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Reflections on Relationship As Dharma Practice


All of the essential truths of existence taught by the Buddha – “Buddhadharma”— are revealed in the phenomena of relationship.    To mention just a few of the most salient:

  • Like all phenomena, relational moments arise, morph, and evolve from moment to moment.  Relationships are impermanent, in constant change.  What we call this relationship is a conceptual composite of a multitude of relational moments.
  • Interpersonal hunger and interpersonal aversion are the source of a great deal of human travail. Interpersonal suffering, like all suffering, arises from wishing things to be other than they are.  We fail to recognize that relationships are 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.
  • We often harbor mistaken or deluded views which govern our interactions with others. I call this realm of knowledge wise emotional understanding of relationship.   It is helpful to be able to recognize the relational dynamics that underlie human behavior.  Without empathic understanding of one another, we cannot optimize the opportunities for communication and connection between us.
  • 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.

Because we humans are relational beings,  frequently beset with interpersonal “dukkha”, it is skillful to be able to bring dharma practice and relational experience together in one frame.    This is fundamentally what I mean by “inquiring deeply”:  awareness practice which focuses on  our interactions and connections with others.  With this kind of inquiry, we come to emotional understandings which are broad enough and deep enough to encompass both psyche and dharma *.    

The primary observation is that the mind organizes itself in and for relationship.   Our entire paradigm of personal meanings derives from an interpersonal framework.    Relational themes infuse the way we relate to our own bodies and minds and even to the very process of how we relate to life itself.  Indeed, it is not hyperbole to say that we are made of relationship.

Inquiring Deeply About Relationship

Relational mindfulness” is the practice of bringing mindful awareness into the interpersonal domain.   It begins by becoming aware of the basic features of our lived experience in the presence of others: our body sensations, breath, feelings, and the associative network of thoughts that accompany them.

But more than simply denuded moments of mindful awareness,  each relational moment also has its own a felt sense of closeness/intimacy; or conversely, emotional distance.  In some moments with others we may feel well received while in other moments the connection between us falls flat.   Our tendencies to move towards or away from a particular relational moment depends on our current needs for contact and connection, our deepest feelings of vulnerability,  and our defensive needs for safety.   Mindfulness of connection is a window of view into this basic interpersonal and psychodynamic dimension of relationship.

With self-reflection, relational mindfulness becomes a stage for observing the “theatre of the mind”.  One primary observation is that interpersonal dramas tend to occupy center stage in our minds.  Plotlines revolve around who is doing what to whom. We can see this both in the melodramas of everyday life as well as in the epic dramas of social injustice, political intrigue, and war that unfold in the body politic.   All involve familiar interpersonal themes of love and loss; violation and betrayal; conquest and defeat.  We can gain psychological self-understanding by paying attention to these themes as they are reflected in the stories we tell (either to ourselves or to others) about “what happened” or “what is happening.”  And, by transforming our narratives, we can also transform ourselves.

It is informative to make a study of the things that upset us and that we are emotionally reactive to.  Our psychological vulnerabilities are revealed most clearly in events that engage primal emotions such as anxiety, despondency, and shame; anger and blame;  jealousy, envy, and competition;  sexual attraction and lust.  By intentionally paying attention to moments when we get interpersonally ‘hooked’ or caught up in something someone did or said (or failed to do/say)   we can glean valuable information about our unmet psychological needs.

In addition, there is a lot to be learned by exploring the way we “show up” in the dramas of our lives.  Not only are we different with particular others,  we are different scene by scene.  It is interesting to observe the different self-states (subpersonalities) we find ourselves in and reflect on where these come from in us.  One basic insight is that we are made of relational building blocks.  After all, we modeled ourselves after the people we experienced most closely in childhood.  Through the practice of relational inquiry, we can locate our identifications with these ghosts from the past in our current behavior, including posture, mannerisms, and gestures.   We see “self” through the prism of the relationships we form with others.

Abundant opportunities for interpersonal dharma practice  are available if we make it a practice to be alert to 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 governs human motivation and behavior.  This is especially true between primary partners, where relationship exposes areas of vulnerability and psychological wounding.  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.

As we reflect on the dynamics that have arisen between ourselves and others, we can investigate the truth that it always take two to tango— that all events that occur between self and other are actually co-arising.  This begins to broaden our view beyond a self-focused perspective (self-view) to a relational view.

Summary and Conclusions: 

The tendency to get caught up in painful entanglements  with others is a basic aspect of our human nature.   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.  This is the penetrating truth of interbeing:  everything is interrelated and constituted by its matrix of connections with everything else.

Relationally-focused dharma practice supports us in staying present, open, and compassionate as life unfolds moment by moment.    Ultimately,  its goal is to evoke and enhance our capacity to live from the quality of relatedness that the philosopher Martin Buber called I-Thou:  The ability to connect to one another from that place of deep being that lives behind our eyes, one whole human being to another, subject to subject.


*Relational dynamics are discussed at length in Schuman, M. (2017) Mindfulness-Informed Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis:  Inquiring Deeply    Routledge Press, New York.



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