Gregg Levoy has just had his second book, Vital Signs: The Nature and Nurture of Passion published by Tarcher Books and it is a beauty! Vital Signs offers readers a map for the integration two of the most compelling drives in our lives: the desire for security and the quest for passionate aliveness. His book addresses this process head-on and provides a wealth of examples of how to successfully meet this challenge, and of people who have done so. Gregg is also the author of the best seller, Callings and is a world-renowned expert in the field of human potential and a former professor of journalism. He is also a colleague and friend of ours through each of our experiences leading seminars at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur.
Two years ago when he was conducting research for Vital Signs, Gregg asked us if he could interview us for his upcoming book. What we expected would be a short talk, turned out to be a fascinating, extended conversation that left us all feeling inspired and invigorated. Gregg brings those feelings to his work and his writing because that is where he lives. It is who he is.
Our lead article in this newsletter is an edited version of that conversation. A longer version appears in Vital Signs. We’re hoping that in reading it you will not only get some insight into Gregg’s work and style, but also into some of the more personal historical details of our relationship. We’ve learned over the years that one of the most important factors in the creation and strengthening of great relationships is the practice of full disclosure. So in keeping with our commitment to the honoring of that principle, we offer this excerpt from the book.
“If you cross-section any relationship you’ll find the same thing”, say Charlie and Linda Bloom, who believe that the most critical aspect of successful relationship is the ability to hold the tension between the sweet and the bitter. This is a lesson the Blooms did not learn gracefully, just determinedly, and the events that began unfolding roughly ten years into their forty-four years together are a perfect case in point.
“I thought I had picked so carefully to get a laid-back guy who wasn’t going to be hard-driving like my dad,” said Linda. “But when we relocated to the West Coast in 1982, Charlie became a corporate man and had what I considered to be a personality transformation. The laid-back guitar-pickin’ hippie who had been co-parenting the kids with me, all of a sudden became this corporate-climbing guy walking around in a three-piece suit. And I didn't like him very much.”
“He was also on the road about three weeks a month when the kids were small, and I spent a lot of time feeling really angry at him. I mean, deep fury. It went on like this for years. It turned out we had some basic values differences, and our worlds were colliding. I wanted to be all about family life and sitting down to dinner together, with Charlie coaching the kids’ little league games, all of the trimmings. And I was really attached to my picture. I mean I had a white-knuckle grip on it. Charlie seemed to be on a totally different path. It was a time of great suffering for me. I was pretty sure we weren’t gong to come through those years with an intact family, and it drove me up the wall that he was willing to take that risk.”
Charlie was also a totally different kind of person, and the differences between the couple added to the stew.
“In most of our personality traits,” said Linda, “we were at opposite ends of the spectrum. I’m detail-oriented; Charlie is a generalist. I favor strict parenting, Charlie doesn't. I’m outgoing; Charlie is more of an introvert. I go to bed early; he stays up late. I like to get to the airport with hours to spare, whereas a fifteen-minute wait is too much for him. I believe in planning and preparation; Charlie favors spontaneity. I seek connection when I’m stressed, Charlie, solitude. My strength is commitment; his is letting go. I’m a talker; he’s a thinker. I manage money; he spends it.”
The path that Charlie was on involved facilitating personal-growth trainings around the country, under the auspices of a company called Lifespring, dedicated as he put it, “to helping people claim the disowned parts of themselves and realizing their full potential.” He believed it was the work he was born to do, and he was doing it on the fast track.
Charlie: “I told myself that I was one of the fortunate few who had the opportunity to do this cutting edge work and that of course certain sacrifices had to be made. Unfortunately, Linda didn’t seem to appreciate the ‘realities’ of our situation. She frequently reminded me how difficult it was for her and the kids with me on the road so much. My response was usually to encourage her to ‘be strong’ and ‘use this experience as a growth opportunity’ and ‘be a good example to the kids.’”
Her response, which she usually kept to herself but not always, was: “That lousy SOB. He’s deserted us, abandoned us, left his children, and broke his agreement with me. I should ditch the jerk. Any self-respecting woman would have left already.”
This was compounded by the encouragement of a number of Linda’s friends who felt she should do just that.
Linda however, wasn’t willing to “get off of her resistance” as Charlie requested and “get with the program.” Her ongoing message was “It’s not working”. But despite increasing evidence to back her up, his basic response was “Handle it. Can’t you see I’m busy”’ But he wasn't just busy, he was gone!
And their marriage, nearly so.
Linda: “Most of the trainers at the company lost their marriages. The environment there just didn't support families. Like many corporations, the primary allegiance was expected to be to the company. And then there was all the ego inflation; the belief among the students that the trainers all walked on water. And the trainers seemed to believe it themselves.”
Then at two separate couple retreats, Charlie and Linda each had a wake-up call, and things began to change. The first was at a workshop facilitated by the Buddhist teacher Stephen Levine, whom Linda knew and Charlie admired. She admitted that, “I took him there to get him fixed. I thought they were going to nail him to the wall and tell him: ‘Look you’ve got a wife and little kids. Why don't you stay home and take care of business?’ But it was me who got nailed.”
“Stephen told me, ‘It looks like you’re pretty attached to your idea of what this family and this marriage are supposed to look like. I think you might have some work to do.’ He gave me an assignment to practice nonattachment to my expectations and forgiveness-to myself for being irritable with the children, and for being a nagging and demanding wife, and to forgive Charlie for not being the husband of my dreams.
“My favorite fairytale as a child was Cinderella, so when I met Charlie and fell in love with him, I thought my prince had come. But these kinds of fantasies are a setup for expectations that are impossible to fulfill, and when they don't get fulfilled, the passion can just drain out of a relationship. We had plenty of passion but it was the wrong kind.
We argued and manipulated, blamed and shamed and threatened and carried on and screamed and didn't listen to each other. We weren't skilled at vulnerable communication. We each did a lot of name-calling which didn’t exactly help things, and when you’re a therapist, you can really insult people by diagnosing them. It was ugly!
Yet underneath it all, there was a lot of love there, and I was determined to hang in there and not give up. I knew that we could and somehow would make it. I just didn’t know exactly how.
“Ultimately I had to deconstruct my Cinderella fantasy and face reality as it actually was, including the possibility that a relationship sometimes has to die in its present form in order for it to reach its fullest potential. Things aren’t always golden. It’s a mixture of light and dark periods, some of them painfully distressing. Hopefully more of the former and fewer of the latter. When Charlie and I began to make more room for each of our shadowy parts and stopped indulging in our harsh and destructive judgments of each other and ourselves, things really began to shift. I also quit telling myself that the marriage was irreversibly damaged and stopped reinforcing thoughts that left me feeling hopeless and resentful.
“I formed a different vision in my mind and realized I could make something good out of this, that it wasn’t just a tragic mistake. I learned that I could stand on my own two feet, make decisions, manage my life, and handle the kids like a single mom when Charlie was gone. It was a tremendously strengthening time for me, and I created a much more realistic model for what relationship really is.”
The second wake-up call was Charlie’s and it took place on the Saturday before his fortieth birthday, at a couple’s retreat Linda insisted they attend.
“It felt strange to be in the student seat for a change,” Charlie said. “Stripped of the protection of my facilitator role, I felt vulnerable and exposed, almost panicky, anticipating what I knew I couldn't control. And when it was our turn to share, Linda almost immediately dissolved into a pool of tears, and before I knew what was happening, the facilitator invited us both into the center of the circle.
“We sat facing each other, and I grudgingly reached out to take her hands at the request of the leader. I wanted to be anywhere else in the world than in the middle of that circle of people, who would soon be witnessing the pain, anger, and shame that we’d been dancing around for God knows how long.
“Linda went first. Looking into my eyes, as though we were the only people in the room, she talked about her loneliness, her fear that we might not make it, her concern that the kids weren’t getting the time they needed with me, and the exhaustion she was beginning to feel crushed by. And for once I was listening, rather than trying to ’fix’ her. I really heard her for the first time and it didn’t feel good, it felt horrible.
“Then to put the icing on the cake, the facilitator invited the men in the room who had been in my shoes to tell their stories and what they’d experienced when their day of reckoning finally came. And though I’d known these things on a intellectual level, and had been teaching about them for years, hearing these men share their stories was like hearing it for the first time and it went straight to my heart and cracked it all the way open. I broke down like I never had before and wailed like a baby. And it wasn’t just for all the lost and irretrievable moments, the grief and the guilt, but also in gratitude and relief. And I kept hearing the same phrase over and over in my mind: ‘It’s not too late. It’s not too late.’
“After what seemed like hours, I looked up at Linda, who also had tears streaming down her face, and she looked more beautiful to me than I’d ever seen her.
“’It’s over,’ I said.’”
Two days later Charlie gave notice at Lifespring, and he and Linda began the recovery process that would eventually lead them to begin teaching workshops called Partners in Commitment and authoring books with titles like 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married and Secrets of Great Marriages. The theme of their work now is “Stronger at the broken places,” a phrase borrowed appropriately enough from Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
Some of those broken places showed up for Charlie in the year following his fateful decision to leave corporate life, and included a loss of income, ego gratification, and personal identity, during which he says, “I confronted some of my worst demons and in the process realized that I wasn’t’ merely a separate unit operating independently in the world, but was very much interdependent if not dependent upon other people. The realization was both humbling and liberating.”
“When you’re committed to growth and have an intolerance for anything that mutes your sensibilities and vitalities, and makes you fall into complacency, it feels like a more dangerous path than the one that leads to security, control, and predictability. Your self-image is at risk, your attachment to your belief about who you think you are is at risk. And your relationship doesn’t always validate the picture you have of yourself.
“But that risk, that edge, is part of what intensifies passion. And those who keep passion alive in their relationships are not only more committed to growth than to comfort, but more willing to be in touch with the tension inherent in the conflict between passion and security, between feeling safe and feeling challenged.”
Our first book, 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married lists 101 things that we came to learn the hard way. One of the things that we learned in writing it is that it’s not always necessary to make mistakes in order to learn valuable lessons, and that it’s actually possible to learn from other people’s mistakes so that you don’t have to make them yourself in the first place. At this point we don’t see those choices as mistakes at all, but rather learning experiences that were necessary in order to deepen our understanding of who we are, of what and who we truly love and value, of where we’re going in our life, and of how to get there. Some books can help you to answer those questions without having to slip into the pitfalls that show up along the path to awakening. Gregg’s book is one of them. Check it out.