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Shambhala Sun | September 2011
You'll find this article on page 34 of the magazine.

Six Ways to Make It Work

After the honeymoon, real life sets in—budgets to balance, toilet seats left up, and in-laws coming for dinner. Relationships aren’t easy, says SUSAN PIVER, but if we practice the six paramitas, or transcendent perfections, we can discover how to live in love.

Dharma practitioners are taught the critical importance of developing nonattachment (noticing without holding on as phenomena arise, abide, and dissolve), understanding the only route to happiness is to think of others before ourselves, and accepting the truth of impermanence (nothing will last). This is not only a perfect prescription for spiritual awakening, but also for making our romantic relationships work.

When it comes to relationships, however, even the most basic dharma teachings are difficult to implement. As one who has been both a Buddhist practitioner and a wife for roughly fifteen years, I can tell you that in no area of life are we less likely to apply the dharma than in our love life. I don’t know about you, but although we could practice not holding on to either the good or the bad moments, thinking of our lover first, and recognizing that, no matter what, this relationship will end and we should savor each moment more fully, well, I’m more likely to be a mad grudge holder, to worry overly about whether I’m “getting my needs met,” and, when it comes to acknowledging the eventual end of my marriage, whether through anger, boredom or death, that’s just too much to ask. I need this one little area of my life to exist outside the law of impermanence. And I often catch myself pretending that it does.

This leads to a very painful situation, one where I attempt to enlist my love life in service to my deepest illusions rather than my awakenment. As I look around, I see that I’m not alone in the attempt to use romantic partnership to solidify rather than liberate illusion. Yet, as anyone can tell you who has been romantically involved with someone for more than, oh, three months, relationships are custom-made for battering illusions.

Of course, relationships aren’t easy. Though we may be a genius at solving problems at work or with our friends, when problems arise in love, our elevated viewpoints evaporate and we resort to fancy, adult hissy fits. No one, it seems, is immune: not therapists, ministers, beauty queens, captains of industry, or our post-therapy selves. Forget about Smith & Wesson—relationships are the great equalizer. That said, we can work with relationships by keeping in mind the “container principle.”

The container principle is the idea that the environment you establish or find yourself in can influence or even give rise to an outcome. For example, when you practice meditation in a shrine room, it feels different than when you practice alone at home or outside by the sea or on an airplane. When you eat your dinner standing up over the sink, it may actually taste different than when you are seated at a table with linens and lovely music. If you want to have a difficult conversation with someone, it feels one way to do it in person and another when done via email. These are all examples of containers.

When it comes to relationships, something interesting happens when we expand our view of solving problems to include not just your behavior and my behavior and a deep understanding of our family-of-origin issues, but also the environment in which our relationship is taking place. I don’t mean our house or bank accounts. Nor do I mean if only you were neater or I listened more carefully, or we lived in a different town or spent more or less time together. I’m talking about the energetic structure we create to house our love. Following this advice is not about reducing our conflicts to whatever faults or actions or moments gave rise to them. It is about expanding beyond our list of complaints, and taking refuge in a far more spacious view. We create the container in which love itself wants to live.

There are six elements that go into creating this container. If you practice these steps (called the six paramitas, or transcendent perfections) with devotion, the container arises spontaneously and, poof, you live in love, which is way better than trying to feel it. This is akin to owning the petri dish, not the mold, if you will.


Generosity


We each have some pretty distinct ideas (whether we know it or not) about what relationships are supposed to look like. When we were growing up we may have imagined what love would feel like or what it would mean to be in love, and by the time we’re thirteen or so, we have a very fancy relationship movie script to go along with our ideas. It’s like we have a lens stuck in the middle of our forehead and everywhere we look, we project our film onto the environment. Whoever walks through our screen is cast in a role. The people I see when I walk to work are extras; my boss is a villain; the new person at work is a possible lover. When we enter an actual relationship, our filmmaking goes into overdrive and at some point we cease to see the actual human we’re in a relationship with and see only how they do or don’t match our ideal. If we break up, we hope that central casting will quickly send a more suitable person to cast in the role of lover.


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