Our so-called life, from the Buddhist point of view, is simply experience, and experience is relationship. Put simply, we don’t have independent existence. We cannot exist without depending on others. When I go to the grocery store and buy an apple, I might feel very independent. I walk in, grab an apple, pay with my own money, and go home to eat it by myself. But in fact I can only enjoy this apple because it is connected to so many people and conditions: the store owner, the shelf stockers, the truckers, the farmers, all the way back to the seed and the Earth. There’s so much connection, all the time.
Of all of the relationships we have in this interdependent experience of ours, the most direct, most emotional, and most apt to bring great joy and suffering is a close, intimate relationship with another human being. We give it great, special prominence in our mind, but it helps to remember that it is the same as the apple. It’s about interconnection, interdependence.
From a Buddhist point of view, relationship is a great mirror. It is the mirror in which we see ourselves, in which we discover ourselves. That mirror can be distorted. I remember the first time I saw myself in a funhouse mirror: “Oh, what happened to me? I’m all stretched out.” The mirror can also be very clear. We can see ourselves and what we are up to so directly. That makes relationship a beautiful experience.
When we sit by ourselves, it’s easy to enjoy our mental games, fantasies, ego trips, and so forth. We can go on and on and on without any problem. But try that with your partner! Then here comes the mirror. The mirror will reflect and show you your ugly ego trips. A mirror is very neutral—it just reflects. It doesn’t take any sides. It is just a mirror for both of us.
In this mirror, we discover ourselves—our tendencies, our weaknesses, and our strengths. We discover our good qualities as well as our negative qualities. This mirror becomes a very precious teacher for us, a very precious path. The mirror of relationship becomes a very precious teaching for us to discover who we really are, and where we are on the path and in the world altogether.
This is a lot to take in, so our tendency is to see what we want to see in this relationship mirror. The problem with this approach is that two people in a close relationship can see two different things. If I want to see something and she wants to see something else, we’re both seeing two different things. As a result, we’re being thrown off from the balance, the benefit, the preciousness of the relationship, the mirror. We would rather idealize our relationship; we would rather escape. We would rather live in the future than in this very immediate present moment. But if we can practice being in this present moment, relationship becomes a path and the mirror a great teacher.
In our relationship with another, we often misunderstand how we are connected. We may think we are two made into one, or we may think we are completely independent. My father taught me that a marriage or partnership, an intimate relationship with another human being, is like two rings coming together. You can illustrate it with your fingers. Make a ring with each hand, then join the rings together. There’s a common space in the center. There is mutual responsibility, joy, and sharing, yet at the same time we must understand there are also the two sides. There is not only the middle. Individual space is also necessary, and if we try to overlap these two rings totally, we lose balance.
There is a common bond, but there are also two individual mind streams. We must respect that and allow the other independence. The common space respects the individual space.
We cannot overpower the other or make them just like us. The other not only has needs but also individual, habitual karmic habits that you cannot change. They need to initiate change themselves; you cannot forcibly change them. Buddhism teaches us that you cannot change someone’s karma; not even Buddha can do that. He said, “I can only show you the path; doing it is totally up to you.”
That’s the basic principle in a relationship—we share. We share our wisdom, our knowledge, we allow ourselves to be a mirror, but it’s up to the individual to make the choice. We must respect that. We must know that the other acts out of habit pattern, just as we do. Just as we cannot be forcibly changed from the outside, so too with them.
Problems begin when we lose the balance that comes from understanding the interplay of connection and separateness. We lose the sense of mindfulness when we lose the basic balance of the selfless, egoless teaching, and become selfish, ego-centered, or even ego-maniacal.
That’s where dukkha (suffering) begins and joy ends, where the joy of relationship ends and the dukkha of relationship begins. When a relationship is troubling, that will stimulate our path. We can’t expect it always to be perfect. In the mirror of relationship, we discover all these things. We discover the real nature of relationship and we discover how we go off balance, how we lose the egoless, selfless view, how we lose the sense of love and caring.
Practicing mindfulness and awareness can help us see in the mirror more clearly. Mindfulness can tame the mental wildness that causes us to go so off balance. Mindfulness puts the wild mind in a corral. Once the wild horse of our mind is a little settled, we can train it by tying it to the post of awareness. Then we can train the horse to do all sorts of things, including to exert itself on the path of relationship and take joy and delight in loving.