Robert wasn't a yogi or a meditator, but when Rosemary Garrison met him in 2004, she knew she'd found a soul mate. "He's playful, inquisitive, freethinking, and utterly devoted to seeing me at my best," says the 31-year-old yoga teacher, who lives in San Francisco.
Rosemary credits Robert, now her husband, with having a "spirit of play, levity, and freedom" that helps her not take herself or anything too seriously. And although she shares a lot of good times with him—dancing, cooking, and entertaining—Rosemary is clear that she doesn't depend on Robert to feel good about herself. Like many other people, she has already learned that lesson the hard way, through failed relationships.
"Often, two people get together and hope the other will fulfill them," says Anna Douglas, a vipassana meditation teacher and one of the founding teachers of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. "Often, a relationship can be a misguided search for our own completeness."
Most of us have been there—attracted to someone who strokes our deflated ego, lavishes extravagant gifts on our scraping—by existence, takes us to the parties we would not otherwise be invited to, or somehow seems to fill a hole we don't think we can fill on our own. "At first they appear magical," says Douglas. "Later you realize they have their wounded places and needs and unfinished business they're hoping you'll complete for them." And regardless of how much you have in common or how much love you share, a relationship can crumble under the weight of expectations that it will make both of you feel whole.
If you're on the hunt for a soul mate, your best move may be to take a break from searching online dating sites and instead commit yourself to your practice. It is possible to set the foundation for a great relationship—even when there's no prospective partner on the horizon—by examining your beliefs and habits and seeking the real truth about what will make you happy. In the end, as Rosemary discovered, finding a soul mate has less to do with meeting potential candidates than with feeling complete and whole in yourself.
Several years before she met Robert, Rosemary was engaged to Jay (not his real name), a charming and wealthy headhunter who had been her high school sweetheart. "Here was a man who had everything and wanted me desperately. He was so affirming, loving, and devoted, it was like a drug," Rosemary says of their six-month long-distance romance.
She was struggling to make it as an actress in New York and living far from friends and family. "He was living in San Francisco, where I wanted to settle," she says. "He offered everything: a home, a car, a ring, living near my family and friends again." So she donned the ring, packed her bags, and moved west. But almost immediately, she began doubting him and the engagement. Some part of her recognized that her "love" for him was based on something more like desperation than a profound sense of connection. Less than a week after arriving at his home in San Francisco, she moved out and began the soul searching that helped her see the truth of who she was, which eventually prepared her to find her life's true love.
She was in her fifth year of practicing yoga, and taking a teacher training with Ashtanga teacher David Swenson, when she came to grips with leaving her fiancé. "Back-bending would crack my heart open, so I could grieve and actually feel what was happening and let it out. And Handstand helped me to heal. Partly it was the change in perspective. But it was also the ferocity of holding a posture past the comfort zone," she recalls. "I was physically strengthening myself and emotionally burning through the weakness and sadness."
For the next year, Rosemary devoted herself to a deeply introspective Mysore-style Ashtanga Yoga practice. (In this form of yoga, students follow a prescribed sequence of poses at their own pace, without a teacher leading them.) "I was very aware of my thoughts. I saw my desire to have my fiancé back—the validation and love and lifestyle. Then, little by little, the more I practiced, the more I realized that my desire for him was not going to be truly fulfilling," she says. "My yoga training stripped my illusions away."
Bo Forbes, a yoga teacher, Integrative Yoga Therapist, and clinical psychologist in Boston, says Rosemary's experience is not uncommon; a committed yoga practice can absolutely transform our relationships. "Through our yoga practice, we learn to look at ourselves, including the parts of us that are less evolved. Learning how to do this physically, with discomfort in an asana, helps us to do this emotionally," she says. "If we can't sit with our emotions, we are more likely to act them out on ourselves or others."
If we can figure out how to solve our own problems and to love ourselves, we're not so needy. And that's when we can enjoy a great relationship for what it is, rather than because our partner appears to fill some need we think we have.
Our culture and traditions school us to believe the opposite: that someday our prince (or princess) will come, that a relationship has the potential to solve problems like loneliness, that the right partner will make us feel whole. Popular romantic movies propagate the myth of another person completing us.
On the face of it, the idea of being "completed" by another seems deeply romantic. But it's a fantasy that can weigh down a relationship with impossible expectations. The truth is that while your partner can offer many things, he or she can't "complete" you. The only person who can give you a sense of security and an unshakable love of you is you. And though you may "know" this with your mind, sometimes feelings of unworthiness, insecurity, and incompleteness are so deeply buried that you aren't even aware of them or of how they influence your behavior.
Rosemary eventually realized that the unresolved pain of her parents' separation had fueled a stream of difficult relationships, including her engagement. "I was so hungry for partnership and love," she says, "that I would reason my way into staying in relationships that didn't work."
The root of Rosemary's unsatisfying relationships might be explained by the yogic concept of samskara—a pattern deeply ingrained in our subconscious that causes us to act out variations on the same theme again and again. "Sam means 'complete or joined together,' and kara means 'action, cause, or doing,' so samskaras are the individual actions, ideas, or thoughts. Together, they constitute our patterns," explains Forbes. You can also think of a samskara in psychodynamic terms, as an unconscious groove that gets laid down early in your life and continues to be played again and again.
In relationships, these grooves keep you choosing partners for the same, often misguided, reasons. Maybe you look for somebody just like you (a mirror); maybe you choose partners who have some quality you wish you had (someone who is outgoing if you're shy, or someone with a big, happy family if yours suffered through a messy divorce); or maybe you unconsciously try to recreate or correct the dynamics of your parents' relationship.
"The definition of one of these patterns is that you're not aware of it when you're in it," says psychotherapist Mark Epstein, author of Open to Desire: The Truth About What the Buddha Taught. "Usually you don't recognize it until it's ruined some part of your life."
Feel and Heal
Such was the case for Simon (not his real name), 47, who repeatedly hooked up with depressed, angry, and unstable women who treated him badly. "These women did not wear a sign on their foreheads saying, 'I'm a mess,' but my radar would just pick up on that," he says. He sought counseling and realized he was continually pushing his feelings aside to take care of his partners, who tended to require a lot of emotional energy. He was drawn to people with "more obvious and bigger baggage than my own, like actual clinical disorders," he says. "So the focus ended up being on their problems, and I didn't have to look at my own."
Doing yoga and working with his therapist, Simon gradually learned to pay attention to his feelings. That changed his behavior. Last summer, for example, he pinched a nerve playing softball and was laid up in bed. His then-girlfriend raged at him for ruining her summer. In the past, Simon might have accepted this treatment. But his new awareness enabled him to feel his anger and hurt—and to express himself. His gut told him to end the relationship. Now that he's aware of his own emotional and behavioral patterns, he's able to keep himself from falling back into his habitual behavior. He finds that he no longer gravitates to women who mistreat him. He's not in a serious relationship now, but he knows that when a connection clicks, he'll be ready.
Jenni Noetzli, 32, spent her 20s chasing creative, unstable musicians. She had a degree in biochemistry and was interested in becoming a doctor or lab researcher, even as she succumbed to intense infatuations with "emotionally unreachable" guys—many of whom were into drugs and lived the rock 'n' roll lifestyle.
Forbes says: "If we come into a relationship from a place of lacking contentment, we end up looking for someone to fill us up to make those feelings go away." It's important to try to address our missing pieces on our own.
Jenni did. She took a break from dating and got serious about her yoga practice. After a while, she realized she had been squelching her own creative impulses, which kept manifesting in the guise of attraction to wild artists. Doing some soul-searching, she decided her true passion was not conventional medicine but acupuncture. She pursued it as a career and now practices in Minneapolis. Lo and behold: As soon as she began to find creative fulfillment in her own work, she stopped lusting after musicians. She is happily married to a fellow acupuncturist, and yoga is part of her daily life. "I no longer feel my partner is an extension of my creativity," she says. Jenni and her soul mate are distinct individuals, complete on their own, who respect and admire each other.
If we examine our romantic desires and suspect that they take the form of unhealthy longing for completion, we need to create our ideal life so we aren't looking for someone else to do it for us. Nourishing the unsatisfied parts of ourselves, as Jenni did, is the key to becoming whole. Epstein, the psychotherapist, says that a regular meditation practice or therapy can help identify the patterns you're stuck in. "If you expose the samskara to awareness, there's a natural healing," he says.
The reason meditation is so effective at rooting out these patterns, says Spirit Rock's Douglas, is that when you have no distractions, you can't avoid noticing your suffering. "Meditation brings to the surface what's not working in your life," she says. And when you stay with the sensations of suffering, you begin to see what's causing the suffering—bringing awareness to your thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Like asana, meditation can also help you stop reacting to situations out of habit and can pull you out of a bad rut. "Before doing something you might regret, you learn to pause and reflect," Douglas says.
To begin searching your soul, you don't need to retreat to a monastery. You can simply start a practice in which you commit to having compassion for yourself and to learning to sit with and observe your feelings. "With many feelings, the impulse to turn it into a behavior is so strong that you're already in the action before you've even reflected on the feeling," Epstein says. "By deliberately not acting it out, you're forced to be with the feeling."
Taking things slowly can be helpful, too. Stephen Cope, author of The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker's Guide to Extraordinary Living, suggests being mindful after getting involved with someone new. "With relationships, when we're unclear, a very good practice is to slow things down," he says. Take time to reflect before accepting a date, or get to know someone as a friend before letting romance develop. A time-out allows us to better see the true nature of our desire for another, adds Cope.
Once you've found wholeness within, you'll see many more possible soul mates. Spirit Rock teacher Douglas says: "I once told my therapist, complaining about my boyfriend, 'I don't think he's the right one.' She said one of the most helpful things a therapist has ever told me: 'Of course not. There is no right one.'"
In fact, you may just want to ditch the idea of a soul mate altogether. The very term "suggests there is another half who is going to complete you," says Douglas. "But on coming into spiritual maturity, the thing that is most important to you is to be free and to love others, not to be looking for love."
When you feel content without a soul mate, that's when you may find it easiest to meet one. That's what happened to Rosemary. Nine months after splitting up with her fiancé, she wasn't looking for a new boyfriend. She just wanted to have a good time with her friends and joined them at a dance party one night. It happened that one of them knew Robert.
As he approached Rosemary's group, she was struck by the way he looked at her: "We were in a crowd of people at a huge club, and he was looking directly at me. I thought, 'If I start dancing with this man, there's no end to it.'"
Rosemary decided to go for it. "The rest of the room dissolved. We didn't look at anyone else, and we danced together for two or three hours." Rosemary tore herself away only because she had a morning yoga class to teach. "When you let go of the desire for someone to complete you," she says, "only then can you be truly open to what's right for you."