Reflections on Relationship As Dharma Practice
Human beings are relational beings. We spend the majority of our lives conversing and interacting with others against a complex backdrop which includes the culture of our social connections. In a multitude of different ways, we are continually mixing minds with others (including in cyberspace). It is not an exaggeration to say that we are made of relationship. Relationship is the way we inter-be with others.
All of the essential truths of existence – dharma— are revealed in the phenomena of relationship. Interpersonal suffering, like all suffering, arises from wishing things to be other than they are. Relationships are impermanent and inherently unreliable sources of satisfaction or happiness. The universal truth is that people often disappoint us, hurt us, or leave us, and even if they don’t, eventually we will be parted by death. Our views about the way it is between ourselves and others is often based on mistaken views and/or unconsciousness about what is governing our interactions with others. We mostly live in the fundamental illusion that we are separate beings, whereas, in truth, everything we consider to be our ‘self’ can readily be shown to be intrinsically dependent upon its relational context.
With the intention to ‘wake up’ in relationship, there is much we can notice in bringing mindful attention to our interactions and connections with others. Our embodied experience and the feelings that arise in interpersonal exchange are basic elements of this powerful driver in all of our lives. The experience of comfort or discomfort we have within different relationships can be very instructive to us in our journey towards understanding. Whom we like and whom we don’t shows us the nature of attraction and aversion. We can explore the tendency to open ourselves or to contract at the surface of our contact with others, as well as the sense of intimacy or emotional distance we experience. We can explore what parts of ourselves show up and what we try to hide.
In hindsight, we can reflect on the dynamics that have arisen with others, investigating the truth that it always take two to tango. We can examine the feelings and context of memories that are stirred up by relationship, noticing the stories we tell and exploring the meanings we assign.
There are also abundant opportunities for dharma practice to be found in the emotional reactivity that can happen any time we come into contact with others. The inevitable conflicts and difficulties in human interactions are rich sources of understanding and insight into what makes people tick. This is especially true between primary partners, where relationship exposes areas of vulnerability and psychological wounding. In particular, areas of mutual reactivity can explode in ways which are painful but which have the potential to reveal both where we are stuck and where we need to grow.
The eightfold path provides a wonderful guide for practicing dharma in our relationships. In addition to bringing attention to wise speech, we can cultivate wise view and engage conscious intention. Indeed, all relationships cry out for skillful means. As a psychotherapist, I also find it valuable to inquire deeply in order to come to emotional understandings which are broad enough and deep enough to encompass both psyche and dharma.
Among the most universal of human needs is the need to be understood. Wise relationship requires us to be able to listen from a place of deep and open-hearted presence, and with the intention to empathically understand where the other is coming from. Ultimately, creating space which invites deep emotional understanding is an art and a practice unto itself. The language of the German philosopher Martin Buber— I-Thou— conveys the essential meaning: we need to engage with one another from a space of being together which is intimate in the sense of deeply mutual but yet not caught up in psychological merger.
In summary, relationship presents the opportunity to bump up against the rough edges of our surfaces with others. In so doing, we get to see that we are basically all in the same predicament; that it is part of human nature to get caught up in painful emotion and entangled with others. For those of us to like to “work on ourselves”, relationships are a perfect path for awareness practice. They wake us up to the complex construction of self and other, and, in so doing, help us recognize that what we find when we look inward and what we see when we look outward are not separate, but rather mutually reflective surfaces of experience.