A Dry Truth
A friend of mine remarked recently that, if we’re honest, we must accept that there is a transactional nature to all our relationships. Relationships are about exchanges, of energy, time, company, love, etc. We give to get something back.
That thought didn’t sit well with me. I gravitate to more romantic (sometimes even mystical) notions about love and friendship. But I realized there was truth in what my friend had said. Certainly, I choose the people in my life – and have always done so – based on a perception of “what they have to offer.” If they’re not interesting or kind – or both, actually – I generally don’t “include them in my circle.” I don’t “invest” myself in relationships with them.
So that’s transactional. My friend is correct.
Exception #1: A License to Love
I’m not a parent but I have godchildren. I remember when my friends first asked me to be the godfather of their daughter, back in 1993. When I met the baby a week or two later, I was immediately smitten. I already loved both her parents, so that was part of it, but it went deeper than that. I’d been invited to love this new person unconditionally, and I’d accepted the invitation.
I would never need to worry about whether I was “getting enough back” from her or whether she “deserved” my love or anything like that. I would never need to evaluate whether or not I “should” love her.
This was very liberating. I had been given a permanent license to just love this person and care deeply about her, regardless of what would transpire between us over the years. That invitation was the most profound gift I’d ever received.
Exception #2: Random Impulses of the Heart
I was out on the avenue the other day with my godson (who is my goddaughter’s brother). We saw a young homeless man sitting sad-eyed on the sidewalk with a little cardboard sign. He was staring down at the pavement, not trying to capture anyone’s eyes. We handed him five dollars and he looked up sweetly. He told us, quite happily, that he was now a mere three dollars short of what he needed to get his laundry done. He wasn’t asking for more money; he was just clearly very grateful.
After my godson and I got back in my car, I asked, “Do you think we should loop around the block and give that guy three more dollars?” “Yeah,” my godson said. “I’m still feeling him.”
So we did. When we pulled over to hand the young man three more dollar bills out the car window, my godson engaged him in conversation, asking about his day, expressing empathy for how good it can feel to have fresh clothes, engaging in a brief relationship that was unencumbered by expectations. My godson was simply following an impulse from his heart.
We all do that sort of thing once in a while — or maybe even often — don’t we? Sometimes with people we’ve already “chosen to love,” sometimes with perfect strangers, sometimes simply with whoever’s around when the opportunity arises, we respond to promptings of our hearts that are not transactional in nature; we are moved to unencumbered acts of love and kindness.
Yes, it feels good, but that’s not why we do it. We do it because we are moved to, not because we expect to feel good about it (though it seems we always do reap good feelings).
Exception #3: Bhakti Yoga
Bhakti yoga is a Hindu spiritual path that emphasizes loving devotion and opening the heart. It is often expressed in kirtan — devotional chanting to one or more deities.
I have been intellectually ambivalent about bhakti, because it involves directing love and devotion towards a form – either a deity or a guru – that I may not necessarily “believe in.” Nonetheless, the sheer power of kirtan music is astonishing. It often fills my whole body with ecstatic peace.
My friend Kavita Kat Macmillan is a bhakti yogini whose kirtans have had a delightful impact on me for years. I wrote to her recently with some questions about bhakti, and she responded:
The thing about bhakti is … it just opens you. Cracks open the heart and bathes you in love and feelings. No explanation but if you do it, you get that at some point. The frequencies, the vibrations, they just do their thing. Devotion is a part of us just like anger and joy or any other emotion. However, I think we have neglected it, especially in our culture, and we’ve only attached it to romantic love. Once awakened it is a lovely friend and guide.
I know what she means. I’ve experienced it too (though perhaps not as deeply as she). Kavita’s kirtans bring those blissful, peaceful feelings I referred to above. Check out the first completed track of her upcoming CD. It’s intoxicating.
The practice of bhakti yoga, it seems to me, is an unencumbered relationship between the devotee and the Beloved. The devotee pours out their heart’s love, and that’s basically all that happens, so in a sense it’s a one-way relationship. The devotee does not ask for anything back.
But though the Beloved may take the form of a god or goddess, or even a human guru, the Beloved actually lives in all beings, as Kavita’s songcelebrates.
Lots More Exceptions
Susan points out that there are many exceptions to “transactional relationships,” like the relationships you have with the people you can call when your car breaks down in the middle of the night, or when you have a scary medical appointment, or when you just really need to talk … and they’re there for you without question.
When you thank them, they say, “Well, you’d do the same for me.” And of course you would. (And you will. And you have.) But both of you know that that’s not the point at all. It’s simply that you’ll each give what you can, whenever and however it’s needed, without strings attached.
The Higher Thought Game and the Unencumbered Moment
Everything changes constantly. Relationships do not remain static; they are not just one thing. Perhaps they are transactional at times, and not so at others.
But the vitality of any relationship is always in the present moment. And if the moment is unencumbered, so is the relationship.
This is how we think of the Higher Thought game! We don’t play it to advance our ambitions, or to improve ourselves, or to impress anybody, or to “win.” We play the game for curiosity, and for the truth and pleasure of the moment.
Connecting with other people is a byproduct of being fully in the moment with them, but it’s not “the purpose.”
We designed our game to unexpectedly give rise to moments of unencumbered sharing and wonder.
So … Exception #4 (or #5 or #6): the Higher Thought stoner card game?