Read an Excerpt
Dancing with Fire
A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships
By John Amodeo
Theosophical Publishing House Copyright © 2013 John Amodeo
All rights reserved.
Off the Cushion and Into Life
* * *
I have never been a great meditator. A great meditator can sit for one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening—very still, back straight. A great meditator rises at dawn, bright-eyed and alert, eager to hit the cushion before a grueling day at the office. There is no grumbling when mornings are cold, traffic is bumper to bumper, and the hot coffee is not ready upon arrival. Everything is an opportunity for spiritual practice.
If you are a great meditator, then all day long you watch your thoughts, and you don't let them interfere with being here now. You never have judgments about other people, including your boss, who just promoted a younger, less-qualified employee to the position you wanted. Any disappointment is brief because you know that desire and ambition cause suffering. Besides, you are so compassionate that you're happy for him, as you figure that he needs the raise more than you do! Your life is blessedly serene—no worries that the polar ice caps are melting and that your elderly parents are running out of money and want to move in with you. After all, it's just the workings of karma—all part of the grand illusion.
Most notably, great meditators never slip out for pizza during a meditation retreat. Did I say pizza? Yes, I must humbly confess that I once committed that grievous breach of retreat protocol.
There we were, at a ten-day meditation course in the woods during a brutal New England winter. We arose before the birds and meditated well past their bedtime. All day long we watched our breath, which I discovered is much easier to do in the dead of winter because you can actually see it!
While attempting to observe the breath, we were instructed to notice any stray thoughts that were coming and going in our minds. One cold, lonely night, mine were straying toward pizza. I was having a thought that came but was reluctant to get going. I knew that I was a total meditation failure when not only did I notice this thought, I also felt compelled to act upon it!
Now, I must further confess that my desire wasn't limited to flaunting the rules and indulging in that pizza all by myself. I fully intended to corrupt an innocent retreatant, the friend I came with. Fortunately, I was saved from that perilous karma.
It just so happened that my friend and I were thinking of pizza at the same time. Endless hours of meditation must have connected our minds on some mysterious level. I'm not sure how the contact was made, but suddenly we found ourselves in his Volkswagen Bug headed for the local pizzeria. Was it a moment of shared illumination or a shared delusion that this expedition would somehow satisfy us? Whatever it was, that pizza sure hit the spot ... and even more so, our conversation.
I don't remember exactly what we talked about, but the usual suspects would, of course, be women, our careers, and our complaints, including sitting and watching our breath for days on end in the middle of winter.
What a Little Pizza and Conversation Can Do
Fast-forward thirty-five years. How can I still maintain that slinking away for a late-night snack was an acceptable diversion amidst the serious undertaking of a meditation retreat? Well, maybe it wasn't. Maybe I was guilty of poor discipline, youthful rebellion, or unadorned self-indulgence. Perhaps I succumbed to the greed, aversion, and delusion that divert us from the spiritual path.
But another possibility is that there was something I needed that only comes through human contact. What lingers in my memory is not the quality of the pizza, although true to my heritage, I am fond of Italian food. More than the illicit food, it was something about the human connection that nurtured me. I felt less alone and less isolated. Something inside me was soothed.
But wait! The meditation practice is about sitting with the isolation, right? Just notice the aloneness, be mindful of it, maybe feel it a bit—and then let it go. We are not supposed to act upon anything but instead notice how experiences come and go without getting attached to any of them. Well, like I said, perhaps I'm a terrible meditator. Or maybe there is something to be said for not getting too attached to our familiar frame of reference or trying to fit ourselves neatly into some model of how we are supposed to be or what spiritual practice is supposed to look like. Maybe there's value in honoring all of our experience—and when it feels right, allowing ourselves to be moved by that experience into some mindful action. What would it be like if our life was our meditation?
When I returned to the retreat, something in me felt more settled. A certain longing for human contact was satisfied. I was glad that I listened to myself and honored the part of me that wanted to connect with another human being. But something else is profoundly true as well. The connection wouldn't have felt as rich if I had not been meditating. The stillness and presence cultivated by mindfulness practice allowed my friend and me to be more present and open with each other. Connecting more deeply with ourselves allowed a conversation that was slow-paced, poignant, and connecting.
I've been pleased to notice that since that time, many retreats now feature group interviews. One teacher even invited people to make eye contact during walking meditation. Meditation leaders, including Vietnamese meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, have added periods of interpersonal sharing to their retreats. These teachers encourage mindfulness in daily living, rather than replicating the experience of monks.
On the Cushion, Off the Cushion
Having developed what philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher calls a "sense and taste for the infinite," I was drawn to spiritual life. I recognized a longing to experience something more than my myopic, limited state of awareness. At the same time, I noticed another yearning not clearly addressed in spiritual communities: a longing to experience love, connection, and even ecstasy with another human being.
The spiritual path and intimate relating have often been viewed as incompatible—like mixing water and oil. Pursuing the sacred has often meant renouncing personal love and the seductive pleasures of the flesh. Yet what if the longings for spirituality and a loving, juicy intimacy turn out to be aspects of the same sacred longing, just pursued in different ways? It dawned on me that I don't have to choose between leading a spiritual life and enjoying intimacy—in fact, they complement and support each other. As it turns out, pursuing either one of these paths with open curiosity and a devotion to truth naturally intersects with the other path.
Spirituality: A Hazardous Word
I must confess that I hesitate to use the word "spiritual." It has been tossed around so carelessly that its meaning is often lost. Yet it is precisely because I feel so irked by its reckless use that I feel drawn to use the word to explore the deeper felt sense of spiritual life and to consider what it offers and what it requires from us. Rather than dispense with a word that has been used for millennia, I'd prefer to become sensitized to its routine abuse and to clarify its meaning.
It is always treacherous to define spirituality, for it points toward a domain of experience where words fail us. At the same time, if we relegate it to some otherworldly domain, we divorce ourselves from our human experience. While words can never quite capture it, they can perhaps point to it—as if with an awkwardly brandished elbow.
My use of the term "spirituality" refers not to any particular religious ideology but rather to something within us that feels irresistibly drawn toward having abundant love in our hearts and a luscious connection with life. As we come to realize that this burning inside is our innate yearning for awakening and happiness, we feel drawn to create conditions that support this sacred journey. We also come to realize what wise people throughout history have implored us to recognize: that this happiness, this awakening, is inextricably linked to loving others. As the Dalai Lama expresses it, "The purpose of life is to be happy ... love and compassion bring us the greatest happiness ... The need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence." A path that leads us toward this resplendent love is an essential aspect of spirituality.
A spiritual life invites us to live according to values that encourage us to do our best to help people and the world we inhabit. But such values have little potency if they are limited to the confines of our heads; they become vibrantly alive only as they merge with our bodily, lived experience. A spiritual path means cultivating qualities that include compassion, joy, openness, and gratitude, which connect us deeply to people and the world. Happiness comes not by lunging toward fleeting pleasures but by coming to relish a growing gratitude for the gift of being alive.
Walking Our Talk
Pursuing a spiritual path has more to do with our walk than our talk. You may know people who are spiritually vibrant, but they are too self-effacing to identify themselves as such. They might cringe if you suggest that they are true embodiments of a spiritual life. Yet their expansive heart, humble speech, and responsiveness to others' feelings and needs may be more robust than those who preen themselves with the trappings of religiosity.
A spiritual sensitivity connects us with life in such a way that we are touched by the suffering in the world. We feel moved to respond in whatever ways we can, rather than holding the attitude that everyone is on their own and there is no human imperative to be engaged in helpful action. From this perspective, it saddens me to observe that even though we are a very religious nation, we're not a very spiritual one. As Mother Theresa has observed, "You in the West have the spiritually poorest of the poor.... I find it easy to give a plate of rice to a hungry person ... but to console or to remove the bitterness, anger, and loneliness that comes from being spiritually deprived, that takes a long time."
Most Americans would assert that they believe in spiritual values. But embodying such beliefs lags behind, which forestalls the momentum necessary for these beliefs to be translated into the larger realm of social policy.
A Spirituality that Embraces Intimacy
The time is ripe for us to pursue a spiritual life that is robustly, interpersonally engaging. Our spiritual quest receives its grounding through intimate connections, and at the same time, the fertile stream of spiritual practice nourishes our relationships. A spiritual path invites attention to our inner life in a way that inevitably connects us to what lives and breathes outside of ourselves.
Through a painful tragedy, the Jewish spiritual writer and teacher, Martin Buber, came to devote his life to being present and caring in his relationships. One day Buber was praying and meditating in his room when a student came to see him. Buber listened, but he was not there in spirit. Shortly thereafter, Buber was horrified to hear that the student had apparently committed suicide. Buber later learned that this young man had desperately sought to better understand his life.
The shocking realization that he had not been fully attentive and responsive to this man's suffering was a pivotal moment in shaping Buber's vision of bringing spirituality into relationships. The essence of faith, he realized, is not "the pursuit of ecstatic experiences but ... a life of attentiveness to others, the life of 'I and thou' in encounter." For Buber, being fully available and present to others, generously extending our loving attention and hearing another human being, is at the heart of living a spiritual life.
My initiation into the sacred was by way of teachings that might be called vertical spirituality. The emphasis was on mindfully following the breath into a deep state of stillness and equanimity. I found this to be invaluable. Never before had I experienced such deep states of peace, compassion, and even bliss.
Yet, during college, I was also involved in "sensitivity groups" that focused on feelings and relationships. I had deep openings and profound realizations about myself during these meetings. These experiences stirred up questions about how I might bring the mindfulness of meditation into my relationships as well as how to deal with my feelings on the spiritual path.
The response from the meditation teachers I consulted about these burning questions wasn't very satisfying. One teacher advised, "Just let the feelings go. See them as neutral objects and don't get attached to them." Others insisted that meditation and therapy are very different paths and lead to different results. These dismissive responses left me feeling not fully at home in the Buddhist world. But the dismissive views of spirituality offered by personal-growth leaders left me feeling even more confused and disheartened.
After much struggling, I realized that a whole and healthy spirituality is not just about taking the elevator to the heights of the penthouse and savoring the expansive view. It is also about taking it down to the basement and exploring the hidden nooks and crannies of our psyche. Liberation is about being drawn to the sunlight while also exploring the depths of the shadowlands.
Liberation From or To?
The invitation to pursue spiritual liberation implies that we are clear about what we're seeking. Much of the history of Western civilization, from the birth of democracy in Greece to the American Revolution to the storming of the Bastille, has been a quest for outer freedoms. The Hindu and Buddhist cultures have been more interested in inner freedom, liberation from the greed, hatred, and ignorance that bind us to the wheel of suffering. When we are pursuing either form of freedom, it becomes quite apparent that we cannot truly have one form of freedom without the other.
Oftentimes we see freedom as liberation from something, typically something unpleasant, rather than the freedom to move toward something that we see as positive. We want freedom from government control and oversight. Corporations and wealthy people clamor for deregulation and lower taxes. They want freedom from government restrictions so they do not have to consider how their actions or lifestyle disenfranchise others or affect the environment. They sometimes accomplish this by persuading the less privileged to believe that their own freedoms are at risk. A young view of freedom is that we are all on our own. In reality, our freedom and security are enhanced as we take care of each other.
An inevitable extension of this experiment in outer freedom is seeking total freedom from other people. We might think, "I want to be my own person and not be controlled by anyone." But what we may really be saying is, "I don't want to be affected by anyone. I don't want to be responsive to others' feelings or circumstances. I want rights without responsibilities." In this view of freedom, everyone is in it for themselves.
We confuse ourselves and others by broadcasting conflicting desires. We may claim that we want love and intimacy, but we don't want to be inconvenienced by having to consider others' needs and desires. Not surprisingly, we ultimately find that we can't have the love we want if we cling to personal desires without becoming sensitized to how we're affecting others and what they need to be happy.
What we often call freedom is being comfortably encapsulated within our own ego; we are desensitized to the life around us. A spiritual path runs the risk of reinforcing this narcissistic view of liberation if we end up trying to free ourselves from the desire for human connections in the mistaken belief that they will hold us back. The truth is that we need each other to awaken.
What needs to happen inside us and between us so that we are liberated from what constrains us from moving naturally toward deeper love and intimacy? What would our path look like if we realized that our quest for freedom is furthered as we help create conditions for others to be freer and happier?
In contrast with a vertical spirituality of transcendence, which moves us away from people and the world, a horizontal spirituality is about being awake in our everyday lives and relationships. In the words of Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, it's about finding "the sacred in the imminent, the spiritual within the secular." It is about attending to how we are relating to people and to our own lives. It is about being intimate with what lives outside ourselves and navigating through the joys and sorrows of our relationships with presence, awareness, and kindness.
In A Path with Heart, meditation teacher Jack Kornfield reveals his own personal dilemma:
Meditation had helped me very little with my human relationships.... I could do loving-kindness meditation for a thousand beings elsewhere but had trouble relating intimately to one person here and now. I had used the strength of my mind in meditation to suppress painful feelings, and all too often, I didn't even recognize that I was angry, sad, grieving, or frustrated until a long time later. The roots of my unhappiness in relationships had not been examined. I had very few skills for dealing with my feelings or for engaging on an emotional level or for living wisely with my friends and loved ones.
Excerpted from Dancing with Fire by John Amodeo. Copyright © 2013 John Amodeo. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this
From the Publisher
Dancing With Fire is wise, integrated, life affirming, and practical. John invites us and accompanies us to discover a fully human, loving, spiritual maturity.
Dr. Jack Kornfield, author, A Path With Heart
A fresh and lucid voice in our emerging Western spirituality, John Amodeo offers a powerful synthesis of Buddhist teachings with attachment theory and the best of Western psychological understanding. Particularly compelling and promising is the weaving of Focusinga body-oriented psychotherapy developed by Eugene Gendlinwith mindfulness meditation. Through this, and deep insights into the nature of relationships, Dancing with Fire gives us invaluable guidance in cultivating true intimacy with our lives.
Tara Brach, psychologist and popular teacher of Mindfulness meditation, author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha
In this book John Amodeo opens a new door into great truths of Buddhism and what they mean for our western world. He links meditation, mindfulness, humanistic psychology and the science of human bonding into a coherent whole. This book is a great contribution and a must read for every intelligent person who aspires to live as an awake and vibrant human being.
Susan M. Johnson, Ph.D., author of Hold Me Tight, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Ottawa, and developer of Emotional Focused Couple Therapy
With heartfelt kindness and down-to-earth usefulness, this book shows how to bring together lofty spiritual wisdom and juicy human passions. Drawing on his deep experience as a therapist and meditator, Dr. Amodeo has given us one of those rare books that actually bridges left and right brain, west and east, flesh and spirit - and self and other.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., author of Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom
With masterful, lucid simplicity, Dancing with Fire gives us a vision of how to make a fervent quest for spiritual freedom dovetail with an equally ardent search for love and intimate connection. Amodeo has created a founding treatise for the new, embodied wholeness so many of us yearn to find today. Yet reading it doesn't feel like listening to a sage give a lecture; it feels like you're having a conversation with a trusted friend. If you want to 'curl up by the fire' with a book full of authentic Buddhist wisdom, this may be just the book you need right now.
Saniel Bonder, founder of Waking Down in Mutuality, author, Healing the Spirit/Matter Split
Liberation and awakening are about being fully human. Spiritual awakening, personal growth, fullness of relating, learning to be a more healing presence for others, fulfillment through intimacythese are all just different names for the same thing. The fact that a split has developedmany splits, in factbetween therapy, spirituality, and personal growth is a sign that something has gone wrong. There has to be a re-integration. This book is an important landmark on the path to such wholeness.
David Brazier, psychotherapist, leader of the Amida Order, and author of The Feeling Buddha: A Buddhist Psychology of Character, Adversity and Passion
Dancing with Fire talks straight from the heart with compassion, wisdom, and courage. We owe John Amodeo a debt of gratitude for providing all of us with valuable insights on the connection between mindfulness and deepening intimacy in relationships. Whether you see yourself as nurtured by spiritual practice or psychological growth, read on and your heart will be touched, your mind opened. I highly recommend this fine book as an important guide for all those who seek genuine happiness and greater awareness.
- Charles Garfield, Ph.D., clinical professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, founder of the Shanti Project, and author of Sometimes My Heart Goes Numb
This book is a masterful, sensitive, and heartfelt reflection on the valuable contributions available in the teachings on mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition, placed into rich and dynamic dialogue with the equally significant insights coming forth from the field of attachment theory and Sue Johnson’s practical work on repairing and enhancing intimacy and connection in human relationships.
Harvey B. Aronson, Ph.D. (Buddhist Studies), LCSW, LMFT, LCDC, Founding Co-Director Dawn Mountain Tibetan Buddhist Temple, Houston Texas, and author of Buddhist Practice on Western Ground
If there was ever a book to guide us in the pursuit of "daily life as spiritual practice," this is it. In his clear, heartfelt, and entertaining style, John Amodeo shows us how to bring mindful, loving attention to all aspects of our personal and interpersonal lifeespecially the painful or difficult aspects. He shows how the practice of seeing, feeling, and embracing the suppressed or wounded parts of ourselves creates a sense of empathy and unity with other humans and with all of Life.
Susan Campbell, Ph.D., author of Getting Real: 10 Truth Skills You Need to Live an Authentic Life and The Couples Journey
John Amodeo has written an extremely compelling and fascinating book and one that has been long overdue. All too many people on a so-called 'spiritual path' are actually looking for more subtle and effective ways of short-circuiting the pain that is inherent in life. He clearly illuminates the lack of any contradiction between practicing mindful living and creating intimacy in one's relationships. His distinction between the extinguishing of desires and attachments and working skillfully with them is incredibly important and offers a clear path toward living life with engagement and open-heartedness.
Charlie Bloom, co-author of 101 Things I Wish I knew When I Got Married and Secrets of Great Marriages
Dancing with Fire is a beautifully-written, lucid, and honest account of how to merge a feeling-based intimacy with authentic spirituality. I've been a reader of John Amodeo's work for a long time, and he is simply one of the best at what he does: blending Buddhism and psychotherapy with wisdom gleaned from thirty years of clinical practice and life experience, all mixed in with a healthy dose of levity.
Jim Dreaver, Author of The Way of Harmony and End Your Story, Begin Your Life
Brilliant, liberating, clarifying wisdom for meditators of every persuasion! One of the most helpful books ever written on spiritual practice.
Deborah Boyar, Ph.D., Senior Teacher, Waking Down in Mutuality & Somatic Experiencing Practitioner
A bold adaptation of Eastern spirituality to bring about loving, intimate connections.
Dan Wile, psychologist and author of After the Fight: A Night in the Life of a Couple and After the Honeymoon: How Conflict Can Improve Your Relationships
A coherent, intelligent, loving book that weaves Eastern spirituality with our need for deep, loving personal relationshipsshowing how a spiritual path toward awakening and the path toward fulfilling intimate connections can nourish and support each other.
Bret Lyon, Ph.D., co-creator of Healing Shame Workshops, Focusing Trainer, and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner
Dancing With Fire is such a delight to read! Writing with a tender heart and deep wisdom, John reveals the missing link between spirituality and relationships. This is a powerful book that illuminates how to embrace the longing that is at the core of the human condition. It explores how to live with passionate emotions in a way that furthers connection with self and others by moving from a state of shame to learning to dance in the fire of authentic desires. This book is a bridge between Jack Kornfeld’s A Path With Hearta Buddhist approach to transformationand Susan Johnson’s attachment theory-based book Hold Me Tight revealing how relationships can help us awaken spiritually and how spirituality can help our relationships. It is a treasure map to the middle way, to be read many times. A great book for therapists, meditators, and anyone who wants a better life and better relationships.
Sheila Rubin, LMFT, RDT/BCT Co-Creator Healing Shame Workshops, Life-Stories Workshops, adjunct faculty, JFK University and the California Institute of Integral Studies
Blending mindfulness with contemporary psychology, Amodeo brings what often remains lofty conversation into our kitchens and bedrooms. He shows how meditative awareness can help us develop more vital relationships while helping us embody spiritual realization more fully in everyday life. The writing style is warm and inviting, like having a conversation with a wise and gentle friend. This book is wonderful contribution to the emerging relationship yoga of the West.
Jett Psaris, Co-author of Undefended Love
John Amodeo’s brilliantly written, incisive, and heart-centered book provides a multi-layered in-depth journey demonstrating why we need both the spiritual teachings on mindfulness along with Western approaches, like Focusing and Emotionally Focused Therapy, to truly live an awakened, embodied life of sacred intimacy within oneself, relationships, and life itself!
Laury Rappaport, Ph.D. Professor and Director of Mind-Body Dept. Five Branches University and author of Focusing-Oriented Art Therapy: Accessing the Body’s Wisdom and Creative Intelligence