Climbing on Board my Relation-Ship
“The word “relationship”... the prefix “re-” means bringing back, or coming back to. The next part, “lat,” comes from latus, meaning something you bear or carry. The next part, the suffix, “-tion,” confers on the word a thingness, as in a state or condition. The “-ship” part comes from the Proto-Indo-European skap meaning to create or ordain. You create or ordain or recognize a thing that exists within every relationship, and you keep coming back to it. The word itself collects reminders about what relationships are and what their possibilities can be. It also lends itself to the metaphor of a “relation-ship,” a vessel (ship) whose structure and form is intentionally designed to carry you both from where you are now to where you wish to be...”
- Lila & David Tresemer, The Conscious Wedding Handbook
On May 28th, 2017 I got engaged to my middle school sweetheart. I fell in love with him on the soccer field in grade seven. Between now and then, I’ve scribbled my first name followed by his last name on the margins of most notebooks. Yes, on May 28th, 2017, I got engaged to someone my mind enthusiastically attached the label, “the man of my dreams.”
It was just a week after my thirtieth birthday. I just finished co-teaching my first four-day Mindfulness Yoga retreat. As I sailed through the final transits of my saturn return, I was feeling so energized and awake that when I looked at my shelf in search of what book to take, my hand reached up top without interference of thought. Soon, I was boarding the plane to spend two weeks with the man I loved. As I opened up the first page of Autobiography of a Yogi, I experienced such lightness of being, a mantra instinctively appeared in my awareness. Something my teacher, Ted Grand, shared during my first Moksha Teacher Training. We were practicing tree pose. I could hear his voice, steady amongst a hot room full of 50 wobbling yogis: This is it… This is it ...This is it... so to ensure we were awake and feeling the fullness of the present moment.
I was greeted at the Sandspit airport by my Love. He was holding a homemade bouquet of wildflowers and wearing an earth-toned t-shirt that said, “Slow it down.” The “man of my dreams” label, reaffirmed. We took a ferry to Skidegate and on the way the whales waved us blessings.
The next day we went camping. It was cold and raining. As we were washing dishes in the ocean, he mumbled something about needing to scrub the pot a little more. But as he got down on one knee, he was handing me the pot and reaching into his pocket and as he pulled out a small wooden box his mumbles turned into a message:
It is moments like these when relationships are built.
Thanks to the inspiration of another dear teacher, Frank Jude Boccio, washing dishes had become a mindfulness activity of mine for years now. I was in awe at having found a man open to discovering the beauty in the mundane. The moment became fuller as I held the future in my periphery: a kingsize bed full of stories for our children… On May 28th, 2017 your father and I got engaged on the shores of Haida Gwaii. We were washing dishes. It was raining. I was cold. It is moments like these when relationships are built.
We spent the rest of the evening roasting marshmallows, drinking champagne, making love and playing travel scrabble. We went to sleep feeling the rise and fall of one body in our two-body sleeping bag.
I got up early the next morning to walk the beach and see if it was all real. Instead of having to pinch myself, I got to twirl my rose-gold ring around my finger. It was loose because of the cold, which made me pay extra attention to the sensation on my skin. I got to practice swatting flies and picking up shells and seeing what it all looked like and felt like now. This is what it looks like to be engaged and swat a fly. This is what it feels like to be engaged and pick up a shell. Again, Ted’s voice, this time coordinating with my footsteps: This is ... it… This is … it.. This is … it...
Everything was perfect with me and the man of my dreams and the future father of my kingsize bed of beautiful children. Everything was perfect until we arrived home the following day and prepared breakfast. Although we’d only just enjoyed breakfast bowls together on the beach, this time was different. The content inside the bowl was different. Instead of the small batch of warm, gooey oatmeal, he poured us both generous bowls of cold, crunchy, homemade granola. Soon, he started chewing. The strange chorus of sounds began.
Almost immediately, I observed my chest constrict. I observed my jaw tighten. I observed my breath shorten. I observed irritation arise in my mind. I observed the sudden desire to go to the bathroom - not because I had to pee, see, but from a desperate need to escape. I shut the door behind me in dismay and avoided my gaze in the mirror. What is happening?
See, it’s not the first time I’ve experienced irritation from someone chewing. To be honest, I spent most of my twenties feeling irritated when my mother chewed most things. But that was my mother. It’s natural to get annoyed at your mother…. right? This was my perfect fiance. THIS IS THE MAN OF MY DREAMS. WHAT IS HAPPENING?
Soon, the stories began. They didn’t just arise and pass, they stuck to the “man of my dreams” label like velcro:
“It is not supposed to be this way”
“How am I going to endure seventy more years of this?”
“Oh my goodness I am a terrible person for feeling this way.”
“Yogananda would never respond like this.”
“Soon he is going to find out I am not actually enlightened at all and ask for the ring back.”
The idea of being annoyed at the man of my dreams was almost too much to bare. Our story was too perfect. We met in grade seven and he was my first kiss at the Halloween dance and we starred in Bye Bye Birdie together and I must have written my name followed by his name 473289473 times on the margins of most notebooks. Now we were engaged and we were going to live mindfully and have children who discovered the joy available in washing dishes and and and as the gap between expectation and reality increased, the mantra returned. Only this time, it was my voice, not Ted’s. Only this time it was fearful, not calm:
This can’t be it.
This is not supposed to be it.
As the days went by and the batch of granola began to dwindle, I noticed, not just the complexity of his crunch (his capricorn efficiency inspired the use of extra nuts and seeds so to ensure each bite was packed full of nutrients) but the clicking of his jaw and unique way he brought his spoon to his mouth so to create a subtle scraping sound every time it touched his teeth. During one particular climatic crunch, I reached for a sip of tea to subdue the irritation rising in my throat. In doing so, I caught size of my rose-gold ring. I paused.
This is what it feels like to be engaged and eat breakfast. This is what the man of my dreams sounds like when he eats his homemade granola.
I could hear my co-teacher Katarina’s voice on retreat:
The practice of mindfulness invites us to become intimate with reality as it is.
Suddenly, I no longer wanted to continue escaping to the bathroom to collect myself mid-breakfast. I felt the desire to strengthen my container so I could practice what I preached. The recent joy I had been feeling had tempted me to neglect my morning meditation practice. I knew I needed to recommit and crawl out of bed early enough to formally sit so that I was meeting him in the morning from a centered place. So I could practice staying with him during breakfast even when the spoon scraped his teeth.
Slowly, I began to show up at the breakfast table with the quality of mindfulness I cultivated during meditation. I practiced sitting closer to him and leaving the table less and less. I stayed centered on my breath in my belly:
Breathing in, I am aware I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am aware I am breathing out.
And then, I practiced bringing in more and more of my experience:
Breathing in, I am aware of the smooth linoleum under my feet, breathing out I am aware of the smooth linoleum under my feet.
Once I felt grounded in my body, I practiced bringing in more challenging sensations and mental formations gently and with non-attachment. I practiced seeing each as a cloud passing in and out of my awareness. When it become too intense, the clouds too dark and heavy, I retreated back to the feeling of my breath in my belly. Over time, with my breath as my refuge, I practiced titrating more and more of my experience:
Breathing in, I am aware of the sensation of tightness in my chest, breathing out, I am aware of sensation of tightness in my chest.
Breathing in, I am aware of the presence of “irritation” in my mind, breathing out I am aware of the presence of “irritation” in my mind.
I noticed that as long as I could feel the smooth linoleum under my feet and the expansion and contraction of the breath in my belly - as long as I was in my body - I was connected to the profound Love in my heart for the man of my dreams sitting across from me; a Love that ran far deeper and lasted far longer than these underlying sensations and mental formations that seemed to end the moment he slurped up the last bit of almond milk. As long as I was connected to this ocean-like Love, I was able to witness these surface-like irritations. I had the freedom to respond instead of react. I could observe the clouds without becoming swept up by them.
The next morning was particularly quiet. As I pulled open the blinds, I noticed the rain had stopped. And as the Haida clouds cleared and the sacred sun appeared above (for the first time since the wales waved), enough space opened up for the mantra to return.
This time, it was my voice. The fear was gone. The cadence, slightly different:
This is part of it.
My voice sounded older now, wiser now, like I was speaking to a younger, fearful self.
Sarah, sweetheart, this is part of it.
With this shift in perception, a sense of ease rushed through my body. And even as we sat down for breakfast and I watched him pour his serving to a height seemingly higher than ever before, I felt my shoulders drop, my jaw soften and my chest widen. Even my toes relaxed. I could feel, not just the texture of the linoleum but the coolness under my feet. I could see, not just the brilliant rays of the sun, but feel the warmth on the crown of my head. As this river of ease ran through me, my experience of the present moment expanded to include not just the rain or the clouds or the sun but the whole, horizonless sky.
And thus, as I practiced what it took to stay with him, morning after morning, as he crunched through the entire tupperware of granola, I was humbly brought back to one of the most radical shifts these ancient practices like mindfulness and yoga continue to invite me to make: in moments of dis-ease, look inwards. These philosophies teach us to make the distinction between “cause” and “condition.” More often than not, the cause lies deep within our subconscious; the condition is merely the environment which brings it out.
In my case, the potential for irritation was already inside me. As it often is, the source lay much deeper inside; a seed belief (avidya) planted long before I boarded the plane to meet my Love, most likely, long before I fell in love on the soccer field in grade 7.
In my case, this root seed manifested as attachment; I was attached to a specific ideal of what living in partnership meant. This led to the following beliefs and expectations:
That I wouldn’t have to apply my practice to my most sacred relationship.
That the most beautiful thing in the world shouldn’t require an incredible amount of work.
That joy couldn’t reside next to discomfort.
That I shouldn’t feel irritated by the man of my dreams during breakfast.
That our relationship was supposed to be easy.
Because my idea of my partner and my relationship was fixed, it didn’t allow for anything that extended beyond making love and roasting marshmallows and spooning in two-person sleeping bags. Because the idea of my partner and my relationship was fixed, I experienced great stress at the growing distance between expectation and reality. Reducing my suffering lay, not in escaping to the bathroom on a regular basis, but in expanding my perception. In other words, connecting with reality as it is, as opposed to how I preconceived it to be.
Having lived together for some time now, these moments are no longer exclusive to the kitchen table during breakfast. They happen in the afternoon and evening. They happen in the bathroom and in the bedroom and in the car. They happen in the grocery store and while we’re playing a game with our friends. Each day, we both continue to discover a multitude of each other’s eccentricities and private routines, slowly becoming more and more public. His morning gas. The way he leaves his socks and underwear in a ball beside the bed. My evening gas. The way I never eat the last bit of the banana. The way he leaves tiny bits of vegetables in the fridge. The way I leave the lids on jars slightly open.
Each time I experience discomfort and reactivity, I am provided with the opportunity to turn my gaze inwards. If I reframe each experience in my relationship as an opportunity here to help me see my state of consciousness more clearly, these circumstances become fertile ground for liberation itself as opposed to obstacles along the way. If I reframe each experience as an opportunity to shed light on what habit energy needs unearthing in order to show up as my most authentic Self, my relationship itself becomes a vessel for enlightenment rather than an obstacle to getting there.
As the late Michael Stone said “you commit to each other and then you spend the rest of your life figuring out what that commitment means.” I ask myself, when I said yes on the beach, did I mean to say yes to some fantasy? Some ideal? Or did I mean to say yes to reality? Do I want the sun but not the clouds? Or do I want the whole, horizonless sky?
I’ve come to the understanding that so long as we’re willing to engage, relationships can become powerful sites of waking up. I truly believe I was intentionally gifted a man with a defined crunch and a clicking jaw to reflect to me the state of my being every single day. I truly believe our relationship is here to as a vessel, intentionally designed to carry me back to myself, to him, to the commitment we made that rainy day on the beach, to the fullness of the present moment, as it is.