Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Kurt Barstow - The Mindfulness of Relationship Conflict as a Capacity for Loving More Realistically

Another good post from Kurt Barstow at the Phoenix Examiner. This one focuses on mindfulness as a crucial element of navigating a healthy relationship.

The main point here is that relationship is "transformative work," meaning that it changes us both internally and externally. But it's the internal work that is so hard, that forces us to see ourselves more clearly than we may like, that requires us to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves and with the person we love.

Part of what Kurt is describing here is the challenge of relating from our Self in relationships, being Self-led as Dr. Richard Schwartz describes it in his new relationships book - You Are the One You Have Been Waiting For. When we relate from one of our "parts" - our subpersonalities - we are likely to trigger a part response in the other person. This is where things get messy.

The transformative purpose of relationship is to develop the skill of being Self-led, to come from that place of calmness, curiosity, clarity, compassion, confidence, creativity, courage, and connectedness (Schwartz's 8 C's). When we can do this, everything else gets easier.

The mindfulness of relationship conflict as a capacity for loving more realistically

By Kurt Barstow
January 18, 10:56 AM

A pair of penguins

For Chris

One of the perplexing things that happens in a relationship as it develops from the romantic phase (not feelings but phase) to what is described as the conflict stage (when we really begin to work out our life partnership) is that a certain kind of unified feeling is lost and we realize, in fact, that we are separate people. The relationship is going to take work, interior and exterior, and it is going to be work of a sort that one never really expected to come with the territory. There was a beautiful PBS show on couples a few years back in which one of the interviewees said marriage is not a 50-50 proposition; it's 80-80. Partly this is because we come to find that, in fact, we do not actually think and feel alike. So we must both try to feel our way compassionately into somebody else and change our own thinking and behavior. Relationship is transformative work and it isn't easy and there might even be a lot of the time where you don't get quite exactly what you want when you want it. But it is a very rich and fulfilling kind of work.

What can drive me crazy about my own relationship is the disjunction between my interior and exterior selves. I sometimes feel like there is this interior being running alongside me in my partnership that feels things more deeply, cares unselfishly, works very hard at listening to constructive criticism and tries to change based on it, thinks about my partner's best interests, and is concerned with the common good--which can sometimes mean taking the lead and sometimes mean sitting back and being led or letting be. I wish this interior self could be experienced more directly by my partner because when we get into certain patterns I feel woefully misunderstood. More frequently than I would like I manage to have the opposite effect or get across the opposite meaning of the one intended, the one that comes from the heart. And this can still be the final result even after I have explained myself at great length. I used to get really down in the dumps about this but have had to learn that I am not always going to be understood at the level of self-knowledge (a ridiculous criterion to set for someone else anyhow) and accept the fact that some percentage of misunderstanding is always going to be present simply by virtue of the fact that we are separate human beings who think differently.

Savv and Pueppi

One of my other frustrations about myself, which is directly related to feeling this discrepancy between interior and exterior, is that I am not a great verbal or emotional communicator. I tend to use words that are not necessarily as precise as they could be and I often use them idiosyncratically, which generally means my own special shading of a definition rather than the correct definition. And I am a virtual idiot when it comes to expressing emotions. My reaction to anger is to stomp off and be silent rather than have real engagement. My response to sorrow and fear is to shut everything down and try at all costs to keep calm, which means I express these things in an intellectualized drone that cannot be understood as emotional. So from the point of view of my partner, it's no wonder I can be misunderstood. He is verbally acute and quite the opposite in expressing his emotions, more Mediterranean in style. And I know full well that he sometimes has similar feelings of being misunderstood or even neglected in some ways. And even after he has expressed these misunderstandings, they may still partly inform my feelings and reactions. My own difficulty makes e sympathetic to his. We also have to recognize that we are often actually consistent in our inconsistency. Our strengths are also our weaknesses. Therefore, our likes and dislikes in a partner can often revolve around the same qualities or capacities. Good nature can become a tiresome viewpoint that is naive and always seeks to correct the other when he is being critical (or perceptive) about other people. Taking on the big picture can mean one isn't always attentive to details. Tenaciousness and hard work can become uncontrolled or overbearing. Prudence can sometimes be construed as not taking one's emotional needs into account. And the stylish flair and sociability of someone more actively engaged in the outer world can leave you feeling ignored. But in the end, the most important thing is that the other be accepted as a complete human being.

Rilke says that to love another human being is "our most difficult task." In his book How to be an Adult In Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving (Shambhala, 2002), David Richo says of the conflict phase of relationships, "Cooperation--partnership--is the heart of conflict resolution. We are not working individually for ascendency of our own position. We work together for the health and happiness of the relationship. As in Eastern martial arts, harmonious movements take the place of adversarial struggle. This nonresistant, nondominant, nonpassive, nonviolent love arises from unconditional disarmament and thus has no place for 'I am good, you are bad' or 'I am right, you are wrong.' If we get caught up in such dualism, we project the face of the opponent onto our partner, and both of us have already lost." The starting point for this article was two thoughts by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book on mindfulness and meditation, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness (Hyperion, 2005) that struck me as being particularly useful about relationships. The first is about creating problems and the second about being right and wrong. I'll finish by quoting them at length.

From the poster "Two Mules: A Fable for the Nations"

ON CREATING PROBLEMS: "You make problem, you have problem. You make insult, you have insult. You make interpretation, you have interpretation. There are infinite opportunities for us to get stuck in fabrication, for us to latch onto some event or other and make it into something, something much more than it really is. This is the origin of a huge amount of grief and mania. If we make something out of our perceptions, some big story, such as 'they' don't love me, or 'they' don't respect me, or 'things are not supposed to have happened like this,' or 'my body is no good,' or 'my life is a failure,' or 'I'm ing of the world," the very model of a modern major general, or movie star, or whatever it is for you, rather than seeing the essential emptiness/fulness of events and resting in our hearts in acceptance and equanimity, in the integrity of spacious, openhearted, choiceless awareness, we might be right, or we might be wrong, we might be requited, or we might not ever be, but we will never know peace, and we will never see the big picture, beyond the stories, big and little, we are telling ourselves and then forgetting that we made up, fabricated, all by ourselves."

ON BEING RIGHT AND WRONG:"If we start paying attention in this way, we may find that this [demonizing, stereotyping, making sweeping generalizations about people] can happen even with the people we live with and love the most. That is why family is usually such a wonderful laboratory for honing greater awareness, compassion, and wisdom, and actually embodying them in our everyday lives. For when we find ourselves clinging strongly to the certainty that we are right and others are wrong, even if it is true to a large degree and the stakes are very, very high (or at least we think they are and are attached to our view of it), then our very lenses of perception can become distorted, and we risk falling into delusion and doing some degree of violence to what is and to the truth of things and of the relationships we are in, far beyond the "objective" validity of one position or another. When I examine my own mind, I have to recognize that I am subject to all those tendencies every day, and have to watch out for them to not become deluded, and I imagine I am not unique in that regard."

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