“Water is wet,” is a universally accepted fallacy. Water isn’t wet but when we go for a swim or take a shower, we get wet. “Wet” is our personal human experience with water, the way it affects us and how we feel when we come into contact with it. The experience of a sea urchin— its perspective and how it relates to water —is, I’m sure, different. If it could tell you about water, the experience would probably be in such stark contrast that you’d wonder if you’re even talking about the same thing.
About three years ago, I had a negative experience with someone in a position of spiritual leadership. One thing led to another which led to his initiating a visceral confrontation with me in a dimly-lit hallway. A few of my friends confessed similarly negative experiences with him of varying severity. Two women told me he’d made them uncomfortable without being able to put their finger on why or how, two more described him as coming off as “arrogant” and the fifth simply said, “I’m just not sure he’s a good person,” before leaving forever.
I stayed in the community a year after it happened because I didn’t want to be reactionary, didn’t want to leave as soon as something bad happened, didn’t want to throw away all the good just because of one bad experience. When I decided to leave, I met with someone in authority and told them about my experience with him to which they replied, “I think people think what they want to think,” before telling me that the person I was “complaining about” was “the best person ever” and going on to give me top examples of their being just that.
He wasn’t wrong in his assessment, by the way. There wasn’t one individual solely privileged to see his “true colors.” We were each talking about the same person and the very real experiences we’d had with him. He showed up to us in very different ways partly because you naturally shift your personality depending on the nature of the company you’re in and partly because we each see his actions through the perspective of our past experiences.
A few weeks ago while on the subway in Manhattan, I caught a glimpse of someone I used to know in an adjacent car and because he had terrorized me emotionally while we were in college together, I hid behind the woman in front of me and watched him count out a few twenty dollar bills from his wallet. He got off two stops later and I saw him give what must have been $60 to a homeless man who’d been riding on the car with him. The man who I experienced as a monster was experienced as the kindest, gentlest and most generous man to someone else and neither of us were wrong. Both of us were accurate. It’s just that he showed up broken in one situation and showed up as pure love in another. Both are him. Both are true. Both can exist simultaneously, paradoxically and side-by-side in the same person.
The American poet Walt Whitman once wrote , “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” In other words, we all contain too much for any one person to fully comprehend. We are deeply complex, deeply contradictory, pulling from both sides of the spectrum and walking as living and breathing moral paradoxes. Light and dark, ignorant and wise. A composite of traits that contradict but never cancel out.
Human beings are inconsistent by nature. On the days when we’re failing to proactively practice healthy self-care or being put under inordinate amounts of pressure, even the most emotionally healthy of us can behave in ways that are codependent and reactionary. In those moments, those around us aren’t finally seeing our “true colors.” They’re seeing who we are in that moment, the way we’re showing up in an isolated triggering incident which isn’t any truer than when we give them our full attention, when we love them unconditionally while respecting boundaries or when we unabashedly celebrate their victories.
A spiritual teacher once told me that a lot of brokenness in relationships comes from a place of unfair expectations, trying to force our partners to be who we want them to be instead of who they truly are. Many of us create long lists of superficial traits we want in a significant other and then go on the hunt to find someone who fits the bill. No wonder much of dating these days looks more like casting calls for someone who qualifies for the part and less like the slow and steady building of a healthy relationship.
Not too long ago, I wrote about non-attachment and why I feel like it’s the best way to date. In my essay, “A Lot of ‘Love’ is Really Just Acquiring,” I wrote:
“Being intentional about discerning whether a potential relationship has relevant value for your life is unrelated to judging someone’s value as a person and it’s not cruel.
A lot of what our culture labels as being “love” is hollow and transactional, or the full on violence about acquiring another being and forcing them to bend into our will. No wonder so few of us have experienced True Love at all.
Being intentional and unattached is the more compassionate way to date because when doing so, we refuse to view people as acquisitions or things to be used for our own means.”
A non-attachment practice tends to shed the acquiring nature of dating. Another great thing it does is leave room for authenticity within the relationship. Instead of forcing your partner to fit a mold that you’ve designed or expecting them to step into an exact role, non-attachment requires taking a step back and giving your partner permission to simply be. You free them of expectations to be anyone other than who they are right then and there in that moment.
For example, I may dream of being with a quiet, strong and steady type and start dating a man just like that. Yet we all have contradictory aspects of our personalities and because of this, he most likely has goofy moments. He might even start to realize how much he enjoys himself during those moments and then decide to become more of a goofy extrovert than a classic Western hero. What happened to the man I chose? He’s not gone, he’s the same man showing up differently, operating out of a side to himself that was always there but not visible to me at the time.
If I’m non-attached, I will give him permission to explore this new side to himself that’s not harmful to others. I celebrate his goofiness, his newfound sense of humor and energy and support him in his self-exploration, even if it’s not what I’d originally expected.
Expecting him to be stagnant and unchanging would result in my criticizing or trying to force him back into the mold he’d seemingly fit into before. Non-attachment isn’t simply about avoiding codependent attachments to others. It’s also about releasing your attachment to the limiting, restrictive ideas of who someone is or who you think they should be and giving them the space to exist as who they truly are, inconsistencies and all.
Author and loving-kindness meditation expert Sharon Salzberg writes in her book, Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection:
… the Buddhist teachings discourage us from clinging and grasping to those we hold dear, and from trying to control the people or the relationship. What’s more, we’re encouraged to accept the impermanence of all things: the flower that blooms today will be gone tomorrow, the objects we possess will break or fade or lose their utility, our relationships will change, life will end.
Nothing on earth is permanent. It’s seasonal, immersed in a constant ebb and flow. The love of the non-attached is no less committed. Rather, as I practice this I commit to love the entirety of the people in my life.
Even as they change, even when they show me the ways they fall short and are imperfectly journeying towards a more enlightened self, I promise that I SHALL love them, that I shall behave as tenderly to them then as I do before the change occurs.
This is the love I have to give: I promise to hold them not with the tightness of clenched-hands but with an open-faced palm, giving them room to breathe and the space to continually become.