After the Honeymoon

Amour by Ligia BlatFalling in love is easy, but staying in love takes work. Thich Nhat Hanh offers advice for cultivating a relationship that’s loving and strong.

To commit to another person is to embark on a very adventurous journey. There is no one “right person” who will make it easier. You must be very wise and patient to keep your love alive, so that it will last for a long time.

The first year of a committed relationship reveals how difficult it is. When you first commit to someone, you have a beautiful image of them, and you commit to that image rather than the person. When you live with them twenty-four hours a day, you begin to discover that the reality of the other person doesn’t quite correspond with the image you have of them. Sometimes you’re disappointed.

In the beginning of a relationship, you’re very passionate. But that passion may only last a short time—maybe six months, a year, or two years. Then, if you’re not skillful, if you don’t practice mindfulness, concentration, and insight, suffering will be born in you and in the other person. When you see someone else, you might think you’d be happier with them. In Vietnam, there is a saying: “Standing on top of one mountain and gazing at the top of another, you think you’d rather be standing on the other mountain.”

When we commit to a partner, either in a marriage ceremony or in a private way, usually it is because we believe we can be and want to be faithful to our partner for the whole of our lives. That is a challenge that requires consistent strong practice. Many of us don’t have any models of loyalty and faithfulness around us. The U.S. divorce rate is around 50 percent, and for nonmarried but committed partners, the rates are similar or higher.

We tend to compare ourselves with others and wonder if we have enough to offer in a relationship. Many of us feel unworthy. We’re thirsty for truth, goodness, compassion, spiritual beauty, and we’re sure these things don’t exist within us, so we go looking outside. Sometimes we think we’ve found the ideal partner who embodies all that is good, beautiful, and true. That person may be a romantic partner, a friend, or a spiritual teacher. We see all the good in that person and we fall in love. After a time, we usually discover that we’ve had a wrong perception of that person, and we become disappointed.

Beauty and goodness are there in each of us. A true spiritual partner is one who encourages you to look deep inside yourself for the beauty and love you’ve been seeking. A true teacher is someone who helps you discover the teacher in yourself.


Putting Down Deep Roots

To keep our commitment to our partner and to weather the most difficult storms, we need strong roots. If we wait until there is trouble with our partner to try to solve it, we won’t have built strong enough roots to withstand the assault. Often we think we’re balanced when, in reality, that balance is fragile. We only need a wind to blow on the tips of our branches for us to fall down. A juniper tree has its roots planted deep in the heart of the earth. As a result it is solid and strong. There are some trees that appear to be quite steady, but they only need one raging storm to knock them down. Resilient trees remain truly steady in a violent storm because their roots are deep.

 

The First Root: Faith

We think that when we commit to another person, we need to have faith in that person, to trust that they are worthy of our commitment. But really, the other person is someone with challenges and strengths, just like everyone else. If we place our faith in a god, then perhaps later we will lose that faith. If we have faith in a person, then we may also lose faith in that person. We should have faith in something more steadfast and enduring. We need to have faith in ourselves and the Buddha within.

When we see people who have the capacity to generate happiness, this gives us faith in our own buddhanature. This faith is not a theory; it is a reality. We can look around and see that a person who lives with happiness and compassion has the capacity to make others happy. Someone who does not have the capacity to understand and love suffers and causes others to suffer.

In the Kalama Sutra, there’s a passage where a young person says to the Buddha, “There are many spiritual teachers who visit us. Many of them also say that their way is the true way, and that we should follow them. We don’t know whom we should follow! Please, Buddha, teach us what we should do.”

The Buddha said, “Do not have faith in something because a famous spiritual teacher said it. Do not have faith in something because it was recorded in scriptures. Do not have faith in something because everyone believes in it. Do not have faith in something because it is laid down in custom. Hearing something, we should examine it closely, comprehend it, and apply it. If, when we apply it, there is a result, then we can have faith in it. If there is no result, then we should not have faith in it just because of custom, scripture, or some spiritual teacher.”

 

The Second Root: Practice

No matter how much we want to commit to a healthy relationship, there are so many external messages teaching us to go after our cravings. We are full of so many old habits. If we don’t practice mindfulness, our cravings and sensual desires will overwhelm us. Happiness is made up of our mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Each time we practice sitting meditation, walking meditation, awareness of breathing, loving speech, deep listening, or any other mindfulness practice, our roots are growing stronger and deeper and we are gaining more solidity and strength.

If we practice conscious breathing, we will calm the turmoil and sorrow in our minds whenever they appear. If at first our practice is not successful, we continue until we see the results. When we see that the practice works, slowly our faith in it grows. Our faith is always based on empirical evidence. We do not believe it just because it has been repeated many times by others.

 

The Third Root: Community Support

In a relationship in which you and your partner share the same kind of aspirations, then you become one, and together you become an instrument of love and peace. Whatever you do, you do together, because you are a community, a sangha of two people, of three or four people, or of one hundred people who have faith in the same thing: that we have the capacity to understand better, to love better, and to have more happiness.

After his enlightenment, the first thing the Buddha did was to look for fellow practitioners so he could build a sangha. We can’t find happiness unless we have a refuge. I live in a community of monks, nuns, and laypeople at the Plum Village Meditation Practice Center in southwest France. My community is my true home. Even if you are just two people, if you nourish each other’s joy and mindfulness, then you have a sangha, a mindful community. If your family only has two people, that is the smallest sangha. If you have a child, you have three sangha members. If you live with more people, you have a sangha of four, or five, or more. Your family is your home, your refuge.

With our faith in our community of two or more, we can go anywhere. The sangha is like the earth. It can absorb so much and can hold such deep roots. These roots reach down into the whole community. When our roots reach down deeply into the sangha, our roots begin to draw nutrients from the sangha body to increase our own strength and keep us standing upright.

When the three roots of faith, practice, and community support have fed us deeply, then we will be solid both alone and in our relationships. We will not just survive; we will flourish. No violent storm can throw us. Often in our daily lives, we are just focused on survival. But fidelity is not a question of survival. It is one of vitality.

 

Two Gardens

You have two gardens: your own garden and that of your beloved. First, you have to take care of your own garden and master the art of gardening. In each one of us there are flowers and garbage. The garbage is the anger, fear, discrimination, and jealousy within us. If you water the garbage, you will strengthen the negative seeds. If you water the flowers of compassion, understanding, and love, you will strengthen the positive seeds. What you grow is up to you.

If you don’t know how to practice selective watering in your own garden, then you won’t have enough wisdom to help water the flowers in the garden of your beloved. In cultivating your own garden well, you also help to cultivate their garden.

Even a week of practice can make a big difference. You can do it. Every time you practice walking mindfully, investing your mind and body in every step, you are taking your situation in hand. Every time you breathe in and know you are breathing in, every time you breathe out and smile to your out-breath, you are yourself, you are your own master, and you are the gardener in your own garden. We are relying on you to take good care of your garden, so that you can help your beloved to take care of theirs.

If you have a difficult relationship, and you want to make peace with the other person, you have to go home to yourself. Go home to your garden and cultivate the flowers of peace, compassion, understanding, and joy. Only after that can you come to your partner and be patient and compassionate.

When we commit to another person, we make a promise to grow together, sharing the fruit and progress of practice. It is our responsibility to take care of each other. Every time the other person does something in the direction of change and growth, we should show our appreciation.

If you have been together with your partner for some years, you may have the impression that you know everything about this person. But that isn’t true. Scientists can study a speck of dust for years, and they still don’t claim to understand everything about it. If a speck of dust is that complex, how can you know everything about another person? Your partner needs your attention and your watering of their positive seeds. Without that attention, your relationship will wither.

We have to learn the art of creating happiness. If during your childhood, you saw your parents do things that created happiness in the family, you already know what to do. But many of us didn’t have these role models. The problem is not one of being wrong or right, but one of being more or less skillful. Living together is an art. Even with a lot of goodwill, we can still make the other person very unhappy. Mindfulness is the paintbrush in the art of happiness. When we are mindful, we are more artful, and happiness blooms.

 

Our True Home

We’re all searching for a place where we feel safe and comfortable, a home where we can be truly ourselves. As we become more skilled in mindfulness and lay down the roots of fidelity, we can truly relax with our partner. All the restlessness and searching inside dissipates when we find our true home.

Our true home is inside. When we look deeply and honestly at our own suffering, energies, and views, we find a peace that comes from being comfortable in our own bodies. But our true home is not only inside us. Once we have become comfortable in ourselves, then we can begin listening deeply to the suffering of our loved ones, and begin understanding their experiences and views. Then we can become a true home for each other. In Vietnam, each person in a married couple calls the other “my home.” When a man is asked, “Where is your wife?” he may answer, “My home is at the Post Office.” If someone asks a woman where she got something, she might say, “My home made it.” When a husband calls his wife, he asks, “My home?” And she answers, “Here I am.”

If we’re practicing mindfulness, there doesn’t have to be a conflict between the true home inside us and the true home we make with our partner. There is no discrimination, no craving. In our true home together there is only relaxation, liberation, and joy.

 

The Four Elements of True Love

True love makes us happy. If love doesn’t make us happy, it’s not love; it’s something else.

The word “love” has so many meanings. We say we love ice cream, a pair of jeans, or a certain movie. We have abused that word and have to heal it. Words can get sick and lose their meaning. We have to detoxify the words and make them healthy again.

True love is made of maitri (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (joy), and upeksha (equanimity and nondiscrimination). True love brings joy and peace, and relieves suffering. You don’t need another person to practice love. Practice love on yourself. When you succeed, loving another person becomes very natural. Your love will be like a lamp that shines; it will make many, many people happy.

The holy spirit is made of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. When you practice the four qualities of true love, your love is healing and transformative, and it has the element of holiness in it. Then sexual intimacy becomes something very beautiful. Love is a wonderful thing. It gives us the ability to offer joy and happiness, relieve suffering, and transcend all kinds of separation and barriers.

 

Loving-Kindness

Maitri, or loving-kindness, is the first element of love. The word “maitri” comes from the Sanskrit mitra, which means friend. So love is friendship, and that friendship should bring about happiness. Otherwise, what’s the use of friendship? To be a friend means to offer happiness. If love doesn’t offer happiness, if it makes the other person cry all the time, then it’s not love; it’s not maitri; it’s the opposite.

Maitri is the ability to offer happiness. True love requires this element. Love does not just mean love for another person. Self-love is the foundation for loving another person. If you don’t know how to love and offer happiness to yourself, how can you love and offer happiness to another person? If you don’t know anything about happiness, how can you offer it? Live in a way that brings you joy and happiness, and then you’ll be able to offer it to another person.

We know that happiness has something to do with suffering. If we don’t understand suffering, we can’t know what happiness is. Understanding suffering is the very foundation of happiness. If you don’t know how to handle a painful feeling in you, how can you help another person to do so? So self-love is crucial for loving another person. A successful relationship depends on us recognizing our own painful feelings and emotions inside—not fighting them, but accepting, embracing, and transforming them to get relief.

 

Compassion

The second element of love is karuna, or compassion. Karuna is the capacity to relieve suffering—to remove and transform suffering. When someone you love suffers, you’re motivated to do something to help. But if you don’t know how to handle the suffering in yourself, how can you help the other person to handle their suffering? We first have to handle the suffering in ourselves. Whenever a painful feeling or emotion arises, we should be able to be present with it—not fight it, but recognize it.

We can learn how to embrace and accept suffering and use mindfulness, concentration, and insight to understand its nature. Then we get relief. The Buddha’s teaching is very clear and concrete. He doesn’t just say we have to love, but he tells us how to love. He doesn’t just say we can transform our suffering; he tells us exactly how—step by step.

We need to not only recognize the suffering, pain, and difficulties within us, we need to devote time to dealing with them and transforming them. Using mindfulness and concentration, we can nurture our own feelings of joy and happiness. If we know the art of releasing, the art of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, then we can bring in feelings of joy and happiness at any time.

The word “compassion” does not quite reflect the true meaning of karuna. The prefix “com” means “together” and “passion” means “to suffer.” So to be compassionate means to suffer together with the other person. But karuna doesn’t require suffering. Karuna is the capacity to relieve suffering. It’s the capacity to relieve the suffering in you and in the other person. When you know the practice of mindful breathing; of tenderly holding your pain and sorrow; of looking deeply into the nature of suffering; then you can transform that suffering and bring relief. You don’t have to suffer, and you don’t have to suffer with the other person. Both of you can practice this way.

Suppose you’re a compassionate physician. When a patient comes in complaining of pain and fear, even as a good doctor, you don’t have to suffer with that person to be kind to them.

We have to distinguish between the willingness to love and the capacity to love. You may be motivated by the willingness to love, but if that is your only motivation, the other person will suffer. So the willingness to love is not yet love. Many parents love their children. Yet they make them suffer a lot in the name of love. They’re often not capable of understanding their children’s suffering, difficulties, hopes, and aspirations. We have to ask ourselves, “Am I really loving the other person by understanding them or am I just projecting my own needs?”

Love doesn’t just mean the intention or willingness to make someone happy, but the capacity to do so. That capacity to love is something you have to learn and cultivate. Look into yourself and recognize the suffering in yourself. If you recognize, embrace, and transform your suffering and difficulties, then you are loving yourself. Based on that experience, you will succeed in helping another person to do the same, bringing a feeling of joy and happiness.

 

Joy

Joy, or mudita, is the third element of true love. Love should bring us joy. If love brings only tears, why should we love? If you provide yourself with joy, you’ll know how to bring joy to your partner and to the world.

Mudita has been translated as sympathetic or altruistic joy. I don’t like that translation because if you don’t have joy, you can’t offer joy. Joy is for you, but it is also for me. A true practitioner knows how to bring joy to himself. We don’t need to talk about altruistic joy. Joy is just joy. If you are really joyful and your joy is healthy, then that benefits other people. If you’re not joyful, not fresh, or not smiling, then that doesn’t benefit anyone. If you’re inhabited by joy and freshness, even if you do nothing, we profit from you.

 

Equanimity

The fourth element of true love is upeksha, or equanimity and nondiscrimination. This is the foundation of true love. In true love, there is no distinction between the one who loves and the one who is loved. Your suffering is my suffering. My happiness is your happiness. Lover and beloved are one. There’s no longer any barrier. True love has this element of the abolishing of self. Happiness is no longer an individual matter. Suffering is also no longer an individual matter. There’s no distinction between us.

Another way to translate upeksha is inclusiveness. In true love, you don’t exclude anyone. If your love is true love, it will benefit not only humans, but also animals, plants, and minerals. When you love one person, it’s an opportunity for you to love everyone, all beings. Then you are going in a good direction, and that is true love. But if you love someone and you get caught up in suffering and attachment, then you get cut off from others. That’s not true love.

The deepest gift mindfulness can bring us is the wisdom of nondiscrimination. We are not noble by birth. We are noble only by virtue of the way we think, speak, and act. The person who practices true love has the wisdom of nondiscrimination, and it informs all of his or her actions. You don’t discriminate between yourself, your partner, all people, and all living beings. Your heart has grown large and your love knows no obstacles.

Cultivating the four elements of true love—loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity—is the secret to nourishing deep and healthy relationships. When you practice with these elements regularly, you can handle the difficulties in your relationships and transform the suffering you feel inside. You become like a Buddha. You love everyone and every species. Your presence in the world becomes very important, because your presence is the presence of love.

Excerpted from Fidelity, © 2011 by Unified Buddhist Church, with permission of Parallax Press.


Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen master, scholar, author, poet, and peace activist. He founded the Order of Interbeing, a community of monastics and laypeople with monasteries and practice centers around the world. He is currently on a teaching tour of North America (for information go to tnhtour.org). This article is from his new book, Fidelity, published by Parallax Press.