"No man is an island," nor is any woman for that matter. The famous verse of the English poet John Donne is every bit as relevant today as it was 500 years ago. We might be the most smart, confident, resilient, independent person in the world, but we would be nothing without those around us. Relationships are the bedrock of life. When they are at their best, they are fulfilling, nourishing, engaging, enjoyable and supportive. At their worst, they are complicated, messy, frustrating and dysfunctional. And that's just with our friends and family -- imagine how it is with those we don't like!
It's tempting to brush it off, to blame it on life's ups and downs, the stresses and strains of everyday life. Some people prefer to blame it on others instead. Seriously, as hard as it is to believe, I've genuinely met individuals who are convinced that they never, ever, do anything wrong and that all the difficulties they experience in their relationships are down to others. Following quite an intense discussion, I once overheard a woman say "everyone is f**king crazy apart from me." And she meant it; it was said with such conviction and certainty there was no room for doubt whatsoever.
The truth is, when two people come together it is a meeting of minds. That means two different people, two different ways of thinking, two different personalities and two different sets of values, ideas and life experience. Sometimes these ingredients mix really well together and we find ourselves thoroughly enjoying a relationship, whether it's at work, at home, with friends or a loved one. At other times, we just can't seem to find anything to agree on at all. It's as if the other person is from a different planet! Then there are those relationships that are so "on again, off again," we never really know where we are. The balance of ingredients is a truly delicate affair and, just like a chocolate souffle, is surprisingly easy to get wrong.
However, the fact remains that we are destined to share our lives with others. We cannot avoid this fact, no matter how hard we might try. There is an inescapable interconnectedness. So the question has to be not how can we get as far away from others as possible, but instead, how can we approach our relationships in such a way that they become easier, more enjoyable and a little smoother around the edges? How can we provide a framework in which we can see our actions more clearly, relate to others more skillfully, whilst providing the conditions of happiness for us both? We will never be able to control the thoughts, words and actions of others, but at the very least we can ensure that we have some perspective on them, that we are not overly reactive toward them and that we are not easily overwhelmed or perturbed by them.
In fact, the seeds of any good relationship exist in our own mind. Research has shown how training the mind can give us a greater sense of calm, clarity and empathy in our relationships. It's also shown how it can significantly decrease the amount of rumination together with the intensity of negative emotions. More than that, the research has consistently demonstrated that training the mind makes us less critical and judgmental, whilst at the same time revealing a greater sense of openness, kindness and patience. In short, training the mind makes us less judgmental and less opinionated. At the very least, it makes us more aware of our tendency to judge, to criticize, to be self-righteous or opinionated, and thereby gives us the opportunity to let go of these habits.
I'm sure you don't need any motivation or encouragement to give up these tendencies, but just in case you do, take a moment to think how it feels when you're around people in your life who are consistently angry, grumpy, impatient or abusive. Okay, so now think how it feels to be around people who are genuinely happy, content, at ease and communicative. Quite a difference, right? And the same is equally true for others. So, the more we can provide the conditions for happiness in others, the more likely we'll find the relationships we seek.
The irony is that although mind training almost inevitably leads to a greater emphasis on the happiness of others, it almost always begins with wanting something for ourselves. It might be that "I" want to feel less stressed, or "I" want to escape the madness. It might be that "I" want to be more focused or "I" want to be more creative. It might simply be that "I" want to experience improved health. However we spin it though, that's a lot of "me, myself and I." They are all excellent reasons for learning to tame the mind, but they are also inherently self-interested. They don't necessarily take into account the impact that our own neurosis has on those around us, and they almost certainly don't take into account the happiness of those around us.
Its not because we're inherently selfish. Okay, well, maybe it is a little bit. But that doesn't make us inherently bad people. It's simply reflective of the way habitual patterns shape the human mind. All of the positive attributes are still present of course, it's not like we've got rid of them, destroyed them or misplaced them somewhere. It's just that somehow we have come to believe (and perpetuate the habit) that happiness can only be found in fulfilling our own desires, in focusing on improving the self, rather than focusing on the happiness of others. Both are equally important, and of course we should never neglect our own happiness, but by recognizing that ultimately the happiness of those around us is not separate to our own happiness, we start to appreciate and value the importance of looking after the mind -- not just for ourselves, but for others as well.
Why not make a start today? Commit to taking 10 minutes a day to look after the health of your mind. In fact, why not set yourself the Mind Man Challenge and see if you can do 10 minutes every day for 10 days. I've recorded a special program, which is completely free to use and which you can access via the Internet or as an app on your iPhone or android mobile. Simply visit www.getsomeheadspace.com to sign up to the challenge and make today the day you commit to giving your mind and your relationships the TLC they deserve.
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