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June 17, 2008   |   8 Comments

In the beginning, I took the teacher as teacher,
In the middle, I took the scriptures as teacher,
In the end, I took my own mind as teacher.

–From Journey to Enlightenment, pictorial biography of Dilgo Khyenste Rinpoche

Relationships are lonely. Even good ones. My relationship with my husband is lonely. My relationship with my guru is lonely. They’re the same kind of lonely—I have no idea what either of them is really talking about. And these are the good relationships. I really love them both, but in both cases the relationship is planted somewhere just outside my capacity for understanding. The only thing I know is that I’m no longer in a relationship with a person (husband or teacher). I’m in a relationship with a relationship. Which doesn’t really care what I have to say, particularly. So I just wait for it to tell me what to do.

The other day, we had a fight. (My husband and me, not my teacher and me) It was a bad one. Super bad. Bad like leaving-the-house-at-1AM-to-go-sleep-on-the-couch-in-my-office bad. It’s so cliché to say I can’t even remember what it was about, but I sort of can’t. Well maybe I can, but just don’t want to believe that something so unbelievably stupid (someone not telling someone else that they bought a new camera, for example; I mean it only cost $200 and I needed it for work) could cause two normally sane people to absolutely lose their minds and jump all up and down yelling at each other. I mean for goodness sake.

I was so depressed by this argument. I drug myself home at 6AM, dreading seeing him, but also hoping I would so he could see that I was still ignoring him. As I let myself in and walked up the stairs to our bedroom, he was exiting the shower, towel around his waist. His hair was wet and smelled like drugstore pineapple. His bare chest looked kind of dewy and sweet, not at all like the chest of someone you’d hate. Although I was still angry, I could see that he no longer was. (When he blows up in anger his emotions metabolize and become digestible—he feels better after a “good” fight. For me, a fight is like getting socked in the head, the kind of punch that at first you can’t even feel how much it hurts and then throbs for days…) He came toward me and held his palms up in an unreadable gesture. My palms spontaneously rose to mirror his, whether to stop him from coming closer or to hold him to me, I also couldn’t tell. Back off. Come here. It didn’t matter which one I did, because in that moment, I realized I was trapped. I couldn’t push him away, nor could I hold him close enough. I couldn’t keep him at bay because our lives are no longer two separate-but-parallel tracks as they were when we began living together. No. We’re living one life together. I don’t know at what moment this happened, but something invisible pushed us into a single life. We must have held each other one too many times. Inhaled each other’s breath while falling asleep one too many times. Had the same fight, kissed the same kiss, exchanged the same glance, eaten off the same plate one too many times. Our bodies and hearts have re-formed into cutouts that can only hold the other. From this realization and from the sight of his bare chest and the scent of his pineapple hair, I wanted to open to him, to hold him close just because for whatever mysterious reason, the mere sight of him touches me so much.

But no embrace will ever really satisfy. I could never hold him close enough for him to actually know me; he would never know what it felt like for me to do this, why I was doing it, or to recognize the sequence of thoughts and feelings that led to this opening. I saw the depth of our connection and the simultaneous inability to know each other. He must feel the same exact way, I thought as I pulled him close. Very lonely. And, I realized, the closer we got, the more shocking and painful it would be to still not really know each other.


In my spiritual practice as a Buddhist, I’ve been encouraged to open myself to spiritual wisdom, to the kind of knowing that goes beyond the conventional mind. I’ve made a commitment to this effort and have taken many vows, taken on demanding meditation practices, and even found a guru, something I had always scoffed at as an excuse made by the lily-livered to forego adult responsibility. But when you find your teacher, it isn’t all that different than finding your husband. On one hand, you are bowled over by the extraordinary fact of their very existence and how profoundly and unquestioningly you love them, but on the other, during the first-blush phase, you look at them and go, “that’s it?” Still, as both relationships progress, your beloved becomes both more familiar and more mysterious as time goes on. You question the vows you made. Some days they seem outrageous, impossible (I said I’d always love you?) and on others their true meaning deepens beyond what you had originally imagined.

If the marriage vow is to love, the vow to the guru is to open your self to his instruction and influence. It’s very scary. But here’s the funny part. It’s way more complicated than doing 100 Hail Marys or 100,000 prostrations just because he told you to. At some point, the guru enters your mind. It’s impossible to describe this. It begins with simply recalling his verbal instructions when you sit down to do your meditation practice (“make awareness itself the object of your meditation”), then graduates to unbidden reminders as you go through the day (you’re about to give the finger to the guy who just cut you off in traffic, but suddenly remember your teacher saying, “regard all beings as your mother,” which is a guru-way of saying, please don’t flip people off). But at some point, you stop hearing the teacher speak to you in his voice and you start hearing him speak in yours. I think. It’s very hard to know. But what seems to happen is, because he is your guru, you have somehow always known him. It’s sort of like, as a grownup, still hearing your mother’s voice when you’re about to take the last piece of pie (“haven’t you already had two pieces?”) only he says things like, “regard all dharmas as dreams,” and “the mind is empty and luminous.” The more you relax your mind, the more you practice, the more kinds of wisdom energies begin to manifest themselves in your existence. These energies are variously described as self-existing wisdom, Buddhas of wisdom, bodhisattvas of compassion, and, of course, as Susan Piver, if you happen to be Susan Piver.

But are the Buddhas and bodhisattvas really there? Do they know me? How will I ever know them? Am I inviting them or rejecting them? I have no idea. Sometimes I think I’m in a relationship with them, sometimes I don’t. I can feel that the longer I practice, the more something happens, but I’m not really sure what that something is. I used to simply go to dharma talks and then try to practice what I’d been taught. I still try to do this. But just as often, these days I get my practice instructions from Aerosmith songs or an overheard conversation on the train. There’s nothing mysterious about it—I’m just listening to my iTunes or going to work and suddenly something clicks, like, “it’s really true—I don’t exist.” I don’t know where it comes from. Everything starts to sound like the teacher’s voice and all I know is that my efforts to connect more deeply with him have become much more dreamlike and difficult to differentiate from my own mind. It’s very personal. Intimate. Lonely. Just like my husband stepping out of the shower with pineapple dewdrops in his hair, my teacher steps out of my own mindstream, palms held up in an equally inscrutable gesture. Communications are taking place in a way I no longer understand. These two individuals have taken root within my mind and speak to me in their own curious language, using my mind as their voice. Some days I can make out what they’re saying and on others it sounds like complete gibberish. The last thing I can share with either of them is what it’s like to be with them. It’s just too intimate to describe. Both relationships are teaching me something, but I can no longer understand the instructions. Still, learning occurs.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to friend of mine, also a practitioner, but from a different lineage. He was telling me that nowadays, his meditation practice consists of getting up in the morning, going to his cushion, and just sitting there. He basically tries not to do anything at all. To relate to the teachings, there are no longer any rules to follow such as “place attention on the breath” or “visualize an open sky.” Just like me, he doesn’t really know what to do anymore. He can’t go back to following a set of practice instructions, nor is there a new set to jump forward into. There is only space and the feeling of groundlessness. In his tradition, he says, this stage of spiritual development is called “stupefaction.” This is where no one can tell you what to do anymore, no one but your guru, who somehow can never be found, yet is everywhere. All I can do is listen, without knowing what listening looks like. Some kind of dialogue is taking place beyond my radar. No one will ever know what this is like for me. Not even me.

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  • Posted by:  Rene' Guerrero

    I couldn’t bear the thought of being so closely tied to someone who at the core of my being didn’t understand me. I suppose that’ why I’m 42 and single. I don’t have the fear of commitment, I have the fear of one morning waking up next to a stranger. I know that’s lightyears from what you were describing, but it invoked a sense of longing I have that is tied to the fear of not being alone but being with someone and being more alone than I ever was by myself…

  • Posted by:  susan

    Hi Rene. It’s interesting to consider the possibility that never being known may be the only possibility. When I entertain this thought two things come up:

    First, it’s sort of a relief. Maybe I could stop trying so hard to be understood and instead try to understand–myself, another, and what occurs between us.

    Second, I can relax with my aloneness and feel some tenderness toward others who also struggle with their aloneness.

    How does that possibility strike you? I guess I find it expansive, to my surprise.

  • Posted by:  tearful dishwasher


    I stumbled here from another blog and I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading this piece. And thinking about it. And experiencing this feeling that I had stumbled upon something real.

    The honesty in your writing shines like a lighthouse on the shore of a dark and violent sea. It’s kind of a big deal to witness.

    One of the things that I find a great solace in is the idea that we are all of us simply trying to move from ignorance and striving, fear and grasping and avoiding, towards something that feels more spacious.
    A place of compassion and ‘resting simply without altering it.’

    It seems you are on a good, strong path and are fully engaged in it.

    That seems an essential endeavor.

    Anyhoo. Enjoyed this very much. My guess is I’ll be back again soon.



  • Posted by:  Rose Ann Mancias

    Hello Susan,
    I want to simply echo what tearful dishwasher wrote. Reading your blog touched me deeply. Thank you.
    Rose Ann

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