There is a story spiritual teachers sometimes tell to teach about spiritual transformation. It’s about an ice cave Rishi (a Himalayan baba) whose spiritual practice is a form of yoga in which he meditates on the inner light. After many years of this practice, the Rishi eventually attains the highest state of samadhi.
Despite his high spiritual state, the Rishi still needs meager supplies to support his life in the Himalayas. So, the time eventually comes when he has to descend to the village at the foot of the mountains to secure supplies: another blanket, a stick, and a bowl.
Walking through the bustling village streets, the Rishi is overwhelmed and anxious. He isn’t used to having to share his personal space with anyone. Then, one fellow gets too close and bumps up against the Rishi, knocking him into another person. The Rishi turns and snaps: “Watch where you’re going, you idiot!”
This story is used to teach the lesson that the measure of one’s spiritual life is not inner experience but the quality of one’s interactions with other people. As Jesus said, “You shall know them by their fruits”: (love, patience, kindness, etc.)
In this time of pandemic, many of us, not Himalayan baba’s but “villagers,” are being tested in a similar way. We are being called from our worldly, intensely social lives to sequester – our own version of the overly crowded marketplace, or living room, as the case may be. This experience is taking its toll on many people. We’re just not that used to being forced into such close proximity with others for so long!
Along these lines, have you noticed how many articles and videos are being posted these days about whether relationships will survive this period of social isolation? Here’s a couple of examples: “Marriage Wasn’t Built to Survive Quarantine,” and, “Love Under Lockdown: How Couples Can Cope During Covid-19.” If the literature is at all indicative, couples are struggling with each other… parents are struggling with kids… and kids are struggling with kids.
Why the struggle? Dynamics that were once alleviated by our social outlets are now inescapable. We can’t put off or ignore disagreements. Private time is a rare commodity. Dishes are piling up in the sink! My partner doesn’t even know which way the toilet paper is supposed to roll off the toilet paper roll (What was I thinking when I married this scoundrel?!)! (By the way, there is a correct way to roll the toilet paper off the toilet paper roll!) In sum, we are “suffering” unmediated, 24/7, interpersonal intensity! (As Sartre said, “Hell is other people.”)
This unmediated, 24/7, interpersonal intensity is testing our nerves… and measuring our spiritual lives. How go our interactions with the people with whom we are sequestered? Do we find ourselves acting with love, patience, and kindness, or, like the Himalayan baba, quipping: “Watch where you’re going, you idiot!” Where are we landing on the “reactivity continuum”?
For those of you who are struggling with this unmediated, 24/7, interpersonal intensity, I want to suggest a way to reframe this period of social isolation. The Sufi tradition is particularly helpful here because the Sufi tradition understands that the measure of one’s spiritual life is the quality of one’s interactions with other people. Even more, the Sufis see our interpersonal relationships with other people as preparation for Divine love. As Jami says: "You may try a hundred things but love alone will release you from yourself. So never flee from love - not even love in an earthly guise - for it is a preparation for the supreme Truth."
Similarly, Rumi says:
There is no salvation for the soul
But to fall in Love.
It has to creep and crawl
Among the Lovers first.
What Rumi and Jami are telling us is that part of the journey to God takes place through our interactions with other people. That is, it’s not until we learn to love people - unconditionally (meaning, no matter what way they think the toilet paper should roll off the toilet paper roll!) - that we are ready for Divine love. Another way of saying this is that the path to God is an alchemical path; a transformative path that requires all the complexity of human relationship to work its magic. In the end, though, we learn to love and thereby become able to receive Divine love.
As we struggle with our interpersonal relationships during this sequester, it would be helpful to see our struggles as indicators of the work we need to be doing on ourselves, from a spiritual perspective. Rather than seeing the other scoundrel(s) in our lives a problem set(s), we need to see him/her/them as opportunities - opportunities to enact love, patience, kindness, etc., even, or especially if, we find these scoundrels unworthy!
In his book, “The Only Dance There Is,” Ram Dass cuts to this chase. When I first read this over thirty years ago it struck me to my spiritual core. Since then, I have returned to it over and over and over again. I suggest printing it and pasting it to the bathroom mirror. It’s a simple but effective mnemonic device:
The only thing you have to offer another human being, ever, is your own state of being. You can cop out
only just so long, saying, I’ve got all this fine coat – Joseph’s coat of many colors – I know all this and I can
do all this. But everything you do, whether you’re cooking food or doing therapy or being a student or
being a lover, you are only doing your own being, you’re only manifesting how evolved a consciousness
you are. That’s what you’re doing with another human being. That’s the only dance there is!