(a caveat. This is a HUGE subject and this is a brief attempt to organize my early thoughts on right relationship, through the lens of my own life. Completely open to feedback and to co-creation. I also mention a number of books throughout, which give more detailed accounts of the points discussed.)
I was spending some sweet time with my husband Doug recently, and he was helping me clarify my dreams for my work in the world. His significant encouragement and “boots on the ground” assistance with helping me give my gifts, brings me to tears just writing about it. It is, perhaps, the primary way I feel loved in the world, and he frequently gives me the leg up I need to be a brighter light, a more effective healer, a “good enough” mother, a raw example of a woman trying to do life with scraped knees and a loud song (not always on key). This was a typical “date” for us — some time reserved for the two of us alone, to focus on what’s important. We’ve been doing weekly dates since we married, 26 years ago, and I honestly believe that it’s the reason we are still married.
It’s HARD to be married. And if you’re not numbing yourself out with work, alcohol and drugs, TV, or the internet, you will have noted that there is a certain amount of pain and struggle that is native to, and ongoing, when you have committed yourself to someone for a lifetime. The list of activities that you need to coordinate are daunting: financial accounting, work, cohabitation and the creation and maintenance of a home, health issues, family responsibilities, sex and romance, and possibly childcare, elder care and religion. AND, marriage invites you to go ahead and just project all of your unmet needs from your family of origin right onto your spouse — so that you can work through them. It doesn’t really SOUND fun, but here’s the thing. I have found that my lifetime commitment to Doug, as a conscious choice to grow and change with him no matter what life throws at us, is perhaps the best spiritual path I have access to. And the amount of joy, personal transformation, pleasure, and deep satisfaction that I have found, walking this path with courage and an open heart, is profound. Our recently released (and now bestselling!) book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, with John and Julie Gottman, is an attempt to share this life-changing practice of “dating” for a lifetime with others.
This “date” began with my considering what I am most passionate about. Marriage and relationship, certainly. Parenting. Helping people to heal themselves (combining the best of modern medicine, bodywise intuition, and ancient healing traditions). Creating community. And restoring the earth to her natural balance.
Yeah…. It’s a lot. I have perpetually found myself to be compulsively comprehensive. I have always seen (and felt) the connections between disparate fields. I had an interdisciplinary major in college and a medical school experience integrated with graduate work in the humanities. And I am a family practice doctor (I treat everyone for everything) who is also board certified in integrative medicine. Which means that I offer my patients a broad toolbox of Western medicine, counselling, herbal and nutritional medicine, functional medicine, ancient traditions (Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, Shamanic traditions) and spiritual considerations when helping them find health. Mmmhmm. Compulsively comprehensive. I love my work. I particularly love being able to meet my patients where they are and help them discover the “key in the lock” for their particular ailments.
Doug and I began talking about our early work in sexuality and spirituality (The Multi-Orgasmic Series), our books for healthy relationships (The Man’s Guide to Women and Eight Dates) and my book teaching deep body intuition and integrative healing (BodyWise: Discovering Your Body’s Intelligence for Lifelong Health and Healing). Doug suggested that the connection between these topics is Right Relationship. How do we learn to be in deep connection to our body’s innate intelligence and respect ourselves? How can we be in clear and compassionate relationships with others (marriage, parenting, community). And how can we find ourselves as an intrinsic part of the web of life on planet earth, and through that compassionate connection, stop destroying the natural ecological balance, as best we can. To be in Right Relationship with self, with others, and with nature. To realize that we are inextricably linked — and that saving ourselves really is about restoring our right relationship with ourselves and all life.
In Ancient healing systems, such as Chinese, Tibetan, Native American and Ayurvedic medicine, healing is all about rebalancing the system. Illness is a disruption in the natural flow of things, and restoring right relationship within the body (and sometimes within the family, community or cosmos), restores wholeness and well-being.
Famous ecologist Aldo Leopold defined Right Relationship in the 1940’s: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” In a more modern, research-driven interpretation in the book Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy, they re-word this as “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, resilience, and beauty of the commonwealth of life.It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Integrity and wholeness, the resilient ability to adapt to change, and intrinsic beauty defines right relationship — and is also a perfect definition for health. That dynamic state that I spend my life helping myself and others cultivate and find. I would add to these three qualities interconnection — as an apparent lack of connection, an experience of separation, is causing problems at all levels of the human world.
It would be a mistake to think of right relationship as a stagnant state of being. Health and well-being is a state of relationships in dynamic equilibrium. And we are all glorious, and fallible beings, doing the best we can moment to moment. Which means that we are working toward right relationship as we grow and change, not residing in it. Trying to preserve the integrity, resilience, beauty and interconnection of our bodies, our relationships, and of the planet.
My thinking about right relationship is influenced by the work I’ve companioned my husband through in the last several years. The Book Of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World is based on conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that I was privileged to witness. The “Pillars of Joy” are Perspective, Humility, Humor, Acceptance, Forgiveness, Gratitude, Compassion and Generosity. When I think of right relationship, I believe that some of these same qualities (drawn from their Buddhist and Christian traditions) are necessary when there is a rift in our right relationships. We restore our integrity, resilience and beauty by following these four steps (though I would strongly suggest both humor and forgiveness when needed or necessary!).
The Four Steps to Restoring Right Relationship
2) Acceptance of what is
4) Connection and the re-establishment of an active relationship
Perspectiveis the use of our thinking to understand the current relationship in its situational complexity, as best we can. Equally important here, is our ability to use our deep body intuition, our body intelligence, to guide our instincts and thinking. As human animals, our “gut instincts” can be as important as our intellect in guiding us. And we always need to keep in mind that our perspective is just that, ours. It’s not correct. It’s simply how we see the world through our particular lens at this time and is subject to change. But having and knowing your perspective is requisite for the process of relationship.
Acceptance of what is, is the foundation for moving forward. Life is almost never perfect. Or you may say that it’s perfect in its imperfection. We see it with our perspective, and then we accept it as the current reality, rough as it may be. We accept ourselves and our current limitations, including our limited perspective. We accept other people and their limitations. We accept the natural world as it is right now. From this starting point we can move forward into the future.
Compassionis the cultivation of love and empathy for another or for our broken world, or perhaps most importantly, for ourselves — once we have accepted what is. It doesn’t mean we always agree with the person we are being compassionate towards, but it does mean that we can understand their point of view (or our own).
And connectioninvites us to restore our relationship with another, with community, with nature, or with ourselves. It reintegrates us into the whole of the community of life. It also restores integrity, vitality and resilience to a dynamic relationship.
When we restore the ecosystem of relationships, whether with ourselves, with others, or with nature, we make dynamic what has been stagnant and therefore painful. In the body, when things don’t move as they should and are stuck (air, blood, cellular transport or electrical transmission), illness and/or pain ensue. When we restore the dynamism of the flow, health and healing can occur. It is the same in an ecological system, in a friendship, in a community or in a marriage.
Right Relationship with Self
The most important and fundamental right relationship is the one with our self. When the Dalai Lama began teaching Tibetan Buddhism to Westerners, he was flummoxed, because the basis of all Tibetan compassion practices is to open your heart and have compassion for others, as you would with yourself. He was shocked to learn that many Westerners don’t love themselves. This lack of self-love, of self-compassion, makes connection with others more fraught with neediness and insecurity. And, on the other hand, being in a stable, loving relationship (romantic or otherwise) can be the fastest way to learn one’s own value in the eyes of a compassionate other.
The four steps to restoring right relationship apply with yourself. Perspective is necessary as we often are much more critical of our self than is appropriate or than we would be of someone else. “Okay, maybe I’m not the worst beach volleyball player in the history of the universe…” Acceptance means really looking with an honest evaluation at both our strengths and weaknesses. “I am a 51 year old volleyball player who is doing her best and having a lot of fun, and honestly… will probably peak in my physical ability within the next 4 years.” Compassion is turning a soft heart toward your failings AND your successes. “I was sad that I got my ass kicked on the court today and perhaps disappointed my partner, but I was doing the best I could. And I’m pretty much here for fun and exercise, which I got. And it’s amazing that I get to play this difficult game in my 50’s. It builds character.” And connection means taking that sweet open-heartedness with yourself into the future, to be your own ally, to use your inner nurturer to nurture yourself. “I am doing to run a bath with Epsom salts for my tired body when I get home (and after I ice my knees), so that I can go out and play volleyball again in 3 days.”
In the Western world, we have philosophically separated our minds and spirits from our bodies, and much of our self-loathing expresses itself through the loathing of our corporeal form. Many of us walk around like we are simply “heads” with this thing we ignore, that dangles below our neck (our body). Reconnecting with your own body is essential to your wellness and to your ability to have right relationship with others and with nature.
In my book BodyWise: Discovering Your Body’s Intelligence for Lifelong Health and Healing, I teach people how to listen to their body intelligence by paying attention to their body sensations, in detail. And then to relate those sensations to what they know about their body and what emotions and memories seem connected to the sensations. And finally, to discern what their body is trying to communicate. To understand their body wisdom. We are far more sensitive and intuitive than many of us realize. The human body is a marvel of sensory integration and communication — with most of us barely touching on our body’s unique capabilities. Paying close attention to our body’s intelligence and its needs for the fundamentals of health: Eating, Sleeping, Moving, Loving and Finding Purpose, allows us to find and maintain our right relationship with our own body and experience health and vitality.
Right Relationship in Marriage and Friendship
Like most folks that have been in a long-term relationship, there have been a variety of times that the pressures of life and love led me (and Doug) to feel, “This is it. We’re finished. I cannot stay married to this person for one more minute.” Stagnant. Angry. Self-righteous. Blaming. Our saving grace was always the one of us that got perspective first, “This feels terrible but I know I really love you.” Accepted our imperfection and fallability, “Wow, I was disrespectful, threatened to leave, blamed you for our problems, called you names….and that is not how I vowed to behave until death do us part”. Found compassion for ourselves and the other person, “I’m sorry I hurt you with what I did and said. I’m not a bad person, but I was hurt/ashamed/embarrassed/angry.” And restored connection, “Can we start again and I’ll listen to what your experience was without interrupting, and you can listen to mine? And we’ll try to understand each other.”
If you’re looking for guidance on this particular topic, the Gottman’s Aftermath of a Regrettable Incident Guideis dog-eared in my top dresser drawer we have used it so much.
And… we learned, and grew ourselves, and continued in dynamic relationship.
I have used this same sequence of steps when I am having a disagreement with a friend, a work colleague or a family member. If they are willing to do it with you, it is almost magical to see the transformation that is possible and the deepening of the connection that follows. If the person you are struggling with is not willing to do this work, you can also do your part of it without them, trying your best to heal your relationship to the fight or disagreement from your end.
Right relationship in communityrequires a similar process. I learned about the process of truth and reconciliation, the deep path of forgiveness, from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Father Tutu oversaw the Truth and Reconciliation process that allowed South Africa to make a miraculous peaceful transition from Apartheid, to shared governing. This process (beautifully described in -No Future Without Forgivenessand The Book of Forgiving, with Mpho and Archbishop Tutu) can bring individuals and communities back into active and ongoing relationship. The Fourfold path described in Book of Forgiving is similar to that of right relationship and involves these four steps: 1) Telling the Story, 2) Naming the Hurt, 3) Granting Forgiveness, and 4) Renewing or Releasing the Relationship. It bears mentioning that we want to be in right relationship in our orientation toward others, but that sometimes may mean that we do not have an active relationship with someone, if they are harmful to us. Harmful relationships need to be worked through, as best they can (and neither I nor Father or Mpho Tutu would suggest that you forget what has been done to you) and forgiveness given — not for the other person, but for yourself. You have probably heard the saying, “Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping that the other person will die.” Forgiveness does not mean that we forget. Forgiveness sets us free. And sometimes the right thing to do is to release the relationship, to let it go, for your own benefit or the benefit of the other. In nature there are connections, but there are also boundaries, between cells, between living beings, and between communities. Discernment about helpful boundaries is equally important in families and communities.
Right Relationship with Nature:
Human animals may be an intrinsic part of earth’s ecosystem (despite our parasitic and destructive tendencies — our “wrong relationship”), but because of our modern culture and convenience, most humans in developed areas feel themselves as separate from nature. Studies show that simply seeing a tree outside of an urban apartment window can improve the physiology and health of the people living inside. Nature is soothing to our adrenal stress response and nervous and immune systems (lowering cortisol levels and increasing balanced immune function) because we are native to it — fully connected to the rest of the natural world. We breathe the outbreath of the trees, we are nourished from the plants and soil. Human evolution took place embedded in nature. It is our “natural place.”
The growing number of children that do not have access to natural settings spurred the “children in nature” movement and defined “nature deficit disorder” as a modern plague (See Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods). Re-establishing our connection to nature is really as easy as stepping onto the ground, taking off your shoes, smelling the plants and flowers, and making connections with other living beings. In Japan, they describe the benefits of “forest bathing” — literally, spending time in the forest. Not all of us have access to the forest, but most of us, even in cities, have access to “nature bathing” — even if it’s hanging out with the persistent plants in an empty lot or a city park.
Here are what I call the Five Gateways to Embodiment which help get you re-connected with your body and connected with nature and others — to rediscover right relationship.
1) Nature bathing
2) Grounding and Planting (literally getting your naked feet on the ground and your hands in the dirt)
3) Immersion in Water (especially natural water, though a bath would do in a pinch)
4) Fire Gazing (an ancient human activity)
5) Sex and/or Loving Skin Connection with Another
6) Making Music and Dancing
7) Spending time with animals
And once we are reconnected with nature, we can’t help but consider the impact of our actions on the commonwealth of nature that all living beings share. Choosing our actions regarding the health of the earth more wisely, and guided by compassion, leads to greater joy and peace in our life. And the restoration of integrity, resilience, beauty and interconnection — in ourselves and in our natural world — the re-establishment of right relationship. Right relationship with nature is not just a nice idea; it is essential to your health and well-being, to the health of your community and the continuation of human life on our planet.
Every piece of food your put in your mouth has innumerable signals for your body. And because your body IS nature, it usually has a very similar impact on the planet. A hamburger from a fast food restaurant is a product of factory farming of cows (which contributes to global warming, watershed pollution, antibiotic resistance, not to mention misery), monoculture farming of wheat (involving pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that pollute the water supply, deplete the soil, kill off butterflies and beneficial insects, and put small farmers out of business) and that’s just the wheat and the burger. The body impact of the burger and white bun are increased triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, increased whole body inflammation (contributing to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and cancer) and increased blood sugar and insulin (which contribute to diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer) and increased systemic inflammation, which makes the body tired and in pain (and increases heart attacks, stroke, cancer and arthritis). We are earth animals. The impact we have on the earth impacts us directly, physically, and in ways we are often not even aware, but which are making us sicker and sadder as a society.
There has never been a better time to move into right relationship with one another, with our communities, with nature, and with ourselves. We are all connected. When I stand next to someone I care about, they feel the emotions I am feeling, even if I am unaware of them. Our heart rhythms begin to synchronize. Even if the someone is a dog. My cortisol stress hormones decrease and my feel-good oxytocin, that encourages affection increases. We feel less pain when we are with a person or animal that we love. Being in nature, even briefly, decreases depression and stress hormones. We are one large ecosystem, with each part dependent on the other.
Please let me know how you view right relationship in your life. I’d love to have an ongoing conversation where we co-create this next moment in our history.