Fariyal's wedding (2009)
© Cheryl Lisbygd
In August, I celebrated my fourth wedding anniversary, so I've been reflecting on relationships; in particular, the one with my husband, Denis. I often feel my current relationship is the first relationship I've been in. It is so very different to anything I've experienced before that when I share with Denis about my past relationships, I feel like I am talking about another person, and somewhat in disbelief that I was the same person who is living the life I now live.
I grew up in a culture where, traditionally, a woman's place was to ‘belong’ to a man and his family; her duty was to cook, wash, clean, have an arranged marriage, settle down and bear children, etc. Education and options for a career was not on the radar. The attitude to educating girls in the Indian culture has progressed, and yet I can still remember a time not so long ago, as a teenager, when my mother had more traditional expectations for me and my sisters.
In contradiction to this, however, I also had access and opportunity to an English education. It was a gift I am eternally grateful for and I smile at the curious irony of it because while my mother and father were themselves the brave first generation adventurers to travel from India to England and make a new life in a foreign country, they were simultaneously part of a community living in antithesis to the western world. In a recent conversation, my mother admitted that the more she tried to ‘protect’ her daughters’ chastity and maintain traditional Hindu religious and cultural ideals, the more rebellious my sisters and I grew.
Fighting for the freedom to choose my own path through life, rather than have it ‘arranged’ for me, has come at a price. It involved years of family arguments and created a lot of pain and suffering in the process. Many times I've questioned the wisdom of loving my family unconditionally, no matter what we said or did to each other. Some of the cruelest taunts and criticisms, as well as the physical fights we've had, I wouldn't dare attempt with my friends.
I see now that love should never be taken for granted. The fact that during a lifetime of living together, my siblings and I know exactly what triggers each others’ anger and upset, should be a reason to be more compassionate towards each other, not less. Yet looking back on my past familial and romantic relationships, I would neither change the good times nor the mistakes. Of course, I may be incredibly embarrassed at some of the things I did and admit my mother was right about the character of my ex-boyfriends (mostly), but experience was and still is the best teacher. And even though I can no longer recall every one of the numerous ‘liaisons’ I've had (suffice to say it is more than one and less than the number of days in September!), I've learned invaluable lessons.
So by the time I met Denis, I was at least clear about what I did not want in a relationship. I would no longer be someone who didn't stand up for myself and what I believed in, someone who allowed anger and sexual violence, who was needy and wanted to please; in essence, disrespected.
My husband has been a Buddhist since the age of sixteen or so and in Buddhism, there is no specific religious ceremony or sacrament regarding marriage. Marriage itself is neither encouraged nor discouraged; it is considered to be a personal and secular choice. In some Buddhist traditions, marriage is seen as the ultimate form of ‘attachment,’ a form of clinging to certain beliefs about life from which enlightenment can never be attained. Denis, however, thinks that marriage can also be an amazing process for learning to love ‘without clinging to one's own beliefs.’
Denis and I say ‘I love you’ to each other every day. Recently, it struck me that from a Buddhist perspective, this phrase is ‘empty.’ In Buddhism, there is no ‘I’ or ‘you’ as a separate, isolated self (often described in other religions as being a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit,’ which is either reincarnated or being at one with God, or abiding in heaven). The ‘no-self’ in Buddhism is the human phenomenon that arises as a result of our relationship to everything and everyone else. Saying the words ‘I love you’ is just a thought, spoken aloud and gone again. It has no meaning unless it is manifested in action.
This perspective of ‘empty’ may initially seem negative or depressing. Another way would be to see that if ‘love’ in this context is empty, then I can ‘fill the container’ with whatever I choose. I can fill it with kindness, patience and light, or with anger, aggression and darkness. It is my choice.
When I look at clinging and attachment, I think about all the beliefs I hold in relation to what an ideal marriage and relationship ‘should’ be. I want to be certain that I will be accepted for who I am, protected from pain and respected forever, until I die. The truth however, is that life holds no such guarantees (else, I am sure someone would have invented a relationship insurance policy by now). Just as is the case with my extended family, it takes working on a daily basis to not take my husband for granted. For example, it is not my job (from my wealth of worldly wisdom) to ‘suggest’ what he needs to do to change. We already know what we need to change in ourselves without having our partner nagging at us constantly. My work is to manifest kindness and patience, and let him walk his path and make his own mistakes. And however much I may want to hold his hand and cling to the certainty of my beliefs, I know that we do not have the same journey to travel. There must be space for evolution, growth and change for both of us.
I can acknowledge that throughout my childhood, my parents did influence my beliefs. And, one day, I have to take responsibility for making the choice about those beliefs that serve me and those that do not. Regardless of what my mother or sisters might believe, the journey of my life is mine to walk. Sometimes, it can feel lonely, and for the moment I am thankful to have Denis walking beside me.