From my perspective, family life and relationship are among the most obvious and paradoxical of paths on which to practice the dharma. Nowhere are we more triggered nor more loving. In one moment, something our partner / child / parent does fills us with joy, and then suddenly, in the next moment, something they say hits us just the wrong way and we’re ready to live a life of solitude!
The foundations of our family life and spiritual path are the same. Both build on an intention to change our lives for the better, to live in community, and to challenge our self-importance. In the beginning we are full of inspiration and the work of relationship is not burdensome; the sharp edges become more apparent over time, “When the honeymoon is over.” These sharp edges can function as the fulcrum on which we shift from a habitual relationship to a mindful one. To accomplish this transformation, first we must recognize that the root of our discomfort or disagreement is within our own assumptions about the nature of relationship itself.
Generally speaking these assumptions arise out of the deep seated tendency to seek lasting happiness. We believe that our relationships can make us permanently happy, even though intellectually we know better. When this dream of permanence is challenged by death, separation or significant changes in values, we feel excruciating pain. In these challenging moments, we have to make the path completely personal, joining our romantic inspiration with the clunky demands of living in an imperfect world. We have to refresh our aspirations and look closely at our expectations. It takes a lot of bravery, curiosity and kindness.
The Practice of Mindful Gap
I find particular encouragement in a simple teaching by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche which he calls the practice of Mindful Gap. This practice is a way of engaging skillfully with difficult situations. Mindful Gap practice slows down the momentum of our strong emotions and cultivates helpful insight. There are three stages to the practice: distancing, patience, and right view.
This is how the practice works: 1) Distancing. When an intense feeling arises, first we acknowledge it. It’s helpful to name it, “I’m angry, in love, etc.” Then we create a helpful distance from the momentum of the feeling by separating the direct sensation of the feeling from the story about it. Instead of following our impulse to blame, “I’m angry because you…,” we pause and experience the sensation of the emotion directly, with curiosity. It’s like listening to unfamiliar music – Ah, anger. At the same time we invite our friend, our anxious “I”, to take a seat nearby. We’re not asking our friend to leave, just to take a little break so we can spend a little quality time with our feelings! This is similar to the way we work with our children when they become overly demanding.
2) Patience. When we allow for distance our reactive impulse is still very near, so the next step is patience. If we feel the impulse to respond, we acknowledge that and continue watching closely, with curiosity, while at the same time staying with the sensation. Within this simple openness we don’t need to label the experience as either bad or good. With patience we begin to see the movement and change that are intrinsic to our feelings.
3) Right View. When we connect to the experience of patience an interesting thing can happen. We may feel the loosening of the tight grip we had on our emotion – we notice that there is some spaciousness or ventilation where we initially experienced claustrophobia. This change in our perspective is what Buddhists call “right view,” and it brings us a taste of freedom. It is “right” in the sense that it is helpful and it is “view” in that we’re seeing the nature of our feelings more accurately – as impermanent and continuously changing, in contrast to our underlying assumption of permanence.
An effective way of bringing this practice to our relationships is through the simple act of listening. When we listen as our partner / child / parent shares their feelings and problems with us we often feel compelled to step in with answers, or to offer an opinion. In this case, when the impulse arises to interject, rather than following this impulse, we pause and gently introduce a gap by welcoming the sensation of impulse; at the same time we invite our anxious “I” (who has such a need to be heard) to take a back seat; we then rest with the sensations and remain open to the conversation. Be patient with the fluctuating feelings and impulses, noting them with curiosity, and relax. There is no need to jump, fix, or correct.
Mindfulness is the basis of all Buddhist practice. I find this approach to mindfulness particularly useful in relationship because the three steps of the exploration give me a handle for exploring whatever emotion arises. It also allow me to start over as often as necessary. The curious, non-judgmental awareness invites a new way of relating to our old friends, our emotions. I encourage you to try it the next time your loving family member finds that hot button!