"Buddhism and Relationships" by Susan Piver
1 March 2010
Buddhism has much to teach on the topic relationships, even though it may not seem that way at first. I mean what do the four noble truths (life is suffering; suffering is caused by attachment; it’s possible to stop suffering; there is an 8-fold path for doing so) have to do with figuring out how to love someone—or how to survive when someone stops loving you? Well, as a student of Buddhism and one who writes about relationships, I can tell you that every time I’ve tried to contextualize a Buddhist teaching as a way of understanding love, it works.
So not too long ago, I thought about the four noble truths and the three yanas in connection with that which we long for and fear the most: love. I don’t mean to be facile with these precious teachings. It’s just that I’ve been helped by them so much in matters of the heart and wanted to share them.
The four noble truths are as described above. The three yanas (or vehicles) are the Hinayana (foundational vehicle), Mahayana (great vehicle), and Vajrayana (indestructible vehicle.)
Hinayana teachings focus on personal conduct; getting your own life together.
Mahayana teachings are about what naturally happens next: your heart opens to others. You can’t help it. So the Mahayana is about compassion and recognizing the profound interconnectedness of all phenomena.
The Vajrayana is about working with every circumstance as an opportunity for complete enlightenment. Here one finds teachings on ordinary magic, crazy wisdom, and auspicious coincidence—the ways the world conspires to introduce you to your true nature.
With these ridiculously superficial explanations, let’s look at the four noble truths and the three yanas in light of relationships.
I made all this up, so please don’t take it too seriously.
Four Noble Truths of Relationships
- Relationships are deeply uncomfortable.
Whether it’s your first date or tenth anniversary, there is simply an enormous amount of discomfort involved in relationships. We’re afraid of being hurt, disappointed, overtaxed, ignored. The interesting part is that all these things happen. This is just the way it is, even in happy relationships.
The thing no one tells you is that it’s impossible to stabilize a relationship. Yes, I really mean those italics. Impossible. The emotional exchange between two people shifts like grains of sand in the desert: some days you can see forever and some days you just have to take cover because something kicked up out of nowhere and now shit is flying all over the place. You can’t see two feet in front of you and it stings. On still other occasions, imperceptible winds cause little piles to slowly accumulate until, one day, a familiar path is altogether blocked. You just can’t tell what’s going to happen. And just like hiking in the desert, you have to be as absorbed in the present moment as you are attuned to atmospheric indicators. Woe to she whose attention to either lapses.
The bad news is you never get to where you thought you were going. You get somewhere else instead. The good news is that there’s basically no way to have a boring relationship.
- Discomfort comes from trying to make the relationship comfortable.
At the root of the discomfort is the wish that it wouldn’t be uncomfortable, that we could eventually find the “right” person and relax. But the truth is that when you do find the (or a) right person, it’s anything but relaxing: your neuroses, their neuroses, and all the hopes and fears you’ve ever had about love flood your situation. Whether you bargained for it or not, you get introduced to your deepest self while someone else is trying to introduce you to their deepest self. It can get very confusing. But instead of wasting time trying to make it not confusing, better to dive right in and be really nice to each other as you consider the root of your own and his/her confusion. (Acting nice to each other in the midst of confusion is love. Shhh.) (PS Acting nice doesn’t always mean being all sweet and demure. But I digress.)
- It’s the inability to create safety that plots the path to love.
True love seems to exist on some mysterious edge of its own. It can’t be controlled and when you try, it calcifies. To keep it alive, at some point you just have to let go and see what happens.
When you work with all this nuttiness, love becomes more than mere romance. It turns into something way better: intimacy. Romance has got to end, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. But intimacy? It has no end. You can’t be, “oh, intimacy, we’ve done that. What comes next?” Nothing comes next. That’s it. Discuss.
- It is possible to work with the uncertainty skillfully.
Instead of flinging yourself kamikaze-like into the flame of love, you can train in working with the heat. As with anything you consider important (or life-threatening, for that matter), you don’t want to just show up and hope for the best. You want to play the odds.
Applying the view of the three yanas could help.
As mentioned, Hinayana teachings are about personal conduct: right speech, right action, and so on. You get your own life in order through discipline, honor, and effort. You know how to make your bed, pick up your clothes, and make it to work on time. Basic stuff, but without which everything simply falls apart. Very important.
When applied to relationships, Hinayana view could mean things like calling someone when you say you will. Being on time. Having good manners. Listening when they talk and other such radical propositions.
When you are a stand-up human being, you can extend yourself to another in a more profound way. In fact, you want to. It just happens. You could find love and actually enjoy it.
Once you get into a relationship however, you find out something pretty disturbing: you have to love them back.
For whatever reason, all the relationship books and TV shows in the world seem to be about how to get love, not how to give it–which is quite a complicated proposition. Here’s the problem: most of us aren’t looking for someone to love. We’re looking for someone to cast in the role of boyfriend or girlfriend. Central casting, send me someone who has a job, a car, and speaks English! (My stringent requirements for potential boyfriends, back in the day.) You can get as specific as you want when you send in your requisition (I need someone with brown hair who likes dogs but not cats, enjoys rowing, and has never eaten at Hooters), but eventually that person is going to break character. Then what? Alarmingly, you have to dispense with all your requirements and have a look at the actual person in front of you. You see that this person is as important as yourself. This is the very teensy-tiny beginning of compassion: when you agree not to be the most important person on earth. But that’s okay. Now you can start to figure out what it really means to love.
If the Vajrayana teachings are about meeting the circumstances of everyday life as a potential moment of transformation, then applied to relationships it could mean something like this: Every single thing that happens between you and your beloved is an opportunity to love more. Everything. Even crappy stuff.
Just as no one can tell you how to make giving birth or spilling your coffee into an opportunity to attain enlightenment, no one can tell you how to do so when your beloved leaves you for someone else or fails to empty the dishwasher. (Although he promised he would.) Big or small, heart crushing or annoying, delightful or irritating, no matter what happens, in the Vajrayana view it is fodder for wakefulness, for love. And just as with Vajrayana meditation practices, you can read books about how to do them and even have a great person teach them to you, but at some point you’re on your own. You have to figure it out for yourself.
The willingness to try is love itself. Isn’t it?
© Susan Piver
Susan Piver is a writer, teacher, and speaker on topics such as love, creativity, and spirituality. She is an authorized meditation instructor in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. Here books include The Wisdom of a Broken Heart, How Not To Be Afraid of Your Own Life, and The Hard Questions for an Authentic Life. You can read her blog at http://www.susanpiver.com/wordpress.