Excerpted with permission from "Waking Up Together" by Ellen and Charles Birx, Wisdom Publications, copyright 2005.

Recently, we attended the wedding of a young woman we knew during the years she was growing up in our neighborhood. At her wedding there was a special table set up in front of the church and in the middle of it was a white pillar candle with a white taper candle to each side of it. As part of the ceremony, the parents of the bride and groom each lit one of the tapers and gave it to their adult child. The bride and groom then joined the flames of their two candles and together lit the pillar candle. Then they returned the lighted tapers to their original places, still burning brightly.

This is a beautiful ritual to symbolize that when we unite with another in marriage, something new is created. We are one couple, one family. At the same time, each person remains an individual. Simultaneously, both of these realities are honored and nurtured. The light of all three candles is the same light.

In Zen we say, "Not one, not two." "Not one" means that we cannot ignore differences among individuals. Each of us is unique and that's what gives life its texture and richness. "Not two" acknowledges the unity of everything in its essential nature. The experience of unity expands our awareness and capacity for love.

There is deep human longing to relate well with a partner, friends, family members, and people at work. When meaningful relationships are formed, it is one of the most important and satisfying aspects of a person's life. Relationships are also the source of some of life's greatest pain and disappointment. Volumes have been written on how to improve relationships and much of this advice is useful. Yet relationship problems still plague us and remain a major cause of human suffering.

In the everyday or relative world, which is the perspective of most people, relationships occur between self and other. The world of self and other is the realm of duality. Even marriage and family therapists, who use a systems psychology approach, and take into consideration the influence of each person on the family system, are still dealing with parts of a system and the interactions and multiple influences of the parts. This is a step forward in understanding the complexity of relationships, but it is not enough. It still views people as separate selves-albeit ones interacting with one another-and remains thus dualistic, and ultimately limited. What is needed is a giant leap forward to the direct experience of non-separation or oneness.

The experience of essential nature or oneness is available to each of us right here and now. What obscures oneness from your view is thinking and conditioning. You have been raised to view yourself as a separate self, with everything from the skin outward being seen as other. While this viewpoint has survival value in the relative world, and cannot be ignored, it is, at the same time, a limiting perspective that creates much misery.

Each of us travels our own unique spiritual path
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  • But again it's important to stress that experiencing oneness does not negate the relative perspective of "twoness," the difference between self and other. Rather, it vastly expands your vision-so much so that it gives you a completely new perspective. When we fall in love or make love, the ego boundaries come down to some extent and it is a very positive experience, but it is limited. When the walls come down completely, the experience of oneness is of cosmic proportion. It transforms your life. The experience of oneness is so expansive that many people who open to it, either spontaneously or through meditation practice, stop there. They view everything in terms of oneness. Statements that are true from an Absolute perspective are now mistakenly applied to situations in the relative world of cause and effect-and you hear of many "enlightened" people with relationship disasters.

    The problem here is ignoring the relative. There is the need to take a further step in learning how to actualize your realization of the Absolute, or world of oneness, in everyday life in the relative world. The Heart Sutra says, "Form is precisely emptiness, emptiness is precisely form." Form refers to the world of things, the relative. Emptiness refers to the world of no-thing, the world of oneness, the Absolute. There is no Absolute apart from the relative. It is through the relative that the Absolute is known. That is why relationships are so important. Roshi Kennedy often says, "You can't put your arms around the Absolute." The Absolute is manifested in a particular person and a particular relationship. Nonduality is directly experienced in "just this" relationship with your particular partner.

    In an enlightened relationship, both oneness and differences are perceived and lived out simultaneously. But it is not enough to understand this intellectually. Nonduality must be experienced directly and actualized in the relative world on an ongoing basis. Enlightenment is not something that is attained once and for all. It is a moment by moment process of being open to the expanded vision of nonduality. In the same way, enlightened relationships are not attained once and for all. They also require moment by moment opening to both oneness and differences. The direct experience of oneness, or non-separation, is so enlivening, soothing, and boundless that it allows you to experience differences, individuality, and separation without feeling threatened, abandoned, or deprived. Paradoxically, the experience of Absolute oneness enhances your appreciation of the relative world of differences.

    Often at retreats when people see us both sitting in meditation side by side on our mats, they comment, "It must be great to have someone to share this with, someone on the same spiritual path." Of course it is wonderful to have a life partner who shares a deep interest in spirituality and meditation-someone to go with to retreats, someone to talk with about spiritual matters and insights.

    But even so it is important to realize that although we share much spiritually, and are united in our spiritual practice, each of us travels his or her own unique spiritual path. Although from the outside, sitting side by side in the same posture, we look like we are doing the same thing, the experience of meditation is different for each of us at any particular moment in time. We each walk along the path of Zen at different rates and with different lessons that need to be learned and unlearned.

    We each have our own spiritual path whether it looks the same or different. It is like the old spiritual, "Lonesome Valley" which tells us, "Nobody else can talk it for us. We have to walk that valley for ourselves." No matter how much we may love our partner, we cannot take away our partner's pain, we cannot "make" our partner happy, and we cannot "enlighten" our partner. Each person must walk the spiritual path for her- or himself. So even if we travel together, we travel alone.

    Recognizing this aloneness is essential for togetherness.

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