing with an impractical and potentially dangerous romantic passion. One way is through discipline, self-inquiry, and renunciation—in other words, by cutting off the fantasies when they arise. The other, more inclusive, path is the way of the ancient yoga philosophy known as Tantra. Tantra asks you to focus on the feelings behind the fantasies—the pure feeling of longing for love that we all possess. This longing is activated by our connection to another person, yet it is much larger than that individual. When we find it and follow it, the longing can lead us toward Essence itself.
Both approaches work: One uses discipline to remove the fantasy, and the other moves into and through the fantasy to the longing at its core. By attending to the call of your deepest desire, you can make your fantasies into pointers rather than ends in themselves.
The way of discipline is the basic practice of interrupting thoughts and fantasies, the way you would do in meditation. Begin by making a decision that when the fantasies arise, you’ll interrupt them. You may have to do that again and again—perhaps every morning when you wake up. Remind yourself that you don’t want to go down the road of fantasy. Explain to yourself that they distract you and ultimately cause suffering. Then, each time one comes up, imagine yourself offering it to a fire in your heart. Just keep offering your thoughts to the internal fire again and again. This is an essential meditative discipline that helps break any kind of cognitive pattern.
To try the Tantric approach, begin by finding a quiet place to sit that’s free from distractions. Then spend some time bringing up the fantasies. Fully feel the emotions and inner sensations aroused by your fantasy romance: the pure longing, the pure sexual intensity, if that is how it manifests. Try to feel the sensation deep inside the core of your body. Then bring the sensation up into the heart area and hold your attention there, feeling the emotion expand. Imagine it as light.
At that point, totally remove the image or the fantasy of your dream lover. This is crucial. Instead, concentrate on the feeling state itself. Notice its flavors—perhaps aliveness, sadness, longing, heart-ache, love. Let yourself sit with the feeling state of your heart. Recognize that these are your feelings, your longings, your love. With that awareness, let the feeling state continue to shift and expand.
The result of this practice is the dawning recognition that what you really are after, what you really long for, is the felt state triggered by your romantic fantasies. The more you can touch the feeling state in your body while letting go of the image that triggered it, the more you’ll begin to see that it is your own love, your own internally generated aliveness.
A second step with the Tantric approach might be to expand the feeling to include people other than your lover. Bring into your awareness the image of different people in your life—people whom you love, people whom you’re annoyed by, people whom you’ve seen on TV, people who are suffering, people who are sick, people who are happy and well. One by one, bring those people into your heart space and hold them there within the feeling space that you’ve created. Or, if it feels more natural, imagine yourself breathing the feeling state into those people.
Let the romantic feeling spread to include as many others as you possibly can. Realize that the love you feel can be universal. When you allow your focused, personal affection to expand in that way, you can begin to recognize how many opportunities for loving there actually are in this world.
Take it one step further and acknowledge the truth that is at the heart of the bhakti or devotional path: Inside your feeling is God. A feeling of love—any feeling of love—is God. Be aware that this feeling within you is Divine Presence.
These two practices, the basic mind discipline and the Tantric, both help fantasies lose their stickiness. But the Tantric approach can help you open your heart to love’s healing depths.