Should I Stay or Should I Go?

October 18, 2023

We can directly consult and follow our felt sense of rightness in relationships. A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

How do you know when a relationship is within your integrity to stay in it? Or how do you know when to leave a relationship?

There's different ways of knowing that are on a spectrum. So there's a knowledge spectrum. It goes from absolutely being in a state of delusion like being absolutely convinced that you know, but what you know is just something related to your karmic structure.

To actually having access to wisdom in a very direct way that evades discursive or intellectual life. Then in between all of that, there's just infinite gradations. For instance, in a lot of Buddhist traditions there's a big component of dialectical argument.

That you have logical arguments about things that demonstrate your knowledge of concepts and scripture and argue things on the basis of logic, right? So that's another form of knowing on that continuum. It's not direct, but it's not useless.

And then there's sort of ordinary ways that we think we know things that are often based on cultural historical accidents, [laughs] something like that. Or big ways that we structure our so-called self-knowledge of ourselves and others.

For instance, one of the bigger ways that we know, that's on this spectrum, is we are living in a time period and in a culture—because this is not true of many, many cultures in the world today. But we here in the US are living in a culture that has been very much impacted by the story of the self, coming into this incarnation as what's called a tabula rasa, a blank slate.

Not imprinted with anything. I mean, this idea would sound like idiocy in a lot of cultures. And then we have something called a childhood and lots of stuff happens to it. And then we have to spend our adulthood recovering from that.

So when people explain themselves to other people or they explain other people to themselves, they'll also say, well, you know, this happened when they were a child. And they had this experience and that's why they're this way.

So in a community of discourse, that buys into the idea that the explanation for how you are now is found in this single childhood. That sounds like knowledge. That sounds like understanding.

And this is how many people in this culture explain themselves. So on the one end is this direct access to wisdom. On the other end is utter conviction that, you know when you're actually in a state of delusion.

What I was imagining is the other end would be just total collapse into ignorance.

I used to think that too. But what Abhinavagupta actually taught, one of the main siddhas of this tradition, he said that there's no such thing as total ignorance. When we come into embodiment, we have some access to wisdom even if it's extremely limited.

So he didn't even like to use the word ignorance. He liked to say less access to wisdom or more access to wisdom. I mean, we have some access to wisdom because we can walk down the street or sip out of a straw. Even if we can't walk down the street and spell something out.

Or even if we're in a state of high karmic perceptual distortion, there's still things that we have access to, right? Otherwise we would be a rock. So we could say that rocks or what we call insentient objects have no access to wisdom in their own self experience.

At least as far as we know. Of course, we've been saying that about different incarnations forever, that only humans have it. And now humans and a few animals, now including plants, [laughs] the mycelium network. So who knows? Rocks might be next. [laughter]

But in any case, anyone who's in this form or in the form of anything we would call sentient is never in a state of total collapse into ignorance. That's why this path works, is because we always have some access to our real nature and to wisdom, even if it's a tiny, tiny amount.

So in that spectrum, there are different ways that we can approach the question of how to know if a relationship is something that's wholesome and healthy for us and helping us. Or if it's not doing that.

And there's like a spectrum of ways. One way would be we read self-help books, the Seven Signs of a Healthy Relationship, and we try to apply that. There's nothing wrong with that except that it's a cookie cutter way of perceiving things.

And the fact is that everything has a totally unique dimension that really can't be addressed through templates and pro formas. However, one end of the spectrum, we would feel it. We would know it through our feeling sense, our mind feeling sense. That would be beyond intellect.

So, for instance, if you have a relationship in mind that you have this question about, you just focus a little bit on your heart space and you say, should I be in this relationship or not? And whatever answer comes back, that's your feeling sense about this relationship.

Now, because we have access to some direct wisdom about whether something's good for us or not, it's just that we aren't trained to listen to that. It also can be very fleeting, that feeling sense can be very fleeting.

And then discursive mind and emotional mind just like, piles on a bunch of objections. We could think that's a dangerous way to live your life, right? I have to think this through. I have to think the pros and cons.

I have to read the Seven Steps in my self-help book. I have to go to my therapist. I have to talk to my friends. I have to talk to my mom, [laughs] whatever, my dog.

I have to consult others rather than just consulting wisdom directly with that. Is it healthy for me? Okay, good. All right. No, I'm just going to go with that. I learned to do that kind of direct consultation, that was actually pretty much the first spiritual practice I ever learned.

And over time, I just came to rely on it. And I can tell you that it is utterly reliable. If we can find that little clear zone into that wisdom of the heart, we can just follow that. But if you can't do that yet, then you have your sense of things that's a little more intellectual.

You can talk to people you think are wise and ask them what they think about it. You can fall back and look at the self-help book. You can go to any part of that spectrum that makes sense to you right now.

But ultimately, the goal of this practice is that you would be living in this sort of instantaneous way, spontaneously accessing wisdom and just following along with that. And not needing all of these discursive tools or apparatus of storytelling and explanation.

I'm just going to say that other people do this because they do it so much. They come to me and they say, I'm dating now. I'm on the dating apps. I went out with this person and it wasn't really going that well, didn't really feel quite right.

They were a little this, they were too, not that. But I'm going to give them a second chance. [laughter] So this has a whole lot of emotional karmas behind it, which I won't go into because you can imagine them.

But there you had someone who had an ordinary but very, very valuable access to their own wisdom. They didn't have to go in the heart space and check in with their chosen deity or anything.

They just were out on a date and they didn't feel right about it. That is good enough, right? I didn't feel right about it. You don't need any more words. You don't need any more justification. You don't have to convince anybody that you're right.

You can just say, I didn't feel good about it. That is closer to wisdom than most other things people do. We have innate goodness, we have innate clarity, and it shows itself to us in many different ways.

One of which is we're out with somebody and we have a feeling of like, slight interpersonal nausea, but then we're going to give that a second chance. Like, why? [laughter] Or we go out with somebody and we feel kind of enlivened by it, and then we're like, I don't know, they don't make enough money.

So we have all sorts of things that we're carrying around with us that tell us to do stuff that's not really in line with our own wisdom. So long story, long, try to get in touch with even just your ordinary sense of, is this good for me or not?

What do I feel around this person? And then you don't have to justify yourself. You don't have to make any narrative about it whatsoever. Whatever it is, just go with it.

And my experience, as I've said, probably 100,000 times is the more you just go with your felt sense, even if it's not like [sings] wisdom. But it's like just your felt sense, right? This will give you more confidence than anything as you go along. You just keep doing that over and over again.

The felt sense of it is really clear. But when it comes to a relationship with my dad, which is very karmically bound, hard, how to weed through that with a relationship, that's that thickly weeded?

Yeah. I mean, there's so many different moments in that kind of relationship. Well, the only way to stop the present re-hurting that you experience from somebody, from a parent or anybody you're that close to, is to stop having expectations of them.

So most adult children have very unreasonable expectations of parents like that. So continually are getting re-hurt when their expectations are inevitably not met. And always holding out hope that something's going to be different.

Something may be different, something may not be different. But this is the pitfall of that hope, which is this feeling like, well, it has to get better. Or it should get better or something like that. It might not get better. Anything could happen.

In that circumstance. Oftentimes one's focus is on the parent. What the parent's doing? What the parent's feeling? What's going to happen next? Will they do this? You got to take that off the parent and put that attention squarely on yourself.

And you have to really come down to the ground and say, I have no idea what's going to happen in this relationship. All my expectations are worthless, and I'm going to give them up. And now, having given up my expectations, I'm going to ask myself, what do I want?

See if you haven't given up your expectations, the answer to what do I want is going to be I want him to love me. I want him to be around more. Those are all the kind of expectations that are just going to hurt.

Given how it actually is, how do I want to proceed in this relationship? That's the question you have to ask yourself. And there could be so many different answers to that. The thing you want probably isn't available. That's maturity, that's maturing out of childhood into actual adulthood.

It's not necessarily a short pathway. But your question has to be, how am I going to be in this relationship given that I can't really expect anything and I'm not going to get what I want?

It's perfectly fine for someone to say, well, there isn't a reason for me to be here. And it's also perfectly fine to say, well, I want to be here, because. But you need to be able to answer that.

I mean, the thing that I landed on after so many years was that I wanted to be maintaining some relationship with my father so that I could help him out of this incarnation, when he died. That was what I came up with in the end.

Seemed important for my own resolution. But everyone's going to have a different answer and it might be different at different times in your life, too.

I recall that you don't tend to dip into the word boundaries particularly. How would you approach some of the ways that people might conventionally use language of setting boundaries? How might you talk about that differently?

Yeah, that's a great question. So the reason I don't like to talk about boundaries is we don't have any. [LAUGHTER] We are absolutely completely open to everything and everyone. And continuous with everything and everyone.

And in this tradition we are cultivating actual, literal, usable, workable, inhabitable sensitivity to that continuity and lack of boundary. So what does that look like? If one were to have significant fruit from this kind of practice, that boundaryless-ness would look like many things.

But one of the things it would look like would be that you feel love for everyone. You feel love and compassion for everyone. No matter what they've done to you. No matter what condition they're in.

No matter whether in ordinary terms you like them or not. Or want to spend time with them. Or anything like that. There's this automatic love and compassion for everybody that happens.

So this is one of the major ways that that boundaryless-ness and continuity expresses itself in real life. Within that, I feel that. But I'm still not going to be around certain things. Or let certain things take up my time and energy.

I would think of the boundary setting as more energy management or time and energy management. Where can I do that and where can I not do that? Some students are like pots turned upside down, teachings are going there, but they're just not getting in.

We could use that analogy for everything in life, for any relationship we have. If we're in a relationship with somebody who's like a pot turned upside down, so nothing we have to give or share is going in there, we have no business being there. We literally have no business.

And so, there's many ways we can get out of that relationship, right? Or we might say, I'm not going to be spending time with you anymore. In common parlance, that might be called setting a boundary.

Or if we're in a relationship with someone who has chronic anger problems and we're their chosen person to get angry at, we might say to them, I understand you're feeling angry, but I'm going to leave now. I'll get back to you later.

None of these things cut love off. The language of boundary in common pop psychology that's going around is about self-protectiveness. The question is, how can I protect myself from this toxic thing?

And so there's no sense that you're still going to be open to this person in a wholesale way. When we're setting boundaries, we're being self-protective. The question of energy management is how can I use my energy in a way that bears fruit?

And how can I stay open and loving and compassionate no matter what's happening? No matter what anyone's saying or doing or doing to me or around me? That's the question. So that's the question that doesn't get asked when we're just talking about boundary setting in a very ordinary way.

So it's kind of a razor's edge, especially if there's someone in our lives who's really causing a lot of disturbance. And a lot of times when people are causing disturbance, it's compulsive. They can't stop.

And it's got nothing to do with us, even if they say it does. And there's nothing we can do about it. So there's no job for us to do there. And there's no reason for us to be around it.

But then, because we're not enlightened yet, we also have to do the work to remain open-hearted and always be leaving the door open a little bit in case something changes. And there is something for us to give in that circumstance.

So it's just a very different scene. It's a very different field of activity when we go in with the assumption that we're already completely open to everything. And that this idea that we're going to be self-protective because we might get harmed is not what we're talking about in this kind of practice.

We're just talking about how can I be a wise manager of my time and energy and how can I stay open-hearted no matter what? So there's like a functional boundary setting.

How does the idea of things we can digest and things we can't digest sort of play into that?

When we can't digest a circumstance, it's draining our energy, right? We're using our energy in very karmic ways. With repetitive negative thoughts, repetitive sad thoughts, repetitive criticism, feelings of panic. Or whatever it is we're experiencing, overwhelm.

All those things are energy drains. That's a bad use of our energy. Being in a circumstance that we don't yet have the realization to host has very real time/life effects.

We can't eat properly. Our thoughts are all tied up. Our emotions are all tied up. We're talking about it, 24/7. We're dreaming about it, maybe. We're journaling about it. We're going to our therapist about it.

This means we are being digested. Or you could just say our energy is being used to feed these karmic patterns that we have. And when we're in that circumstance, we should just get out of it. Because it means we're not ready to handle that. We can't handle that with any kind of grace.

The reason we deemphasize self-protection is because the self is un-damageable. We aren't taught that. Okay, so we're in this Abrahamic culture, in addition to the narratives of original damage.

And the narrative of psychology, which says we can be scarred and traumatized for life, and there's things that are wrong with us that can't be healed. The whole discourses on personality disorders that you can't heal them.

All of these kinds of discourses are completely, completely antithetical to this tradition and what it says about the nature of the self. So we are not trying to protect our little self, we're actually trying to open up little self so it can discover big Self.

We're always like this, protecting ourselves in the state of fear that we're going to be damaged in some way. Or someone's going to see our damage. Some people are very protective, because of that.

We're basically swimming backwards, in terms of our practice. And in a way you could say well, it's just semantics, but language really does matter. We need to be reminded of what the View actually is. And not just fall into familiar language because it's easy.

I've done quite a bit of reading about various personality disorders and partly because it's my interest in how they map to the realms. And just trying to work with students that sometimes show up with these things. The way that these things get talked about online is just absolutely antithetical to our tradition.

And when you get into these forums where just average people are talking about it, the amount of vitriol and everyone wanting to know exactly what it is and sum it up in this little capsule. And throw knowledge capsules at each other. [laughter] This is not the way to go.

The teaching in this tradition is, everything is workable if we have the skill. Everything's workable if we have the skill. If we don't have the skill, things become unworkable. And that's when we need to separate ourselves so that we can grow more.


Listen to a related podcast episode from Satsang with Shambhavi: Letting Your Longing Lead You

Photo by Kyle Glenn


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.