No Gain

Relationships won't solve our problems, but they can help us grow.

Barry Magid

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MY TEACHER Charlotte Joko Beck pretty much sums up her attitude toward relationships when she says, “Relationships don’t work.” Rather than talk about everything we normally think that we gain from relationships, like love, companionship, security, and family life, she looks at relationships from the perspective of no gain. She focuses on all the ways relationships go awry when people enter into them with particular sorts of gaining ideas and expect relationships to function as an antidote to their problems. Antidotes are all versions of “If only...” If only she were more understanding; if only he were more interested in sex; if only she would stop drinking. For Joko, that kind of thinking about relationships means always externalizing the problem, always assuming that the one thing that’s going to change your life is outside yourself and in the other person. If only the other person would get his or her act together, then my life would go the way I want it to.

Joko tries to bring people back to their own fears and insecurities. These problems are ours to practice with, and we can’t ask anyone else, including a teacher, to do that work for us. To be in a real relationship, a loving relationship, is simply to be willing to respond and be there for the other person without always calculating what we are going to get out of it.

Many people come to me and say, “I’ve been in lots of relationships where I give and give and give.” But for them it wasn’t enlightenment; it was masochism! What they are missing from Joko’s original account is a description of what relationships are actually for—what the good part is. In addition to being aware of the pitfalls that Joko warns us about, we should also look at all the ways in which relationships provide the enabling conditions for our growth and development. That’s particularly obvious with children. We would all agree that children need a certain kind of care and love in order to grow and develop. Nobody would say to a five-year-old, “What do you need Mommy for? Deal with your fear on your own!” The thing is that most of us are still struggling with remnants of that child’s neediness and fear in the midst of a seemingly adult life. Relationships aren’t just crutches that allow us to avoid those fears; they also provide conditions that enable us to develop our capacities so we can handle them in a more mature way.

It’s not just a parent-child relationship or a relationship with a partner that does that. The relationship of a student with a teacher, between members of a sangha, between friends, and among community members—all help us to develop in ways we couldn’t on our own. Some aspects of ourselves don’t develop except under the right circumstances.

Aristotle stressed the importance of community and friendship as necessary ingredients for character development and happiness. He is the real origin of the idea that “it takes a village” to raise a child. However, you don’t find much in Aristotle about the necessity of romantic love in order to develop. His emphasis was on friendship.

Aristotle said that in order for people to become virtuous, we need role models—others who have developed their capacities for courage, self-control, wisdom, and justice. We may emphasize different sets of virtues or ideas about what makes a proper role model, but Buddhism also asserts that, as we are all connected and interdependent, none of us can do it all on our own.

Acknowledging this dependency is the first step of real emotional work within relationships. Our ambivalence about our own needs and dependency gets stirred up in all kinds of relationships. We cannot escape our feelings and needs and desires if we are going to be in relationships with others. To be in relationships is to feel our vulnerability in relation to other people who are unpredictable, and in circumstances that are intrinsically uncontrollable and unreliable.

We bump up against the fact of change and impermanence as soon as we acknowledge our feelings or needs for others. Basically, we all tend to go in one of two directions as a strategy for coping with that vulnerability. We either go in the direction of control or of autonomy. If we go for control, we may be saying: “If only I can get the other person or my friends or family to treat me the way I want, then I’ll be able to feel safe and secure. If only I had a guarantee that they’ll give me what I need, then I wouldn’t have to face uncertainty.” With this strategy, we get invested in the control and manipulation of others and in trying to use people as antidotes to our own anxiety.

With the strategy (or curative fantasy) of autonomy, we go in the opposite direction and try to imagine that we don’t need anyone. But that strategy inevitably entails repression or dissociation, a denial of feeling. We may imagine that through spiritual practice we will get to a place where we won’t feel need, sexuality, anger, or dependency. Then, we imagine, we won’t be so tied into the vicissitudes of relationships. We try to squelch our feelings in order not to be vulnerable anymore, and we rationalize that dissociation under the lofty and spiritual-sounding word “detachment,” which ends up carrying a great deal of unacknowledged emotional baggage alongside its original, simpler meaning as the acceptance of impermanence.

We have to get to know and be honest about our particular strategies for dealing with vulnerability, and learn to use our practice to allow ourselves to experience more of that vulnerability rather than less of it. To open yourself up to need, longing, dependency, and reliance on others means opening yourself to the truth that none of us can do this on our own. We really do need each other, just as we need parents and teachers. We need all those people in our lives who make us feel so uncertain. Our practice is not about finally getting to a place where we are going to escape all that but about creating a container that allows us to be more and more human, to feel more and more.

If we let ourselves feel more and more, paradoxically, we get less controlling and less reactive. As long as we think we shouldn’t feel something, as long as we are afraid of feeling vulnerable, our defenses will kick in to try to get life under control, to manipulate ourselves or other people. But instead of either controlling or sequestering our feelings, we can learn to both contain and feel them fully. That containment allows us to feel vulnerable or hurt without immediately erupting into anger; it allows us to feel neediness without clinging to the other person. We acknowledge our dependency.

We learn to keep our relationships and support systems in good repair because we admit to ourselves how much we need them. We take care of others for our own sake as well as theirs. We begin to see that all our relationships are part of a broad spectrum of interconnectedness, and we respect not only the most intimate or most longed-for of our relationships but also all the relationships we have—from the most personal to the most public—which together are always defining who we are and what we need in order to become fully ourselves.

Relationships work to open us up to ourselves. But first we have to admit how much we don’t want that to happen, because that means opening ourselves to vulnerability. Only then will we begin the true practice of letting ourselves experience all those feelings of vulnerability that we first came to practice to escape.

From Ending the Pursuit of Happiness: A Zen Guide, © Barry Magid 2008. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications, wisdompubs.org.

Image: © Getty Images / Todd Davidson 

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John Haspel's picture

This article is a very good example of the confusion that arises when attempting to reconcile concepts, psychological or “Buddhist” to the teachings of the Buddha.

“As long as we think we shouldn’t feel something, as long as we are afraid of feeling vulnerable, our defenses will kick in to try to get life under control, to manipulate ourselves or other people. But instead of either controlling or sequestering our feelings, we can learn to both contain and feel them fully”

What does it mean to “feel feelings fully.” Does this mean that an impermanent feeling arises and that feeling be emphasized through misplaced concentration until the experience is exhausted? Feelings, any feeling, are simply to be recognized as present and impermanent, as is the breath, as are thoughts, as are all phenomenal experiences.

“We learn to keep our relationships and support systems in good repair because we admit to ourselves how much we need them.”
We don’t “need” relationships, superficial or intimate. As human beings we are in relationships - relationships are part of life in the phenomenal world. Applying specialness to relationships and separating relationships is analytical deconstruction and will lead to more confusing views. Relationships are as fleeting as any other experience. Relationships arising from clinging will bring stress and unhappiness, relationships engaged through Right View will further peace and happiness.
We can feel vulnerable without having to “examine” the vulnerability or attach psychological concepts to fleeting feelings. Being human and developing understanding of the Four Noble Truths is not about feeling more or feeling less, it is about recognizing the impermanence of all things to bring an end to clinging to all views and concepts. Worshiping feelings, worshiping concepts, worshipping views will only bring more stress and unhappiness.

From the Sallatha Sutta:

"Sensing a feeling of pleasure, he senses it disjoined from it. Sensing a feeling of pain, he senses it disjoined from it. Sensing a feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain, he senses it disjoined from it. This is called a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones disjoined from birth, aging, & death; from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is disjoined, I tell you, from suffering & stress.
"This is the difference, this the distinction, this the distinguishing factor between the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones and the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person."

"The discerning person, learned,
doesn't sense a (mental) feeling of pleasure or pain:
This is the difference in skillfulness
between the sage & the person run-of-the-mill."

John Haspel
http://crossrivermeditation.com/

jackelope65's picture

I think approaching marriage as meditation, expecting nothing but remaining open, allows one to progress through the vicissitudes of a long term relationship and grow in relationship skills. My wife and I have been married for 46 years, and she, and later Buddhism, have taught me how to give with no expectation of return; surprisingly, it seems, that the less we expect, the more we seem to receive. In past years, I thought that I was too "damaged" from a alcoholic disturbed childhood to become the husband that she deserved, but she always seemed to see my core goodness and she allowed me to grow toward this bright light. People often confuse romantic with earthly love( Tristan and Isolde ) but after 46 years romance may live from the ground of love based upon giving. Romance is much like those euphoric experiences during meditation; most of the time you throw out the garbage, make the meals, go to work, pay bills, and tend the wounds with only an occasional romantic candlelight dinner and evening in peace. Thankyou for your discussion.

trailpaloma's picture

Thank you, this article speaks to me directly. and I have always found Joko Beck to be a great speaker of the Dharma. Are you in San Diego?

Zoozyq's picture

I appreciate the scope of this view on relationships, and I recognize much wisdom in it from my own perspective of 65 years of experience. When I am out in a boat I am usually as interested in the shadowy life beneath the surface as I am in the pleasant reflections of the passing scenery. While interesting and sometimes helpful in steering around obstructions, in relationships what has begun to work best for me is paying attention to and appreciating the flow without succumbing to the sometimes reflexive tendency to construct dams to control that flow; a sense of humor helps! :-) Thank you for sharing your insight. _/\_

Sukha's picture

Excellent article. I'm one of the "autonomous" types, and this helped me to see that I DO in fact need people, and perhaps more importantly, that that's normal and okay. It's so easy for me to think that I'm "being strong," or "rising above" my needs by eschewing relationships -- I tell myself I need to focus on the inside and not rely on external things. Yet as this so clearly points out, what I'm really doing is avoiding my vulnerability. Thanks for this powerful message. It's really cleared things up for me.

fishman.ellen's picture

See what I'm driving at?
No, your language is too obscure for me.
Except for this "It borders on a high-minded sophomoric lecturing that I find irksome, "
I got that!

Personally I found the article to be thoughtful. I am with you Sareen.

flyrcairplanes's picture

I normally try and stay out of these things but damn your post is funny.

epistinym's picture

How's life up there on that cloud?

The commitment and expectations in relationships still remain, and observing shortcomings and weaknesses in others doesn't put the onus on >>us<< to accept continued negative outcomes.

The "if only" statements *are* logical statements because they suggest a more profound decision: Is the relationship a failed one? What can I do to foment change rather than abandon the commitment? Hypothetical statements should be no more eschewed than logic or emotion.

Modifying the "if only" view can lend insight:

If only I could find a way to both accept this person as who they are
*AND*
get them to recognize the importance of changing where I know they are capable
*AND*
helping induce change in them through my own positive actions.

If only I could feel freed from this conundrum
*OR*
get them to stop being narcissistic and accept responsibility
*AND*
I could find a way to help them help themselves.

Sareen's picture

Is this how transformation takes place in oneself?

eg. If only I could find a way to accept myself(compassion)

AND get myself to recognize my capacity(buddha nature)

AND start changing my behavior in the direction of wise and compassionate action that arises when aligned with buddha nature.

I find it works better to focus on inner transformation(rather than tranforming others) and over time the effects of changes in myself transform my relationship with others, providing them with a little more space and compassion and the opportunity to recognize their own capacities.

As I have grown to see more deeply how challenging the path is for me, I have greater patience and compassion for the difficulties others experience.

epistinym's picture

Why is transformation required?

Compassion includes the wisdom to not eschew one's own human condition, but to grow through it. It's the only toolset anyone ever has.

I have Buddha nature, but I don't aspire to be one. There's a tendency to engage in a sort of subtle aggression against ourselves:

IF ONLY I could get off the dukkha-go-round.
IF ONLY I could eschew reaction to wrong action by others.
IF ONLY I could live on a cloud and look down at the two-legged ants.

Only in American Buddhism is this a dominant thread. Even in Zen there's more meat & potatoes (OK, sushi & rice) than this.

I accept my essence and that of those whom I encounter, but I also have to appeal to other persons through various media, intellectual, affective, social, and so on. Expectations, aspirations -- all these things are *there* for a reason. When the expectations are mutual and taken by trust and consent, then infractions on that trust is indeed culpable. To remain adaptable, however, then those things can't become immutable fetishes of dependency, so we remind ourselves to recognize them as forms that may need to be let go of.

If only we could allow Buddhists to be people too.

Sareen's picture

I am wondering if we might be saying the same thing for two different angles. I am including acceptance of my anger, my hurt, my envy, my need, my ignorance, my pride...all reactions that I can process and present in a way that is more likely to be something my family, friends and colleagues can digest. This doesn't mean I am always successful; nor am I in my internal work. I have noticed change internally occurs with repeated effort, with a bit of progress and some back tracking and more progress. How can I expect anything different in relationship with another person?

Maybe you have been more successful than me in the approach of trying to get other people to change. I am in my 50s, and that approach has just never worked for me. I've given up on it.

I agree with you that part of a healthy relationship is accountability. For me there has been a gradual deepening of my relationships through meeting my emotional reactions with more honesty. A mistake I made in the past was to suppress my emotions in order to avoid threatening the relationship. This is co-dependency and is a recipe for suffering.

Have I missed something else in what you are saying?

epistinym's picture

We're at parallels to each other. We cannot make people willing to change, that's true. People cannot become something they're not, that's also true.

I think there's a tendency in Buddhist discussion - not anything you've written - but in the context of what this summer 2008 article to have some underlying premises, or subtexts, in Buddhism that commit subterfuge against its votaries, some implicit judgment - even shaming - that puts wisdom (philosophy) on a pedestal above suffering (heart).

The article practically leads off with an implicit reference to some of Buddhism's hangups -- detachment, interconnectedness, freedom/liberation, practice, going with the flow (acceptance), upaya (skillful means). The subjunctive "if only" is painted as some kind of fetter in of itself, of self-ness due for deconstruction. I find it embarrassing for Buddhists to feel obliged to carry a burden of secular monasticism. It foists a standard of forebearance and equanimity to the point of subjugating and suborning one's own human condition (unlikely outcomes).

It borders on a high-minded sophomoric lecturing that I find irksome, sometimes wrongly paraded as some Buddhist paean. Really it's just a redirected form of the masochism cited in the article, replaced with a high-mindedness that's supposed to quash the sense of frustration caused by some interpersonal mire.

This is an idealized Buddhism that is in fact rejectionist: It eschews "position" of human conditions that naturally inhere affect and gravitas. Yes, unregenerate engrossment or involvement cannot facilitate emergence, but to feel that one cannot seek to fulfill an expectation in one's own life?

Welcome to ennui, with a crypto-nihilism hiding behind Curtain B.

See what I'm driving at? My quick rejoinder cannot explore this well, but then neither can an excerpt from a book. The problem is that the book's excerpt really doesn't touch on anything radically honest about relationships, and it reinforces some of the worst cliches & stereotypes of intellectualized Buddhism & some well known dead ends (philosophy over heart).

melcher's picture

"The article practically leads off with an implicit reference to some of Buddhism's hangups -- detachment, interconnectedness, freedom/liberation, practice, going with the flow (acceptance), upaya (skillful means)."

If one rejects all of these "Buddhist hang ups", replacing them with over-intellectualized academic jargon that is itself almost a parody of the "high minded sophomoric lecturing" that you criticise, what then is the point of practice?

Sareen's picture

This article reflects my experience. One way I have gotten side tracked is in using psychological inquiry and spiritual practice to attempt to understand relationships, and not fully being in them. Although developing greater capacity to experience what is going on is helpful, any holding back, as in this observer mode, prevents the relationships I am in from being able to evolve.

Vulnerability is essential because nothing can evolve or transform without opening ourselves up to not knowing the outcome. Commitment to a relationship makes it safe to open ourselves up to this vulnerability. We know that neither of us is going to run away when difficulties arise. It's very much like a meditation practice where we notice what is going on and experience it as fully as we are able and then we get distracted or confused or lost in difficult emotions and then start over. In relationship we return to the commitment to each other and in meditation we return to the breath or awarenss, or whatever we have chosen as our object.

Strangely, I have struggled more with relationships where there is an intermediate level of commitment. Work relationships and family relationships are safer to me than friendships. Perhaps it is the lack of definition of the level of commitment that brings up my more doubt and fear. Recently I noticed that it is probably related to not fully inhabiting my own experience. If I enter a situation not fully belonging in my own skin, how can I ever belong in these relationships?

Noosner's picture

Well said, and very clear. Although I know my practice shouldn't be about escaping uncomfortable emotions, it's amazing how deep the conditioning runs to want to dodge them if I can. I need to be reminded again and again, so thank you.

Dizzyworm's picture

Loving kindness is the goal. The journey is full of hazards. Trust, Sex, Money, Pride. Our society multiplies these hazards year in and year out. Often with motivated by predatory greed.