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Monday, October 21, 2013

Mindfulness Part III - Relationships

Mavis, Flickr

(Note: as for the other posts in this Mindfulness series, this one contains quotes by Thich Nhat Hanh. For previous posts on mindfulness, click here and here.)

(Note 2: this post is long, but I - humbly - believe it's worth it. I will let you be the judges!)

Can mindfulness help with relationships?

You bet!

Without mindfulness, a good part of our behavior in relationships is a reactive behavior. We react to others. It can be an emotional reaction, or it can be an intellectual reaction, but it's a reaction. (I hear you say "It can be a physical reaction, too!" Yes, it can be that also.)

That reaction can arise from our past experiences (e.g. our first relationships, i.e. with our parents) or from our present state of mind (e.g. we react to people differently when we are in a state of stress VS when we are in a relaxed state). But as a general rule, without mindfulness we do not have much of a grip on how we interact with others; apart from respecting some basic rules of social life to preserve harmony (hopefully!), we are just carried by a wave we don't even realize exists.

This is important because interactions and relationships start before we are even aware of it. Do you know someone who very rarely smiles or makes eye contact? In your workplace, for example? How does that make you feel? Even if you don't have an actual relationship with that person, his/her attitude has an effect on you. On the opposite end of the continuum, people who exude warmth, compassion, joy and serenity can have quite a different effect on others:

When you look at such happy people, you know that they are solid in the practice. Their way of walking, sitting, and smiling testifies to their solidity, freedom, and happiness. It is a blessing to have such people among us. They radiate peace, joy, stability, freedom, and happiness.

What kind of impression do you think you give away?

Whether we like it or not, and whether we actively engage in an interaction with someone, we have an effect on each other. That can bring about incalculable benefits:

In the past, you may have felt that you could not bear to be alone, and when a friend came and sat close to you, you felt better, because you were supported by his or her energy.

I know I benefit from the wonderful people in my life on a daily basis, and I sure hope I make my own little contribution.

However, and unfortunately, a lot of negative also comes from others. Didn't Sartre say "L'enfer, c'est les autres" (Hell is other people)? Haven't you felt, sometimes, that you would be better off if you were alone? Or at least if some people didn't exist?

There might be some truth to that, and some people (hermits) have taken it to the extreme. But true mindfulness, serenity, and joy - and harmonious relationships - cannot be achieved in a void:

Some of us think it would be easier to practice if we went on a solo retreat in the mountains, but if you do so, you will not have the opportunity to be challenged. Please use your private time, when you are sitting or walking alone, to practice and prepare yourself so that when someone comes and waters a negative seed in you, you will be able to respond in a most positive and beautiful way. If we do not prepare ourselves, then when a negative seed is watered, we suffer and react in a way that is not wise. We bring the suffering into ourselves and into the other person as well.

We are a gregarious species. For us human beings,

Happiness is not an individual matter. 

Les amants heureux, by Courbet

Here are some manifestations of how relationships affect our happiness:


Who doesn't have some resentment toward their parents? It can be big, it can be small, but for sure there is something you reproach your parents. What Thich Nhat Hanh recommends in those cases is to realize that whatever our parents have transmitted to us, good and bad, they most likely inherited it from their own parents. The wounded child within us, the one whose needs were not entirely fulfilled, took the place of another wounded child who had come before, who himself had taken the place of yet another wounded child who had come even longer before:

There may be a multitude of wounded children within our wounded child. If we know how to embrace and heal our wounded child, we will also heal the multitude of wounded children that have been transmitted to us by generations of our ancestors.

Your anger at your parents will disappear when you realize they carry something that they received from their own parents. When you feel negative about your parents, or about things they might have done to you, try and visualize them as children. Think of what they had to go through before you even existed. A lot of baggage runs in families. No family is exempt of baggage.

You can ask for a picture of your parent as a child, or ask other family members about the family dynamics outside of your own existence. When the taboo, if there is one, is broken, you will most likely discover some patterns (child abuse, alcoholism, depression, and other issues less serious), that will help you relativize the situation you grew up in.

The next step of course, in any interaction you have with others (and especially if you have children), is to avoid reproducing what you received if it was harmful:

If you don't know how to heal the wounded child within or to transform your negative seeds, you will make your children and friends suffer as you were made to suffer. You will blame people for having made you suffer. You know that it is not good to abuse people, let them down, exclude them, and hurt the already wounded child in them, yet you still do it.

Family of Saltimbanques, by Picasso


A famous French writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, said that to love each other means not to look at each other but to look in the same direction. He may be right, but not if you are looking in the direction of the television. I advise the opposite: Turn off the television and look at each other.

True, in love you need common projects, hopes and dreams. But you also need to look at each other, to really look at each other, on a daily basis. If we paid attention, I'm afraid many of us in long-term relationships would realize we don't often have sustained eye contact with our spouse. And I'm not even mentioning a sustained conversation, a sustained kiss, or sex that is more than a meeting of the bodies (what about the minds? and the hearts?)

We chose a partner. We chose to have children. Do we treat them in a way that reflects that choice?

Patience is the mark of true love. If you truly love someone, you will be more patient with him or her.

Le printemps, by François Boucher


Interacting with others is sure to lead to conflict sooner or later. Conflict does not necessarily entail fighting (verbal or physical). Conflict can remain latent. It is nonetheless unpleasant (think Cold War). Conflict will happen anytime there is a clash between different needs and/or opinions. Conflict will happen anytime we feel irritated by others' presence, and react to it in a way that is irritating to them. Conflict can even (and often) arise from a simple misunderstanding. What to do to prevent the escalation? Here are some pieces of advice from Thich Nhat Hanh:

Keep anger in check

You be about to punish each other with strong words. When you are angry, you want some relief. You think that if you can make him suffer, you will feel better. You behave like a child. You know that if the other person suffers, you will suffer, too. We escalate our anger and suffering through mutual punishment. We behave like this as individuals, groups, and nations. 

If only we could keep anger in check... so much conflict would not even live to see tomorrow.

Put the fire out

When your house is on fire, the first thing you do is try to put the fire out - not run after the person you think started the fire.

That piece of advice is gold: stop trying to figure out who's guilty, stop trying to retaliate (yes, in the heat of the moment, that's usually what happens!) Being vindictive will not help. Put the fire out instead. That's your goal.

Untie the knot

When the person you love says something unmindful or unkind, you might get an internal knot - it might be a small knot, but it is a knot. I can become harmful if you don't untie it, and the next time your beloved makes the same mistake, the knot will grow. 

So make sure you untie the knot before it gets any bigger. Don't let the pain grow.

Forget reproach

We cannot help transform anyone by using reproach. I we look deeply into ourselves, we may see that we have the same seeds of suffering. The practices of deep, mindful breathing and walking help us to recognize and transform our seeds.

Reproach becomes especially meaningless once we realize that in most cases, when someone does us wrong it is not on purpose:

If I make you suffer, it is not because I am evil or wrong, but because I am unskillful. Forgive me and teach me, so that I can be more skillful next time.

Most of the time, in fact, when you examine a conflict closely you will realize you are the source of your own suffering. Are you brave enough to admit it? I know I often tell myself that the person I am most angry at is myself. You might be angry at yourself for giving too much importance to someone else's behavior or words, for example. People will say and do hurtful things, but we don't have to internalize it!

Please reflect, look deeply, and you will see that the person who has made you suffer most is yourself, and no one else. 

Old man in sorrow, by van Gogh


Especially when it comes to helping:

Sometimes we are motivated by the desire to help, but we do not understand the situation. Then, we will do more harm than good. We want to make someone happy, but we push him to do things that make him suffer.

Being mindful entails seeing and respecting what others really need, as opposed to what we think they need (often based on what we need.) I'm sure you can think of examples. The presents we give and receive sometimes reflect that. The advice we give and receive also often has nothing to do with the real needs at stake.

And listening:

Often, in life, we want to help but don't know exactly what to say. That shouldn't be an issue, since:

Listening deeply can help the other person suffer less.

Yes, listening often is enough. For a person in need, simply having someone to talk to can make a world of difference:

Look at someone who is full of suffering and does not have an opportunity to speak of it to anyone. He looks like a bomb ready to explode. There is a lot of tension and pain, and in fact, that person explodes many times a day.

On top of listening, you can also reformulate and repeat some of the things the person has said. So simple, yet so powerful. I know it works wonders when one of my children is upset:

- I hate it when she steals my toy!
- It makes you angry when she takes your toy?
- Yes!

At which point the upset child usually gives me a hug. Poof, anger defused. It's almost miraculous. The only thing, you have to be present, really present, for this to work:

If you are obsessed with your own problems, pulled into the past or sucked into the future, you cannot really be there for the person who needs your help.

Also remember that you are there to listen. Not judge:

You do not judge while listening. You keep your compassion alive. The other person may be unjust, may say inaccurate things, or blame, attack and judge. 

This is not always easy. First, we want to be right, and show it. Second, we are caught up in our own problems; as Thich Nhat Hanh would wisely say:

The seed of compassion may be getting smaller and smaller as we are caught up in our daily problems.

This makes it possible to go on with our lives without even having a thought for others who have much bigger problems. But we can at least try to salvage/regain/nurture compassion inside of us.

And when in doubt, we can at least smile. Or even hug:

Architects need to build airports and railway stations so that there is enough room to practice hugging.

Oh yes! And people have to take the time to hug!

Now let us know what talks to you in this post!

This post reminded me of a favorite song of mine from when I was 7-8 years old.

Lyrics are to be interpreted as applying to the human race rather than to 2 people. Contrary to what the song claims, however, I believe we are never alone. Here are the lyrics, quickly translated (unfortunately some of the poetry is lost):

We sleep against each other
We live with each other
We caress, we cuddle
We understand, we comfort
But in the end we realize
That we're still alone in this world

We dance with each other
We chase each other
We hate, we tear each other apart
We destroy, we desire
But in the end we realize
That we're still alone in this world


  1. Hi Julie - that's a lot to digest. And that song at the end was your favorite when you were 7-8 years old? Were you introspective as a child? It would be nice if the whole world were nice and everyone had the perfect childhood. Unfortunately that is not the case. Sometimes very rough upbringings cause people to live their lives completely different from the way they were raised. Your post gives me a lot to ruminate on:)

    1. Hi Marc,

      I was introspective - and analytic of relationships - for sure. The other song I loved at that age was about a girl who loves a boy who loves boys. Of course back then nobody talked about that kind of thing, so I simply assumed the song's protagonist liked his male friends too much for the girl's taste. ;-)

      There are very few completely uneventful childhoods. Some are rougher than others. What I like about the approach here is that it empowers each one of us to 1) understand 2) forgive 3) make sure we don't replicate the bad stuff with our own children and with other people. I'm not saying it's easy, though. :-)

      Focusing on replicating what was good might be a good idea. :-)

      Ruminate, digest... your belly is going to be busy with this post! :-)

    2. The other song:


      Some lyrics: "I'm crazy about him, He's a boy unlike any other, I love him anyways, it's not my fault, Even if I know he will never love me"

      It even says "He takes me to dance in very gay places". I didn't clue in until MUCH later, LOL.

  2. Le blogue toujours dans le mille...si je pouvais apporter le iPad dans le bain! je le ferais.

    1. Merci chère! Va falloir trouver une enveloppe hermétique pour ton iPad! ;-)

  3. So, the whole part about parents and their pasts is what stood out to me the most. My mom and I have pretty much zero relationship these days and I tried for many years. I don't think it has to do with her childhood (my grandparents were the greatest people who ever lived) but with her choices as an adult. She resented my dad for many years which for some reason she projected onto me. My step-dad is nice but she completely changed her religious beliefs and went over the top after marrying him.
    Sorry - to write a novel - I often wonder if that lack of relationship has affected other releationships in my life.

    1. I'm sorry to hear you don't have a relationship with your mom, Kim. :-( It's hard to understand, and certainly much harder to experience.

      Please don't worry about writing novels, you have interesting things to say and you do. I thank you for that. :-)

  4. Love the thought that we should make meaningful, prolonged eye contact with our loved ones. In many ways, that is more powerful and intimate than anything else and can do wonders for a relationship.

    1. Sometimes the path to intimacy is so obvious, we tend to forget those little things. I have advocated the power of a prolonged kiss on this blog before. And now the eye contact. Because in every day life, do we even pay attention to each other for more than half a second?

      It's all about focusing, really focusing, on what's going on. :-)

  5. Wow, lots of sage advice in here! So many folks struggle with this stuff but don't make it a priority to be present and try to work on it. And love the well- chosen art to illustrate!

    1. It does take a lot of work to counter our sometimes misguided tendencies in relationships!

      I'm glad you appreciate the art; I had fun picking it. :-)

  6. I like where in A Course in Miracles, it says, "In every interaction with another you have the chance to lose yourself or to find yourself."

    Always be present.

    1. And when we find ourselves, isn't it wonderful?

  7. What in this post DOESN'T speak to me?! I was having a similar conversation with a new love last night...we are of the same mind that we are here to grow and learn to be better to ourselves and others. There is enough suffering in the world without creating our own. Learning to be mindful helps train our hearts and minds to choose compassion and love over suffering.

    My dad's behavior often times drives me crazy, but I know about his childhood and it was a rough one. That helps me be compassionate even when I think he's foul or inappropriate. There are so many wounds there, and at 81 I don't hold my breath that he will delve into his own healing process.

    Mindfulness helps tremendously - and always. Thanks for such a great post.


    1. Thanks for a great comment. I really like your positive and proactive approach, too.

  8. It couldn't be MORE important to be mindful in relationships! If you're not, guaranteed you will lose friendships and relationships with the drop of a hat!! You always have to consider others! Relationships are give and take, not just take!

  9. I really liked what you said about dealing with negative experiences we were given by our parents. It is easy to say, "it was my parents," but that is a) taking the easy way out, and b) giving these experiences power over you for the rest of your life.

    It may be satisfying to dive deep and realize what made you who you are, but that won't change things (it probably shines through here that I'm not a Freudian). Change only happens when you act responsibly to yourself and address what you wish to change. When you realize that change is within your power, that you have say in your destiny, the need to forgive also becomes much smaller.

    1. Words of wisdom, evilcyber! To acknowledge "baggage" is good, but once that is done, we have to move on! :-)

  10. This is wonderful, grounding, and clearly well thought. I have no reply at this time, but to say thank you. As they say, the Universe works, and this was very timely.

    1. I SO agree with you that the Universe works. Many things are timely to those who pay attention. :-)

  11. this is the best part from the mindfulness series for me, I have read this post more than once, I think I will take notes :) the section on love about looking at each other. I noticed that with T and me, the other day a photographer friend wanted to take do a couple photo shoot and that's when both of us realized it had been so long since we had actually looked at each other, we do talk a lot but we get so caught up in life and getting things done we realized we had stopped taking time out just to be together without being preoccupied.
    Just yesterday I had a horrible argument and I hated the way I handled it, that's why I came back to this post...I need to practice somethings mentioned under the conflict section :)
    thanks for such a great post