05/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Marriage - Intimacy (In To Me See)

One day, in the monastery*, I was walking in the courtyard with my Zen Master. He saw a monk at the far end of the enclosure and said to me,"You see that monk....he is a very good monk." I nodded and the Roshi continued."He married last year, you know." After a pause he continued, "He is a much better monk now".

The Roshi, himself, was a man in his sixties and had never been married. For a while I had wanted to be a monk and had been on an extended spiritual search in the far East. Marriage was far from my mind. I wanted to know myself and to find out what was this "soul" people talked about that was supposed to be at the center of our being.

Years later I found myself married and even wrote a book about it. In the book, I acknowledged that I had learned more about myself in the first year of marriage than I did in my year in the monastery. Why is this? Marriage is a mirror, a reflection of all our faults. We cannot fool our partners for long. The powerful thing that occurs in marriage is intimacy- not the physical but the spiritual kind. It has been said that the real meaning of the word is realized when it is spelled out phonetically- "in to me see". The wise individual will seize the opportunity that marriage presents to see him/her self with clarity and to remove any negative traits that block the way to peace. Spiritual progress (peace) comes only through struggle; the internal struggle between our good qualities and our bad ones, i.e. patience vs anger, understanding vs fault finding, etc. There is no experience I know more suited to provoke and intensify this struggle than marriage.To arrive at true peace we have to come to grips with our arrogance, anger, and impatience. We cannot go around them- we have to transform them.This involves an intense war, a true holy war, if you will. The ego is a formidable opponent and does not want to lose. Many people go to church, temple or mosque one day a week to become better or more spiritual but the irony is that the real church is what they drove away from a few minutes before, namely their own home, where the sermons are no longer words but are actually hammered out in their marriages.

In my therapy practice, I see many couples who genuinely want peace but they are searching for it in the wrong place. Usually both spouses feel that a satisfying and rewarding marriage would be attainable if only their partner would change certain actions or habits. They set about trying to change their spouse and the world around them. Very few understand and accept that the only path to peace is to conquer and transform their own bad habits. Of the few who do understand, even fewer are willing to "walk the walk" to work on themselves and to learn true surrender and humility. I have a small framed quote from a Sufi saint** sitting on the coffee table in front of the couch where couples sit. It says:

"The more you make
yourself humble,
And ask for forgiveness;
the more your true
Exaltedness is seen. "

Most who read it will place it back on the table and I know, at best, it has been a brief "Interesting" thought. It is not surprising that one of two marriages in the U.S. ends in divorce.

In light of the above, it is interesting to note the work of a Chicago based Psychologist who studied, over an extended period, two groups of people experiencing difficulty in their marriages. The first group divorced and the second stayed married. In a follow up study a few years later, it was surprising to find that the second group (those who stayed married) had a distinctly happier life than those in the first group who, instead of finding "greener grass", carried their unresolved character defects into their next relationship with results similar to their first.

In my own marriage, I have slowly come to understand that progress requires faith and certitude as a platform on which to move. Progress can be slow but with effort, the demands of marriage will bring about a true transformation. I know of no other arena that will offer this transformation as dramatically as marriage. It is a win/win situation. We help ourselves, we help our partner and we serve God. I am deeply grateful for my own marriage and what it has transformed in my own life.

People with more of a romantic take on marriage ask about love. One of the best definitions of love that I know comes from the Bible - Corinthians One - Thirteen:

"Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude; love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

My teacher, M.R.Bawa Muhaiyaddeen said it this way:

"If a husband and wife
can control impatience and anger,
they will become as suited to one another
as a flower and its fragrance
living in harmony and without
ever separating.
A husband and wife who reflect on this
will mingle in the way
the fragrance mingles with a flower.
This will give them victory in their lives."

*Ryutaku-ji Zen Monastery -Japan
**M.R.Bawa Muhaiyaddeen