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Godwin Samararatne
3: Relationships

Hurnse Gaper, Hurwenen, Holland (19th July, 1998)

No human being can avoid relationships. Even if someone is living as a hermit in the forest he or she has relationships. A person has a relationship with his food, with his surroundings and, of course, with himself. This shows that we cannot avoid relationships. It is a very important theme that we have to be clear about. When we use the word relationship usually what comes into our mind is a relationship with another person, but what is most important is to find out how we relate to ourselves.

The way we relate to others will depend on the way we relate to ourselves. If you are very critical of yourself, you will be very critical of others. If you do not trust yourself, it will be very difficult for you to trust others. If you feel insecure, other people will generate a lot of insecurity in you. Therefore it is very important when we discuss relationships to find out how we relate to ourselves. This is why meditation of loving-kindness is so important. With this meditation we can really learn to be our own best friend, and our dependencies on other people can become less.

Sometimes what happens is that we use other people to cover up our own sense of inadequacy. This is how we give so much power and so much energy to other people. We allow our own happiness or unhappiness to be dependent on other people. Though we are grown up, we still have our toys in the form of external things that we have become dependant on for our amusement and our happiness. Like children, we keep on changing toys. When we have one toy we think: "Now this is going to make me happy", but very soon we are unhappy with that particular toy and we start looking for other toys. Our whole lives we are looking for toys, and at the end of it we are still dissatisfied.

Meditation helps us to become our own toy: that is the only difference, but it's a very big difference. Having loving-kindness and being our own best friend helps us to have a relationship with ourselves where we become our own toy and where we'll be contented and happy with ourselves. That doesn't mean that when we are with other people we are unhappy. It is more that when we are with ourselves we can be happy and contented with ourselves, and when we are with other people we can still be happy.

A challenge can arise in relationships when we see the shortcomings of other people. Whatever the relationship, sometimes we see the other person behaving differently from how we think they should behave. Normally what we do when we see other people's weaknesses is that we become very judgmental. We want them to be different and we get angry with them. We give them a minus and try to correct them. This shows that we are demanding how other people should behave.

It is funny how in life we make demands on ourselves, how we should behave. We demand from ourselves that we behave according to our own model of perfection. In the same way we project our model of perfection onto others. Consequently we demand that their behaviour should correspond to the model of perfection that we hold in relation to them.

But do we stop at that? No, we even demand from life how it should be. Take for example the weather. When there is Dutch weather we demand that we should have Sri Lankan weather! When there is Sri Lankan weather we are very happy and when there is Dutch weather we are very unhappy.

It is really funny how we make demands upon life, how we make demands upon ourselves, how we make demands upon others. Naturally you cannot meet all the demands you are making of yourself, and naturally others can't meet the demands you are making of them; and again quite naturally, life can't meet the demands you are making of it.

Here we see in a very simple, direct way how we create our own suffering. We create our own problems without realising it by the way we are making demands, without ever posing the question: "How realistic are my demands?"

When we see someone behaving in a way that we think he or she should not behave, we assume that the other person is acting with full responsibility and knows what he or she is doing. This is just a belief on our part. The other person sometimes doesn't know why he or she is behaving in that particular way. Often we don't know ourselves why we are acting in a particular way. Yet we assume that others always know what they are doing.

When we come across such a situation, rather than immediately giving a plus or minus to the other person, rather than getting angry and reacting to the other person, we can have a dialogue to find out why that person is behaving in a particular way. If you can do this with other people in such situations, you'll be really helpful to them. Maybe for the first time they are encouraged to reflect on what they are doing. In relation to your own actions, rather then giving yourself a minus, try to have a dialogue with yourself about why you're behaving in this particular way. This is a very important skill that we need to learn in relationships.

Another very valuable skill is to learn to see an action or a word from another person not from your own point of view, but from the other person's point of view. It is very difficult because we are so fixed with our own plusses and minuses, with our own assumptions, our own beliefs and our own value judgements. To be able to forget all that and try to understand another person from his or her point of view we need to have a lot of space and a lot of understanding about human nature.

When we see the shortcomings and the faults of other people it is important to realise that we're not free from them either. When we judge others, when we give minuses to other people, when we give advice to other people, we tend to forget that we also have similar qualities ourselves.

There's a very simple aspect in the Buddha's teaching in relation to human behaviour. It is said that human beings have three strong drives which are motivating them to act in particular ways. One is greed, another is hatred, and a more subtle and difficult one is delusion. We all have those three drives in us, and the Buddha said that unless and until we really overcome our subjugation to these drives completely, we are still crazy. We relate to the outer world, the external world, through a private world that we have constructed ourselves. In other words, we are being subjective and not objective.

Our problem is that we take this crazy, subjective world very seriously, we believe it to be true. If you can really understand that we are living in such a world, a world where there is such a lot of delusion, such a lot of grief and such a lot of hatred, that we live in a world where human beings are imperfect simply because they are still human, then you learn to see yourself and others in an entirely different way. I would suggest that this is real loving-kindness. When you see the shortcomings and faults of other people and you can remember that both you and they are living in a subjective world coloured with so much delusion, then you'll be relating to them with more understanding, tolerance and compassion.

We have given such power and energy to other people. Our happiness and our unhappiness are dependent on what other people think of us. We all have this tendency. Most of the time we are trying to please other people. We do this because we are starving for the plusses of other people. Over time we have developed this dependency which manifests in whatever we are doing. It is like being dependent on a toy we would like to get, and only when we get it do we feel that we are really happy.

When I meet such people I feel very sad about them. They are trying their best, but of course they are not getting enough plusses. They can never be satisfied with the plusses they get. Then they try more, and the more they are trying the less successful they are, and they end up suffering. They give themselves minuses and they feel rejected. These aspects are very important in relationships, because our happiness and our unhappiness are really dependent on how we relate to ourselves and how we relate to others. What is important to realise is that we need friendliness, self-confidence, self-esteem. We are not giving enough to ourselves. We are suffering from a kind of lack, and we try to cover it up by creating a dependency on other people.

We can really feel as though we are a nobody. We say to ourselves: "No one likes me. Everyone rejects me. I'm a victim. Poor me". This is what I call being a nobody in the sense that you're giving minuses to yourself and you're getting minuses from other people. From feeling like nobody we need to feel like somebody. For that we need plusses from ourselves: we have to learn to see the positive in ourselves, to rejoice in the good things that we have been doing. This is why I emphasise loving-kindness very much. We all have the qualities by which we can really free ourselves. They are all hidden inside us. Meditation or the spiritual life should enable us to see these inner resources that we have. The practice is to see that the Buddha-nature is within us and to allow this Buddha-nature to flower out.

You can also be nobody in the true sense of the word. When you are truly nobody, you are no longer dependant on plusses or minuses. You have gone beyond plusses and minuses. That is where you learn to be your own toy and you learn to be really self-contained within yourself.

In this world people have a lot of difficulties and there is a lot of suffering. It's a very good practice sometimes to forget all your problems, all the difficulties you are going through, and learn to relate to the suffering of other people, to translate loving-kindness into action. These kinds of actions can generate a lot of joy and a lot of happiness. It can be a very meaningful way to live when you are being your own best friend and you are being a friend to others also.

When we find ourselves with a difficult person - it can be your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your neighbour or your boss - it's a very good practice to see such a person as your teacher, as your guru. They are very powerful gurus, because they are really showing you a mirror. It is useless to try to break the mirror, to get angry with the mirror. It is wiser to look at the reflection in the mirror and see what is happening there.

With meditation a shift is taking place within yourself. When you find yourself in a place where you have to relate to difficult people or situations, rather then getting caught in the external scene you learn to look at your own mind. In everyday life where you have to interact with people you start looking at your own reactions. You look at the emotions that are coming up and the thoughts that arise.

One can feel grateful to these difficult people, because they enable us to see what is happening in our own minds. It really gives us an opportunity to work with our mind. Can you say: "May I have more teachers, more gurus like them?" When in our life we can have this openness to learn from other people, we can learn from any experience. Any experience can be a learning experience, and this is a beautiful way to live.

In my own life my best teacher has only four letters: L-I-F-E. Life is my best teacher. If you can really open up to life situations this teacher can tell you some very interesting things, but if you come to the conclusion that you know, that is the end of learning. This is why we need to have what is called a beginner's mind. With a beginner's mind, with a don't-know mind, we can really learn from life situations. Any situation can be a meditative situation and this is a beautiful way to live.

In our spiritual practice we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Trying to do the right thing, acting very cautiously and trying too much to know what is going to happen in the future all give rise to a false sense of security. According to the Buddha's teaching, real security comes if you can be open to insecurity. We never know what is going to happen next. It is always something uncertain. The real practice is learning to be open to uncertainty in whatever form uncertainty comes. This is especially true when we interact with people.

Some people in the West are hurt very much in their youth. They have never been able to develop their own self-esteem. They feel a coldness and indifference inside. This wound can be so deep that it is difficult to heal even with loving-kindness. It's a kind of vicious circle they are in. The question is: how can they foster this little germ of self-esteem and self-love?

Sri Lankan people don't have this problem. It is possible that they might have had a difficult childhood, but they do not suffer from it so much. Sri Lankan people are raised with the idea that they should be grateful to their parents. They never see a connection between their parents and the difficulties experienced in childhood, and their present problems. It means they never blame the parents for their upbringing and for what they are experiencing.

In Sri Lanka children are brought up within extended families, so children get enough attention, and they have many sources for experiencing affection. Their diet of affection and love is very rich and they have a lot of opportunities to find comfort and support if they need it, therefore the wounds described above don't develop.

When I started to be with Westerners, I learned about these very serious and deep wounds which have happened to them in childhood. Usually these people carry a lot of anger and resentment against their parents. In the beginning I made the mistake of saying: "Just forgive your parents, have loving-kindness." I realised this did not work because they would come and tell me: "How can I have loving-kindness? I feel like hitting my mother, I feel like beating my father." Sometimes they had so much anger that I got afraid.

Now what I say is: "Please bring up that anger. If you like to, you can verbalise that anger, speak to your parents in your imagination, wholeheartedly experience that anger." I think as children they did not have an opportunity to really express the anger they had towards their parents. They're holding onto it, and it's sometimes good to bring it out.

Another thing is that parents might also have been victims who have had a lot of difficulties. In this connection I heard a very moving story from a woman I was working with. She told me she had had a very difficult childhood. Especially from her mother there were physical and psychological wounds. It was terrible what she had had to go through as a child, and as an adult she completely lost contact with her mother. She told me that what had happened in childhood had really affected her personality and her behaviour.

When this woman was about fifty years old she thought: "Maybe I should try to contact my mother." She made inquiries and heard that her mother was living in a home for old people. She made contact and she met her mother. When she saw her mother for the first time after fifteen years, she hugged her and said: "I love you, Mother." The mother didn't say anything but broke into a lot of tears, she was really crying. Then the daughter asked her mother: "Why can't you say that you love me also?" Her mother replied: "How can I say that? I have never known what love is." When the daughter heard those words, the wound she had been carrying for fifty years immediately healed. So sometimes, you see, we don't realise what our parents have been through.

Another thing which I try to communicate to people who carry these childhood wounds is: you might have had problems in childhood, but what are you going to do about it now? It's a very easy thing to continue to blame your past and your parents. But by blaming your parents, you don't take responsibility for what is happening now. So anything might have happened in the past, but now you are in the position to take responsibility and to work with it in the present moment.

One more thing you can do is to reflect on three questions in a very meditative situation. The first one is: "What are the good things your parents have done for you?" It is interesting that we have a selective memory. We have a tendency to remember only the minuses. The memory can change when one recalls the good things. The other questions are: "What are the good things you have done for your parents?" and: "Do you know what difficulties you created for your parents?"

When you reflect very deeply on these questions, a sense of appreciation arises. It's also possible that a sense of guilt will arise because of the wrongs you did to your parents, and if that happens then practising meditation of loving-kindness might help.

But I realise it takes a lot of time for a person with deep wounds to come from being a nobody to being a somebody. The work has to take place on a psychological level, on an emotional level, and also on a physical level.