It’s very easy to get annoyed, particularly with our loved ones. I’ve been married to someone for fifty-three years and in a close relationship with him for fifty-six. Sometimes that person makes a stupid remark that hurts my feelings, doesn’t know he did it, and barrels right on.
Well, I might take umbrage. I feel bad. I radiate back that I’m feeling bad. Still the other person doesn’t notice that I feel bad, doesn’t even notice that anything happened, just keeps on saying what he’s saying or doing what he’s doing. So, I think to myself, I’m just not going to say anything back. As a matter of fact, I’ll just go out to my study now. And I go in there and get a little more aggravated, because he still hasn’t figured it out. So I decide I’m not going to cook that special dish the other person likes [laughter].
But perhaps at some point I see that the mind is hatching revenge. It may take me a little while to catch on to this fact, but if I am paying attention, I eventually see the truth of this moment. The truth is I’m plotting revenge. That’s unwise, unskillful action, because it’s compounding my distress. I didn’t feel good to begin with and now I have the added difficulty of a vengeful mind, which hurts even more. If I allow myself, I can see that he actually loves me and simply said a ridiculous thing because he wasn’t paying attention. All of that other stuff is just editorial chatter I’ve saved up as proof that he doesn’t love me. I’ve manufactured a fable and then frightened myself with it.
The ninth branch of the eightfold path is relationship, and its path is metta, loving-kindness practice. Loving-kindness is really mindfulness, telling the truth about what’s really going on. One way we can practice it is to say on the in-breath, “May I meet this moment fully,” and on the out-breath, “May I meet it as a friend.” Try that, and see how it feels. When we meet the moment fully, in relationship, as a friend, we combine mindfulness and loving-kindness. We stop plotting our fable, our story about who did what to whom.
Buddhism is very optimistic about the human capacity for love, about the potential of what we can do with love. We can develop a love that is steadfast and universal. We develop it not because we force ourselves to love so fully. Rather, we discover that loving unconditionally is the greatest source of joy, and that we are the loser for any hesitation or interruption in that love, such as “I would really love you if you would just do your share of the cooking, if you would just do this, if you would just do that.” Whenever we hesitate like that, we lose.
Buddhism tells us that in spite of all the circumstances we face, we could have a steadfast love for all beings. For most people who come to study dharma, this kind of love begins to feel right to them. It seems right to them when they realize that this world only becomes problematic when we hesitate to love.
There’s a phrase that I’m very fond of that comes from the late Nyanaponika Thera, a wonderful German-born mindfulness teacher who went to Sri Lanka and was ordained as a monk. Thera spoke of a “love that embraces all human beings, knowing well that we are all wayfarers through this round of existence and that we all experience the same laws of suffering.”
This is such a moving phrase, because if I can see that the person who has irritated me has, like me, very simple wants, then I can embrace the moment fully and as a friend. This person irritating me really just wants to get through this life without too much suffering. This person, like all people, suffers in the same ways I do: Things don’t happen the way they want. Things that are dear to them don’t last. Things keep changing. They are “wayfarers through this round of existence,” and they suffer just like I do.
There’s a line from the Buddha that may seem discouraging of relationships. The Buddha says that everything that is dear to us causes pain. I didn’t like that when I first read it at the beginning of my practice, but after a while I realized that it’s simply an expression of the truth. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have relationships. It doesn’t mean not to have things dear to you. It just means that in this life of change, we will lose everything that’s dear to us, unless that which is dear loses us first. Everything will change. It won’t be what it was, or it will no longer be what we wanted, or we’ll stop loving it and then we’ll feel bad about it, or we’ll love it so very much and something will happen to it, and then it won’t be available to us, and on and on and on. This life is full of getting used to losses. The only adequate response is to love fully and realize we have a precious short life.
The teaching that everything dear to us causes pain has helped me to be more clear that I’m eager to use relationship as a practice. It helps me remember not to mortgage away any of my days by having a grudge or a grievance or making myself distant. That would simply cause a rupture in that steadfast, universal love that is so joyful.