This excerpt has been adapted from Tricycle’s online course “The Dharma of Relationships: The Paramis in Action” with Martine Batchelor and Laura Bridgman. Learn more about the course and enroll at learn.tricycle.org.
Martine Batchelor: Something that is important to explore, look at, and be careful with in terms of the dharma of relationships is ending a relationship intentionally. In the dharma, we talk a lot about patience, generosity, compassion, and forgiveness. But, as the Buddha says, we need to have as much compassion for ourselves as for others. So in a relationship, we need to care for and protect ourselves.
Long ago, I was teaching about compassion, and this young woman came to me and said, “I’m not sure if I am compassionate enough.” She explained that she had a husband who was a drug addict, which was not really the problem, but his dealer was coming to threaten the family. After three years of this, she finally left him. When she asked me, “Do you think I was compassionate enough?” I nearly said, “You were too compassionate.” I told her, “You were really compassionate enough, and it was a good idea to leave him for your own safety.”
We’ve talked about the parami of courage, the parami of courage of saying no, the parami of courage of saying “Yes, I love you, but from afar.” If we are harmed in a relationship, then we have to save ourselves. We have to be able to end a relationship knowing that life is complex, life is rich, and it does not depend on having that harmful person in my life. There are other people out there who will be supportive and beneficial to me. We have to have the courage to protect ourselves, to take care of ourselves in relationships.
Laura Bridgman: That’s true. And even if a relationship or situation isn’t overtly harmful, it could be that the relationship isn’t really serving our growth and development, whether that’s in our life or our practice. That can be a more subtle, nuanced sense that I need to separate, I need to go in another direction here. I found it helpful to discern what’s driving my desire to move away or to stay. I liked what you were saying about the parami, for instance. We may sometimes feel that we should be generous or compassionate. We may assume that compassion or generosity is one thing, and saying no and having a boundary is another. They can actually go together. There can be a compassionate way of saying no. Saying no can actually be a generous gesture in the sense of not continuing with an unworkable relationship or situation.
When we look at our relationship with these qualities, we don’t need to take a fixed position on them. “I should be compassionate, I should be open,” I don’t think that’s what the Buddha meant. It’s more like a process of balance. If my heart is closed, how come? What’s keeping it closed? That’s a generous attitude. And if my heart is stuck open and I’m not able to hold my boundaries, what do I need here? What would support me to feel where my line is in this relationship?
Martine Batchelor: I have observed that when a relationship is very good, you don’t question it. If the relationship is very bad, then hopefully, you get out of it. But the most difficult thing about ending a relationship is when you are in the middle: one day is good, I stay; one day is bad, I go. Up and down. That is a difficult place to be, and so one needs to bring wisdom and protection to that.
There was another story that struck me. I once had a lady come and again ask, “Am I compassionate enough?” She explains, “We have many children in this family, but I am the only one who still sees my father. But I only see him once a year.” Your first reaction may be, “Wait a minute, once a year? That’s not very compassionate.” But she was the only one who was able to even do that. And why? Because what he wanted once a year, at least, was to be taken to a restaurant and he would be so cantankerous, shouting at everybody. The experience was a disaster. That’s why nobody else wanted to meet him. I told her, “That’s very courageous of you and compassionate to do it once a year. Because that’s what you’re able to do. But you cannot do more. And that’s wisdom: to know what my limits are in that situation.”
Laura Bridgman: This makes me think of practicing with doubt. For instance: Should I stay? Should I go? We get pulled between these different viewpoints of all the things that justify staying and all the things that justify going. We get caught up in the swing back and forth between the two, which can make us feel helpless and caught in doubt. We think, I want to have a clearer sense of what’s needed, but I’m not clear. So I get pulled back and forth. We can be so driven to be absolutely sure and get it right, to make the right decision. We may choose one way and then really regret it and punish ourselves for getting it wrong. It can be compassionate to recognize how much pressure we put on ourselves to find our direction in a relationship. I’ve found that when I actually take that pressure off, that supports a bit more clarity and wisdom in discerning what’s needed.