Class 7: Beyond Desire--A New Heart
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.” Ezekiel 36:27
Intention for this class
To help participants identify the role of expectations in their relationship, with a special focus on differentiating between those expectations which lead to power struggles, and those mutually agreed upon standards which comprise a vision for the relationship.
The commandment that provides a foundation for this class is, “You shall not covet.” Normally this commandment is understood to be a simple prohibition against wanting what other people have. It reminds us to be content with what we have and who we are.
As we look more deeply at this commandment, and the symbolic scripture in which it is stated, we come to see that it has increasingly deeper levels of meaning and application. The first part of this commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house,” deals with our inordinate desire to possess inanimate objects—symbolized by the word “house.” The desire to want one’s own home is a familiar one. And if we do have our own home we may want a bigger one, with a larger yard. A pool would be nice too, or at least a nice addition.
“Coveting our neighbor’s house” also represents our general desire to possess “things.” We may want a faster computer, a nicer car, a bigger TV, fancier clothing, and the money to purchase these things. This commandment does not forbid us from desiring things; but it does caution us against becoming anxious; it cautions us against wanting to have “things” so desperately that we obsess about acquiring them, and feel sad if we do not have them.
Similarly, we want circumstances to go the way we expect them to go. We want the sun to shine on our parade and the rain to fall on our garden. This is reasonable enough. But if we get anxious and upset, our reasonable desire has turned into a selfish craving. We have begun to covet.
The commandment continues, repeating the words, “You shall not covet” and adding to them: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”
On the surface this looks like further examples of those things that we should not covet. But there is a difference. A house, like a car or a computer, is an inanimate object. It does not have a will of its own and it has no inherent love for freedom. But a “wife,” “male servant,” “female servant,” “ox” and “donkey” have something in common that distinguishes them from a house, a car, or a computer: they are animate objects. They are alive; they have feelings and emotions.
On a deeper level, then, this commandment not only calls us to be aware of our inordinate desire to possess things and expect circumstances to go our way; it also calls us to be aware of our inordinate desire to control people and expect them to do what we want. Our neighbor’s “wife” symbolizes whatever we love. The “male servant” symbolizes the human understanding, or the unique ways in which we think. The “female servant” symbolizes our feelings and emotions. Finally, the “ox and donkey” symbolize the level of our lives which involves physical actions.
Taken together, this means that we are to be very careful about the ways in which we desire to control what other people love, think, feel, and do. It’s easy to see how destructive this can be in a marriage relationship, and how the violation of this commandment leads to expectations, control issues and power struggles. It’s no wonder that this is the final and deepest commandment!
Marriage educators have long been aware that power struggles and control issues, whether conscious or unconscious, are the greatest cause of marital unhappiness and a major predictor of divorce. The trigger for a battle over control may be as simple as leaving a wet towel on the bathroom floor, coming home late, or reprogramming the stations on the car radio.
Whatever the precipitating cause, the couple finds themselves locked in a turf war, unwilling to concede ground or give up what they perceive is their precious sense of self. There is a feeling that in acquiescing to a spouse’s request (perceived as a demand) there is a loss of power and autonomy. The liberty they had imagined would come to them through marriage has vanished. Instead they feel either enslaved by their spouse’s demands or treated as a slave because of their spouse’s disrespect. Either way it is about the unwillingness to relinquish power. What appears to be a power struggle, however, is a desperate attempt to preserve one’s personal freedom.
How does this arise in a relationship that began so well, and with such lofty intentions? It occurs whenever there is a shift in the relationship from a desire to fulfill the needs of the spouse with a desire to get one’s own needs fulfilled. The focus on self almost always leads to unhappiness, or at least a lower level of happiness than can be achieved when one focuses on the needs of the spouse.
A group of researchers from the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School teamed up to measure the relationship between money and happiness. “We wanted to test our theory that how people spend their money is at least as important as how much money they earn,” they said.
The 630 volunteers were given a small sum of money ($5 to $20) and asked to spend it in any way they liked. After conducting pre and post tests, the researchers discovered that the people who spent their money on others experienced greater happiness than those who spent their money on themselves (Scientific American, March 21, 2008). This kind of study has been replicated in various ways, with different populations, but always with the same results: desiring to serve others leads to greater happiness than desiring to serve one’s self.
The focus on serving rather than being served is central to marital happiness. This is not surprising or new. Folk wisdom has always taught that “it is more blessed to give than to receive”—something that is taught in all the great religions and is now being confirmed in modern psychological research.
But what is new is the link between expectations and power struggles. When two people begin a marriage they come with a number of expectations regarding roles, responsibilities, traditions, family size, religious preference, eating habits, recreational activities, relationships with friends and relatives. At first it seems that “love will conquer all,” but as the years go by and differing expectations begin to surface, these unmet expectations gradually turn into issues. He may feel that his freedom is compromised because his wife expects him to call home to tell her where he is; she may feel that her freedom is compromised because he expects her to have supper on the table—even though she has a full time job. Expectations like these lead to power struggles.
Peter Rhodes, author of Observing Spirit talks about expectations as “pictures” we have that are primarily related to our needs. Basing his observations on the psychological findings of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Maurice Nicoll, Rhodes points out that living in our expectations—especially our expectations of others—prevents us from experiencing the present moment. Quoting the Indian psychologist and philosopher, Krishnamurti, Rhodes writes that “all anxiety is the non-acceptance of what is.”
When we do not accept our spouse, we want to change them. We want them to fit into our picture of reality, and to conform to our expectations. Of course, no one wants to be a mere brush stroke on someone else’s picture of reality, so they naturally resist; they fight for their freedom. They refuse to be controlled; and struggles ensue.
Instead of those restrictive expectations and confining pictures which have limited us, and bound us to the past, we can forge together a mutual vision that enlarges us and takes us into the future. A mutual vision, as we define it here, is larger than a picture, and more liberating than an expectation. In this regard we are no longer talking about the pictures (and consequent expectations) that you had for marriage when you were ten years old, or twenty, or just before you were married. We are talking about the vision that you can establish today, and the goals that you can delineate to help you get there.
In a study conducted by researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles, Shelley Taylor and Lien Pham were interested in the question of how mindset affects learning. Seventy-seven students took part in an experiment in which one group was asked to visualize themselves getting an A on the mid-term exam. Another group was asked to visualize themselves studying for the exam in specific locations (in the library, at a desk at home, etc.) with the goal in mind of getting an A on the exam. A third group was given no specific instructions.
The results of the study demonstrated that the group who had envisioned themselves studying for the exam and obtaining the grade of A had the highest test scores. Interestingly, those in the group that merely visualized themselves getting an A, but did not visualize themselves as studying for it, had the lowest scores on the mid-term exam. Focusing merely on outcomes, without attention to process, is a recipe for failure. The most successful people are those who focus not only on outcomes, but also on the process of getting there. (Pham and Taylor, 1999)
The marriage relationship is no different. We can aim for an A—we can have a mutually agreed upon vision of where we want to go. And we can choose a process by which we will get there. In fact, many of the principles and procedures that we have described in previous classes can become a part of that process.
We must believe, however, that we can get there. Another educational study, this one done byStanford University researchers, demonstrates the vital link between our mindset and our ability to grow and learn. The study, conducted by Professor Carol Dweck, is reported in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House, 2006). In her research, Professor Dweck shows how the theories that students have about intelligence has a direct impact on their learning. Her longitudinal study of students at a New York City junior high school clearly demonstrated students who believed that intelligence could improve had significant gains in their academic studies. But those who believed that intelligence was fixed showed a gradual decline in their academic progress.
Dweck used the results of her study to motivate students. “The students were energized by the idea that they could have an impact on their mind,” Dweck says. Describing the brain as a muscle, she actually taught the students how to be smart. One young boy, who had been the ringleader of a group of troublemakers, was moved by this new idea. As Dweck puts it, “When we started teaching this idea about the mind being malleable, he looked up with tears in his eyes, and he said, ‘You mean, I don’t have to be dumb.’ A fire was lit under him.” (from New Study Yields Instructive Results on How Mindset Affects Learning, Stanford News Service, February 2007).
The connection to our marriages is clear: we need to believe that we can learn and grow and change. And because of this, we can replace restrictive, limiting expectations with clear, mutually agreed upon visions of who we want to be, what we want our relationship to become, and what we will do to achieve it.
In fact, the research on visualization indicates conclusively that positive mental imaging has a profound effect on human performance. In athletics, for example, sports psychology is replete with documented studies of how mental imaging can reduce performance anxiety, and help athletes overcome traumatic memories of previous performance errors. Researchers have found that mental imaging can actually improve physical performance in every sport, including volleyball, golf, table tennis, and gymnastics.
Researchers in sports psychology at Vanderbilt University, referring to the studies of other scholars in the field, give this explanation of how mental imaging (or visual rehearsing) works: “When you imagine yourself performing to perfection and doing precisely what you want, you are in turn physiologically creating neural patterns in your brain, just as if you had physically performed the action. These patterns are similar to the small tracks engraved in the brain cells which can ultimately enable an athlete to perform physical feats by simply mentally practicing the move. Hence, mental imagery is intended to train our minds and create the neural patterns in our brain to teach our muscles to do exactly what we want them to do.” (www. vanderbilt.edu; The Effects of Mental Imagery on Athletic Performance, Annie Plessinger, quoting from Porter and Foster’s Visual Athletics, Dubuque, Iowa: Wm.C. Publishers, 1990).
Having a clear vision of where we want our marriage to go, along with a mutually agreed upon plan for how we intend to get there, is absolutely essential. It will not only help us avoid the power struggles and control issues that can destroy our marriage, but, more importantly, it can show us the way to achieving increasingly greater degrees of marital happiness.
Putting it together
We began with an understanding of the commandments against coveting: this included the desire to possess things as well as the expectation that circumstances will turn out in our favor. It also included the desire and the expectation that others will love, think, feel, and do what we want. When these desires are active in us as expectations, our relationships will suffer.
Marriages are organic, changing, and evolving. We, therefore, need to have a mutually agreed upon vision that will grow and changes along with the evolving stages of our marriage. We also need concrete goals along the way that can help us work towards that shared vision. In the succession of commandments and classes that have been introduced, we have suggested that there really is a Divinely ordered way to keep our marriages healthy, loving, and growing. While the specifics are up to each couple to determine, the sequence of tasks is clear: identify areas where you need God’s help; pray; spend time together; listen deeply; appreciate; encourage; love purely; know each other deeply; create a vision, and work towards it together.
To the extent that we do this we can replace old pictures and old expectations with new visions and new ways of obtaining them. Our old expectations were about having old pictures colored in; our new vision can be drawn upon a fresh canvas. The old expectations were about individual entitlement; the new vision is about mutual responsibility. The old expectations were about bondage; the new vision is about liberty and the freedom that comes from loving each other deeply.
In the Hindu faith, the oldest religion on earth, there is a beautiful passage about the change that takes place through marriage. It says that when the couple marries, the center of their religious life shifts from the temple to the home. “The household duties are equivalent to the daily worship of the sacred fire at the Holy Temple” (Laws of Manu).
We take this to mean that the home can become a sacred place where the household duties become acts of worship, whether it be washing windows or making the bed. Holy Communion can take place every time a meal is shared. Every act can be transformed into an opportunity for sacrificial service.
Whenever and wherever this is the case, we have moved beyond selfish desire. We have been given a new heart and a new spirit. Formerly we may have prayed that the Lord would give us the desires of our heart. But now we pray that the Lord may give us right desires, the desire to love as God loves, and serve as God serves—with a growing sense of joy and delight in doing so. “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4)
Beyond Desire—A New Heart
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.” Ezekiel 36:27
Create a vision for your marriage. Take time together to establish a mutually agreed upon vision for your marriage. (Even if you have done this before, remember that your marriage is organic and changing.) Review and renew your vision. Include personal goals and steps you will need to take in order to achieve your vision.
Create rituals. In view of the fact that your home is a sacred place, discuss rituals that you would like to bring into your marriage—rituals that will honor God, your marriage, and your family. Rituals are meaningful acts that are done regularly and from love.
Live your vision. Practice living your mutually agreed upon vision of who you are and who you want to become as a couple. If control comes up, just notice it and ask yourself, “What is this all about?” If you should uncover any hidden expectations, replace them with realistic statements in line with the new standards you have set for yourself and your marriage.