Spiritualizing Human Relationships

By Swami Prabuddhananda

Swami Prabuddhananda, a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Order, is the Minister-in-Charge of the Vedanta Society of Northern California, San Francisco, U.S.A.

This article was first published in the December, 2006 Special Issue of Vedanta Kesari.

The Importance of Nurturing Human Relationships

Human relationships are extremely important for the obvious reason that almost every other aspect of life revolves around them. Naturally there will always be variations in these relationships because we are different people with varying temperaments, interests and capacities. During less complicated times, this issue of relating to others occurred in a natural way. But now due to industrialization and technological advances, the speed of life has accelerated leaving people with little time or energy to focus on this essential element of their lives. So it has become imperative to emphasize the need of forming enduring relationships. Simply stated, success or failure in life is greatly influenced by our associations with others.

Our ordinary relationships are usually based more or less on our own self-interest centering round certain personal needs, desires, and practical social necessities. Emerson once humorously remarked, “Persons are fine things but they cost so much! For thee I must pay me.” However, thoughtful good-hearted people are interested in enhancing the quality of relationships. With this in mind, psychologists and sociologists give us some insightful guidelines that encourage us to engage in more wholesome interactions with others, so that the resulting experience is healthier and increasingly beneficial. Many conventions and laws in society have been made to facilitate relationships that bring greater peace and harmony, so everyone has a chance to grow from strength to strength.

The formation of character is one of the essential ingredients in developing healthy relationships. In Stephen Covey”s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, he gives many helpful hints for improving interpersonal relationships. Here are some random excerpts:

“It is character that communicates most eloquently. In the last analysis what we are communicates far more eloquently than anything we say or do. Self-mastery and self-discipline are the foundation of good relationships with others. The most important ingredient we put into any relationship is not what we say or what we do, but what we are. For example, if you want to have a more pleasant and cooperative teenager, be a more understanding, sympathetic, empathetic, consistent loving parent. If you want to be trusted, be trustworthy.”

So in building any successful relationship, we have to begin with ourselves.

Further, Covey mentions that mature relationships are established by maintaining a positive emotional bank account:

“An emotional bank account is a metaphor that describes the amount of trust that has been built up in a relationship; it is the feeling of safeness that you have with another human being. If I make deposits into an emotional bank account with you through courtesy, kindness, honesty, keeping my commitments to you, I build up a reserve. Your trust toward me becomes higher and I can call upon that trust many times if I need to. . . When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective. . . Our most constant relationships require our most constant deposits.”

How to make deposits in this bank? He states, “Really seeking to understand another person is probably one of the most important deposits you can make, and it is the key to every other deposit.”

How Attitudes Play the Central Role

Communication is a subtle and sophisticated art. Often our assumptions regarding others are based on preconceived ideas, including misinterpretation of body language and behaviour. We don’t take the time to listen or analyze what the other person is saying or doing, but jump to conclusions. This mind-set sows the seeds of misunderstanding. That’s why the issue of relating to one another becomes very complicated. The repercussions are considerable. For good relations it is essential to make an earnest attempt to understand the other person’s perspective.

Further, develop a positive, cooperative attitude. Covey suggests that in interpersonal relationships think Win/Win. “Win/Win means that agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial, mutually satisfying. Win/Win sees life as a cooperative, not a competitive arena. . . It’s not your way or my way; it’s a better way, a higher way.”

Then he goes on to contrast scarcity mentality, an attitude in which people “see life as only so much, as though there were only one pie out there and if someone got a big piece, it would mean less for everybody else” with abundance mentality. Abundance mentality, an essential trait to Win/Win,

“flows out of a deep inner sense of personal worth and security. It is the paradigm that there is plenty out there and enough to spare for everybody. It results in sharing of prestige, of recognition, of profits, of decision making. It opens possibilities, options, alternatives, and creativity.”

This leads to more effective interactions with others, which mutually benefit everyone involved.

In spite of our best efforts, however, we eventually recognize that something more is needed. Psychiatrists, social workers, and counsellors are surely helping people to successfully integrate with others, but there are limitations at the social and psychological levels. The methods they recommend operate within the mental realm of opposites; for example, we like someone while we dislike someone else; we are happy in the company of some and disgruntled in the company of others, and so on. So no matter how hard we try, we can’t get ahead of the game; we can’t help getting caught in the duality of relative life.

It has been observed that social workers and others who interact with people in various capacities often become exhausted, burnt out. Life seems empty and meaningless. They need something to replenish their psychic energy that they have spent while dealing with people. As the American poet W. H. Auden said: “Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental and physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of goods.” There comes a time when a real need arises to connect oneself to an inexhaustible source of energy which is God. So mere humanism, though beneficial and necessary, is only a first step. Another dimension in human relationships has to open up. Vedantic and other mystical teachers take us to the next level.

Deepening the Life

As our insight in life deepens, we recognize that we are not isolated individuals but are interdependent. Basically we are all related to one another; there is one connecting thread bringing us all together, not only at the physical, social, or psychological levels, but more importantly at the spiritual level. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says this connection is called sutra, the thread “by which this world, the other world and all beings are held together, the Inner Controller.”1 In a dialogue between Yajnavalkya and Gargi he says, “Everything is woven with Ultimate Reality, like the warp and woof of a cloth.”2 Sri Krishna states in the Bhagavad Gita, “In Me all this is strung like gems on a string.”3

Further, our spiritual masters and scriptures remind us that we are all one being. “Everything is purusa only; everything is Brahman.” “Jiva, that is the individual, is no other than Shiva, the Divine.” In the words of Swami Vivekananda, “I and my brother are one.” That means we are always connected with everyone and everything spiritually. This relationship is natural and eternal. But somehow because of ignorance, or impurity, we don’t feel it. Instead, we have projected on each other innumerable, artificial or temporary connections, which bring both joy and sorrow.

Our spiritual teachers emphasize that human relationships really originate from this basic subtle, spiritual level. The psychological process of any individual is always from deep within, from inside out. In whatever way we conceive of ourselves, in that same way we think of others. So in discussing the evolution of our relationships, they begin with the individual. To elaborate further: they point out that if we dwell in the physical realm and are body conscious, then we relate to others at the body level. If we are emotional by nature, we relate to others in an emotional way. If we think ourselves as separate individuals, we relate to others as individuals. If we feel we are spiritual, we perceive others as spiritual as well.

Seeing Through the Spiritual Angle

Spiritualizing our contacts with others means feeling our basic original spiritual connection with one another; that is, that we all are that Divine being, one without a second, ever pure, ever free and ever blessed and relating to others on that plane. This should be spontaneous and easy, but yet in practical life it appears to be an uphill task. It is just a mental process. We are not superimposing or creating a spiritual relationship, but rather effecting a change of attitude that allows us to perceive this truth. We are given many tools or psychological techniques to correct our mistaken notions. Directly or indirectly, we have to try to assert our essential relationship with the Divine within. To give an example, we are all tiny waves and bubbles in that vast ocean of consciousness called Reality or God. Any bubble to bubble, or wave to wave relationship is incidental; it comes and goes bringing both happiness and misery in its wake. As Swamiji once told a devotee, incidentally she was an American and a woman, but she was always a child of God.

Our incidental identity is centered in our mind, predominantly in ego consciousness. Our relationships with others are in and through the ego, which is characterized by the attitude of “I” and “mine.” How to spiritualize the ego? We are asked to expand ourselves by including others. Objectively, in the words of the Holy Mother, Sri Sarada Devi: “Make the whole world your own.” Subjectively, we are instructed to connect ourselves with the infinite or God. As Sri Ramakrishna said, “Let the rascal [ego] remain as the servant of God.” We are advised to connect our ego and the egos of others with the infinite consciousness or God. When I belong to God, all others also belong to God. If I’m a part of God, all others are a part of God. If I’m a child of God, all others are children of God. If I’m one with God, everyone is one with God. Every other identity is by the way. This is how the ego gradually becomes mature so that any relationship with the spiritualized “I” and “mine” naturally becomes spiritual. Any true relationship is through the water substance; that is, consciousness. In theistic language we relate to everyone in and through God only. “Cover everything with God,” says the Isa Upanishad.4

Our ordinary relationships gradually become more refined through this practice of relating ourselves and others to God. How do we do this? By using our creative imagination; we imagine that we are all always divine. Because we are imagining a fact, in course of time that imagination becomes a reality. For instance, in the Taittiriya Upanishad, there is the instruction, “Let your mother, your father, your teacher, and your guest be God to you.”5 This is an excellent spiritual imagination that should be extended to every area of life. If we practice like this, gradually we will be able to relate to others with love and wisdom.

Another important method is trying to raise oneself to a spiritual level and then communicating with others. Once a couple who were having some misunderstanding went to the abbot of a monastery and asked for help. After about an hour’s interview, the abbot felt that their discussion wasn’t accomplishing anything. So he asked the couple to come the next day. After he had met them the following day, he said to one of his friends: “I tried to raise my consciousness through prayer and self-surrender so that I could help the couple to open up. And it worked.” That is how spiritual seekers handle all issues regarding relationships. Mere heart-to-heart talks or counseling will have only a temporary effect. Sometimes when two people are confused and relationships become sour, heart-to-heart talks may exacerbate the situation. As Einstein said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

The central point is we have to rise to a higher level of consciousness; thereby our interactions with people become more spiritual. Once there were some interpersonal difficulties in one of our monasteries. Swami Brahmananda, who was regarded as Sri Ramakrishna’s spiritual son, went there and began living and meditating with all the monks; he never mentioned any of the difficulties. Slowly he lifted their consciousness through his presence. This spiritual method solved the problem automatically.

Yoga, the Pathway of Spiritual Dimension

How to lift oneself to this other dimension of reality so that such perception is possible? The answer is yoga, the art of life. Different yogas have associated practices that help us remove the dross so that the true nature of ourselves and others will shine forth in a simple, natural way transforming us from human to divine. After all we are not creating anything new. We are what we are eternally; we only need to open our eyes and see it.

For example, Karma Yoga emphasizes playing our part well in this drama of life, but cautions that in the process not to get hurt and not to hurt others; not to lose freedom nor to deprive others of their freedom. Bhakti yoga says the same divine is in the heart of everyone. He is the wire-puller; therefore different people act variously according to His will. Knowing this we should make Him the target of our emotions, not people. Jnana yoga stresses that there is no other person. The other person is also me. How can I fight with myself? I can only love. The Upanishad states,

“It is not for the sake of the husband that the husband is loved, but he is loved for the sake of the Self. . . . It is not for the sake of all beings that all beings are loved, but they are loved for the sake of the Self.”6

Through the various practices of yoga, humanism is transmuted into spiritual humanism in which attention is given to both the human and the divine aspects in our interactions with others. In the process, we are asked not to ignore etiquette and social norms, but to accept and respect others as they are, being patient and adjusting to their idiosyncrasies, needs, and moods in a tactful way.

Fineness of manners embellishes a spiritual relationship. Swami Premananda, one of Sri Ramakrishna’s prominent disciples, once said that before becoming a monk, one should become a gentleman. This instruction applies to all spiritual seekers. We need a balance between our spiritual attitudes and our external behavior toward others. A balanced holistic approach is the way. The Srimad Bhagavatam sums up this idea beautifully:

“One should worship everyone with an eye of equality, friendliness, respect, and charity, recognizing that such service is really being rendered to the Divine who resides in all beings as their innermost soul.”7

Once a monk asked Holy Mother, Sri Sarada Devi, how she regarded her disciples. She replied, “As God Himself.” The monk said, “But we are your children. If you think of us as God, you cannot regard us as children.” Mother responded: “I regard you as God and also as children.” Mother’s example of this human-Divine relationship is the role model that gives us a clear direction of how all human relationships can be spiritualized.

1.  The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 3.7.1
2.  Ibid, 3.6.1
3.  The Bhagavad Gita, 7:7
4.  The Isa Upanishad, 1
5.  The Taittiriya Upanishad, 1.11.2
6.  The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 2.4.4
7.  Srimad Bhagavatam, 3.29.27


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Spiritualizing Human Relationships