I’d like to start off by saying that this post will be on relationships in the broader sense of the word. Sometimes when we hear the word relationship we think of only romantic based ones. But the type of relationships I’ll be referring to involve a multitude of different types from friendships to family members and from co-workers to casual acquaintances.
My husband Mike and I gave a joint talk at our sangha last night – these were the notes I put together in preparation for it:
Last summer Mike and I went to Glacier National Park to attend a wedding there. We camped for two nights inside the park and seeings as it was June and the park was not fully open yet, on account of snow, it was relatively quiet and sparse in terms of visitors mulling about. We camped right beside Lake McDonald and the first morning we were there I went for a walk and found a lovely patch of rocky beach to spend time on. After some scouting around I wandered over to this large log and found a small snake perched atop it. It was a cute little guy and I was delighted, and quite surprised, to find that he let me approach him close enough to take some great pictures without slithering off. Not wanting to disturb him any further I walked away after taking the pictures. Well, the next morning I returned to the same spot to find him once again perched on the log. I figured it must be his morning routine to come out of the log and warm up in the sun. I watched him for a little while and then once again left him to his log. When I went back to our tent Mike was awake and I told him all about this little snake friend I had met and asked him to come and take a look at him. We walked back to the beach and found the snake right where I’d seen him the last two mornings. Mike looked at him for a few seconds and then went to pick him up and soon found that it was a rubber toy snake! I’m pretty sure Mike knew right away that it was fake – but I was totally surprised! Had it been a heavily populated spot with kids running around and what not perhaps the possibility of it being a toy snake would’ve occurred to me, but there on a deserted rocky beach with no traces of human activity I was convinced the snake was real, even though it never moved or stuck out its tongue or anything that indicated it was even remotely alive. We have a saying in our mindfulness tradition: Where there is perception there is deception. Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) teaches that 99% of our perceptions are incorrect (and the Buddha taught that 100% of our perceptions are incorrect). Apparently Thay gives us a little bit of wiggle room to be accurate once in a while :)
I bring this example up to pain a picture of how easy it is to think we know something for sure when really we have very little idea about the true nature of things. My experience with the snake is a very simply illustration of a much more complex issue that carries through our relationships with one another. Our false perceptions of other people can cause a great deal of difficulty for ourselves and harm to others – simply put, our false perceptions can generate a lot of suffering. Suffering in the Buddhist context occurs not because of something that happens, suffering arises because we fight against what’s happening. Suffering is created because of the mental spinning we do and the stories that we attach to what’s happening. The relationships we have with other people, whether it’s a family member, romantic partner, friend, co-worker, or otherwise, affords us the best opportunity to get in touch with the nature of how prevalent our false perceptions really are.
When we’re having difficulty in a relationship or are bothered by something someone is doing we want to be careful in issuing blame to the other person. Our difficulty, aka our suffering, is not, in fact, created by that other person, it’s generated by us. It’s generated by the stories we’re telling ourselves about that other person, and it’s generated by the false perceptions we hold about who’s responsible for our own personal well being. While our quality of life, our ability to live happily and joyfully in the present moment, is affected by outside influences and the relationships we cultivate it is ultimately up to us to take good care of our self. If we depend on others solely to instill a sense of self-worth and contentment we will always wind up being disappointed.
I learned more about this in specific relation within Mike and I’s marriage about 3 or 4 years ago. We went through a very difficult time together after I came to realize that he was in the midst of not only a depression but also an addiction, which manifested in a long series of lying and the breaking of trust between us on a very deep level. I had a lot of anger that arose during this time and one of the first things I did for my own sanity was joined alanon, which is a 12-step group for those who have loved ones struggling with addiction. And it’s important to note that alanon is more than a support group for those affected by someone else’s addiction – alanon is a program to be worked at as a means for cultivating a new understanding with our own self and our own tendencies. Alanon isn’t about focusing on our loved ones who struggle with addiction – alanon is about focusing on ourselves. And what I came to learn through alanon was how to care better for myself so that I could, in turn, take better care of my husband and our relationship. And part of this self-care was learning how to take responsibility for my actions and my words. We cannot begin to take good care of ourselves, and therefor anyone else, if we don’t know how to take responsibility for what we have sway over, which is our body, speech, and mind – our actions, words, and thoughts/perceptions. Taking care of me was taking care of him. Even though it was his addiction that only he could change there were still many things within my control that I had influence on. It wasn’t him creating the difficulty in our marriage and it wasn’t up to him to fix it – we both had a part to play and it was up to both of us to repair our relationship. It’s never just one person in any relationship that causes challenges to arise. As much as I wanted it to be his fault in the beginning I learned that this wasn’t this case. I had to address the many false perceptions that I was holding onto that stood in my way of moving forward and I learned how to take back responsibility for my own self-care, rather than relying on Mike to meet all of my needs and expectations.
It was during this time that I set out on the path that I talk a lot about which is the cultivation of joy. I realized in this process that in order to get as dragged down, angry, and overwhelmed as I had become in the midst of our difficulties together that my seed of joy and happiness must’ve been quite undernourished. And with the help of alanon and through my on-going journey of cultivating joy I’ve been able to work on what I can in order to strengthen and support our marriage by learning how to care well for myself and claim responsibility for my own well being. This didn’t mean, of course, that Mike didn’t have his part to do in this situation but that I needed to step back and focus on myself and come to understand my own part because that’s all I have sway over. My well being is up to me. My quality of life is up to me. And when I’m taking good care of myself I’m automatically taking better care of those around me. Thay teaches that we cannot be by ourselves alone, and this is very true.
It is an incredibly difficult teaching to understand that 99% of our perceptions are incorrect. The good news is that we don’t need to fully comprehend this teaching in order to gain benefit from it. We can start small by working with the simple construct of not being too sure of something or someone – by gently holding the possibility that we don’t know. Especially when it comes to our relationships and other people. Being open to knowing that we don’t know what someone else is thinking or feeling or what their intention is provides a great direction in which to start focusing our attention. Being open to knowing that our expectations, ideas and thoughts are fluid and impermanent and not concrete, or the one right way, will set us on the path of understanding and love in the context of our relationships with both ourselves and others.