Buddhism and Relationships: The Four Noble Truths of Love.
Earlier this week, I posted about applying the wisdom of Buddhism to romantic relationships. Is it even possible? Advisable? As a Buddhist and a wife, I would say yes.
Relationships have periods of closeness and distance and no one can really tell you what governs their coming and going. It’s a mystery. During one such period of distance with my husband, I thought we might be through. No matter how hard we tried to regain closeness, we clashed. Every conversation turned into a fight. (Even questions as simple as “where do you want to eat dinner?” could provoke divorce-grade tremors. True story. When I posed this question, we were driving on a country road at night and for some reason, we exploded at each other. I made him pull over and let me out of the car. In France. I had no idea where we were. I didn’t care, I just wanted out. I walked into some field until I got scared and went back to the car, arms folded.) Throughout this time, I tried all sorts of great relationship tactics like listening, mirroring, affirming, being clear, giving space, using “I” statements, and so on. Blah, blah, nothing worked. Every conversation seemed to end with anger, hurt feelings, or numbness. I felt so lonely. I’m sure he did too.
One day, I thought I am so confused. I have no idea where to begin fixing this. Then a voice whispered to me: How about at the beginning? (Why are these voices always so simple and correct? And why don’t they pipe up earlier?)
Then the voice said: At the beginning are four noble truths. These truths are taught within the three yanas.
As a 20+ year student of Buddhism, these words meant something to me and I want to share with you what I discovered when I tried to map core Buddhist teachings onto the territory of my love life.
At first I was doubtful. Weren’t these teachings relevant only to ascetics, yogis, and monastics, i.e. people without partners, jobs, and bank accounts? Well, maybe. But it turns out that Buddhism shed radiant light on my darkest relationship moments.
To begin at the beginning meant to consider the Four Noble Truths. These are the very first teachings the Buddha gave upon attaining enlightenment and the entire Buddhadharma is based around them.
The Four Noble Truths
The truth of suffering. Life is suffering. This does not mean that life sucks. It refers to the fact that everything changes and there is nothing to hold on to. This is painful.
The cause of suffering. Trying to hold on anyway.
The cessation of suffering. This condition can be alleviated.
The path to no suffering. The noble eightfold path will lead you out of suffering. The eight steps are:
The Four Noble Truths of Love
How might you apply these truths to love? Here is what I came up with.
Relationships are uncomfortable.
Whether you are about to go on a blind date with someone you have never set eyes on or are pissed off at your partner of 30 years because they’ve done that thing that they promised to never, ever, ever do again, we never quite find solid ground. Whether in big or small ways, moments of fear — of being hurt, disappointed, overtaxed, misunderstood, rejected, or, worst of all, ignored — are a continual presence.
No problem. This is just the way it is. Interestingly, all these things happen, even in happy relationships. No one tells you that it’s impossible to stabilize a relationship because it is impossible to stabilize yourself, nor is it possible for your partner to do so. Thus, it is uncomfortable.
The emotional exchange between two people shifts like grains of sand in the desert: some days you can see forever and some days you have to take cover because something kicks up out of nowhere and you can’t see two feet in front of you. 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 trekking through the desert, it pays to be as absorbed in the present moment as you are attuned to atmospheric indicators. Woe to she whose attention to either lapses.
Have you ever had a rapturous moment with a beloved, arms wrapped around each other, blissful, and thought: I never want this moment to end? Well, too bad. It will. Why? Because you’re both alive. The moment is alive. The air is alive, as is the ground you stand on, the flesh on your bones, the looks you exchange. Everything that is alive also dissolves, whether in a nanosecond or an eon. It really helps — and disorients, shocks, empowers — to recognize this. As the writer Saul Bellow said about death, “(it) is the black backing on the mirror that allows us to see anything at all.” Impermanence actually brings everything into terrifying, brilliant, precious, and accurate focus. If you want a snuggly relationship, please disregard. But if you want to add vitality, genuineness, chaos, depth, sorrow, joy, and meaning to your snuggles, you could contemplate these notions further.
The bad news is you never get where you thought you wanted to go. The good news is there’s basically no way to have a boring relationship.
Expecting relationships to be comfortable is what makes them uncomfortable.
At the root of discomfort is the wish for comfort. We imagine that we would feel fine if only we could find the “right” person. But when you do find the (or a) right person, it’s anything but relaxing. Your neuroses, their neuroses, and all your mutual hopes and fears about love flood the environment. 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. In bumper cars. It can become very confusing. But instead of wasting time assigning blame and thinking that will solve everything (or anything), better to dive right in and try to be kind to each other as you bump around.
What would it be like if, instead of wishing for comfort, we wished for depth? What if the first thing we brought to our disconnects was curiosity rather than judgment? This leads to the third noble truth:
Meeting the discomfort together is love.
The inability to create safety actually plots the path to love. It’s strange but true. When you work with all this chaos (and joy and sweetness and rage and so on), love becomes more than romance. It turns into something way better: intimacy. Romance has got to end, that’s just how it goes. But intimacy? It has no end. You can’t be, “oh, intimacy, we’ve done that.” It can always go deeper.
A great partner is not one who expresses undying love for you at every turn, whether you are in your most radiant or most bedraggled state. (That would be weird.) A great partner is one who, rather than facing off to determine who will win each battle, turns to stand shoulder to shoulder with you to watch the battle rage.
True love seems to exist on some mysterious edge of its own. It can’t be controlled, predicted, or penned in. When you try, it calcifies. To keep it alive, at some point you just have to let go and see what happens. Noble Truth #4 is the way to navigate it all.
The noble eightfold path.
In Buddhist thought, there are as many words for suffering as Eskimos were said to have words for snow (a notion since debunked, but let’s pretend for a second). There is “plain old suffering” (not the technical term), the kind that we all experience when someone dies, we become ill, something precious is lost, circumstance doesn’t break in our favor. All human beings experience these things. Then there is the “suffering of suffering,” the bits we add to the unavoidable variety. The suffering of suffering arises from the stories we tell ourselves and the incorrect judgments we make from those stories. Suffering A is unavoidable. Suffering B is optional. The eightfold path, among many things, is a system for circumnavigating the latter. When it comes to our relationships, rather than using them to build some sort of emotional contract for “meeting each other’s needs” (what does that even mean), they can be a source of liberation. In fact, love and relationships may be one of the most profound paths imaginable, if not among the most arduous.
As with anything you consider important, you don’t want to just show up and hope for the best. You want to plan well. Evaluate clearly. Play the odds. In no way am I suggesting that this is simple. It takes tremendous presence and super human commitment to walk into this fire. Instead of flinging yourself kamikaze-like into the flame of love, you can train in working with the heat. The eightfold path can help.
Next post: The Eightfold Path of love.
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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