As many authors remind us, relationships are the place where our practice is tested most. It is easy to be calm on the cushion or in a retreat centre but not so easy when we mix with family, friends or work colleagues. Every person we come into contact with has his or her their own relationship histories and have come to learn a number of techniques to manage their own self-esteem and control the behaviours of those they meet. Therefore it is inevitable that sometimes these dynamics can touch us and cause strong emotions to rise in us.
There is a balance to be had in inner practice, between maintaining contact and compassion for others and yet not tolerating being accused when we are not in the wrong or someone directing their issues towards us. This balance is never an easy one to get, and traditionally the wisdom traditions have been better at emphasizing compassion rather than maintaining boundaries. True, we have to work hard to keep our minds and hearts open, and notice any tendency to close down towards others. However, at the same time we have to be firm with our own needs and ensure that we are not always surrendering them in an attempt to keep the peace.
In reality, most of us, even in healthy relationships, tend to move from being open to closing up, depending on the other person’s way of relating to us. If we feel they are not being responsive or if they behave in a way that we feel is threatening, we quickly tense up and start to contract. It is not easy to love without conditions, even if we wish we could. Therefore it is even easier to close our hearts when we are dealing with someone who is angry or unpredictable.
So how do we deal with the ups and downs of relating to others? A good starting place is to have a realistic view of relationships and people. Nobody can be there for us is an totally consistent way, every day, not even those who are closest to us. There will inevitably be misunderstandings and mistakes. Expecting otherwise just sets us up to feel betrayed and disallusioned.
When words are said or something done, the practice is to stay as close as we can to the experience itself, as far as possible, noticing when the experience turns into an emotion and the thoughts and behaviours that follow. With practice we try to remain with the experience itself, before fight or flight kicks in and before the self -justificating speeches to ourselves are made. We may not be able to change the initial incident or the words said towards us, but we can stop it escalating by not running our defensive stories. We try to just be with what comes up, without adding to it, holding it in the light of awareness.
This unconditional friendliness towards our own experience provides a third element in our dealing with others. We try and maintain the same friendliness towards them. This does not mean that we have to like what is happening or what they are doing or saying. Indeed, at times it will be right to say that we do not like it. However, we can maintain a friendliness to the person who is expressing their ideas and their fear, and hold as much as we can in awareness our own reactions to the words or emotions being expressed. Mindfulness practice believes that the light of awareness has the power to change our experience. If we can be present in a greater way to the other person and listen to the emotion behind the words then space can open up. And as yesterday’s post told us, it is that space which we are looking to expand, both within us and in our lives with others.