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About Relationships

I don't know if any of you had a chance to hear Ezra Bayda's thoughts about practicing with relationships. I couldn't get there myself, so I thought the next best thing would be to talk about it myself....

Joko pretty much summed up her attitude about this in her first book saying "relationships don't work". It was a talk that stirred up a lot of controversy for people. In a way she was deliberately trying to define a certain one sided perspective that basically brings an attitude of no gain to relationships. She was looking at all the ways relationships would go awry when people want it treated as an antidote to their problems, saying: if only I weren't alone, if only he was more this way and she was more supportive or he would stop drinking. For Joko that kind of thinking about relationships meant always externalizing the problem, always assuming the thing that's going to change your life is outside yourself and in another person. If only they would get their act together, then life would go the way I want it. Joko always wanted to bring people back to their own fear and insecurity, their own uncertainty. They are ours to practice with, and we can't ask anyone else including a teacher, to do that work for us. To be in a real relationship, a loving relationship, is simply to be willing to respond and be there for the other person without the notion about what am I going to get out of it. It was a kind of model of selfless responsiveness or giving that defines a certain picture of practice where we just give and give and give.

The problem was that lots of people would come to her and say I have been in lots of relationships where I would give and give and give, and for them it wasn't enlightenment, it was masochism, and I think what was one sided about her original account was that she didn't give a good description of what relationships are actually for - what the good part was. Maybe some of that comes from the fact if you talk to a 75 or 80 year old woman, you're going to get a different kind of perspective about relationship than if you ask someone half that age.

If we are psychologically minded about what happens in relationships, we also should look at all the ways in which they provide the enabling conditions for our growth and development - that's particularly obvious with children. Of course they need a certain kind of care and attention and love in order to grow and develop, and nobody would tell a five year old, what do you need mommy for, deal with your fear on your own. The thing is that most of us still have some remnants of that child's neediness and fear, and we have to come to terms with it as we go along. Relationships aren't just crutches that allow us to avoid that, they also provide the conditions that enable us to develop these capacities for for growth and development for ourselves.

It's not just a parent-child relationship or a relationship with a lover or a spouse or a partner that do that. The relationship of a student with the teacher, of members of a sangha to one another, to friends, citizens, community and all these are big factors that help us develop in ways we couldn't on our own. There are some aspects of ourselves that don't develop except under the right circumstances. It would be like being the only person in the world with a fax machine or a telephone. If there's only one of them it doesn't do you much good - they only begin to function when there are others like them.

If you go back to Aristotle and his notion of the virtues, of what it meant to become fully human, to flourish and to be happy, he said that could only take place within the right kind of communal environment, and he stressed the importance of community and friendship as a necessary ingredient for character development. You don't find much in Aristotle about the necessity of a partner, of love to develop, he puts the greater emphasis on friendship. In different times, in different places, we may foreground very different factors that we think are the enabling conditions that will help us grow. But the basic fact of connectedness and interdependency means none of us at any level can to it all on our own. That is often the real emotional work of relationships and what gets stirred up in all kinds of relationships, whether it is the relationship that you have all to each other or to me or to your family. What we fundamentally come up against is the fact that we have all sorts of feelings and needs and desires that are aroused by our relationships with others. And to feel those things is to feel our need and vulnerability and dependency to others that are unpredictable and in circumstances that are intrinsically unpredictable and unreliable.

We bump up against the fact of change and impermanence as soon as we acknowledge feelings or needs for others. I think that basically we all tend to go in one of two directions as a strategy for coping with that vulnerability. We either go in the direction of control and say, if only I can get the other person or my friends or family to treat me the way I want, then I'll be able to feel all right. If only I had a guarantee that they'll give me what I‚need then I won't have to face uncertainty. With this strategy, we get invested in the process of control and manipulation of others, and Joko emphasized the dangers involved with that side of things, or trying to use people as antidotes to our own anxiety.

The other basic strategies, instead of going in the direction of control, we try to go in the direction of repression, or some version of a fantasy of autonomy or absence of feeling. We think that by practicing we get to a place where we won't feel need, sexuality, anger or dependency. Then we imagine we won't be so tied into the vicissitudes of relationships, we will squelch enough of our feelings so as not to be vulnerable any more, and we create that as a hidden agenda for practice.

We have to get to know particular strategies for dealing with vulnerability, and really use our practice to allow ourselves to experience more of that vulnerability rather than less of it. To open yourself up to need and to longing and dependency and reliance on others means opening yourself to acknowledging that none of us can do this on our own, that we really need each other, that we do need a father and mother, we do need a teacher. We really do need all those people in our lives who make us feel so uncertain. And our practice is not about finally getting to a place where we are going to escape all that, but create a container that allows us to be more and more human, to feel more and more.

If we let ourselves feel more and more, paradoxically, we get less controlling and less reactive. As long as we think we shouldn't feel something, as long as we are afraid of feeling vulnerable, our defenses will kick in to try to get life under control, to manipulate ourselves or other people. Joko talked about practice as building a bigger container, that is, a container that allows us to feel vulnerable or hurt without immediately erupting into anger, that allows us to feel neediness without grasping or clinging and trying to hold on to the other person. And it means really acknowledging that we have to accept the fact of our dependency. We learn to keep our support systems in good repair because we admit to ourselves how much we need them. We take care of them for our own sake as well as theirs. We begin to see that all our relationships are part of a broad spectrum, and we respect not only the most intimate or most longed for of our relationships, but all the relationships that we have, from the most personal to the most public, which together are always defining who we are and what we need to be fully who we are.

Relationships work to open us up to ourselves. But first we have to admit how much we don't want that to happen because that means opening ourselves to vulnerability and contingency. Then we can begin to practice letting ourselves just stay with all those feelings of vulnerability that we came to practice to escape.