How To Practice Compassion In Relationships.
A couple asked me recently what the Buddhist view is on marriage.
They were planning their wedding and in the process of writing their vows. I don’t know what the Buddha would have said, but what occurred to me in that moment was how committing to loving one person for the rest of your life is taking compassion practice to a whole new level. In the Buddhist teachings there are many guidelines and methods to help us become more compassionate people. When we apply these practices in the space of intimacy, with the person who triggers us, drives us crazy, irritates, and bores us–the person we are closest to–we begin to walk our spiritual talk.
Compassion has three aspects, a feeling of warmth, a sense of openness, and a pervading wisdom that sees through the illusion of separateness and duality. The general guidelines for practicing compassion suggest cultivating a quality of energy, inspiration, and motivation as well as a sense of lightness, ease, and gentleness. We are careful not to become aggressive or self centered in our efforts to be more compassionate.
Before you get started, remember that to genuinely be compassionate to another, you must begin by extending that kindness to yourself. By appreciating and understanding how we get stuck, we can naturally extend that awareness when our loved ones act crazy. The most important point here is to accept people as they are. Putting your energy into trying to change someone, even subtly attempting to shape their behavior, backfires over time because there is always this feeling that love is conditional.
One of my mentors said that there are three requirements to making relationships work. 1) Both people are “into” each other, there is some attraction, energy, or juiciness that keeps them connected. 2) Both people must be willing to work with what comes up for them as individuals in the context of intimacy and 3) Both people must be willing to work with what comes up specifically in relation to each other.
The Buddhist tradition presents compassion in action as the six paramitas or transcendental virtues. These compassion practices are best worked with slowly over time, starting with small steps such as subtly shifting the trajectory of current patters, whether it be one thought, one action–whatever you can do that is genuinely selfless. You are doing it for the simple reason of being kind, and there is no agenda that your partner will change, the relationship will improve, or you get points for being “good.” That’s not what this is about. This is about using everything in your life as a means to open your heart further.
Generosity is centered upon selfless motivation. You give up any notion of who is giving, what is being given, and who is receiving. You just give without any attachment or fixation to what happens next. We have some idea of the small things that make people happy. Therefore, you might spontaneously clean up your clutter in the living room, cook a special meal, plan a nice evening out, take care of the nitty gritty small stuff. Other ways to give spontaneously are sharing appreciative statements, compliments, and expressions of affection.
Generosity can also be about giving up our need to be right. Because we are offering up our egos, we can also let go of beliefs about the way things should be. We can give up doing things our way, winning arguments, and knowing what’s best. This is generosity practice because our ego-centered beliefs are what we hold most sacred, especially those of the spiritual kind. The other aspect of generosity is protection from fear, which means listening when your partner is struggling at work, has health concerns, or financial worries. Don’t problem solve. Just listen and gently ask how you can be helpful.
Discipline has to do with bringing mindfulness and awareness to all of your actions of body, speech, and mind. This means slowing down the momentum of our reactivity. We may already be skilled at mindfulness of body (we don’t sock our partners when they irritate us), but we can now begin to work with slowing down the momentum of our speech (holding back our judgements, criticisms, nagging, and venting). The more we practice mindfulness and awareness in every day life, the more we can trust ourselves without second guessing what we say and do. We don’t need to call up our friends to have them validate us. We simply trust ourselves and become curious when what we say and do causes conflict. We don’t have an ego to defend so we don’t need everyone on our side.
The meaning of patience here has to do with not reacting impulsively when our partners misbehave, get angry with us, or shut down. This means that we learn to work with our emotions through meditation practice and individual therapy. We can’t blame people for making us feel a certain way. We can learn how to tolerate our emotions. We can become curious and undefended even when people are making everything our fault. Just staying open and calm can rapidly de-escalate fighting and bickering. In relationships there is often disappointment over getting what we didn’t want and not getting what we wanted. We can have these feelings without taking them too seriously or personally.
Patience also means tolerating our feelings when we try earnestly to help someone and they don’t accept it or get better according to our ideas about what’s good for them. An example of this kind of patience is listening to our partner’s frustrations without being their job or fitness coach, nutritionist, therapist, or psychic. Just let them be and listen with an open heart. People don’t like being told what to do to improve. It has the result of affirming the part of them that is already feeling inadequate. Ask them if they want concrete suggestions or if they just need a hug.
Patience is also practiced when people have wronged us and we feel so much resentment that we cannot forgive them. People often ask me how to let go of the anger and resentment that has built up over time. When I sit with that question and reflect on the anger and resentment in my own heart, I come back to the hurt that gave rise to the anger. When I sit with the hurt, I see that the hurt is there because of how deeply I loved. When I connect with the love that was behind the hurt, anger, and resentment, I can begin to let go of the whole thing. Abiding in the love gives me a sense of space and peace where I can see things from a wider perspective. At some point it becomes important to let things go and make space for new things to happen.
Diligence or exertion is about working hard, but not in the sense of self sacrifice, being a martyr, or doing things that you don’t want to like folding the laundry. Exertion here means taking everything that happens to the path of dharma. We walk our talk and stop expecting our relationship to be perfect or to make us feel good. We see the day to day challenges that we face as our practice and what we’re working with off the cushion.
Exertion here also means learning to tolerate our feelings without indulging them or acting them out. It means showing up for couples therapy with some measure of enthusiasm rather than being late and sighing while your partner is talking. We see that this whole relationship thing is helping us open our heart and learn about ourselves, our partners, and all of humanity. We stay with the struggle that it takes to work things out. The opposite of diligence here is laziness. Along with zoning out while your partner is talking, laziness also includes overworking and staying continually distracted with activities and projects. Business is another form is laziness.
Our commitment to our meditation practice underlies all of our compassionate activities. It is our time to go within and take care of our own mind. It is best to practice every day, ideally at the same time each day, even if just for ten or twenty minutes. Connecting in with our innate wakefulness and inner vision helps us maintain a perspective that nourishes and regenerates our mind. Sometimes it helps to take ten minutes to calm down when you come home from work, just enough to transition and let the day go. Meditation is about the willingness to stay with our practice of mindfulness and awareness no matter what is happening around us. We take everything to the path of dharma by making space for our practice. Otherwise, we’ll get lost or burned out along the way.
Here is where our dharma study in the nature of selflessness becomes key. How we show up for our partner is how we show up for ourselves, there is no difference. The more we can integrate this concept into our living and felt experience, we will see how so much of our struggle is for nothing. The teachings become very personal here as we see how they apply to everything happening in our life.
Finally, in your efforts to be more compassionate, be careful about mistaking “idiot compassion” for compassion. Being open does not mean we have no boundaries. Our openness affords us both clarity and panoramic awareness which helps us discern what would be most skillful. We know what to do and say in the moment. Sometimes we need to say the thing that no one wants to hear, or be the one to point at the elephant in the room, or call people on their stuff. It doesn’t serve anyone to go unconscious when things get hard. In these situations, the harmony created is a false harmony where the real issues get swept under the rug. This is a conflict avoiding, fear-based, relational style which only leads to furthering distance and infidelities where partners go outside of the relationship to get their needs met. Real compassion is to speak to what you see going on while staying connected to your heart. It is about clear seeing joined with warmth and kindness. This kind of love is what heals and brings intimacy to a deeper level.