The following is a Q & A excerpt from Susan Piver’s new book The Four Noble Truths of Love: Buddhist Wisdom For Modern Relationships.
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Q. What should I do if my partner is unwilling to join me in this kind of relationship?
A. The most common question I hear is, “I’m willing to do these things, but my partner thinks it’s all silly/irrational/pointless. What can I say to make him or her feel otherwise?” The answer is nothing. There is nothing you can say to change someone else’s point of view. In fact, attempting to do so is likely to result in further entrenchment, the very opposite of what you seek. So please don’t do that absent a very clear opening and invitation. There is only one way to convince someone that meditation, mindfulness, and these insights will make you more loving, brave, and strong and that is to show up to each interaction with love, bravery, and strength. In other words, don’t say these things, be these things. There are no guarantees, but that is still the most compelling—and only—an argument that cuts through.
Q. I parted with my former fiancé and father of my daughter because he could not stay sober and would not get the extensive help he needed. I hit my wall when I came home one evening to him blacked out on the couch after putting her to bed and then the next day having to leave my new job early to pick her up at school because he was too drunk to get her. I know I hit my official wall long after hitting weaker ones already along the way. I did not love him romantically unconditionally, which he demanded, and I question if that is really ever possible. We come from two different worlds when it comes to relationship expectations, demands, and promises, and romantic, family, friendship, or community relationships. I don’t think relationships can withstand those differences. Thanks, and my apologies for the half rambling, half questioning.
A. Thanks for the great question, Sarah. It is not half rambling or half questioning. I think I understand what you are asking. I do believe that unconditional love is possible—in moments. But it is unrealistic for anyone to think it is a state that one can arrive at never to depart. To demand it seems crazy, and in the way you describe it here, it sounds less like a plea for love than one for tolerance or indulgence. As you will have seen in this book, I believe there are some things that are intolerable, including addiction and abuse. In such circumstances, it may be the case that the true expression of unconditional love is to stop trying to help. When you hit the wall, you hit the wall. To argue that you have not hit the wall but are suffering from lack of lovingkindness is an obfuscation. First, no one but you knows where the wall is, how hard you’ve hit it, and how egregious the wounding is. Please remember: if there is any unconditional love to be expressed, its first recipient should be Sarah. This creates the ground for true compassion rather than a forced expression of some sort. I can’t help but wonder what this situation would be like if genders were reversed. Indulge me as I ponder stereotypes. If a man came home to find his woman passed out on the couch and upon awakening, she tried to convince him that somehow this was his problem—is there any planet on which this would pass muster? I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, I am hinting that women may be more socially conditioned to feel that if there is any problem, it is because they are not loving or kind enough. In response, I say F*CK THAT. Please do what you feel is right and loving for yourself and your daughter. We are not here to be universal mommies.
Q. Dear Susan, I was wondering if the First Noble Truth could be understood as never really being satisfied in any relationship. I find myself being in relationships and always thinking the grass is greener on the other side. I go to the gym and see all these beautiful women and selfishly wonder if they would be more fun and sexy to be with. It’s hard to admit this but it’s true. I feel like a scumbag always looking at other women. I wonder how the Four Noble Truths could relate to this desire. I’m not sure if the desire is because I’m a perfectionist and think there is this perfect girlfriend out there, in which case is an impossible standard, or maybe there’s something else to it. I’m not sure. Thanks for the question. I can’t wait to hear from you and read your book.
A. What a great question. I truly appreciate the way you are attempting to blend your dharma study with seeing sexy women at the gym. Seriously! This is what it is all about—bringing your studies into your world and culture and making them relevant. Thank you. I think you are right in your assessment of the First Noble Truth as having to do with an inability to feel satisfied. This does not mean that you should feel bad about yourself for experiencing this dissatisfaction. (It certainly does not mean you are a scumbag.) As a student of the dharma, what is our first reaction to so-called negative emotion? I happen to know you and that you are a student of Buddhism—that is why I ask. If you said, “To make friends with it,” I applaud you! Explore the feeling of dissatisfaction, but not the attendant storyline. In other words, what does it feel like too long for what you don’t have because there may be something better out there? To get lost in the reasoning for your longing it is a detour. Study your state of mind and see where this leads instead.
Q. My daughter had been married for three months when her husband suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. His sweet personality, physical abilities, and cognitive abilities have changed, suddenly and drastically. She has dedicated herself to her “new Joshua” in the past two years since it happened, and this dedication is regularly renewed, as she, naturally, from time to time, questions what she’s doing with the venerable “Should I stay or should I go?” I’m happy to give you more background but the basic question remains the same. Her dedication is remarkable and her sense of humor is her saving grace! We give her support in any choice she makes, and love our son-in-law unconditionally.
A. I cannot imagine a more confusing, upsetting situation. I feel terrible for your daughter, and for your son-in-law. And you. There is clearly no obvious answer. What I have to offer is not based on Buddhist wisdom but in the wisdom of Louise Piver, my own mother. When faced with complex decisions, her advice was to wait. “The really hard decisions make themselves,” she always said to us. At some point, causes and conditions will come together and your daughter will know what to do. She probably knows already—but knowing is not the same as doing. When the time is right, the path will be clear. Mom is right. Thanks, Mom! (Thank goodness for wise and caring moms.)
Q. How to wake up and see people and relationships clearly in the first six months of euphoria? What appears to be “not-suffering” leads to suffering later.
A. I love this question. It speaks to the strange shift from falling in love to being in love (or not) and the ensuing confusion. What happened to nonstop bliss? Staying in bed for days? Six-hour conversations? How is it possible to reconcile the way a relationship begins with what it turns into, a reckoning with all of our most wondrous and puniest qualities in a way that is by turns terrifying, compelling, beautiful, or stultifying? As mentioned earlier, there is a difference between a love affair and a relationship. Not all love affairs make great relationships. Perhaps some of the suffering you allude to is about discovering that this person—the person you love to talk to, make love with, bask in the glow of—does not know how to hold a job, refuses to meet your family, or has a dark side that comes out when you disagree, qualities that would make a life together very difficult. There is great suffering when you find that the person you fell in love with does not exist, at least not in the way you imagined. Super painful, that. However, I want to point out that the first six months of euphoria are not an illusion to be woken up from. I think such euphoria is real. It points to something. It means something. It is a time when you are shaken loose from your habitual views of self, other, and life, and is thus a moment of great possibility. To me, the question is not “How do I not do that?” but “What can I learn from what I am feeling right now?” I hope this helps!
Q. When an intimate relationship has ended, run its course, how can it mature into another kind of love? And what about passion and jealousy?
A. Thanks for this question. I think you are asking about how to break up with someone and remain friends, minus any jealousy when one of you begins a new relationship. If this is indeed the question, here is my answer: You can’t. Deep, intimate closeness in the context of a romantic relationship does not necessarily translate into another context. The relationship is over, that’s it. You can’t cherry-pick aspects of what you had (“We have such great conversations/are the only two people on earth who love puppet shows/still care about each other”) and transplant them into a new relationship just because it seems like it should be possible. It almost never is. That is too conceptual. Once you have had sex with someone, it is really, really difficult to back into a less intense relationship. Relationships don’t seem able (or willing) to move backward. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a new relationship with this person, one of friendship, collegiality, fraternity, eternity, whatever you like. But first, the original relationship has to be completely over, meaning each party has released it and moved on. Then, perhaps, a new form of connection is possible.
Q. Does intimacy also allow us to discover how we’re not connected to another?
A. Not sure if it does as a rule, per se, but there is certainly a great deal of loneliness in even the closest and most loving partnerships. It can happen that the more you love each other, the lonelier you feel because you eventually discover that there is a kind of unbridgeable gap between two people simply because you are two people. You find that there are ways your partner will never, ever be able to see you or understand you, not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t know-how. That’s just how it works. So I guess my answer is “yes.”
Q. My question is/are: Does this wonderful feeling I am experiencing resonate truly and fully in my heart? Is there anything that doesn’t feel right in my gut about this situation or person? What is it? How can I learn more while I love, accept, and honor myself through this process?
A. Dear Questioner, these are the questions. I am afraid that no one can answer them but you, however. A meditation practice can really help!
Q. Here is one I think about a lot: When you are doing your best to bring Buddhist teachings to the interactions in your relationship but your partner is not (a non-Buddhist), how do you keep from feeling like you take on the burden of the communication and stability in the relationship? On the flip side of that, how do you keep from being a total a**hole when you are really feeling the pinch of being the one moving the communication and interactions forward? I would love more discussion on finding a balance between personal practice and living a committed relationship with someone who has no interest in Buddhism.
A. For my thoughts on being in a relationship when one person is a practitioner and the other is not, please see chapter 2. See also Question #1. Further, I would say that the onus of taking responsibility for communication, stability, and balance has nothing to do with whether or not you are a Buddhist. I know plenty of recalcitrant, nutty, unbalanced Buddhists. We have no special claim on decency, goodness, and emotional maturity. For myself, I enjoy being in a relationship with a non-Buddhist because I can’t hide behind what I like to call “Buddhist bullsh*t.” I can’t consign blame for our problems to his lack of spiritual insight versus my superior knowing. If only! We are both just human beings here, and while a meditation practice is of great importance when it comes to love (indeed, this entire book is about just that), there is no substitute for emotional skillfulness and openhearted bravery, neither of which we Buddhists have a special claim to. If your partner is unwilling or unable to communicate well or contribute to building a steady relationship, I warrant it has nothing to do with spiritual practice but is about something else.
Q. Someone asked me for advice about this last night— what do you do when you are getting to know someone and they do something that is difcult to deal with— repeatedly—it is part of who they are. If you decide to stay in the relationship, how do you deal with it? How do you know if it is a deal breaker?
A. Wish I could have heard your answer! The person you are in a relationship with is eventually going to do something that is difcult to deal with. Repeatedly. It depends on what it is and what your values are. If the person turns out to be cruel in any way whatsoever, I would say RED ALERT. The same goes for issues related to addiction. It is very, very difcult when your partner is awesome, say, 97 percent of the time, and truly horrible (or worse) in the other 3 percent. To know what to do requires way more than I or anyone else could say from this remote distance. There is no substitute for counseling and expert advice meant for the individual personally. Aside from abuse and addiction, there are plenty of other issues that could be deal breakers such as if religious observation is a core value for one while for the other it is not. It difers from couple to couple and, in all cases, it is really important to know what the deal breakers are for each.
Q. What is love and how do you know when it is real?—KW (16 years old)
A. KW, in five to ten years, you are going to have to tell me. In the meantime, all I can say is that you can totally trust yourself to know, if not on the spot, then eventually. Please believe that about yourself.
Q. Given that the only constant in this universe is change, how do you manage the trials of the dynamic nature of love as it changes face throughout a long term relationship?
A. Exactly! That is 100 percent what this book is about. I truly hope you have found it useful. Do let me know.
Q. How do you deal with the resentment afer a breakup?
A. First, my heart goes out to you if you are dealing with a broken heart. That is truly one of the most searingly painful experiences a person can go through. I wrote a whole ’another book about this, The Wisdom of a Broken Heart. I also recommend my good friend Lodro Rinzler’s book, Love Hurts. Both are based in the Buddhist tradition and are about working with the loss of romantic love. In the meantime, my best advice is to be very gentle with yourself. Of course, you feel resentment. (And probably many other things, too.) Allow yourself to feel it all. As much as you are able to, please try to let go of the storyline that accompanies what you feel to just feel. To “feel the feeling and drop the story,” as Pema Chödron has counseled, is truly the royal road to release. For more on this, you could read her book, The Places That Scare You. Highly recommended.
Get Susan Piver’s new book The Four Noble Truths of Love: Buddhist Wisdom For Modern Relationships here.