The Key to My Heart is Locked in Your Heart
Integrating The Path of Relationship With The Path of Yoga
Second Annual Conference on Psychotherapy and Spirituality at
Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health May 1995
Keynote Presentation by Kate Feldman, MSW, LCSW
Relationship to One Another is a Microcosm of our Connection to the Universe
If the spiritual journey is about awakening to our already whole and connected true nature, then our relationships must be the arena, or the stage, upon which we practice our awakening. My perspective is that we are in a state of connection to the whole universe. The energy that we are is already pulsating inside us, around us, and between us. Relationship to one another is a fact. Not something to be created; it’s a natural, pulsating part of our being.
What is also true is that this natural pulsating flow of waves and particles can be experienced as connection with each other as well as dis-connection. I think what is intended for us, is that we learn to experience and tolerate the natural flow between the experience of connection and contact and the experience of disconnection and separation.
Connection and Disconnection is Normal
As humans we naturally pulse with our own biological, personal, social, and cultural rhythms just as all the waves and particles of the universe pulse with a natural rhythm. We connect with each other, and then we disconnect. But, we don’t understand that it’s supposed to be like this. We become frightened by the constant flux, or by the discomfort we may experience in either polarity. In our fear we create a problem within our relationships about too much connection, or too little; or not enough space (disconnection) or too much.
The spiritual work of relationship is to re discover our natural rhythm with each other and our entire universe. Just as yoga and meditation create powerful insight into the nature of who we really are underneath the movement of thought; so the practice of consciously connecting and disconnecting with each other supports the knowledge and experience of our underlying unity with all things. How does this work?
How Can Our Relationships Be A Pathway
To Transformation, Healing, And Re Claiming Our Original Nature Of Non Separation, Or Unity Consciousness?
Swami Kripalu (we called him Bapuji, dear father) who was one of the preceptors on this path, once said to us, “The key to your heart is locked in the heart of the other”. I think this was an important principle for us in community as we learned to love each other as teammates, work partners, brothers and sisters, and as we grew up and eventually married and began raising families. It was Bapuji’s encouragement to value each other’s growth and well being, as much as we valued our own. It was his way of saying, “love each other, be compassionate, and practice LOVING. It was our number one practice, the value that imbued our lives and the life of our community.
How it translated was that sometimes I became a flaming caretaker and co dependent: too concerned with the welfare of “the group”, and not concerned enough with my own needs. I often got stuck in a mothering role where I put the needs of my peers, my guru, or my students over my own… and I eventually burned out. But all in all, I think experimenting with and practicing unconditional loving over many years had a great impact on creating an environment where we all felt a level of acceptance that was very conducive to inner growth. I know that’s true because the degree of intimacy and friendship I have with so many people astounds me; not to mention the deep inner work I have been able to do on myself. I couldn’t have done with out being the recipient myself of this kind of loving.
The Key to My Heart is Locked in Your Heart?
I’ve been thinking lately about how this might give me some inspiration and guidance for my couple’s work. I’ve wondered if looking for the key to your heart could be linked up with the whole idea of differentiation and otherness in relationship? I’m not sure if that’s what Bapuji meant but I have had some thoughts about it this way…
If the key to my heart, or my happiness, is locked in your heart, or more specifically, my partner’s heart, then it must mean that somehow I have to find the key to your heart if I want my own heart’s key. And it seems to me that I can do that only if I allow you to be yourself so fully that you can relax, and reveal your heart to me: To do this I must create safety, validation, and a perspective of the rightness of who you are… in addition to the rightness of who I am. In other words, without giving up myself, I must intentionally try to understand what makes you tick, what you think about, what you feel. I may not agree with it, but I have to at least be willing to find out who you are as a specific, other individual.
I Learned About This When I Got Married
I had spent many years being a single person living in this spiritual community, and had developed fixed ways of thinking. In my marriage we are equals and right away I had no intention of giving up my hard won position about life and the universe. And he had no intention of giving up his either. Although, I have to say, Joel has always been the first to genuinely listen and want to understand. He may be stubborn at times but in the relationship arena he has used this quality and converted it to patience. I am usually the one who stays suck in being “right” when we are in conflict.
In any case, as we struggled back and forth trying to convince each other that one of us was right, we eventually learned through trial and error that there is richness and passion in discovering the differences between us. I think we were able to do this personally because we already had so many years of being friends in the community, and we had built quite a lot of commitment toward empathic loving in general.
But it was tough for me to tolerate the differences between us, just as it is for many of the couples I work with. Often by the time a couple comes to a workshop or therapy, they are usually caught in a power struggle of who’s right and who’s wrong regarding any number of small or big issues. They have built up hurts, resentments, and defenses, which are keeping them from the love and connection they want. And usually they are at an impasse, thinking they have to go their separate ways or each one holding a position that the other one has to change in order for the relationship to survive.
How We Get Caught in the “I’m Right, You’re Wrong” Power Struggle
I have seen over and over again that each person in the couple gets completely self absorbed, or symbiotic, about their own personal security, protection, and way of holding reality, and each one feels the need to fight at all costs for their sense of okay-ness. As research has shown, it is that old, or reptilian, brain that is so ruled by the drive for survival that it kidnaps the part of us that has the ability to love intentionally (the neo cortex, or new brain). And when that fear of death sets in, triggered by wounds of the past, there is no reaching out to unlock the key to anybody’s heart… let alone the one who appears to be threatening us.
When this happens in my own marriage, I am usually re living an intensely painful childhood scenario, and have fallen back in an old protective pattern. This comes up between us right now especially when our lives are in such flux. I want reassurance and steadiness about our future. I want him to be organized, focused, and directive. I want him to take care of me. After all, in my household as a child, the biggest security I had was material. So, if “the man who is supposed to be taking care of me now” isn’t getting it together in this arena the way I think he should…I’m in a panic.
My partner is creative, expansive, and a fabulous networker. He does things in a very non-linear fashion. He thinks about things, mulls things over, and then acts. Usually he acts quite close to whatever the deadline happens to be. This is a valid and often very effective way of doing things. But when I am gripped by insecurity it makes me wild inside. I want our future all planned out and organized ahead of time. And the way I try to get him to do it my way is to shame him, blame him, try to control him and make him get going. You can imagine the scenario: He tells me when I do this that I remind him of…guess who? Right. His mother.
In the middle this dynamic I neglect to remember the very different unique individual he is. He’s got his own set of values and ways of making his world happy and secure. His world is equally right as mine, and he has a great perspective on things given his own history. At these times my choice is to fight him and oppose him, or find out what makes him tick…. and affirm the validity of his world. It is very difficult when everything in me wants him to be and do everything the same as I do: I want him to make to do lists. I want him to do what’s on the to do list right away. I want him to know what he wants. I want him to have answers to our life questions…now. I want him to come to me with the answers, without me even having to ask.
The Journey to Adult Loving
In Imago relationships therapy, which was developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix, we call this “the journey from symbiosis to empathy”. Or said another way: Couples can use their relationship to grow from self preservation and reactivity to a conscious marriage in which each person is differentiated as an adult, able to experience the full gamut of human feelings and share them. And feeling safe to share the full continuum of human experience, grow in ability to give and receive unconditional love, thus awakening a deeper sense of aliveness within them.
As Joel and I journey out of symbiosis, I struggle with what it means to be truly empathic toward him. What does this really mean? Unlocking his heart so I can find the key to my own? It sounds co dependent and I certainly don’t want to be that again!!! And if I am struggling so hard to validate and claim my own sense of being, how on earth can I do that for him?
Empathy, in the Imago system, means I listen to him and get a view of his planet, without giving up my own. A colleague of mine who works with couples gives each partner a beanbag shaped and designed like a planet. They hold on to these earth shaped beanbags to get a sense that they really live on two different worlds, and that they have to develop a curiosity about what it is like on their partner’s planet. Each has to own their sense of self and recognize that their partner has a unique and different self as well.
It’s Simple But Not So Easy
It sounds so easy, so idealistic. Just empathize with him, and he’ll be fine and then I’ll be fine. But it’s not that easy. Not for us and not for most couples. Because when he threatens me I don’t want to acknowledge his point of view. I don’t want to value his world as equal to mine. I don’t care about his heart and the key inside it. Hell! I know what’s right, and I know my heart!!! I don’t need a dumb key.
This is a really difficult place for couples, especially when they have spent years building up resentment and hurt. And it’s difficult for us as therapists to patiently work with a couple helping them to do their own work of reclaiming themselves, even as they listen and validate their partner’s work. But the urge for separation, individuation, and growing up is so strong in us that nature won’t leave us alone. And I believe, and have seen it happen, that it can be our partners who will push us to do our growing up work if we let it happen:
My beloved partner will tell me over and over again what is wrong with me. He will demand his needs to be met. He will ask me for things I feel I cannot give. He will assert the rightness of his reality. If I stay absorbed, not acknowledging his way of seeing things, I remain defended against him. I remain unable to discover the magnificent (and also wounded) other human being who is the partner in my life adventure. I also keep defending my own split off self. To the degree that I can’t be curious about parts of his world, I keep myself blocked from those parts of myself, and this keeps a lot of my energy tied up.
An example of this, very simply, is that I get impatient and intolerant of Joel’s sometimes slow, dreamy, poetic ways of doing things: taking walks is a very small example. He loves to meander. I like to power walk. Now, I know it’s true that I married slow, dreamy, and poetic, because I need to develop that part of myself. I cut off my poetic side when I was very young. The truth is that when I relax, and allow myself to be influenced by his dreamy, poetic energy, I access my own and find it quite enjoyable. When I can’t incorporate that kind of energy (and sometimes I can’t because it threatens the other part of me which is fast moving, efficient and let’s – get – things – done – now modality) When I feel threatened I become impatient and pushy, and I come across as controlling
So my relationship work, right now, with my husband, and in all my relationships, is to find the courage to see and accept his reality as well as mine. It is a very conscious, willful and intentional exercise. It is like doing yoga, only there is no mat, and there is no set time of day. It’s something I do for both of our healing and transformation. It’s a practice of loving, serving, and surrendering. It doesn’t come just by wishing. It happens because I use conscious intention.
Practices to Help Couples Create Empathy
There are two practices I want to mention which I think are very important in helping couples to create empathy. The first is a technology, which grew out of Kripalu Yoga. The second is our conscious dialogue process.
If I really want to grow in empathy, if I really have the intention to know what my partner feels, I absolutely must develop my own ability to know exactly what I feel as well as think. And I must learn to report that to myself, as well as to my partner. It’s not enough to tell stories about myself. I must feel, and communicate directly. And it’s not just about emotions; it’s about feeling and experiencing all of life as it comes to me.
The reason why Kripalu Yoga has such an impact on this particular aspect of inner growth, is that it’s a body oriented practice specifically designed to bring you into greater touch with life: feelings, sensations, energy, thoughts, limitations, expansiveness, the whole gamut of human experience. Out of this technology we have developed a Practice of Being Present such that when we are called to be in relationship with one other, we have the capacity to be as empathic and present as possible in that moment.
The Practice of Being Present has as its most important component the use of breath, body, relaxation, and witness consciousness to create internal safety so that you can contain and experience whatever is occurring in the moment. It is a crucial contribution to the field of inner growth; more so because it is a body oriented spiritual practice, which supports the building of empathy in relationship.
Breathing, relaxing, feeling, watching the feelings, and allowing the energy to flow fully in my body without shutting down, is my way of being able to listen to myself and to the other. I can’t really empathize unless I am present with myself as well. Allowing my body and mind to experience whatever is going on, I re program my old scared brain and tell it “We don’t have to run, we don’t have to fight, we don’t even have to hide, or play dead. We can stay here, stay present, feel all the energy of the moment rushing through the body… and just be. And we’ll be fine.” Not only does it create empathy for the other but it integrates parts of me as well.
This tool helps partners learn about themselves so they can communicate honestly, truthfully, and in detail about what is really happening in their lives. When they are able to drop down inside to the full energetic experience of their fear, pain, or even anger, communicating becomes much easier. As a result, the listening partner has a completely different experience from their usual interactions of manipulation and struggle for power.
The other aspect of our relationship practice is a very conscious dialogue process. This is an adaptation of some of the standard communication tools developed over the years as well as a wonderful synthesis that Harville Hendrix put together. In this last year, he very generously gave us his permission to use some of the format in our own programs. It effectively creates a safe structure, which allows both individuals to show up as fully and authentically as they can. It’s a formula, which at first might seem gimmicky, but we use it ourselves, and with every couple with whom we work. I notice that as couples use the dialogue they begin to move from a state of childlike fusion to a state of relationship where each partner develops their individual self. As they acknowledge the presence of one another’s feelings, thoughts, and perspectives, as well as their own, empathy is born.
Stretching, Growing, Learning How to Love
So with Joel, it’s not just that I listen, love and accept him, and he feels safe and grows: What happens is that to genuinely empathize with his world I have stretch past my own set of beliefs and ways of being. I have to be willing to change rigid and defended parts of myself, without giving up my very personal feelings, and thoughts. For instance, I am the one in our family who keeps things and plans organized and I usually remind us about our family jobs. I do this mostly because I like to and some because when things are organized, neat, and tidy, I feel secure, happy, and like my life has some boundaries. I feel uncontained, and unkempt without some sense of order. So many times when I communicate about our family jobs, or dates, or timelines, I do it energetically, with authority and a feeling of: “Let’s just get this done now, so we can get on with things!” Inside me it just feels like the best way to do it. I don’t feel particularly stressed or upset, it’s just time TO DO IT.
But in talking about this, Joel has told me he really doesn’t like it. In fact, he feels quite hurt and it brings up all kinds of stuff reminding him of his own family dynamics. He has told me it doesn’t work, and he wants me to stop it. The problem is that in those initial moments of feedback, if my old scared brain clicks into gear, what I hear is that my way of being energetic and efficient is not okay.
It takes me a little while to slow this down and have a conversation with him where we can both tell each other exactly how we feel. The truth is: I get scared when things get out of order, and then I get controlling. And he feels ashamed and put down when I come on with even a little bit of tightness. To help him heal a childhood pattern he asked me if I would change. He asked me with a specific request to TRUST COMPLETELY THAT THE RESPONSIBILITIES HE HAD AGREED TO WOULD GET DONE, and specifically, not to mention trash, garbage, car repairs, or check book balancing! Not mention them. Just trust that they would get done.
I agreed because this was the call to stretch. I’ve made a commitment in my marriage to stretch because I know what happens as a result. This was a request for me to give something I wouldn’t ordinarily do, and change something I wouldn’t ordinarily change. I understood, that by behaving the way I did, I was re wounding him. I didn’t mean to. I wasn’t trying to. I wasn’t even feeling that upset or controlling in this particular instance. But he was hurt and asked me to change very specifically. And I saw there was benefit to both of us: for him it would help him to release an old childhood hurt, and for me it called me out of myself and asked me to be less rigid. For me this is the magic of working on our growth together.
Is It Really Going to Work?
How do I know it’s healthy stretching? How do I know it’s going to take care of both of us? How do I know I’m really going to transform and grow? When do I say “yes”, and when do I say “no”? I do know that we can always re-negotiate, and I also know that he heard my side of the story and my need for organization, and harmony in our family life. But still, I never really know if stretching is going to “work”.
I think the answer to these questions lies in the experiment. I don’t know if I can ever know ahead of time. It is the yoga practice of selfless service. As I give myself in new ways, even ways that I don’t feel like doing, I know that on some level I am expanded. If we do this for each other, I have experienced that we both transform and evolve into something bigger than either of us were before.
I want to acknowledge again, that working with couples in my office, I am humbled by the tenacity it takes to do this kind of growing up work. It does not happen over night, and it doesn’t happen with a few gimmicks or therapeutic interventions. But with intention, patience, and love, it does actually happen that before my eyes and each other’s, a couple grows to a level of loving and understanding that always astounds all three of us.
The Yoga of Relationship
Included in this kind of relationship work are all the aspects of our yogic tradition. When a couple is committed to transformation and wholeness they make the choice to work together consciously on their relationship. Their formal practices are their dialogue and their stretching to gift each other with acts of unconditional love. Their surrender practice is allowing one another to be two distinct different individuals: relaxing and breathing as they empathically share one another’s world. As each of them relaxes, allowing the other to be more fully themselves, tremendous energy is freed up in the relationship. This energy can then be used for a sacred life of co creation, teamwork, creating a family together, friendship and passion. And most importantly to fulfill the vision of a conscious relationship: the experience of aliveness and a return to our true nature of unity and non-separation. Full aliveness shared with a partner is a magnificent contribution to the evolution of humanity.
Just before I end, I’d like to share with you a quote from Harville Hendrix, who through his writings and master trainers has been a friend and mentor to us:
“I believe that this process of recovering our wholeness through the journey of relationship is part of nature’s grand design: to complete and restore itself through us… Only we humans can see our place in the tapestry of being. We are a node of consciousness in a field of consciousness is the foundation of our innate spirituality.
Finding and keeping love is not just a romantic idea; it’s crucial to our intact survival. We are irrevocably committed to relationships as the context in which to experience our true nature. Relationships pave the way for us to recapture our wholeness by correcting the distortions of caretaking and socialization that distanced us from our original selves. It is in unconditionally loving our partner, making it safe for them to open to love, letting that love sink in over time so that trust can build, that allows their fullness to come back into being, so they can feel their oneness, their totality. The radical position I’m taking is that LOVE IS THE ANSWER. It is the love we give that heals our partner, and the love we receive that heals us. But it is in loving that we truly change the rigid parts of ourselves. It is because a committed partnership can bring us back to our original connectedness that I say marriage is a spiritual path.”
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