Thinking it’s time to break up? Many times we expect more out of a partner than we do of ourselves. We expect them to do certain things, act a certain way, forgive us our shortcomings, to entertain us, and to do the same level of personal work that we are doing. But in the Buddhist teachings, the common advice is, “It’s not them, it’s you.”
In the past 3 years of coaching couples and singles on their relationships, and teaching workshops on love, I have noticed how common it is to expect unconditional love, without giving it to others first. We withhold love until our partners demonstrate their love first. Often, our partner does this, too. So many couples are in a dance of saying “you first” “no, you first” over and over again, both feeling in some sense dissatisfied, and also not truly loving their partner. Not loving them unconditionally, while also craving to be loved unconditionally.
Some clients even say they love their partner, but it is conditional. As long as you are never grumpy, I love you. As long as you are always entertaining and sexy to me, I love you. As long as you want what I want, I love you. As long as you are as spiritual as me, I love you. The list continues and is unique for each person. But chances are, if someone is feeling dissatisfied, they are placing conditions on their love.
There is a reason masters turn the spotlight back on us, and it is not to remove responsibility from our partners for acting humane, sane, kind and engaged. Putting the responsibility on us aims the light at where our world comes from to begin with: our own mind.
In Buddhist philosophy, all experiences, inner and outer, do not have any substantial nature of their own. We call this ‘emptiness.’ The emptiness of my partner, for example, is demonstrated by the fact that I see my partner one way, and she sees herself in some other way, her parents see her different ways, and so does her pet dog. There are as many of my partner as there are perceivers of her. So who is she really? We can never find it. She lacks a nature of being “her” because she is constantly changing depending on who is looking.
If my partner lacks a nature, my perception of her comes from me. The part of her that I experience is what I am bringing to the table. And this is coming from my mind. This is what Buddhist’s call ‘karma.’ Karma is a Sanskrit term for a movement of the mind. The way I see my partner is based on my mind. And my mind’s movements, my karma, is created by how I think, speak and act in the world. My thoughts, words and actions leave an imprint in my mind, which affects how I see the world.
A great analogy is that every action plants a seed in our mind, which ripens into a fruit that we experience. We are constantly planting seeds, and every experience is the fruit of a past seed. If there is an issue in my relationship, it is related to how I have treated others in the past, and it is also within my power to solve, no one else’s. Issues are resolved by modifying the way I show up in the world. Because the way I show up in the world is how I begin to see the world.
In other words: don’t expect them to be perfect, if you aren’t. If we break up with a partner without changing the habits that created them, we will often meet the same or similar patterns in the next partner.
The mind is always changing, so we can always change even the deepest patterns. There are many scriptures that list how we should act if we want to change our perception of reality. The following is based on the popular Mahayana Buddhist teaching The Six Perfections, as they are taught in Master Shantideva’s Bodhisattvacharyavatara.
This is a list of six practices, called “perfections”, each working to hone facets of our minds to create a world that is peaceful, enjoyable and satisfying.
Before giving up on a relationship, try this for 30 days. If your relationship changes, repeat these steps again and again until you get to your desired outcome. If it doesn’t change yet, see where a shift has occurred elsewhere in your life. Then try again!
Generosity: Are you open-hearted?
Practice generosity with your partner first and foremost by giving them your time and attention. Share resources with them, take them on a date, share your food, make sure they have enough blanket when you’re sleeping. If they want to talk, talk with them. If they want space, give them space. If they want to wake up early, let them. If they invite you, join them. If they want to sleep in, let them. This perfection is a joyful, nurturing, and satisfying practice because we are cultivating a generous heart. We are planting seeds in our minds to see generous hearts.
Ethics: Are you always doing what is right?
Ethics is the practice of being true to what you believe to be right and wrong. When we act in a way that we know is unethical (for us) it creates a ripple effect in our world. When we do something that we don’t want to have others do to us, we are being unethical. We start to notice others acting in ways they regret, or against what they know to be true and right. The perfection of ethics ensures that we are always acting in a way we’d like to be treated. And so we begin to be treated the way we’d like to be treated.
Patience: Are you forgiving and slow to anger?
The definition of patience in the third perfection is the skill of not getting angry “when you’re supposed to.” Meaning: when someone is doing something that everyone agrees is anger-inducing. Being annoying, or careless, or even hurtful. This does not mean that we do not address issues. It simply means that we have generated the strength of mind and heart to address them from a place of groundedness, and compassion for ourselves and others. That we create logical boundaries to protect ourselves and others. Anger is not relevant to protection or to clarity, it simply disturbs our minds and the minds of others. At its worst, it can cause serious harm to our relationships. The perfection of patience ensures that others around us give us the time we need to do the right thing. It also preserves our relationships and health.
Joyful Effort: Are you fun to be around?
The fourth perfection is the perfection of joy, specifically being joyful while being of service to others. When you’re being kind, or when you’re spending time, be joyful. When you’re doing something to meet your partner’s needs, take heart in the fact that you’re creating joy for another being, and that is something to celebrate simply because the presence of joy in our world is something everyone wants. The perfection of joy bears the fruit of our partner being enjoyable and pleasant to be around.
Concentration: Are you taking time for introspection?
Meditation is essential to this perfection because if we cannot focus our minds, we lack to ability to work hard to achieve an outcome. We are constantly moving from thing to thing, half-finishing some, ignoring others, and bypassing the work we truly need to do. Achieving stillness of mind during meditation is essential to this perfection, because then we can point a laser beam at the problem and truly analyze what is going on. We no longer have to rely as much on the advice of others because we become capable of logical analysis ourselves.
Wisdom: Have you achieved insight about your own patterns?
The achievement of the 6th perfection is having complete insight into how the world works, and the confidence that comes with this. Having an experience of Emptiness in meditation. You have destroyed doubt, and no longer have doubt about anything: about your confidence, about what to do or what not to do. I stress the “anything” because short-term insights are more easily achieved, and also very profound, but doubt creeps back in. The realization of Emptiness changes your life so much, that you are no longer called a normal human, but get a new designation: arya in Sanskrit, pakpa in Tibetan.
If you say no to any of these questions, I would suggest using your relationship as fertile ground to practice opening your heart to love before a break up with a partner. Of course, there are cases where it is essential to end a relationship, such as domestic abuse or violence. Generally, though, I have found that almost every relationship that undergoes this process (including mine) has changed radically for the better.
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