As a young man in the 1970’s, I passionately practiced Yoga and meditation. I also held a deep conviction that marriage could play an important pole in my spiritual path. I knew that in India’s social traditions, marriage is part of a dichotomy, grihastha ashrama (householder) and sannyasa (renunciate), and within the Yoga groups I studied with, renunciation was given especially high respect as a vow that aligns one closest to the divine. To be fair, marriage was not specifically denigrated, but I received little insight from my spiritual teachers regarding either the power of marriage or guidance for navigating the complex challenges that marriage presents. I was also discouraged by seeing how many couples fumbled along in bewildered conflict and difficulty, and there were only general instructions given them about moderation and surrendering to one another.
Ultimately, I found and committed to a spiritual path under the guidance of an Indian guru whose teachings drew from both Vedanta and also the Tantric Advaita (non-dual) tradition of Kashmir Shaivism. When he passed from this world, the idea circulating among his students held that the guru enters the hearts of his disciples at the time he leaves his body, according to the measure of their capacity to receive him. I was disappointed that I felt no big shift in my life following his departure, other than what seemed to be a peripheral development: I had fallen madly in love with the woman who would soon become my wife. It took me years to recognize that my guru had entered my heart in the form of my marriage, and that our marriage was in fact not only the temple where love was cultivated, but a place imbued with Gurukripa, where Shakti is cultivated and potent sadhana is performed.
While I had a deep certainty and conviction that our marriage union was right, I was also struck by the paradox of how two people, so profoundly different from one another, could be so drawn to each other as to commit to creating a unified life together. It became clear that irreconcilable differences are intrinsic to marriage; the very proposition of marriage, therefore, has an absurd dimension to it. In society at large, I encountered widespread bewilderment at this paradox of marriage, more in the form of dismissive humor and sarcasm than wisdom and insight. Fortunately, there are those who have discovered these differences to be essential, not inimical, to the greatness and happiness available to married couples. We have had the great fortune to receive guidance and inspiration from some of these teachers. We have also enjoyed and benefitted from the company of other couples committed to their own spiritual paths, who have actively explored the power and mystery of marriage.
In the 20th year of our marriage we underwent a profound transformation. Old unexamined patterns which had quietly controlled us became exposed and unbearable. We grappled with whether our differences were stronger than our love for one another. We underwent a painful journey where we questioned every aspect of our marriage. It felt like the annihilation of nearly everything we had held dear to us before we realized that we were clinging to the patterns that no longer served us. More importantly, the crisis forced us to dig deeper within to discover a more immutable love that we shared. As if we had endured an initiation, we discovered a stronger commitment to one another, with increased capacities to work harmoniously together, and a new-found power in our union. Rather than dissolving our marriage, we were transformed and renewed. The years that followed that year of growth have been deeply rewarding, with entirely new territories of the heart available for us to explore. We understood just how powerful a gateway to the Self marriage can be. With encouragement from our friends, we endeavored to put in writing a description of how we work with marriage and the characteristics of the practices that we have developed, with the hope that this will inspire, support, and guide others to discover deeper meaning and power in their own marriages.
We can well imagine that many who read these pages will question the glowing idealism described herein. We can state with confidence that it is possible to live this way, day in and day out. But it does not come easily, nor immediately. Like any sadhana, you attain awareness through hard work, perseverance, through being tested and pushed to your limits, many times. By reclaiming your love through thick and thin, there is a ripening of the original spark that brought you together. We know well that married life is messy, frustrating, unpredictable and challenging. But we also know that with the passage of time and right effort, you can know and live in a state of harmony and a kind of union and shared knowing that is full, precious, and completely alive. Gratitude and grace will flow through your hearts. It is our prayer that the prospect of this will inspire you to explore your marriage as a sacred vehicle, to bring you wisdom, contentment and the most enduring love. It is our prayer that your love will light the world.
Seth & Carolynn Melchert
Next essay: Section 1, Marriage as a Spiritual Path: Ganesha, Reconciling the Irreconcilable