I rarely write about intimate relationships here. I do lead groups in which I speak about relational mindfulness and lead engaged practices, but I shy away from writing specifically about relationships with our significant other. I don’t consider myself a relationship expert, and don’t want to write cheesy self-help pieces. However, three weeks ago today I got married. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, and I act like an ass just like the next person in relationships. Over the past month or so, I’ve had many great conversations with friends, family, and students about what has worked for me in my relationship, and I thought it may be of use to share. Some of the headers or topics here may seem obvious, but these are the things that ring true to me.
The Role of Dharma
Before we go into this… yes, I do know that you may think relationships, sex, and marriage go against many traditional Buddhist views. I recommend reading this post on Wildmind about love, sex, and nonattachment. The Buddha gave different teachings to his monastics and the laypeople, and we must find the teachings that are addressed to us. I strongly suggest reading the Pathama-samvasa sutta here. That being said, the dharma has so much to offer us in our relationships. Although we wrote our own statements of commitment, the officiant’s vows were actually based off the Five Precepts. They read: “Do you Matthew vow to protect and encourage Elizabeth and all life, to be generous to her and take less than you give, to speak truthfully and helpfully to her, to nourish and to keep your body and mind healthy, and to treat her with loving kindness and compassion?”
These vows are based off the Buddhist training precepts, and are a great place to start. In my relationship, can I keep these precepts? Committing to not harming (and protecting), not stealing and practicing generosity, being wise with our sexuality (more on this later), being honest and open, and encouraging wisdom and kindness are absolutely wonderful places to start. We can spend our whole lives working to master these simple rules. If we can bring this practice to our relationships, or at least set the intention, we are off to a great start.
Dharma is everywhere. The more I practice and learn, the more I realize that we are living “it.” On a podcast episode six months ago, Andrew Chapman spoke about the idea of “sudden awakening, gradual cultivation.” We can realize the dharma in a moment, but work for years to cultivate the insights. Relationships are included in this. With my practice, I’m able to tune in to my thoughts, words, and actions and see how they effect myself and others.
One of the practices that has really made a difference for me has been the idea of external mindfulness. In the Satipatthana sutta, the Buddha speaks about retaining mindfulness both internally and externally. There are many opinions about what this means, but my experience is that external mindfulness is the practice of tuning in to the world around us. In my relationship, I practice tuning into simple things like the breath of my partner. She doesn’t know I am practicing, but I simply watch the rise and fall of the chest or stomach. I know how that feels in my own body, and it helps me connect to the humanity in her. The task isn’t to read minds or pretend that I know exactly what she is feeling. Rather, I can tune in to what I can plainly observe and grow to understand her experience more deeply.
Cultivating a truly deep and intimate relationship for me has depended upon my ability to rest in vulnerability. Like any relationship, Elizabeth and I began dating and it was relatively superficial. As we grew together, began spending more time together, moved in together, and began building a life together, it naturally became deeper. Like many others, I find being vulnerable uncomfortable. It isn’t easy to open up and be truly honest with somebody. On the other hand, opening up is key to really knowing each other.
Every week, Elizabeth and I sit in a dyad, a practice between two people. We generally sit in meditation together first, and then face each other for our practice. While looking each other in the eyes, we ask a repeated question. The question may be something like, “What is something that brings you joy.” I ask Elizabeth the question, she answers, and I ask it again. We do this for a couple minutes before switching, and she asks the question and I answer. We do this with several different questions, and practice listening to each other and holding the feelings that are arising.
In this practice, we are encouraged to be vulnerable, sharing whatever it is that comes to mind. The listener simply practices listening, holding the vulnerability with care. This practice has helped us deeply in our relationship, as we are able to be honest with each other outside of the formal practice. During the practice, we are cultivating the ability to sit with the discomfort of vulnerability and the ability to hold the other person. As with private meditation practice, repeated practice helps us bring the cultivated qualities to our everyday life.
Just a few weeks ago, I was having a difficult time with something. I told Elizabeth about what was going on and was bluntly honest. She immediately offered her help in trying to fix the issue, which was generous and well-intentioned. However, in that moment, what I actually needed was just to be honest about how I felt and have my feelings held. I was able to tell Elizabeth that I just wanted my feelings heard and to be held, and she was able to respond by doing just that. We weren’t always like this. I attribute this largely to our practice individually and together. It even happens that Elizabeth can tell me that I am doing something that is upsetting her, and I am able to sit and listen to it, holding her feelings with compassion rather than reacting with defensiveness or denial. Of course, I’m not even near perfect, but I have continually grown to respond with more wisdom and patience.
Intimacy is an important part of our relationships. And not just sex. It’s important for us to find moments to be together. For Elizabeth and I, intimate moments are times when we are away from technology, spending time together. It may be a hike, going to the beach, sitting outside talking, or going to dinner together. Although we love each other very much, we are both busy people and sometimes have to set aside time for each other. Our recent honeymoon was a great example of this. We spent two weeks just with each other. In these moments that we are intimately together, I find myself enjoying things like the ways her eyes “smile” when she smiles, our mutual dry sense of humors, and the pleasant sensation of holding hands with her.
The habit energy keeps me moving. I work, teach, write, eat, and get caught in the daily routine. Stopping to be together has been a team effort, and it is something we both make a priority. Even after years together, spending intimate time together is still a new experience each time. Elizabeth and I do fun things. She had a week free from commitments and we decided last minute to go to Zion National Park and hike. We heard the wildflowers were in superbloom in Death Valley and left the next day to go see them. Just the two of us, we take adventures together. Today we are going to an accordion festival in Cotati, California (not sure what to expect). Last month we heard Tower of Power was playing and we went to go dance. Life is full of opportunities for us to spend intimate time together in fun ways, whether it is an event like this or a simple dinner together without our phones.
Sex is an important issue to discuss, and I am guilty of not discussing it enough as it relates to mindfulness. For many people, sexuality is a driving force in life. Misuse of our sexuality causes a significant amount of harm in our world, both to others and ourselves. Sexuality, for better or for worse, is a powerful force. Learning to engage in wise and healthy sex has been a progressive lesson for me, but there a couple things that have been especially helpful.
First, we can simply consider if we are causing harm with our sexuality. There are some obvious ways in which we can cause harm such as cheating, but there are many other ways we cause harm. Years ago when I was in college, I had a few one night stands. I would spend an evening pretending that I cared about somebody, just to fill my own sexual cravings. When I got what I wanted, I left the person with no regard for their feelings. This is incredibly harmful behavior. Today, I make it a top priority to not cause any harm with my sexuality.
Another thing we may take a look at is our intentions. A lot of the harm people cause in relation to sex is because of our cravings. We all experience craving in many forms, and succumbing to each and every craving certainly leads to more suffering. When I wish to initiate or engage in sexual activity, I must look at my intentions behind the desire. Is my intention simply to fulfill my cravings, or is it to actually love my wife? I don’t believe there is anything wrong with our natural cravings or even fulfilling them, but it is helpful to bring awareness to what is going on internally. My experience is that when I am wrapped up in a moment of purely carnal cravings, I am generally selfish. Similarly, my partner may have the same experience. If she has a more carnal craving, I know what that feels like in my own experience. Luckily for both of us, I can be present for her with it and help! Bringing mindfulness to the basic experience of sexuality can help me not be selfish, and help me be present for my wife when she needs me. We also can find the skillful way to bring love, intimacy, and sexuality together.
And finally, we can be generous with our sexuality. This goes with the above point about intentions. Just like me, my partner has desires, feels pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and feels love. When I recognize these pieces of information, I can find balance in our sex life. Her and I aren’t that different. We both enjoy pleasant experiences. I want her to be happy, and although her happiness doesn’t rest in my hands (shoutout to equanimity), I can act in a way that promotes her wellness. In my own experience, bringing awareness to this with somebody that I deeply love naturally creates caga, the quality of heart that is inclined toward generosity.
If I could sum up what I have learned to be useful in my relationship, it would be generosity, vulnerability, listening, and clarity of intentions. Sometimes I want to be right. Sometimes I have my own desires and delusions. Sometimes I get wrapped up in my own moments of pain. My deepest intention, however, is to be present for and love my partner. Elizabeth means everything to me. Although we both have our own individual experiences, practice, and lives, we also have an experience together, a practice together, and a life together. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sometimes I need to remind myself of my intentions, and some times the intentions come naturally. As with other parts of my practice, I must actually practice and cultivate the qualities I wish to bring to the relationship.