Dating as a Spiritual Practice
Looking for a soulmate...and learning from the process.
The words "spiritual practice" can conjure up obscure rituals, ancient languages, and near-impossible discipline--not exactly the first association we have with dating.
But dating and relationships can actually provide us with powerful opportunities for spiritual practice.
For example: S. just called me in desperation. She'd gone on three great dates with a guy she likes. He seemed to like her too, but he hadn't called back since they kissed for the first time a couple days ago. Should she call him and ask him out, or assume he's not interested?
This sounds like a modern problem, and in many ways it is--but it's also an ancient one. S. is dealing with fundamental spiritual issues: The problem of finding a partner, the relationship between self and other, and the question of where body and spirit intersect. So old and deep is the mystery and challenge of finding a partner that the rabbis of the Talmud wrote that it was as difficult for God to split the Red Sea as to find soulmates for people.
It's fitting that the rabbis compared matchmaking to parting the sea, because there is an element of miracle and exodus in finding the right partner. To date is to enter a pilgrimage to the unknown--we leave our comfortable, established relationships and head into unfamiliar territory.
Out of Control
Of course, dating involves other people. And once other people are involved, we're never completely in control. We can control who we ask out, what we say when someone else asks us out, and what we do on a date--but we can't control how well a date goes, whether someone likes us, or whether we're attracted to someone.
Lack of control is terrifying, but it is one of the great spiritual teachers. As long as we are alive, no matter how hard we try to control the specifics of our lives, change will happen--in our bodies, our families, our jobs, our world--and it will often surprise us.
Living with Uncertainty
A good deal of Jewish spiritual practice has to do with acknowledging this lack of control while creating structures to help us navigate it as individuals and as a community. For example, every morning observant Jews give thanks for having their souls returned to them, a nod to the fact that it's never absolutely certain we'll awaken from a deep sleep.
In ancient Israel, vulnerability was a constant fact of life, since rainwater for crops was scarce and unpredictable. Jews dealt with this by reciting daily prayers requesting rain; if a drought continued, an entire system of communal prayers, fasting, and self-examination went into effect. When things weren't going well, they instituted practices to strengthen their spiritual muscles.
Perhaps in this sense dating is, for us, what rain was to the ancient Israelites. Relationships bring us face to face with uncertainty, even in a time when many of us have managed to insulate our daily lives from fundamental survival anxiety.
So, if dating is the modern equivalent of rain in its challenging unpredictability, what is the modern equivalent of fasting--what are specific ways we can use dating to practice spiritual skills? Here are a few spiritual muscles that can be strengthened during the dating process.
Four Spiritual Skills
Practicing self-respect: When someone breaks up with you or rejects you, can you still love, value and take care of yourself? This is an opportunity to examine your sense of self-worth and make changes if necessary.
Practicing courage and kindness to others: When someone is interested in you, but you're not interested, can you gently let them know so they can move on, or are you so afraid of being alone or hurting their feelings that you can't be honest?
Practicing patience: Can you wait for a response to a message you've left, or do you fall into repeated calling and texting and emailing in an attempt to control the situation?
Practicing equanimity: During the process of getting to know someone, can you resist the urge to rush a relationship to its conclusion (especially when it's going well) and, instead, remain present to the other person and to yourself, honestly noticing the emotions that arise? And when a relationship is not going well, or you are between relationships, can you acknowledge and move through the anxiety that arises, and even find a sense of peace in your aloneness?
In Bad Times, In Good Times
"There is nothing as whole as a broken heart," goes the famous Hasidic saying.
Sometimes, inevitably, relationships end in heartbreak. Difficult as it feels, disappointment can be a profound spiritual teacher for us. Our own suffering opens our eyes to the suffering of people around us--our friends, our families, strangers. When everything's going well, it's easy to build a cocoon around ourselves and dismiss the heartbreak of others; but when we are confronted with imperfection and sadness in our own lives, we are able to see the world around us more clearly.
On the other hand, sometimes a relationship leads to marriage or life partnership. Amidst the joy of a Jewish wedding ceremony, we break a glass; there are many interpretations of this, but one of them is that every joy contains some brokenness. We carry our past heartbreaks, and the hard-earned spiritual lessons we've learned from them, into our committed partnerships. And we will need the skills of equanimity, self-respect, kindness, and patience to maintain that love over the course of a lifetime.
My friend S.? I'm happy to report that she decided she'd been too shy about expressing her interest for fear of being rejected. She called the guy and asked him out, and he said yes. Perhaps even more importantly, S. challenged herself and found a new strength that she'll be able to call upon from now on--not just in dating, but in every part of her life.
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