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Godwin Samararatne
Meditation for Everyday Life

Day 4: Relationships


Godwin: I will speak about the importance of spiritual friends. This brings up the question of relationships. I think the question of relationships is the greatest challenge human beings have. Because no human being can avoid relationships. Even a hermit living alone by himself or by herself has to have relationships. What type of relationships do they have to have? Can anyone suggest an answer? Relationship to nature. Relationship to the environment. Relationship to themselves. So in this sense no one can avoid relationships.

Now, the first point about relationships is to find out how you relate to yourself. Some of you might have heard of the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. He has written a play about relationships. And in this play he made the statement: Hell is other people. Do you agree? What is the Buddhist response to that statement? Hell is inside us. So this is why in Buddhist teachings it is very, very difficult, because you are considered to be responsible for what you are doing. It is very easy to blame other people. But when we blame other people we never try to work on ourselves, so that one can continue to blame other people and not really look at oneself.

So it is very important to find out how you relate to yourself in the sense: Do you see yourself as your best friend? Or do you have a tendency to be hard on yourself, to give minuses? Do you have no trust in yourself? If you do not have trust and confidence in yourself, you can never have trust and confidence in others. This is why in the Buddhist teaching what is called self-understanding, self-knowledge, is so much emphasised. To find out the way you are relating to yourself.

So for this - as I have reminded you very often - you have to make a connection with yourself. You have to learn to observe your behaviour. You have to find out your real motives, your intentions prior to your actions. You have to learn to be very objective about yourself. You have to be very honest, sincere, and authentic about yourself. So in relationships this is, I would suggest, something very important to be clear about.

And also be clear about your own expectations, about your own idealism, about your own models. Because if you have very unrealistic models about other people, about yourself, about how the world should be, you will always be disappointed. And if you suffer from a kind of void in you, then whatever other people do to you, giving affection, giving attention, it is not good enough.

Relationships to Other People

So now let me touch on some aspects about the challenges we have in connection to relating to other people. One real challenge we have is when we see the failures of other people: when we relate to people with our own expectations. So what happens to us when we are expecting people to behave in a particular way in a relationship is that we get hurt, we get disappointed, we get frustrated. And maybe we try to hurt the other person, and then the other person hurts us in return. This is what can happen sometimes in relationships.

What normally happens to us is that we put ourselves on a pedestal, thinking: This is how we should behave; this is how we must behave. And we do not realise that we have put ourselves on a pedestal and what happens is that we fall from the pedestal. Then we forget what we have done, we get hurt, we suffer from guilt, we are disappointed with ourselves. We start to give minuses to ourselves.

This is exactly what we do with other people also. We put other people on pedestals. And when we put others on pedestals, naturally they will also fall from their pedestals. In the first place they do not even know that other people have put them on a pedestal. Poor people! And then when others think that they have fallen from the pedestal they can be terribly hurt, terribly disappointed, terribly frustrated with other people, feel very let down by them.

So this is one of the greatest challenges we have: how to see ourselves in a very realistic way, realising our humanness - as I have been saying so often - realising our imperfections. In some cultures it happens that a model of perfection is projected onto you and projected onto others. So then what happens is that you can never achieve perfection, and you get frustrated and disappointed. But then we project the same ideal of perfection onto others, this is what happens once more.

So it is a very strong conditioning we have, but it is very important in relationships to see ourselves, as I said, in a very human way and to be open to our imperfections, and also to see others in the same way, and then a different kind of relationship can emerge in our day to day life. So if you can be clear about this point, if you can develop some understanding in relation to this, then when you see others showing their weaknesses, showing their imperfections, you learn not to be surprised.

So this is a very important tool to work with, either in relation to ourselves, or in relation to others: not to be surprised about how you may behave, and not to be surprised about how others might behave, not to be surprised about what will happen in life. Why are we surprised in such a situation? We have an image, a model of how things should be, how things must be.

So in a way what we are doing is: we are making demands. We are demanding how others should behave, we are demanding how we should behave, we are demanding how life should be. But the demands we are making and reality are two different things.

And of course we do not realise we are making demands, and then we suffer. I am sure some of you might have come here with a big demand, how in this retreat this is what should happen to me. Demanding I should experience calm, demanding I should experience loving-kindness, demanding I should develop insight and so on. So again the demand is one thing, the reality is another. And what happens: minus. A big minus to Godwin!

Aren't we funny? Why don't we realise how we create our own suffering? So when we see human nature in this way, our own weaknesses, and the weaknesses of other people we will not be surprised. That is a very big step. At least we will suffer less. But this does not mean that you do not do anything about your weaknesses. This is very important. So in relation to yourself something has happened which is against the model that you have had, you have made some mistakes, you have done some wrong things - can you explore that, can you investigate that without giving yourself a minus?

So in a very friendly, gentle, kind way you ask yourself: Now why did I behave in this way? Why did I hurt that person in that way? What made me use those words knowing very well that he or she would be hurt or disappointed? Just to have a friendly dialogue with yourself in relation to these things. So if you can develop this kind of attitude towards yourself, then you can start to have the same attitude, the same perspective towards others, and then without giving others a big minus and blaming them, or being angry, you try to have a dialogue with that person.

Sometimes people do wrong things, so-called wrong things, without even knowing why they have behaved in that way. So rather than giving a minus immediately, if you can have some space, some understanding, you can try to find out from that person what made him or her do that, in the same way you tried to find out in relation to yourself.

Relationships to Spiritual Friends

According to the Buddha's teaching the only solution to problems in relationships is to develop spiritual relationships. So in a spiritual relationship - it can be the relationship between parents and children, it can be the relationship between husbands and wives, it can be the relationship between friends and neighbours - it's the same principle: you learn to simply reflect the other person's shortcomings. And if you can also give the freedom and space for another person to do the same for you, that enables you to grow together, help each other, by being a mirror to each other.

Another beautiful aspect of a spiritual relationship is to see the good things the other person does, not only giving minuses, but giving plusses also. It is interesting: it seems to be in our nature that we human beings have a tendency to point out the shortcomings of other people, but not to see the good things, the right things, a person does.

I think parents everywhere in the world tell their children when they make a mistake, when they do something wrong, but generally speaking they do not speak to them with quite the same enthusiasm when they do something right! I think that is why we have this tendency to give ourselves more minuses, because this maybe a very strong conditioning, that we develop even as children.

When I spoke about this somewhere, there was a teacher in the group, and this teacher teaches parents how to bring up children. And she said when she gives workshops to parents, one of the exercises she presents is to ask them to draw up a list of all the wrong, bad things their children do. No problem! And then she tells the parents: now draw up a list of all the good things your children do. Big problem!

Isn't this interesting? And this is what also happens in relationships among grown-up people. Sometimes I have to counsel or try to help couples who have problems. Some of my close Sri Lankan friends laugh at me and they said: Poor couples! This man has no experience with what he is talking about. I do not know what he says to these couples!

One thing I ask them is: Do you give plusses to each other? Usually they just look at each other's blank faces. Sometimes a Sri Lankan wife would give an example like this, she would tell me, when the cooking is not very good, he would get very angry with me giving a lot of minuses. But when the food is fine, he practices noble silence!

These are small things, but as someone said, these small things, these little things, go a long way. I think we all need some attention, some affection, some positive feedback from others. I mean, it is something very beautiful in relationships to have this kind of feedback; as it is said in the Dhamma, to tell the good things that the other has done also.

Another challenge, another aspect in relationships is to see what power we have given to other people. Sometimes your own happiness or unhappiness is dependant on what others think of you. It is an interesting question to explore: why have we empowered other people so much? In other words: they control you, in that the way they behave makes you happy or makes you unhappy. So your happiness and unhappiness is dependant exclusively on how others are relating to you. So why have we empowered other people so much?

Retreatant: Because we do not love ourselves.

Godwin: Exactly, exactly. As I said we suffer from a certain lack and then we try to conceal this lack from other people, because what we are not getting from ourselves, we are trying to get from others, and however much they do, it is not good enough, because the problem is here within us and not out there. And when you meet such people you feel very sorry, because all their life they are trying to satisfy others, but it is not possible to satisfy everyone. And the more they are trying to satisfy others, the more disappointed they become, because they think it is not happening, so they try more and more, and then more and more they become frustrated.

So do you realise the importance of making a connection with yourself? This is why I have been emphasising so much to learn to be your best friend. Then when you become your best friend, you become content within yourself, self-fulfilled within yourself. So then if that is there, you do not so much demand from other people, how they should behave, because you are content with yourself.

So these are some challenges we have in relationships in whatever form of relationships we have. It is interesting that through relationships wounds can be created, or hell can be created. At the same time what is beautiful is learning to have relationships in a creative way; this also can create lot of joy, a lot of happiness, a lot of fulfilment, if you can really know how to have relationships in a creative, positive way.

The Sublime States

So maybe one approach which can give us lot of joy and happiness in relationships is that according to the Buddha's teaching, there are four qualities which can be used in a very creative way in relationships.

Sometimes when I am in the West I have been asked to organise a Buddhist wedding. Anyway I tell them: one definition of a Buddhist wedding is that you do not know what will happen next! Because in Sri Lanka nobody has asked me to organise a Buddhist wedding. So I had to think, what is the meaning of what we are doing in this ceremony. So one thing I try is: to talk to the couple about these four aspects of relating to each other. There are some beautiful words to describe these aspects: they are called the four Brahma Vihara. They are the sublime states, or divine states, because these qualities make you divine or sublime. These sublime qualities can be developed through working with these four aspects.

The first one is Metta - loving-kindness. I have been speaking a lot about it. With loving-kindness you can relate both to the positive qualities of the other person, and also to the so-called negative qualities of the person. So there is a kind of a very balanced attitude, and the other person also can have a similar relationship with you.

The other quality is what is called Karuna - compassion. Karuna is expressed in a situation where someone is suffering and you to try to help the person who is suffering. In a relationship when you see the other person suffering, because you know what it is to suffer you can really relate both to your own suffering and to the suffering of the other; and in that situation you can really show care. This word caring is a very beautiful word. When you develop this quality of caring for others and when you see others hurt, when you see others unhappy, naturally there is a need to go and help the other person. So this is called Karuna.

The third quality is Mudita - sympathetic joy. Again it is a beautiful sounding word. It means, when others are happy, you can rejoice in the happiness of these other people. I think you should also have Mudita for yourself. so that when you are happy, to rejoice in your own happiness is very important. Because if you develop only Karuna, you are looking only for people who are suffering. And if there are no people suffering, you cannot practice Karuna.

Mudita is even more difficult to practice than Karuna. Because to really rejoice in the happiness of another person - it is very easy to feel for someone suffering - but to really feel happy that another person is happy is more difficult. To take a simple example: when you are meditating and there is pain, there is suffering, but you see others are sitting comfortably - it's not easy to feel happy in such situation, is it?

The last of these qualities is Upekkha, detachment, a non-reacting mind. In a relationship one should be able to respect the other person's space and be able to be aloof - not to be always demanding, wanting, desiring, but also learning to develop a kind of a non-reactive kind of detachment, this is very important. It is not being cold, as developing a non-reactive mind comes from understanding and not from a lack of feelings. Please see that clearly.

Taking Other People as Your Teacher

So another way of relating is to see the other person as your teacher, as your guru. So when you are with such a person, you feel grateful to that person because he or she is showing you a mirror. Try not to be angry with the mirror, but use it to look at yourself and to see what he or she is showing you.

Just to take an example: supposing it is your boss in the place where you are working. Then you can start experimenting, exploring. Now let me see today: when the boss behaves in this way, can I just look at myself, see what monsters will arise, see how long the monsters will be there? Just to see it as a very important learning opportunity, when I am with the boss. Then you are really looking forward to meeting the boss every Monday morning!

So afterwards you can start reflecting: Now this is the way I worked with my boss. Today I was angry for half an hour. Tomorrow let me go and see what will happen. Like this each day is very interesting, it is no longer a problem, it becomes a challenge, it becomes an interesting learning situation. You do not have to go away to do a retreat. The teacher is right there in the office. Then rather than hating him, you feel grateful and you find you can say: May he be well, may he also be peaceful.

How do we relate to difficult persons? Maybe in the place of work, maybe at home, maybe with the neighbours. Sometimes we are forced to live with such people, we are forced to work with such people. The real challenge then is: how to work with such people. How do we relate to such people?

Now you might get the impression that we have to be always passive, always smiling, always practising loving-kindness in relationships. It does not work that way. Sometimes you need to be assertive, you need to be firm, you need to show your feelings.

So in this connection I have a favourite story to tell. The story is about a cobra. It comes from the Indian tradition. There was a cobra living in the forest, practising meditation of loving-kindness. This cobra was living there in the forest, saying: May all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be peaceful. Beautiful words. Beautiful-sounding words. Then an old woman, who could not see properly, was collecting some firewood, she came there but did not see the cobra clearly, she thought it was a rope. So she used the cobra to tie up the bundle of firewood. And because the cobra was practising loving-kindness, the cobra allowed her to do that.

So the woman carried the bundle of wood home. After a time this cobra escapes, but with a lot of pain, a lot of wounds on its body. So the next day the cobra went to have an interview with the teacher, and said: See, I practised loving-kindness, but look what happened to me! So the teacher very calmly said: No, you have not been practising loving-kindness. You have been practising idiotic loving-kindness. You should have hissed, you should have shown that you are a cobra!

So in relationships sometimes you need to hiss --- but, of course, you must know when to hiss.