In the region of Kongpo in Tibet, a respected Chödpa [practitioner of Chöd] was once asked if he had ever done a journey into the haunted ground of the cemetery. He said, “No, I haven’t gone. I don’t need to go because I’m married.” Within the haunted ground of relationships, many old neurotic patterns get triggered. We develop habits of dumping emotional baggage on our partners, triggering reactions that ricochet back on us. When we are blind to our own demons of jealousy, complaint, paranoia, and dissatisfaction, these unresolved shadowy patterns are easily projected on the other. But they are the demons of our own unfinished issues. Some people continue to place blame on the relationship and the partner and move from one connection to another, thinking they will find a perfect companion with whom no problems will emerge. If we do not look inside and recognize our own confusion, each new relationship will trigger the same old upheavals.

Human relationships seem to have been composed of the same dynamics from time immemorial. For eons, human relationships have been tied to personal desire, expectations, value systems, and religion. In some cultures, until recently, intimate relationships were thought to be only between a man and a woman, and these were often arranged by parents or community. Committed relationships were not always based on finding a soul mate, romantic passion, or falling in love at first sight. It was often required that the family know the background and heritage of the partner and bless the union. Romantic love is a fairly recent social behavior. Over the course of human history, this approach accounts for very little of humanity’s time here. Yet, in the unconscious and in fairy tales the mythology of love says we can find the perfect mate, someone who unconditionally loves your smells, has a magical connection to you, will live forever, and will raise a family with you. This is part of the relationship neuroses of the modern world. It is based on people not understanding what love is.

If we do not look inside and recognize our own confusion, each new relationship will trigger the same old upheavals.

The term “love” is used indiscriminately from romantic comedies to tragic and dangerous liaisons. It is a romantic concept created by the Western world. In other cultures, people will sing in their own language but still use the English phrase “I love you” embedded in the song. The phrase is an enticing illusion but inevitably leads to coming back to a more realistic and ordinary place, sometimes resulting in disillusionment. This can be seen as positive, as a cute illusion, and someone might ask, “Why not just let people enjoy it? Why burst the bubble?” But the mythology will exceed what life delivers, and no one can really fulfill the expectations of love. At the outset of a relationship, people try to be on their best behavior. But no one can act forever, and eventually who we really are surfaces. Our weaknesses and unfinished business join the party.

As we begin dumping psychological garbage, and our partner does the same, there is disharmony, blaming, and painful separation. False illusions of a soul mate, jealousy, and the desire to control make partners become aloof or grasping, unleashing deep disappointment. Within the stress of trying to maintain an idealized romance, partners can become possessive of each other, and the whole enterprise of passion can change from sweet to bitter. Though people feel they love each other, they do not really know what this means. Love may turn into hatred or resentment. Modern society needs to be reeducated as to what love is. Otherwise, carnal passion, erotic impulses, and fantasies may be mistaken for love.

As time goes by, all kinds of problems can develop in a relationship and cause the illusion to collapse: for example, aloofness, boredom, gaslighting, and manipulation. These strategies are inner demons that tend to lurk in relationships unless we intentionally uncover them, own them, and start working on them. By working through them, relationships can be a source of happiness and can even allow us to find authentic joy from learning what true love is in its deepest meaning. Authentic love is to understand both strengths and weaknesses, of yourself and others, and accept them all. It is a dynamic dance of give and take without conditions, of letting go into uncertainty and vulnerability, and being willing to help that person when needed.

It is unfortunate that pain accompanies the breakdown of the romantic myth, but this is exactly why relationships can be regarded as a productive haunted ground. 

Some believe that if we aspire to truly grow spiritually, we should be in a relationship and have children. Seeing our inner demons reflected in the mirror of intimate connection and nuclear or extended family life, we are forced to mature and learn what it means to become truly selfless and to know what it means to love another human being more than ourselves. Maybe the true doorway to enlightenment is not escaping into a meditation cave but is raising a family.

One day, while I was leading a meditation retreat in the artist community of Mendocino, California, a woman approached me in the greeting line after my talk. She described a painful situation with her partner, who abused her emotionally. . . In listening to her and taking in her distress, I could not say to her, “Oh, let go of your pain.” When I asked how long ago this relationship had happened, she said it had been many years. So, I said, “Maybe you can find peace. Find a picture of your partner to express all your anger to and then burn it. Then you may find peace.” She relaxed and smiled after hearing this. Her haunted ground was holding on to her anger for so long. By making conscious that she was holding on to something that was no longer part of her life, she could stop abusing herself with the memory. 

Maybe the true doorway to enlightenment is not escaping into a meditation cave but is raising a family.

Even when emotions have merit, even when abusers die, we internalize them and end up abusing ourselves and making ourselves miserable. The time comes to let go. This is not to say that we should suppress our feelings. Emotional pain caused by others tends to linger in us because many people do not honor the pain or fully express it. Expressing pain is perhaps the first step toward healing, and each person must find their own way to do it.

Transcending self is a grand concept. The question is how we can experience this in an authentic way. People can experience this by raising children or taking care of elderly parents or friends. Giving up sleep and vacations, giving up money and happiness, and foregoing their own needs is a path to spiritual growth. Fulfilling the true commitment of a relationship is extraordinary, unrelenting selfless activity. It is one of the most authentic ways that humanity can experience self-transcendence. This is authentic selflessness, not the endorphin-intoxicated spiritual trance that some mistakenly think of as the transcendent experience.

Adapted from Into the Haunted Ground: A Guide to Cutting the Root of Suffering by Anam Thubten © 2022 by Anam Thubten. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.