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Retreat at the Waldhaus
Day 7: Relationships
Godwin: Unlike the previous discussions we will try to have a serious discussion tonight, because this is a very serious theme! So what I will try to do is to present the solution found in the Dhamma for problems arising in relationships. There is a beautiful phrase that is used in this connection. Even in Pali the words sound very nice: Kalyana Mitta, which means a spiritual friend or a noble friend. I will try to present some problems and difficulties that human beings experience in relationships which I have been hearing about so often, and then see how one can work with these problems and build up true spiritual friendships where we can really grow together.
First, you begin with yourself. How do you relate to yourself? I have been emphasising this aspect very much, where you learn to be your own best friend. So if you can really make that connection with yourself then you see relationships in a different way. Creating more suffering for oneself and others may become less, or may not be there at all. This is the first point in a spiritual relationship.
I think another situation which human beings face when relating to other human beings has to do with what they consider the shortcomings of others. What do you do when you see someone behaving in a way in which you think they should not?
Retreatant: Give a big minus.
Godwin: We start with a very, very big minus, that is true. And anything else? Do we stop with a minus?
Retreatant: Sometimes we make the minus bigger. There is a German saying: Making an elephant out of a fly.
Godwin: Very good point. So you need only to give a very small minus, but then you make it very big. And some people are very creative. They can speak for the whole morning or the whole night about this small minus. They speak as if they do not have any minuses themselves! This is another very interesting phenomenon. They speak from a standpoint of perfection. They forget that they are also capable of behaving in the same way.
So these are things that one has to realise. Another thing which we do is, we do not stop at assigning a big minus, we get really angry. We become really mad at the person while trying to point out their mistake. And then because we are angry and are showing it, we hurt the other person with our anger. Then what does the other person do?
Retreatant: He gets angry also.
Godwin: He also gets angry. Naturally, you get angry and you hurt the other person in the process and the other person tries to return a bigger hurt. So it becomes a competition, to see who can be most hurtful! If the other person doesn’t become angry, how would you respond to that?
Retreatant: You would complain: You do not even get angry!
Godwin: Exactly. Sometimes people who make such comments are meditators also. After all, we are still only human. So aren’t relationships very interesting? Isn’t it really valuable to learn from such situations?
When you see someone doing something wrong in a spiritual relationship, do you say: May you be well, may you be happy, may you be peaceful? Do you say: These minuses are only concepts, I do not use minuses? What will a spiritual friend do in such a situation? He will speak with the other person. He will want him to grow. He will engage in some kind of a dialogue, because a spiritual friend would try to get the other person to understand his behaviour. Sometimes we just assume that the other person understands why he is behaving in this way. So it is very useful to get that person to understand or reflect on his behaviour.
And then the spiritual friend does something very creative too. When the other person does not do anything wrong, the spiritual friend points that out too! It is extremely destructive to point out only the minuses, and only when the other person does something wrong. It is extremely important to tell the other person when they are doing something good, something skilful, something wholesome. This is a quality we need to cultivate. The other quality you do not have to cultivate, it is there naturally!
So it takes some effort to see these positive qualities, to say this with your whole heart and to really show your deep appreciation for these things. This can be very touching. There can be a beautiful communication when such a thing happens. And the spiritual friend does the same to you. It is simply sharing with each other, and not taking up a position that one is better or more superior than the other. But really just sharing together, learning together, and growing together.
Sometimes it is also important to know when it is necessary to be assertive. That is, you should know when to be gentle and when to be assertive. I will share with you what a woman in Sri Lanka told me about regarding this aspect. This happened when I was in a very remote village speaking to a group of meditators. One of the women shared this experience with the group. She revealed that her husband would come home drunk and would start breaking the pots, plates, cups and so on. She tried so many things - practising loving-kindness, speaking to him in a very kind, gentle way when he was sober. She even spoke to his other friends, and through those friends tried to influence him to change. She would collect all that he had broken and keep the pieces in a place where he could see them. All these tools did not work. At last, one day when he came home drunk she said: If you break one plate, I will break ten! And that ended his days of breaking plates!
So as a spiritual friend you have to use these methods in a skilful way, and not merely always be passive. Some people understand only this language. This is another point to remember.
Another thing is to realise when the other person is closed. I have been hearing this very often since coming here. And I have also noticed the gesture that they use. Now I know even Sri Lankans would say: My friend is moody, he does not speak. But they do not use this gesture. So I am very curious to know, please tell me, what this gesture really means.
Retreatant: It means there is a shutter coming down.
Godwin: Some tell me: When I am open, his shutter comes down. And when he is open, my shutter comes down! Is that correct? So as a spiritual friend, what do you do with the shutters? Very practical question. Any suggestions? Any solutions?
Retreatant: Let the person be in peace.
Godwin: Leave the person with closed shutters in peace. May you be peaceful!
Retreatant: You can wait for their opening up.
Godwin: We can wait until the shutters open.
Retreatant: Or you can stop playing the emotional tango for a while, and after a while you try again. Perhaps if you are lucky it opens.
Godwin: In a creative relationship, it might be helpful to explore all the above suggestions, because it is possible that the person really does not know under what circumstances it happens. He or she may not have control over it. So when two people have a connection and are concerned for each other, it is beautiful if they can explore these things by having a Dhamma discussion. And from there, see how they can slowly try to explore whether the shutter can open. Sometimes it is very useful to get feedback. This is because the one who is doing this may not realise under what circumstances it happens, or what triggers off this situation. So it is really very helpful to do such an exploration together. Then the person knows: When my shutter goes down, my friend is not hurt by this, for he understands me. I feel that if you can have this kind of concern and care, whatever problems that arise can possibly be worked out in some way together, rather than you trying to work them out alone by yourself. It is very, very supportive to find someone else helping you, and to be helping each other like this.
I think another challenge we have is to try to really understand the other person from his or her position when there are differences. Again this is a skill to learn and to cultivate. Because here again, we become so fixed with our own conclusions, assumptions, idealism and ideas about things that it is extremely difficult to forget all that for a moment and see the other person from his or her position.
This is a very interesting practice. It is not easy, but try to forget your own world and understand the world of the other person. It is like playing with a child. If you want to learn how to play with a child, you have to forget your own world and enter into their world - and it is really beautiful to get into the world of the child for you can then communicate with the child. Communicate with the other individual in this same way. Otherwise, naturally the two worlds clash and there cannot be any communication. So this is another skill. So you see, how a spiritual relationship can allow us to develop these very important skills and spiritual qualities?
What are the other challenges we have? I think another challenge we all have is that we have become so dependent on what others think of us. We have a great need for plusses from other people. I’d like to mention that this can be a very strong need indeed. But here again, if you are serious in growing up you have to work with this dependency, because otherwise it can become a problem where you are trying to please others all the time, and trying to get plusses from others all the time. In fact, when you are not getting plusses from others, you think you are not trying hard enough, and then you try even harder and this can become a real vicious circle.
What is the basis of this need to be so dependent on the plusses of others?
Retreatant: Emotional insecurity, and lack of self-acceptance.
Godwin: Here again it means that it depends on how you relate to yourself. So you see how important it is to examine how you relate to yourself? So again, it is about this ability to see yourself as your own best friend and really become self-contained within yourself.
Sometimes I like to use this metaphor of toys. Although we are grown up, we still need these external toys. We can be changing one toy for another and still not getting satisfied with that toy. It is a case of just continuously changing toys and still not really being content, not really being self-contained. This is one of the greatest challenges we have. This is why I have been encouraging you to spend some time alone and to see if you feel lonely or bored with yourself when you are alone. See how far you can learn to be your own best friend in that situation. If that connection can be made, then you become your own toy. When you can see yourself as your toy, you’ll find yourself very amusing, entertaining and interesting. You have everything within yourself.
Then something beautiful happens. When you are alone, you can play with the toy, and when you are with others you can enjoy others. So this is another challenge we have in relationships, and again using that challenge to grow spiritually. Then whether you get plusses or minuses from others, praise or disapproval from others, you become self-contained within yourself.
What are the other challenges, problems and difficulties we have in relating to human beings?
Sometimes, for different reasons, one may have to work with or to relate to someone who can be extremely unreasonable, authoritarian and so on. I regularly hear from meditators that sometimes one could have such a boss in the places where one is working. Such a boss can be ruthless, wanting things done in his or her own way, and does not believe in spiritual relationships.
How does one work with such a person? Sometimes, besides the workplace, we could have such a boss at home too. Or perhaps your neighbour is someone like that? So how do we work with these real challenges we have in relationships? Do we leave the job, or move out of the family? Do we find another house because the neighbour is the boss?
Retreatant: I think the best way is to try to understand the other person by having a little talk and to understand what happened in his life, and why he is the way he is.
Godwin: Anything else?
Retreatant: Try to send the boss loving-kindness.
Godwin: Try to send the boss loving-kindness: May the boss be well, may he be more peaceful, may he not create suffering for me!
What I would like to suggest is something entirely different. Try experimenting and exploring, using the boss as your most valuable teacher. Like inviting the monsters, you say: Now today I hope my boss will show his or her power. As I had a very good meditation this morning, I now have lot of space and clarity in the mind So let me see what will happen with the boss. Then you are prepared.
Some days the meditator is successful, the boss did everything possible but there was no problem. You should give yourself a big plus, and feel grateful to the boss. But as we are still human, there are days when loving-kindness meditation did not work, morning meditation did not work, and you experience hurt, disappointment and wounds. Then, what do you do? Do you give up meditation?
Retreatant: Not go to the office.
Godwin: Isn’t it interesting how one failure and that is it! So what you can do, and this is a very important practice, is when you have failed and when you have recovered from that failure, try to reflect on it and make that the object of your meditation. Remember, this is to be done only when you have recovered from the wound that was created. And it has to be done in a friendly, gentle and kind way. And not in a berating manner - now what happened, why didn’t my meditation work, that shouldn’t have happened, and so on. This is because if you beat yourself, you would experience more hatred, more guilt, and greater feelings of worthlessness.
Now this is the beauty of having a spiritual friendship with oneself. Like having a dialogue with another spiritual friend, you have this friendly dialogue with yourself: What really happened to you, my dear? At what point did the monster arise? How many monsters came? Here you have to be very truthful and honest, to acknowledge that this and that happened. But there is no need to give a big minus, just acknowledge and realise that this is what happened.
Or perhaps you can even give yourself a big plus: It is okay, I am still trying, I am still human, I am still imperfect, but it is nice that I am still continuing with my practice -wonderful! You go the next day, the next week, and see what will happen then. You will come to a state in which whether you are successful or not makes no difference because both situations have become objects of meditation.Isn’t that an interesting and beautiful way to live? Learning from our failures and mistakes.
Here again, Thich Nhat Hanh once said something very beautiful: Compost is something that is dirty, but you can use the compost to grow flowers. So this is our compost. Learning to use this compost to grow spiritually. What is the problem? And all that is due to the very good teacher.
Retreatant: If we do what you tell us to, do we have to take everything as a teacher? For example, when a husband comes home and beats his wife, should we take him as a teacher? Also if I have to go to work with a very unpleasant boss and I have to go there for 40 or 50 years, I think it is better to look for another job.
Godwin: Or in the meantime, the boss may die within these 40 to 50 years! Anyway, that important question brings up the point that we must know our boundaries. Here is another challenge in relationships and spiritual life, and that is to know our boundaries. Talking of boundaries, I have a very interesting relationship with this little guru here, this little child. We are slowly becoming friends. When I give him something, he takes it. When I smile, sometimes he smiles. When I play, sometimes he will also try to play. But he knows his boundaries very, very well. I tried to carry him twice, but he pushed me away, showing me in his way to just be friends at a distance. This is how a child of that age indicates his boundaries. When I touched his body to carry him, his body language demonstrated he didn’t want it! So this is an example of how we should be very clear about our boundaries. Like the little guru is saying: No, sometimes you must also say: Now it is enough. Enough with the boss, enough with whoever it is.
You have a choice: Do I let it pass, give in to it, or do I act like the cobra? Sometimes in relationships we need to behave like the cobra. This is a famous story that comes from the Indian tradition. It is about a cobra that was practising loving-kindness. One day this cobra was in a forest, meditating on loving-kindness: May all beings be well, may all beings be peaceful. when along came an old woman. She was collecting firewood. She saw the cobra and thought it was a rope. So she took it to tie the firewood together. As the cobra was practising loving-kindness, it allowed the woman to do just that. After the woman had taken the bundle of firewood home, the cobra managed to escape, but with a lot of bruises, pain, wounds and so on. So the cobra decided to visit its teacher at six in the morning for an interview. It knocked at the door, and said: I was practising loving-kindness as you taught me but look what happened to me! Very calmly the teacher said: You have not been practising loving-kindness, you have been practising idiotic compassion. You have to show that you are a cobra, you have to hiss!
Yes, anything else?
Retreatant: Yes, I would say that if we are in a relationship, we also have to see what is the real way to help the other person. If I come back to the example with the woman and her husband beating her - if she leaves the husband then she gives him a chance to see what was happening, and what he has been doing.
Godwin: This reflection is very, very important. So this is why I suggested that sometimes you can do these reflections together, with the people who are involved. Or if you are unable to do that, to really reflect on it yourself. This is why I have been encouraging this practice of reflection.
Retreatant: The husband comes home and takes it out on the wife, and the wife takes it out on the children. That is possible.
Godwin: And the children take it out on the dog! Anyway, I have been presenting some areas for you to reflect on. So now is the time to ask questions. Please ask questions about important issues in relationships, practical questions, by relating some practical situations.
Retreatant 1: What if you have the impression that your partner was overwhelmed for a while by her emotions, and did not act for a while in a normal way, like she was quite out of control, leaving you and going to another partner? And then after some time she recognises that she was overwhelmed by her emotions. What should one do if after some time this person wants to come back?
Godwin: I have not thought of such a situation before, but let us reflect. Suppose you are a meditator and then such a thing happens, how does one deal with such a situation?
So I think you must try to reflect on what is happening in you. Now this kind of reflection has to be done when there is space and some clarity, and as far as possible when one can see the situation very, very clearly. Thus, the first question to reflect on is: Why did she leave me in the first place? Was it anything I did that resulted in this? And as I said earlier, trying to see it from her point of view. That is very, very important.
To have that kind of space to see it from her position, one has to have a lot of understanding. When that type of reflection is practised, I am sure there will be questions, and doubts will arise in your mind. And when the person returns, can you have an honest dialogue with her?
Now in this dialogue as a meditator, it does not mean that you have to always be passive and say: It is wonderful that you have come back! But in this dialogue one has to question her and find out why she did it, under what circumstances she did it. This kind of dialogue gives her an opportunity to really reflect on her own behaviour. If in this kind of dialogue reflection can take place, it is something very, very helpful, something very creative, where two individuals are really trying to understand their behaviour. And through that, depending on the situation, a connection may be made. Then you may be in a state to reflect: Can I heal my wound in this situation? And if you are unable to heal the wound, maybe you should tell her honestly: This is my situation.
Maybe others might have better solutions, I would like to hear.
Paul: I would like to share with you three tools that I have found very helpful in relationships. The first tool you mentioned before but is so important, and that is just to be there for the other person. It does not depend on the amount of time we spend, it is a question of quality. Just really feel the moment, sit and feel: I am there. Thich Nhat Hanh always stresses this, he gave one talk for about two hours only speaking about this issue.
The second tool comes out of this and it is very practical. It is called ‘deep listening’ - just to sit and to really hear what the other person is saying in terms of what is being said, the body language, everything. Really to understand, and not just to react.
The third tool, which I found in the last months through the help of another person, is that a relationship always shows you your own behaviour patterns. Therefore sometimes it is much easier to get along with strangers everywhere else, but when you are at home all is broken because after a while your partner knows all the different reactions you have. And these different reactions show a pattern; for example, you feel some criticism, some aversion and you react.
It is very important to question what is the main problem in the relationship and what kind of pattern is there, and then try in meditation to find a sentence like: I will not react. It is very interesting to take this as a tool whenever something comes up that pushes you to react, and to see with awareness: I am on the way to reacting. This changes relationship problems.
Godwin: Thank you very much. I would like to hear something from you all on this, you might have similar suggestions, similar experiences.
Retreatant 2: I wonder why he only asked what to do if she wants to come back, and why he does not ask himself if he wants her to come back.
Retreatant 1: I told her, before we can meditate about this problem, the wound must be healed and this takes time, and afterwards it may be possible to move onto this issue.
Retreatant 2: I have another point. I think it is a shortcoming to say that the problem started when she left. I think there must have already been problems before she left. And I think that it would be very necessary to look at the relationship before she fell in love with the other person.
Retreatant 3: I do not agree with that. It is not always a question of the relationship. One partner can be destructive. He can change his mind or he can change his feelings. I do not believe that I always have to look at myself and to give myself a minus for the other partner’s wrong behaviour. I am not always responsible for what the other one is doing.
Godwin: Very good, very interesting.
Retreatant 2: I just want to say it is not always a question of wrong or right. Sometimes it just does not work. I have discussed these things in my relationships and asked so much about myself and the other person, using all the tools you have told us about, and sometimes it just does not work.
Paul: Most of the time there is a misunderstanding of the Buddhist teaching. We are looking for keys, simple keys we can use on the door and the door opens, and everything is alright. For me at least, the Buddhist way is to use this situation to learn - it is not simply a key for having better relationships. This is a very subtle thing. Because always a little bit later we try to make it something very functional.
Retreatant 4: I want to say something. I think it is very important that the relationship grows, not only the people. Because the relationship is a reflection of the whole world, and if we want to live together in peace then we should at first succeed in a relationship one to one. If that is not possible, nothing is possible.