By Arcana Siddhi Devi Dasi
ISKCON’s Grihastha Vision Team helps married couples progress in harmony toward their shared ultimate goal: pure love for Krsna.
Many years ago, when I told my boyfriend I was moving into the ashram of a Hare Krishna temple, he cried. He told me it would have been easier if I had killed myself, since at least people could understand and give him some sympathy and support. His statement stunned me. If he loved me, wouldn’t he want the best for me? Wouldn’t he at least want me to be happy? I concluded that love didn’t exist in the material world and that I would remain a single woman, devoting the rest of my life to God.
Fast-forward thirty-seven years. My husband and I are standing in front of nine couples at Gita-nagari, ISKCON’s 350-acre farm north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It is the first retreat for couples organized by ISKCON’s Grihastha Vision Team. What happened to my resolve to remain unmarried? After becoming a more mature devotee, I could understand how a Krishna conscious marriage could help me progress in my spiritual life. My initial repulsion morphed into attraction for a companion to share and support my spiritual journey. I also saw some good examples of Krishna conscious couples serving together and raising Krishna conscious children.
Healthy marriages are the foundation of our spiritual society, the Hare Krishna movement. Srila Prabhupada compared the grihastha ashrama to the belly of the body. The stomach nourishes all the other parts of the body, and the grihastha ashrama, through acts of charity, supports the other ashramas: the brahmacharis, vanaprasthas, and sannyasis. According to the Ayurveda, most diseases can be traced to poor digestion. To cure the body, the wise practitioner starts by addressing the problems in the stomach. Similarly, the body of a spiritual society flourishes when supported by healthy, strong marriages.
As members of the Grihastha Vision Team from its inception in 2002, my husband and I, along with the other team members, have put a lot of effort into understanding what makes a healthy Krishna conscious marriage and discovering how to give young couples knowledge and tools to support their spiritual union. Our thirteen-member team of professional counselors and marriage educators have designed and taught courses and workshops for married couples, betrothed couples, and single devotees thinking about getting married. We have written a book, soon to come out, entitled Heart and Soul Connection: A Devotional Guide to Love, Marriage and Service.
Every year at our annual meeting, the idea of having a couple’s retreat has come up. Faced with the daunting task of looking for a retreat center, finding cooks, and organizing everything, we would inevitably table the retreat for another year. Finally, this past year, we heard about retreats being held at Gita-nagari. The facilities sounded ideal, and the resident devotees would provide prasada and lodging. We just needed to coordinate and market the retreat, design the curriculum, and show up to serve the attendees.
Nine of our team members arrived in Gita-nagari. Our theme was “Connection: The Foundation for Love and Trust.”
Learning to Listen
The first session on Saturday was “The Yoga of Listening.” Communication is less about talking and more about being attentive and present for each other. We know from Srila Rupa Goswami that listening or hearing confidentially is one of the six kinds of loving exchanges between Vaishnavas. We have a passion to be understood, but we may be less passionate to understand someone else’s heart, especially if it differs from our own beliefs. The skill of understanding another’s heart sometimes appears deceptively easy, yet to apply that skill consistently in a relationship is quite challenging.
For a couple to have a meaningful conversation, they must cherish each other enough to put aside their electronic devices and distracting multi-tasking activities and be present. I see a relationship between the yoga of listening and our connection with Krishna during japa time: The practice of being present in our everyday exchanges helps us control the mind during japa and thus connect with Krishna. And the more we connect with Krishna, the source of all relationships, the easier it is to connect with other souls, who are all part of Him.
It is important to see how our family life and our relationships are intimately intertwined with our direct spiritual practices. Chanting Hare Krishna and showing kindness to all living entities are two essential ingredients for advancing in Krishna consciousness. Kindness begins at home with our loved ones. And being fully present when our spouse needs kindness is rudimentary to a successful relationship.
Emotional Bank Accounts
Building on the foundational skill of listening, our next session was “Emotional Bank Accounts,” a metaphor to conceptualize how our words and actions create consequences. We unconsciously open up an emotional bank account with everyone we meet. Some accounts are mostly inactive, but the accounts we have with our close family members are constantly active. Throughout the day we make deposits or withdrawals in our loved one’s emotional accounts. Krishna Dasa makes a deposit when he calls his wife from work at lunchtime and tells her how much he appreciates her for all the things she does for him. Lalita Dasi makes a withdrawal when she speaks critically about her husband’s mother.
Most of us check our monetary bank accounts at least once a month. We become concerned when our balance is approaching zero and will do whatever we can to decrease our withdrawals and increase our deposits. But we may not be so tuned in to the emotional balance in our spouse’s account. We may not have any idea the account is overdrawn until we hear our spouse threatening us with divorce.
Srila Prabhupada routinely pointed out the danger of attachment for “society, friendship, and love” based on the bodily concept of life. If we can’t find society, friendship and love among devotees, we will leave their company and search it out elsewhere. Each of us has our own way to express and feel love, so it is important for couples to understand each other in this regard. Expressions of love include gifts, hugs, acts of service, and quality time together. While we might like receiving all these forms of affection from our spouse, we generally have an affinity with one or two over the others. When we understand which are most important to our spouse, we can do more of things that are really important to them – increasing our balance in their emotional bank account, and their balance in ours.
Sometimes we erroneously assume that the things that make deposits into our emotional bank account are the same for our spouse. If we offer our spouse affection in a way that isn’t how he or she primarily needs to receive it, the gesture might be appreciated, but it won’t mean as much. For example, Devi primarily needs to receive words of affirmation and appreciation. She needs confirmation that her partner cares for her by hearing him frequently express to her his feelings. Her husband, on the other hand, primarily needs to feel affection through receiving acts of service, so he assumes his wife knows he loves her because he does so many things for her. He is surprised to hear his wife tell him she doesn’t feel loved. Understanding each other’s need for specific forms of affection helps them both. Devi is now able to look at his acts of service as his way of telling her he cares for her, and he is trying to express his feelings with words of affirmation more often.
We finished Saturday with a session on prayer. Some sophisticated research from the University of Georgia has validated the old aphorism that the family that prays together stays together. Chanting japa together can greatly nourish a couple’s relationship, because together they are praying to Radha and Krishna to be given the privilege to serve Them. The Hare Krishna mantra is a petitionary prayer. Another powerful form of prayer is intercessory prayer, or praying for others. Couples can pray for each other. During this session, the husband and wife interviewed each other about their heartfelt dreams and aspirations. Using this information, they each composed a prayer for the other. They also committed to come together every day to pray for each other.
Symbols of the Past, Present, and Future
On Saturday night, we gave the couples an assignment to walk through Gita-nagari’s wilderness to find an object that represented their relationship in the past, one for their current relationship, and one for their hopes for their future relationship. Sunday morning was show and tell. Each couple brought their prized artifacts to the front of the room and talked about their experience on the walk and the meaning of each item they found. By this time the group of couples had developed trust in one another. Through their tears and laughter they shared their relationship journey.
Most of the couples had something beautiful to represent the past – that tantalizing first stage of a relationship called romantic love or infatuation when nature gives us a free ride, when loving feelings allow us to sacrifice effortlessly and we overlook or minimize the faults. The artifact that represented the present, especially for the younger couples symbolized the struggle of the second stage of a relationship, where the faults become magnified and we struggle to find our identity in the relationship.
One couple brought some cow dung to epitomize the present. The loveliness of the metaphor became clear when they explained that cow dung, although excrement, has antiseptic properties and can be useful for heating, cooking, cleaning. They both saw how the current struggles in their marriage could help them grow as individuals and come closer to one another and Krishna. Peacock feathers, blooming flowers, and a smooth rock were some of the artifacts couples found to represent their hopes for their future together.
Two Minds and Core Hurts
Our show-and-tell session was followed by “The marriage of two minds, and core hurts.” Most of us are grateful we only have one mind to deal with. We are sometimes taken off guard in marriage when we realize we have another mind to reckon with in close proximity. Many verses in scripture address the importance of controlling the mind, which Arjuna tells Krishna is more difficult to control than the wind. Krishna replies that by suitable practice and detachment one can succeed in controlling the mind.
Practice and detachment are most prominent in the stage of devotional progress called anartha-nivritti, when we give up unwanted mental attitudes and habits that prevent us from progressing in our spiritual life. From my own experience and from counseling devotees, I’m convinced that understanding both our own psychology and that of others is very helpful in this stage of bhakti. We often don’t recognize how our conditioning is keeping us chained to the bodily concept of life.
The term core hurts refers to perceived injuries to our sense of self. They include feeling disregarded, unimportant, accused, guilty, devalued, rejected, powerless, inadequate, and unlovable. For most of us, the knee-jerk response to these hurts is either fight or flight. We become angry and attack, or we shut down and stonewall our spouse. Many marital problems involve this dynamic.
We introduced a process that allows the core hurt to be a signal that we are in danger of sliding into a negative state of mind, generally consisting of blame, along with anger and resentment. The process involves recalling an image of something that will help ground us in our “core essence” (our material self in goodness), where we feel compassionate, caring, peaceful, faithful. From this place we can find a solution to the situation or conflict.
Woven into the retreat were activities to help us connect with one another, including honoring delicious prasada together and visiting Gita-nagari’s Radha-Damodara temple, the beautiful, spacious home of Krishna as the playful Damodara, His golden consort Radharani, and Their intimate friends and attendants Lalita and Vishakha.
In the final process of the retreat, we each wrote a loving letter to our spouse, which we put in a stamped, addressed envelope and mailed a month later. When I received my letter from my husband, I felt very connected to him, appreciating the time we had spent in Gita-nagari. To us, the success of our Krishna conscious marriage is helping other devotee couples navigate their spiritual journey together.
The response we received from the participants was overwhelmingly positive. They all felt enlivened by the retreat and believed it would go a long way to help smooth out the rough edges in their marriage and meet marital challenges with new skills and tools. The couples implored us to organize another retreat soon. The Grihastha Vision Team is now planning our next retreat, to be held in Gita-nagari on September 12–14, 2014.
Check out our website (www.vaisnavafamilyresources.org) for upcoming events and for resources to support and nurture devotees living in the grihastha ashrama.