We all encounter suffering in relationships. Why? Because we make a few fundamental errors. Once we correct these errors in our thinking, and begin to act accordingly, we can save ourselves quite a lot of needless suffering.
I wanted to explain these thinking errors, these pitfalls, “in a nutshell.” But one nutshell just wasn’t enough! Happily, they can be explained in a mere three nutshells. So here you go.
Nutshell 1 – Solid Things
One clear cause of our suffering in relationships is thinking that our “issues” with others are “solid things.”
We have been trained to overlook the fact that we are never relating to “solid things.” As quantum theory has now shown us, although objects (and even our thoughts) seem to be solid in a sense, in reality we are always relating to dancing, flowing activities of mind and body that constantly project an appearance of being solid things.
What does this mean?
It means that life is a fluid learning curve of activity! What good is that? It’s very good! Because when we recognize that life is activity, that awareness will lead us to ever greater clarity and skillfulness. All we need to do is begin paying attention to how we are behaving and to how the universe (including other people) responds to those ways of behaving.
Again, this is very good news. If there are no “solid things” (and there aren’t) then what we call “relationship,” is pliable and able to be easily improved and reshaped from moment to moment.
There are also no such “things” as shame, guilt, or blame. These are simply names or labels we have assigned to activities of thinking. And thoughts are not solid.
Of course, we need to be practical. We may need to take action to maintain our health and safety. But while we’re taking those reasonable actions, there’s no reason to hold onto shame, guilt, or blame about them.
Nutshell 2 – Speedy Thinking
What might keep us from recognizing that thoughts are not solid? That’s the second nutshell: speedy thinking. We’re relating to a multitude of activities throughout the day. And speedy thinking grabs our attention and carries it along so fast that those activities become a blur that we then perceive as. . . a solid thing.
When I was 22, a fellow Zen student criticized me for being late to meditation. And because I had been meditating for awhile, I was able to watch my mind’s reaction to being criticized. Right away I saw my mind immediately thinking up many self-justifying thoughts to try to escape the criticism.
That’s an example of speedy thinking. I thought this person’s criticism was a solid “arrow” or barb capable of striking a solid target: “me.” But thanks to my developing mindfulness, I was able to see my speedy thinking process and not get sucked into it. Instead of getting carried away on a tidal wave of self-justifying thoughts, I relaxed. I was able to consider this person’s point of view without acting on my defensive thoughts. I didn’t say, “Well, you were late yesterday! What about that?!” Instead, I thought, “Well, that’s a good point. I can make more of an effort to be on time for meditation.” No shame, no blame.
Thought processes adhere to the law of nature –– the law of cause and effect. Usually, we speedily react to hearing, or thinking, a given label, even one we’re applying to ourselves (“I’m late to meditation, so I’m a bad Zen student”). And in that blur of speedy thinking, we forget to challenge the implied causality: “How does that work?” “Who says?” “What is the evidence?” “Prove it.”
Right now, if you’re reading this in a reactive state of mind, you may be assuming you’d ask these questions in an aggressive way. If you did so, that speedy habitual thought pattern would quickly and effectively carry you off into an escalating, mutually defensive argument. And maybe your experience is different, but in my experience, defensive arguments rarely turn out well.
So how do we avoid getting sucked into speedy thinking? How can we relate to words, names, and labels with mindfulness? We welcome the Learning Curve!
The Learning Curve Basics
- As best you can, have a relaxed attitude that you are not the target and slooow down.
- Ask curious questions about the speedy thoughts or labels: How do they work? Who says? What’s the evidence?
- To maintain an attitude that you are not the target of a label, use this handy reminder: “Thoughts can only refer to other thoughts.” And you are not a thought.
What are “you”? You are the intelligent awareness that recognizes the presence of thoughts flowing, and of emotions flowing. Those thoughts or emotions are not you, and they are not about you. They are vividly, repeatedly appearing, however. And their vividness and repetition triggers our speedy habit of believing those thoughts or emotions are about us and belong to us.
Nutshell 3 – Vividness and Repetition
Now for the third nutshell, the pitfall that so often leads to confusion and suffering in our relationships: vividness and repetition. From our preverbal infancy, up until about the age of seven –– before we developed our critical thinking faculties –– our subconscious mind formed a habit of determining the nature of reality based on vividness and repetition. The more vividly something appeared, and the more often we encountered it, the more “real” we assumed it was.
By the time we developed an ability to discriminate between what is valid and what isn’t (critical thinking) many of these vivid, repeated messages had already become rock solid realities for us. So much so that, even in adulthood, it doesn’t even occur to us to examine those messages with the critical eye of logical reasoning.
I have met many quite brilliant adults who suffer in relationships, believing that they are defective and unworthy –– based solely on such early, vivid, repeated messages. “You spilled your milk again!” (spank), “You are a bad boy/girl. Go to your room!” (For a child, the unspoken, implied message is the same in each case: “You are an irritant.”)
I invite you to read this article again, while challenging the messages you hear or think, using the Learning Curve.
The next time you’re having a hard time in a relationship, you can apply this same technique. Here’s how.
Learning Curve Meta Exercise
- Slooow down and relax as you consider the ideas presented here. No pressure to quickly understand it all. Puzzlement is fine!
- If memories, feelings, and emotions are stimulated, that’s fine too. Practice regarding all of them as objects in your awareness. You are watching them, so they’re objects of your attention.
- If you start feeling pulled along by thoughts speeding up, take a breath and slow them down. Then just continue contemplating.
- Take a few notes on what you observe. That way your learning doesn’t “evaporate” when speedy thinking takes over.
Consider joining Ceci and me at our March webinar, where we will explore the delightful learning curve of engaging in Transformative Practices for Joyful Relationships. Full details at this link.