Sylvia Boorstein shows us how, with practice, we can glimpse new ways of relating to loved ones, even when we’re stuck.
Question: After an argument recently with my partner, our son said to me, “You’re both supposed to be Buddhists but you have more negative patterns than anyone else I know.” I reminded him that we see things inside the family that people don’t reveal in other situations, but I basically had to agree with him. We are still stuck in harmful habits, even after years of meditation. So the practice isn’t working. What will?
Answer: I am touched by your question. It really is unfortunate that the mind often responds unwisely when dealing with our nearest and dearest, but it does make sense. There are various reasons why. First, fear arises with our significant other because we are afraid of not getting what we want. Anger arises as well because the other person is perceived as the enemy who is not giving us what we want. Then, greed arises in the form of needing to be comforted by the person we depend upon to be our lifelong companion—except that this person is now also our perceived enemy!
Arguments are really draining. You are both depleted, and exhaustion makes rational thought less possible. When you are down, doubt has its chance to creep in—even doubt that the relationship is working. Then, after you have lost some faith in the relationship, you next turn on yourself, beating yourself up with disappointment that the mind has, once again, allowed itself to fall into confusion. You can even rail at your Buddhist practice itself, as it seems the work you are doing is leading to hopelessness.
Yet insight and compassion, which are at the heart of Buddhism, are the most helpful responses to this dilemma. As tension arises, you could try this: Say to each other, “We’ve wandered into a conflict zone.” This is the first noble truth, that life comes with challenges. Your next phrase could be, “Let’s not make it worse.” This is the second noble truth, that suffering is an inept response to discomfort. After that, try saying, “We usually love each other. We could, right now, reassure each other and then figure out a way to work this out together.” This is the third noble truth, that a clear, wise mind is a possibility.
Finally, you could conclude by saying, “Every time we do this, we’ll get better at it.” This is the fourth noble truth, which involves habituating the mind to thoughtful response in place of impulsive reaction. This is a lifelong exercise.