The Book of Polly Young-Eisendrath

Polly Young-EisendrathThe first time I encountered her teachings was when she delivered the Keynote Address at the 10th Jungian Odyssey Conference entitled The Crucible of Failure held in Grindelwald, Switzerland in May of 2014, and then during subsequent workshop presentations, during which I made more notes that  are intermingled here.

Her opening words were:

Everyone suffers; everyone wants happiness, followed by:

Enlightenment means living in this world without hindrance. So pay attention to all that is unfolding around you because once something has come into existence, there is no way it could have happened in a different way.. Hence, we are embedded in circumstances that we cannot control.


Altogether, and all at once, everything is already arising in a different way. So we are participating in what is arising within us.

Our night-time dreams and our daytime fantasises contain seeds of wisdom that arise from a source that is outside our ordinary awareness and not under our control.

We are responsible for our actions and speech even though we cannot always control them, or the feelings that accompany them.

We have some kind of work or contribution in life that we need to discover by actually trying things out, but which cannot be fully forecasted from our ideals or ideas. Hence ~ and this is from a biblical context ~   bring forth what is in you because, if not, it will destroy you. I.e. you may have to try many things before you find your gift to the world. So there is no path until you look back!

Neurosis has a purpose.

Trauma is not the event; it is the experience of it

The Self is a process not a thing.

Individuation is becoming a friend to yourself by allowing all the parts in.

But the paradox ~ and this is classical Buddhist teaching  ~ is that while everything is perfect just the way it is, there is always room for improvement.

And then, and like other later speakers, she mentioned Leonard Cohen’s famous comment about there being a crack in everything and that is how the light gets in..

Next, and many months later, from her web-site:

We are embedded in a network of relationships and conditions that require compassion and kindness for ourselves and others if we are to become confident about ourselves…. But now I know that much more than affection and caring are required for love to be sustained and sustaining.

She is also the author of a number of books the latest of which is The Present Heart: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Discovery (Rodale, New York, 2014). The first time I read it I found the Prologue frightening in its description of what can happen to an innocent human being as a result of her partner’s early descent into Alzheimer’s disease. E.g. $70,000 in credit card charges and that was just the tip of a financial ice-berg.

So her book is the story of a long loving relationship that ends in the death of her husband Ed Epstein in which there are many things that resonated with me because they match my experience/awareness and understanding of life as well. Here she is again:

Decades of doing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis have persuaded me that everyone longs for a truly personal love. In my bones I know this kind of love cannot be explained by reproductive drives, emotional magnetism, sexual desire, attachment bonds or any other kind of biological need. We keep trying to explain love as brain science and  the biology of hormones, but those versions omit the most mysterious aspects of being human, especially our drive to see ourselves in someone else’s eyes and to know ourselves through someone else’s meaning.

True love requires being deeply and precisely known and then accepted — with all our flaws

She continues:

Human love is grounded in the knowledge of its object. Consequently, in order to love someone we have to know the other well. And then to accept their individuality without needing to change them, which means seeing how things are in the larger context of their own lives too. So, first, knowledge of the beloved, then, equanimity with the other’s individuality. 

But that acceptance must include an ongoing desire to see and know your beloved again and again, moment to moment, as she or he changes with the impermanence of life itself. Just as we come to know the world by trying to see it as it is, rather than how we want it to be, love invites us to discover the truth about another as a way of coming to know that person, ourselves, and ultimately the world.

[So] …Human love, which is an attitude not a feeling, is also to see ourselves through the eyes of the other. And we need to do that by engaging responsibly without having control which leads to “No Blame” situations. The challenge is to stay interested and engaged.

And this in the face of Ed’s worsening condition:

Perplexity and uncertainty are my constant companions and I welcome them, as much as I can. I determine not to fashion a story line in which I was the victim or at fault for what was happening…. I determine not to take it personally or to react angrily…. My meditation practice has taught me both the means and the value of embracing my immediate experiences for what it teaches and to accept change – even unwelcome change – as the fundamental ground of my life.

As long as I don’t deny my feelings but allow them to emerge into my body-mind and then to pass away, I can investigate with a gentle awareness what my life is now presenting me

She goes on:

All of us long to be desired, needed, maybe even used. We want to be provided for and supported and helped and cared about, but these longings are easier to understand… [because]… They are connected to tangible rewards.

As I have come to discern it, true love is “one love”: a space we enter with our beloved in which we reveal ourselves step-by-step with sensitivity, ambiguity, uncertainty, curiousity, non-interference, and without too many constraining assumptions. Within this space we come to know ourselves and a specific other in a way that is fascinating and mysterious, a way analogous to how we come to know the tactile world around us, especially those aspects of it that are hard to discern at first glance.

To see into the essence of what you love, it seems to me, you need to know it under a variety of conditions. When you can see into it and through it, you see the whole world. I have come to call this practice “true love” – the meeting of truth and love.

When true love involves two people. It provides a means by which they can see themselves through each other’s eyes: a human mirror that reflects you in ways you cannot see or know yourself. This mirror is based on trust – that the other person wants to see you for yourself and will never use that knowledge against you – that is alive, squirmy, indeterminate, subtle and brave.

[However]… In my many years of Buddhist practice, I have noticed the absence of instructions or guidance in personal love. Buddhism guides us to feel and experience universal love – a kind of radiant expansive feeling for all things, an “aimless love” as poet Billy Collins calls it. Personal love –depending as it does on your knowledge and trust of your beloved – is in some ways more demanding than universal love.

And yet, Buddhist spiritual practices strengthen our capacities to concentrate and to accept our experience, just as it is. Two capacities are absolutely essential for building the trust and knowledge of true love: concentration and non-interference. If we cannot concentrate our attention and remain alert, we cannot remain interested in our beloved, observing the particulars. In order to see those particulars as they are (instead of how we want them to be), we also need the relaxed quality of equanimity or non-interference.. A relaxed non-interference is at the heart of loving another and allows us to accept our beloved without trying to change or control him or her.

Friendship seems to be the centre piece of true love. Longtime friendship is, by definition, reciprocal, mutual and egalitarian. It depends on ruthless honesty and relentless humour, and it is grounded in trust and integrity

You cannot know what is going on with another adult without checking. The notion of avoiding conflicts (by somehow feeling into the other person) is an impossible ideal. Having and feeling our conflicts (with respect) is a necessity, and there will always be conflicts. We have to see the particularity of the hurt and fear on both sides of the relationship. In this way we create a “mindful gap” – a respected space between us. This kind of interpersonal space undergirds trust because we feel that we can talk to our beloved about anything without consequences that will be destructive to our love. Without such a gap, the other person often feels both emotionally managed and unknown as an individual…. Developing a kind of “objectivity” about our beloved – maintaining a mindful gap between us – allows us to remain freshly inquisitive about the other person and about ourselves in the relationship.

Even the most perfect ideal of romantic love – “we met and locked eyes, and immediately knew that we were soul mates” – is absolutely no guarantee of true love. [So] … What is the key to transforming the romantic event of falling in love into the practice of loving and being true to oneself and the other? I believe it is our skill and capacity to see and accept each other as separate, free, and different human beings. We must maintain a mindful gap between us – not a chasm and not a merger. From the friendly stance “Plan your life as you see fit,“ we can always return to the question, “Do I see you clearly?” Of course, we don’t ever do this perfectly, but we can talk together about the ways we struggle and fail because we trust both ourselves and the other person to engage in a conversation that is both honest and kind.

True love, it seems, is a kind of “matrix” that underlies our emotional and spiritual reality. It has to be “obeyed” if we are to come to know ourselves and our beloved. Love compels us to engage wholeheartedly with another person whom we need but do not control. This other person first magnetizes us and commands our desire. But then we must allow love to penetrate that desire and teach us how to remain openhearted with the stranger our beloved has become.

There is something deeply mysterious about mutual love because it brings us closer to the truth about ourselves as we try to see the truth about another.

Just as the spiritual path of celibacy or monasticism requires discipline, ruthlessness, commitment, and desire, the spiritual path of personal love brings similar requirements as you spend hours and days coming to know yourselves in different conditions and contexts. True love opposes the control of your beloved while strengthening your need and dependence on the relationship for a foundation. This kind of spiritual practice demands concentration and equanimity, compassion and non-interference, but it does not end there. It means you see into another person so deeply that you can see through him or her to whatever you take to be the Divine Source, refracted back again through your own self.

Love on a two-way street is an ideal path for me for my psychological and spiritual development. I have learned this from my direct experience of loving Ed, not from any principle or theory…. When we are lucky enough to practice love on a two-way street, we truly come to feel that we belong on this earth and that someone else has been a witness to it.

I know from my many years of Buddhist practice that the secret to a happy life is to remain interested in what arises on a moment-to-moment basis without too much judgement, anticipation, fear, or demand. If we loosen our grip, then life/the world joins the familiar with the mysterious and we are never bored or alienated. True love, it seems, must follow this path, but the obstacles to this kind of love for a particular person, on a two-way street are impressive. Failures of love in marriage, parenting, friendships, and teacher-student relationships are legion and leave countless people feeling dead and alienated.

Love requires a spacious perspective and it also demands reciprocity: that both people are in the relationship with the desire and intention of knowing both themselves and the other person. Otherwise, what we take to be love is cherishment at its best and propaganda at its worst.

‘Sacrifice’ has become a dirty word in our culture, but to me, love without sacrifice is not really love.

The impulse to love is in all of us. It expresses our intuition that there is an underlying unity in our experience and that we are never separate from the world in which we are embedded…. Our individual experience of this unity is our unique attraction to another person… [and] … In order for the spiritual path to develop and deepen, we have to commit ourselves to knowing, accepting and loving this particular individual with all his or her strengths and weaknesses, needs and desires.

Many of us imagine the unity or oneness aspect of love as easy and comfortable; we think of it as easy fit between two people. Occasionally this is the case, but often the experience of unity paradoxically emerges from the differentiation of the two individuals. Sometimes it is the mindful gap between two people that allows them both to feel joined, accepted, and known. Inside the space of encountering your beloved, there may be strong feelings of anger, frustration, hatred, jealousy, or competition, but the connection allows those feelings to be transformed into warmth, gratitude and love.

Note: Throughout the book Polly has cited numerous examples of the many challenges in her relationship with Ed, especially in the latter years.  So my sense is that those last words, like the rest of the book, are written very much from a place of personal experience.

Lastly, for me, her book is an inspiring love story written, I feel, completely, from her heart. So it is a joy to have her be what I believe will be the final teacher on  this web-site, which now (February 2015) finally has a sense of completeness to it.