I have been a student of Buddhism since 1995, and the study and practice of dharma inform my actions, friendships and creative focus. When you become a Buddhist, part of the commitment is to take off the training wheels and do your best to put the dharma into play in all situations. It's no longer theoretical. It is your life. It's a fun, scary, and noble challenge.
When the Buddha became enlightened, the first thing he handed out was the four noble truths and upon becoming a Buddhist, they are your benchmarks.
- Life is suffering. (Doesn't mean "life sucks," by the way. More like, "life changes.")
- Suffering is caused by attachment. (Wanting things to be other than they are.)
- It is possible to stop suffering. (Phew.)
- There is an eight-fold path to liberate yourself from suffering, which includes such things as Right Speech, Right Action and so on.
There have been countless words written on each of these four and you could definitely spend a lifetime in contemplation of just one of them. To apply them to everyday life means to accept that things won't ever quite work out (at least not in any conventional sense); that when you hold on to anything too tightly (even the idea of not holding on to anything too tightly), it backfires; you can definitely figure all this out and, finally, that there is a step-by-step explanation for how to do so, via practices, insights, devotion and so on.
Okay, all very well and good. It's not like I can do any of this, but I am fairly diligent about trying to in every area of my life. Well, every area but one. Work -- check. Money -- check. Family -- check. Society -- check. Romantic relationships -- check NOT.
When it comes to love and partnership, I definitely try to wiggle out of the four noble truths. I can halfway toy with accepting that everything changes, even that I will die and this body will be a corpse. But when it comes to love -- I need that to be permanent. There, I said it. When my husband tells me he loves me, that cannot change or I'm going to be very, very upset. When we make a commitment to share our lives with each other, that too must be rock solid. When he disappoints or angers me, I have every right to expect him to change. And when it comes to acknowledging that one way or another, this relationship will definitely end, well, I just need that not to be true. Otherwise it is simply unbearable.
(I believe that this, by the way, is why most relationships fail, because to come to terms with this last truth is just too painful. It's easier to break up with someone because they don't make you laugh/take you seriously/earn enough money/eat dairy, but really I think it's because, at some point, we become unbearably precious to each other. But I digress.)
Even among deeply practiced and skillful Buddhists, I can't help but notice that it is difficult to apply the dharma to anything that involves love and medically unrelated nakedness. When it comes to relationships, we believe our version of reality is absolutely solid and correct. There is no oxygen when you feel neglected, dismissed, suffocated, or enraged by the one you love. Oddly, it is our intimate relationships that most challenge our ability to be open, non-judgmental, compassionate, and kind.
The hardest people to love are the ones you, well, really love. What is up with that?
Unfortunately, I don't know, but I still think about it all the time. It may be useful to take a look at the four noble truths again and try really, really hard to language them to apply to relationships. I'll go first. Let me know what you think.
1. Relationships are uncomfortable.
Right? Whether you're on a blind date, worrying if you'll like each other or have been married for 20 years, groaning yet again "why are you doing that thing that I've asked you eleventy billion times not to do?" there is a kind of discomfort. Of course, there are also times of sheer delight and deeply gratifying intimacy, but even in the sweet moments, there is the shock of dissolution.
I've come to think that the most deeply loving gesture I can make within my relationship is to tolerate my own discomfort -- to recognize my feelings and leave the story behind; to cease & desist threatening my husband with consequences should he fail to be the person I need him to be rather than the person he is. There are only so many times you can choose your make-believe husband over your real one before he balks. Hard.
Too, there is something magical, yes magical, about this discomfort. You're right there, never quite in your comfort zone. Always a tiny bit on the edge, like you're trying something new for the very first time. Which, when it comes to love, is not such a bad approach. Brilliance and inspiration and everything fresh is discovered on this edge, including how to open your heart beyond what you ever thought possible.
2. Thinking they're supposed to be comfortable is what makes them uncomfortable.
It is pretty hard to get away from the idea that love is supposed to make you happy. No, wait, it is supposed to make you happy -- if happy means alive, open, giving, and touchable. When it's defined as safe and predictable, getting what you want, or finding the perfect man/woman, we might run into a few problems.
When we say we're looking for love, most of us really mean we're looking for safety, a way to get comfortable. We're looking for someone to love us first, and then we will love them back. (99.9 percent of relationship self-help books are about how to get love, not how to give it. That's kind of odd, no?!) "Relationship" is equated with a protective cocoon. It's understandable. Loving is so vulnerable, maybe the most vulnerable thing you can do. Love is not for sissies.
There is nothing less safe than love. Love means opening again and again to your beloved, yourself, and your world, and seeing what happens next. The moment you try to make it safe, it ceases to be love. Believe me, I'm not saying you shouldn't be very smart, practical, and skillful when it comes to your relationships. But relationships and love are two separate things.
3. It is absolutely possible to love and be loved unconditionally.
You know this is true. You know it from experience. You are in the house of unconditional love every time you are touched beyond thought by the beauty of your fellow human beings, and every time one has been touched by you. Even something as simple as the smile a stranger gives you when you hold the door for him or her qualifies. Or when you are moved by the success of someone you love and feel it as your own. When you are touched by someone's sadness and want to help. When you open your eyes, you see that such moments are taking place all the time. These agenda-less instances of opening to another are, IMHO, unconditional love. I mean, they are unconditional, right? You're not putting any conditions on things when you simply feel them spontaneously. I rest my case.
4. There is a path that teaches you how and it really works.
You can practice becoming comfortable with discomfort. The sitting practice of meditation teaches you how, exactly, directly, perfectly.
You can practice letting your dear ones -- and yourself -- off the hook for not being perfect. The traditional practice of Maitri (also known as Metta or Lovingkindness) teaches you how -- exactly, directly, perfectly.
And you can practice letting life in, allowing people, circumstance, your own brilliance and your own foibles to touch you deeply. When you know how to navigate from discomfort back to equilibrium through the practice of meditation and can extend yourself to others fearlessly by cultivating loving kindness, you can stop looking for love. You have made your life into love itself.