Falling 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.