Buddhism and Relationships: Eight Qualities of LoveMay 15, 2017 | 2 Comments | Add to favorites
Even though Buddhism is often associated with ascetic practices done by people in robes, as a 20+ year practitioner, it has been useful to apply core Buddhist teachings to my love life. Buddhist practice and study were helpful when I fell in love, got my heart broken, and, now, in marriage.
In a recent post, I offered a way to look at the basis of all Buddhist philosophy, the Four Noble Truths, when applied to love. The Four Noble Truths of Love* are:
- The truth: Relationships are uncomfortable.
- The cause: Trying to make them comfortable is what makes them uncomfortable.
- The cessation: Meeting the discomfort together is love.
- How to work with it all: The eightfold path, consisting of:
The previous post presented truths 1–3. This post is about the fourth truth, the eightfold path.
The eight fall into three categories:
Right View and Right Intention are classified as prajna or wisdom.
Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood comprise ethical conduct (shila).
Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration refer to absorption (samadhi).
If there are any qualities that are handy for making a happy relationship, I would definitely nominate wisdom, ethical conduct, and the ability to remain connected.
I’m not talking about having the right relationship strategy or holding the most evolved philosophy. Right View actually exists in the moment prior to strategies and philosophies. It has something to do with recognizing and owning the projections, judgements, hopes, and fears that most often lurk behind our strategies and philosophies.
Most of us have some kind of movie playing in our heads at all times that we overlay on our experience in order to make sense of it. The narrative is constructed of past experience, karma, and various notions known and unknown to us. It’s as if there is a lens in the middle of your forehead and everywhere you look your movie projects onto the environment. You, you’re cute, okay, I cast you as my love interest. You, don’t care about you, not interesting, you’re an extra. You, over there, you hurt my feelings, you’re the enemy. And so on. The closer we feel to a person, the more intense and active this movie becomes and the less likely we are to notice the actual person we purport to feel so close to.
Relatively speaking, Right View is maintaining awareness of the movie and not mistaking the human being in front of you for what you have projected onto him or her. From an absolute perspective, Right View is snapping the projector off. For good.
Just take a moment and imagine what it might feel like to decommission this projector. What would it feel like to be loved by someone who had also done so? I don’t know about you, but when I think about it, I get quivers down the backbone.
Right Intention is going out into the world with Right View.
Okay. But what is the right intention exactly?
Many, many people have declared that intention creates reality. I happen to agree. But there is a right Right Intention and wrong Right Intention, if I may. Most often, we “set” our intention to accomplish something in the material world. That is totally cool — or at least I hope it is because I myself am riddled with ambitions and desires. But what is behind such intentions? That is the question to focus on, especially when it comes to love.
If you were to have a look at, oh, ALL of the books written about relationships, you would see that 90–99% of them are about how to get love. When we think about having love in our life, our attention most often settles on how great it would be to be loved. And you know what? It would be. However, this leaves 50% of the money on the table. It is also rather disempowering, like, I’ll just sit here and hope and hope and REALLY, REALLY hope that I find love. To approach love in such a way can make you feel like a loser.
However, if we switch our intention from “I want to be loved” to “I want to love,” something quite miraculous happens. We feel re-empowered. Each encounter with our fellow humans looks, not like an experiment in avoiding hurt, but a vital opportunity to open up, feel what occurs within and between you, and choose something to offer from your vast storehouse of riches. Trust me, you have such a storehouse and, keep trusting me, it cannot be diminished. According to Buddhist thought you possess Four Immeasurable qualities: Loving kindness (the capacity to care); Compassion (the ability to feel another’s pain); Sympathetic Joy (the ability to feel their happiness), and Equanimity (steadiness of heart). So you can afford to experiment (skillfully, wakefully, intelligently) with the intention of giving from the heart.
When speech arises from Right View and Right Intention, the probability that it will be a channel for greater intimacy is vastly increased.
Right Speech in relationships could be the topic of a book itself. So much depends on how, when, and why we address each other and, beyond this, how capable we are of listening clearly and responding accurately.
In Buddhist view, Right Speech is comprised of three things:
No lying. Of course you don’t want to make things up or be misleading to any degree. Anyone with the intention to love truly would agree. But it is not that simple. In order to avoid lying, we first have to know the truth of what we think and feel. That takes tremendous precision and courage. So, begin by being brave and not lying to yourself.
No divisive speech. Pretty much every argument I have ever had with my partner has been based on divisive speech. When I try to blame or hurt him, I am dividing myself from him. It is quite a trick to argue with full-on heat and volume (nothing wrong with that) and remain undivided, shoulder-to-shoulder, at the same time.
No idle speech. Basically this means that if you don’t have anything to say, don’t talk. I’m not saying that all chit-chat is a bad idea — but are you using your speech as a kind of sweet ambient background noise (which is awesome) or because you are bored and looking for a way to entertain yourself?
Right Speech in the positive would be: be truthful; use words to bridge the gap; and let your speech have a purpose.
None of this is easy. When people talk about how hard relationships are and how much work they take, they are most often referring to the difficulty of Right Speech. This is because relationships are not for babies. It takes a very big mind and heart, not to mention tremendous clarity, to use speech to benefit and delight.
This means being a decent person all the time, not just when someone is watching. In Buddhism, Right Action covers all forms of non-harming, such as don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t be sexually (or emotionally) abusive, and don’t be an addict. Don’t be a dick, is how I think of it.
Right Action does not mean eschewing these things when we might get caught. It means eschewing them all the time.
In relationships, non-harming is very tricky. We usually don’t mean to hurt the one we love but we find that we do so in all sorts of ways, big and small. Like, every day. You could begin by recognizing your own pain. There is no such thing as hurting others without first being in pain yourself. Don’t let things fester. Clean up your messes. This doesn’t mean sweep your emotional pains and sorrows under the rug or throw them out — rather, do your inner housekeeping and be assiduous about it. When you feel angry or hurt, work with it. A lot rides on keeping your inner environment well-lit.
Right Action could be summed up by the Buddhist mind-training slogan, “Drive All Blames Into One” which does not mean blame yourself for everything. It means take responsibility for everything as if you had caused it to happen — but don’t hurt yourself by chastising, shaming, or being aggressive toward yourself. Just get to work on whatever has just happened. Then the ability to avoid hurting others by chastising, shaming or being aggressive toward them is a thousand times easier.
Right (Livelihood) Household
The next step along the Buddhist eightfold path is Right Livelihood. This refers to the work you do to gain resources on which to base your life. For our purpose, I’ve reframed this as “Right Household,” meaning what we often create as a basis for relationships — a home or some kind of shared space. Just as Right Livelihood includes some very straightforward parameters about not earning money from killing, poisoning, or stealing from others, Right Household is similarly straightforward. Don’t live in a mess. Don’t spend more than you have. Share responsibilities consciously. Be cognizant of not being the only person in the house (or apartment, room, car, wherever you spend most of your time together) and attend to the environment accordingly. The space you share is the environment in which your relationship transpires. The more conscious (but not in a silly way) you can be about the space around you, the fewer obstacles you will find between you.
This means continually working to apply Right View, Intention, Speech, Action, and Household. Even when you’re tired. Grumpy. In love. Mad. Bored. Ecstatic. Always! It means not giving up on deepening your capacity to love and be loved. (Until and unless you determine that giving up is the right thing to do. Then do not give up on giving up.)
Once, the Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche showed his students a picture of a cloud. What is this picture of, he asked? A cloud, they answered. No, he said. It is a picture of the sky.
Without the sky, the cloud would be just a puff. Without the cloud, the sky would be an empty space. Foreground and background are inseparable and it is very helpful to acknowledge that the space around you informs what arises within it and that what arises within it informs the space.
When it comes to love, to be aware of both foreground and background means being cognizant of what you feel and what your partner may be experiencing as well. But it also means attending to the ambient qualities of the environment you inhabit together. This is a very mysterious thing to do. Sometimes I walk into our house and it feels warm and bright. Other times, it feels heavy and stuck. I may be in possession of a good mood right now, but my partner is crabby (or vice versa). I feel his mood and it changes things: my thoughts, hopes, fears, and energy. Right Mindfulness is a dance of awareness that swirls among all these things: you, me, the space we are in, and the way it all changes moment-to-moment. Like a kaleidoscope, each time one cell rotates, the entire pattern shifts. If you can roll with this for even five minutes, you will learn a lot.
To be absorbed is to stabilize two qualities of mind: mindfulness and awareness. Mindfulness means precise attention to the present. Awareness is attunement to insight, wisdom, feelings, sensations, and what lies beyond all such things. Right Absorption means not becoming distracted by discursive or conceptual thoughts. This doesn’t mean you don’t have discursiveness or conceptuality. It simply means that rather than resting with them, you rest in mindfulness-awareness, which are inseparable from each other.
Right Absorption brings us back to Right View: the willingness to step beyond conventional thought to be with what is. The Zen priest John Tarrant Roshi said, “Attention is the most basic form of love. Through it we bless and are blessed.” When we can attend to our beloved, our self, and the present moment, we find that we reside in love itself.
Walking the path of love, as with any endeavor, begins with having some clarity about what you are doing, why you are doing it, how you might accomplish it, and what obstacles you are likely to encounter. When it comes to relationships, it is surprising how reticent we are to think carefully about what we are doing. We want the magic of falling in love (which is real!!) and cling to the hope that the magic will do all the work (but that is not the job of magic).
Love itself arises via the mystery. The noble eightfold path speaks to what might be useful for whatever happens next.
* I made these truths up. The Buddha did not say these things. Take it all with a giant grain of salt.
I am so excited about this topic that I am writing a whole book about it, “The Four Noble Truths of Love.” It is turning out to be the most powerful and intense thing I’ve ever written. Your reflections, questions, and feedback would be most useful. Comment away!
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Next post: Buddhism and Relationships: How to apply the Eightfold Path to Love
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