Working with our Relationships

Earlier this week I shared in our sangha newsletter a series of questions presented by Thich Nhat Hanh in Hong Kong this past May. He simply read off about 20 questions at the beginning of the Public Talk and invited the listeners to allow them to penetrate into their heart. They weren’t easy questions necessary. Please allow me to share a few of them with you now.

  • Are you in love?
  • Are you still in love?
  • Do you want to reconnect with the person you used to love?
  • Do you have the time for each other or are you both to busy?
  • Do you know how to handle the suffering within yourself?
  • Do you understand your own suffering and the roots of that suffering?
  • Are you able to understand the suffering in the other person?
  • Do you have the time to listen to him or her and help him or her to suffer less?
  • Do you know the Buddhist way of restoring communication and bringing about reconciliation?
  • Are you capable of creating a feeling of joy and happiness for yourself?
  • Are you capable of helping the other person to create a feeling of joy and happiness?

This doesn’t only need to pertain to our intimate relationships, but can also apply to other important relationships in our lives such as parents, children, friends, etc.

Suffering was the First Noble Truth taught by the Buddha. There is suffering. Suffering isn’t something to be afraid of, to avoid, or to suppress. The question is do we know how to take care of our suffering. More importantly, do we know the goodness of suffering? The goodness of suffering is knowing that we can use our practice to transform the suffering into peace, joy, and happiness. It’s like the compost for the garden. We need to know how to take the garbage and use the compost to grow a beautiful flower or a vegetable garden.

I know we all have experience suffering. It can anything. We may even have suffering and unhappiness in our relationships right now. How are you taking care of that suffering? Are you aware that it exists?

The other night I was very unhappy with the dishes piled up in the kitchen. I started to cleanup the dishes, but I did it with anger and frustration. I banged the pots and cups around as I cleaned. It was so loud that my partner came and asked what was going on with me. She said, “you never do this loudly.” I wasn’t taking very good care of my suffering in that moment, but Leslie became a bell of mindfulness that allowed me to stop for a minute. It didn’t subside right away but I began to use the energies of our practice – namely, mindfulness, concentration, and insight – to help transform my anger. The stopping and looking deeply allowed me to receive the insight about my behavior. I could see some of the roots and understand my suffering a little better. Later I was able to apologize and thank Leslie. This is knowing how to take care of our suffering. We have to understand our own suffering before we can understand the suffering of the other person.

This stopping and coming back to the present is the practice of mindfulness. It only takes a few seconds, a few mindful breaths. Do you know how to breath? A friend of mine just had a book published called Ten Breaths to Happiness. This teaching is a practice on taking the time for ten breaths to appreciate something or somebody with our mindfulness and concentration. He suggests that we can use counting to help guide this practice. We stop and calm ourselves and then we count to ten with each breath. A breath is equal to one inhalation and exhalation. Breathing can be a powerful tool for us. Maybe we practice this ten breath exercise for ourselves, for something in nature, or for our loved one.

This is a practice of taking care of ourselves and learning to cultivate and nourish good things in ourselves. To bring about joy and happiness. I know it’s really important to learn how to take care of our suffering first and also to learn how to generate joy in ourselves to be able to do the same thing for the other person. We learn how to create a space for meditation wherever we are and whatever we are doing. Walking. Driving. Lying down. Do you know how to truly walk? There are so many opportunities for me each day to be in touch with my walking. Even just the 20-feet out to the car in front of the house. This is an opportunity to practice. An opportunity to be present for ourselves. Sometimes I just smile as I walk from the front door to the car door. Walking with peace and ease. Nothing to do. Nowhere to go.

This practice of stopping can help us learn to be there for each other. Like so many of us, I know my life is quite busy. We have the constant connection of mobile phones, computers, Facebook, etc. In my life, I rise early only to be at work all day. Commuting 35-miles each direction. Taking care of the daily chores. Supporting friends on the path. How can this possibly leave room room for my intimate relationships? Does this leave room for our children, our parents? Just like with the walking or the sitting meditation, I try to practice with the energy of mindfulness when I am home. When I am home, I work very hard to be physically and mentally present for those I love. If I can’t be, maybe I stop on my way home to prepare myself to be present. If that doesn’t work, or something arises at home, I try to communicate to my partner that I need help or that I need space. Am I able to give my undivided attention to my partner and my children when they talk to me? Do I speak lovingly and with care?

In Plum Village, the practice center for Thich Nhat Hanh in France, they have used a series of mantras to help reconcile and heal our relationships. The first mantra is “Darling, I am here for you.” It is very important to our community, to our practice, and for our relationships. It is a starting point for teaching ourselves to be present for those we love. I don’t necessarily have to say this out loud, although I am sure it would be greatly appreciated by those I love, but I do try to practice with this intention in my heart. Darling, I am here for you. We can look at each other and see the goodness in each other. We can look at each other and know when there is something wrong just like my example with the dishes.This is about taking care of each other. Sometimes this may also manifest in our actions. How are we taking care of each other with our actions?

The second mantra is “Darling, I know you are there and it makes me happy.” Wow, what a disarming statement this can be, especially when we say it out loud. This is a practice that creates a feeling of joy or a feeling of happiness in the other person. It is simply an acknowledgement of the other person. Maybe we can’t always say this and we need time to restore our communication or bring about reconciliation.

If that is the case, the next two mantras may be of help. I have already eluded to the last two though the two examples earlier. When Leslie came into the kitchen while I was doing the dishes, she was saying “Darling, I know you suffer.” This is the third mantra. In the moment when we can’t feel our presence or are unable to to support our loved ones, we might use the fourth mantra. “Darling, I am suffering, please help me.” Using these exact words are not important. Being able to convey the need or the request in a loving way is how we practice being compassionate with each other.

In Buddhism we speak of the four elements of true love. You may have heard these four elements before because they are very common. Being able to cultivate these elements in our daily lives can help transform and heal our relationships.

  1. Maitri (lovingkindness)
  2. Karuna (compassion)
  3. Mudita (joy)
  4. Upeksha (equanimity or inclusiveness).

There are so many different aspects of love and relationships that could be explored together. Here we have just focused on the four mantras and the four elements of true love. Contained within these are other aspects such as loving speech and deep listening, and those will be saved for another day.

We must learn how to love. Learn how to take care of each other better. Take care of our planet. If we can take care of ourselves, then we can take care of each other. If we can take care of each other, then we can take care of our society. If we can take care of society, then we can take care of our planet. We are one giant living organism that has all descended from star dust. We are all the leaves of one tree.

The recording below was given on July 13, 2013 at Being Peace Zendo in Ojai, California.