In this item I would like to bring together two ideas. The first idea is that of an implicit contract in the couple relationship. A contact is an agreement of the "If you do this, I'll do that" variety. There has to be some complementarity between two people to stick them together. The benefit of the contract is that each gets a service. The drawback is that each is restricted to a role. This can be in varying degrees. The traditional contract was given by society. He would work, fight and train the boy children and she would cook, clean and care for the small children. Nowadays, however, society specifies very little and it is up to the pair of individuals to work something out.

They will do so according to their preferences and unconscious programming. According to traditional Buddhism, at the bottom of our unconscious lies the bhavanga - the matter that we have brought over from our previous life. This issue or preoccupation never becomes fully conscious to us. but it colours all our life projects which are all concerned with solving it, escaping from it or acting it out in some way. This idea is rather interesting in its structure and basic implications, whether you believe the doctrine of rebirth or not. The bhavanga goes on working away in the background and we throw ourselves into projects as a result in our efforts to satisfy something that is going on inside us that we do not understand. Perhaps in his last life a man died falling from a mountain. In this life he is obsessed with mountains, becomes a mountaineer, tries to master the mountains, is obsessional about having the right equipment, reads all the books and so on. He might become a famous mountaineer or, maybe this time die in an avalanche, or even find himself living in a state of anxiety and guilt because he gets involved in an incident in which a friend dies in a fall in which it is unclear whether he was responsible or not.

This sort of thing happens because of a certain irony that seems to be built into impermanence. It is as though the universe is always trying to teach us a vital spiritual lesson, yet in the process thwarts "the best laid schemes of mice and men". We intend something and then reality comes along. One cannot master a mountain and one is mortal.

One of the big projects most people undertake is forming a couple. According to the above ideas, the bhavanga will be at work. Perhaps a man died of poisoning in his last life. In this life he is obsessional about food. He criticises anybody and especially his wife when they are cooking - they can never get it right for him. The same with shopping. The wife thinks, "I don't know why he has such a thing about food. He's a nice man in other respects." Sometimes they try to talk about it. It never works. As soon as the subject comes up he is immediately in fight-flight mode and rational discussion is impossible. The real dread is too deep in the unconscious to be amenable to rational persuasion. Sometimes the man knows that he is being over-sensitive, but, somehow, he can't just leave the matter alone. He tries doing all the cooking himself, but then is ultra suspicious of the quality of things he buys in the supermarket. He starts growing everything himself and, of course, will not use chemicals in his garden. In the end he becomes a complete eccentric. Or, it goes the other way, as if he assumes that one is bound to get poisoned one way or another so what the heck. He dies of gluttony.

However correct these ideas may be, I think it is common experience that in many, perhaps all, couples, there are sensitive areas where irrational or excessive seeming things happen or subjects cannot be talked about without some degree of interpersonal disaster following. The idea that "We can talk about everything" is probably a self-deception that actually becomes a collusion to avoid the difficult areas. Nonetheless, impermanence unfolds. The woman who married a super-strong man who was to look after her find herself nursing an invalid as he falls prey to cancer. She find that she has to become the protector and carer that she was trying to avoid being. Or she runs away from the situation because she finds it unbearable.

To me, one of the values of this kind of theory is that it provides a basis for compassion and patience. People are only responsible for the crazy things they do in a very big time frame and cannot be expected to just snap out of it. Every relationship has some difficult areas, but that is not the end of the world. Everybody is on a spiritual journey of one sort or another and there are reasons why things happen as they do. Sometimes the things people do while thinking they are solving their problems only compound them - well, that is perhaps how it needs to be at this stage. I'm sure we can all find instances that fit from our own experience.

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  • How interesting. Thank you.
  • Yes, different people have different temperaments and different preoccupations. It is often hard to understand how things make sense for another person - hard enough in our own case. We pray to become more accepting and at a deeper level and to appreciate all the miracles of life within and all around us.

  • Thank you for this article Dharmavidya and for all your comments. 

    Yes, I think that is life. Usually it is said that the best teachers are those who are near in your life . They bring for us the most difficult lessons. So here I think we have the treasure, our parents, couples and children, give us the opportunity of changing important and deep things....

    I also think it would be interesting to make that revision you describe just now, when we are still in this life: To look back and perceive what stands out as the most important from the life one is leading and to feel this most salient image...Maybe something from some deep place inside arose in some way or another. Maybe we cannot get rid of our bhavanga in this life but , at least, we could transform it in some sort of offering instead of living it like a sort of payment or "bad thing"

  • No. It means that there is an undertow, as it were, from the immediately past life. It is a way of explaining temperament. Of course, there are also undertows from the present life too, but these one can, in principle at least, become conscious of and modify. Psychotherapy aims to modify the factors arisen in this present life but cannot shift the bhavanga. It might, however, lead to a person leading a better life. When one is dying and looks back, something stands out as most important from the life one has led and this most salient image goes with you. It then becomes both a strength and a problem for the next life. This is the idea.

  • Does this mean that everything in your life is preordained before you are even born dependent on your bhavanga?
  • No. Not within a lifetime. But a new bhavanga forms as a result of the current life when it ends. So, for instance, the three mountaineers would have different bhavangas next time round. It therefore matters how one lives one's life because the next bhavanga is not a direct result of the last one, it is a result of what you do this time, albeit that this time you are wrestling with the bhavanga you have got. So a person at the end of a life might look back and the things that stands out is that he did not get revenge on his enemy. Next life he is haunted by an undertow of bitterness. However, during this life he meets some saintly people and, although he often finds fault with them, at the end of this life what stands out for him is how fortunate he was to meet them. In the next life he is born with a bhavanga that is altogether more optimistic. So this is a long term theory.

  • This is really interesting. Why didn’t I know about this group before?

    Anyway, I have a question about the bhavangha. Does it change? Can you exhaust the energy that keeps it going?
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