Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Strange Art of Relationships, Part 2

Continuing from our previous meditation on the strange art of relationships, let me humbly offer some straight dope. There is no way we can avoid conflict in our relationships, nor should we want to avoid conflict. Without conflict, our relationships will never grow and flower fully into the deep, sacred love that is at the essence of our shared affection and experiences together.

One of the key points we established last time was the need to understand and be in full touch with our conscience. Our conscience is our tool and our guide to the proper processing of our conflicts. Swami Prabhupada deftly defines one key element of our conscience as being able to understand the suffering and happiness of other living entities. This begins when we are in touch with our own suffering and happiness, when we are no longer afraid of our own suffering and happiness.

We walk across the desert of our own heart in order to walk hand-in-hand with those we strive to love in this world and in this life. Let's go back again to Bhakti Tirtha Swami's Four Principles of Community Building, particularly principle #2

Anytime there is a problem in a relationship, you should first see it as your own fault. Even if others are to blame, you will only add to the problem by considering them to be at fault.

This is certainly a provocative ideal. That provocation goes to an even deeper level when we step back and consider it from the philosophical perspective of the Bhakti-Yoga tradition, which tells us that when a conflict arises and we feel pain, this pain is a karmic reaction we are receiving. The other person bringing this difficulty into our relationship is understood to be an instrument of our own karma.

I know this doesn't sound good or taste good. Discussions I've had around this idea reveal, on one level, that to place or lay blame at any party in a conflict may not do much to resolve the problem. I can certainly agree with this to an extent, for blame is a very strong word, a very loaded concept. What to speak of karma, which is well beyond anyone's understanding.

What these principles encourage us to do, if we can look past our surface discomfort and misunderstanding, is to learn the value of taking ownership of our problems. Someone may be fully at fault for a certain conflict. You can objectively look at the particular situation and say “I did nothing here to cause this particular situation to arise. It is all the other's person fault, totally and truly.” How I understand BT Swami's principle here is to transcend the objective and return to a deeper look at our own subjective contribution, which is not so obvious.

We may find that the neglect and pain we have given to this person in the past has a direct link to the neglect and pain they are causing us now. In other words, if we are really brave enough to look and to consider, we can see that no conflict lives in a vacuum. Someone who is mistreating us now is simply reacting, consciously or unconsciously, to some mistreatment we have laid upon them in the past.

I'll give a recent example from my own experience: A few weeks back, I asked one of my fellow monks to cover a service I had for one of our temple's monthly meditation programs. My friend gave me a genuine response in return: “Let me think about it”, which I instantly construed as being “I don't want to.” I expressed some instant frustration at the non-committal reply, which later blew up into a full-blown conflict, featuring the shouting out of generalities, irrationalities, and accusations (I did all the shouting too-my fellow monk seems to understand that monastic life should feature a minimum of shouting).

Of course, I had been thinking about the nature of conflict at the same time, and as much as my mind was telling me that I was totally right, and that I had the right to expect everyone to drop what they're doing and help me at a moment's whim, I had to go deeper. I could understand then that this particular conflict was a manifestation of other harsh dealings I had had with this monk. His reluctance to help me with my request was rooted in previous episodes where I had not helped him when he asked, and also where I had not expressed my emotions or feelings in a constructive way.

The fact is that he and I have a good relationship, where we can and have shared our intimate struggles and inspirations in ways we don't normally share with other monks in our monastery. One wrinkle of that for me is that with those I feel closely with, I am more able to express my emotions, one of which is anger.

The silver lining there is that this intimacy in my relationship compels me to closely examine the nature of any conflict I may have with this particular person, and although it's never comfortable, I have found that this honest introspection, and taking ownership at my own feet when I offend this person, has only made that relationship grow and become more mature.

No physician hesitates to give pain in order to give health, and we must have this mentality to do the needful on our inner journey. Restoring our connection to our conscience, to the presence of the Divine within us, is not easily or cheaply won. To know of, to feel, the suffering and happiness of those we love or strive to love in our life is no small thing. Only when we take ownership of our own suffering and happiness, and its effect on the relationships in our lives, will we learn to connect heart-to-heart.

The winds of conflict are so powerful that unless we have a deep inner core, rooted to God and service to God, our fragile hearts will never survive the contradictions that come when two souls in human form try to understand and love one another in a meaningful way.

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