From Chapter 13 of our current Tricycle Retreat leader Ezra Bayda’s new book, Beyond Happiness, The Zen Way to True Contentment,
We often look to relationships as a source of our personal happiness. Our relationships with our partners, friends, and family can certainly be enjoyable, and they enrich many dimensions of living. However, much of our unhappiness in life also comes from relationships; and strangely, even though relationships play a huge role in our lives, we are often very much in the dark when it comes to knowing why so much unhappiness is associated with them. Nor do we have a clear idea what to do about it.
Many books have been written on how to be happy in relationships. They often focus on how to find the right person, communicate better, get our needs met, or fix our problems. Some of these techniques are no doubt helpful, but they are still about striving for personal happiness, where we are at the mercy of external conditions and where we tend to stay caught in the highs and lows of emotion and attachment. And while this may be hard to accept, the personal happiness that we feel periodically through relationships, however enjoyable and meaningful it may be, is usually based in self-centered agendas. This means that we will rarely find the deeper and more genuine happiness that is possible for us.
Conversely, genuine happiness in relationships comes forth naturally when it’s no longer blocked by all the conditions that we normally add—our agendas, our needs, our expectations. When we’re more able to refrain from indulging our self-centered motivations, we no longer look at our relationship in terms of what we will get. Instead, as we move toward the generosity of the heart, we naturally want to give. Hemingway got it right when he said that “love is the wanting to do things for.” The problem is, this is far from easy; relationships are often so complex and messy, and our behaviors are so deeply rooted in our conditioning, that it takes more than the ideal of giving to get us out of our ruts and allow relationships to serve as a fruitful path to true contentment.
Before we explore what it means to give in relationships, let’s first look at what relationships are usually about. We always enter into relationships with expectations of what the relationship will do for us. This is true not only in romantic relationships but also in other areas—family, work, friends, and even casual encounters. More often than not, we’re not even aware of our expectations; but when we experience a relationship difficulty or conflict, it’s likely that our expectations are not being met. (I’m not referring to difficulties that may involve physical danger but rather the garden-variety things that come up in relationships.)
More specifically, whenever we enter into a relationship—from the most casual to the most intense—we want the other person to be a particular way, such as supportive, appreciative, affectionate, trustworthy, or kind. Or perhaps we want them to be neat or quiet. The point is, we always have our own agenda about how the other should be. Why? The reason we want the other to be a particular way comes down to the crucial fact that we want to feel a particular way; we want to feel safe, secure, appreciated, listened to, in control, and on and on.
When our expectations aren’t met, difficulties automatically arise and we may experience disappointment, anger, or fear. Think of a recent conflict in a relationship, and reflect on what expectations you brought with you. See if you’re aware of how you wanted the other to be or how you wanted them to make you feel. A helpful question to ask when it’s hard to see our own expectations is: “How is it (or he or she) supposed to be?”
Unfortunately, instead of looking inward to see our own expectations, we usually focus on who we can blame or how we can fix the situation. We’ll almost always view our relationship difficulties as problems to be solved, as obstacles to overcome. This may work in the short run, and we may be able to temporarily iron out our conflicts and feel some degree of stability. But this approach will never lead to the deeper equanimity of genuine happiness, because we’re missing the pivotal understanding that these difficulties, even though they may feel uncomfortable, are not problems to be solved. Rather, these difficulties are our exact path to freedom, in that they push us to go deeper into our life, to work with the very things that cause us so much unhappiness, namely, our demands that life, and others, be a particular way, and the sense of entitlement we have in thinking that we need to feel a particular way.
Experiencing the disappointment of not getting what we want, of not having our expectations met, often triggers our most painful and unhealed emotions. Whether we feel hurt, angry, or anxious, these very reactions are telling us where we’re most stuck; they’re also pointing to exactly what we need to work with. So whether we withdraw or attack, whether we blame or mollify, whether we self-justify or self-blame, we’re still caught in trying to fix the external situation in order to avoid feeling our emotional pain. We’re also missing out on the real healing response, which is to understand and stay with our own experience.
One very helpful tool in both clarifying and working with our relationship difficulties is to return to the three questions: Am I truly happy right now? What blocks happiness? Can I surrender to what is? There are some applicable examples of how this process works in chapter 6, but basically, the first question helps identify what we’re actually feeling (often we don’t know). The second question shows us where we’re stuck in our conditioning—our expectations, demands, or unhealed pain. Once we see our expectations clearly, and once we work through our surface emotional reactions, we usually reach that uncomfortable place where we begin to feel our deepest fears—such as the fear of being unworthy, the fear of being alone, the fear of being hurt again, the fear of rejection, or the fear of the loss of control or safety. Our fears may not necessarily be logical, but we still believe at our core that they are the truth, and they certainly dictate how we feel and how we live, thus blocking any chance for true contentment.
Finally, the third question leads us directly into the experiential process of coming face to face with our own fears—the fears that are almost always at the root of our unhappiness in relationships. Asking the third question—Can I surrender to what is?—allows us to do the one thing that can help free us from the domination of our fears: that is, to welcome them in and actually feel them. We may think we can’t stand to feel our fears, but the truth is we just don’t want to, primarily because they feel so uncomfortable. But over time we can develop the courage and confidence to stay present with our fears. We learn again and again that it’s awareness that heals; and gradually, the fears, which at one point felt so solid and unapproachable, are now much more workable.
As we become more inwardly free from our conditioning and our fears, the love and connection that are possible in relationships tend to flow through us more naturally. As our defenses are lowered, our heart opens, and there is a natural desire to give from the generosity of the heart. We discover that genuine happiness in relationships is not a product of having our expectations met or getting what we want but rather it is the consequence of freely giving in order to bring happiness to another. Nearly every parent has experienced this at some point—their deepest joy coming from giving unselfishly to their children. Unfortunately, this truth is often forgotten as relationships become more complex, and especially as fear supersedes our innate desire to give from the heart.
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