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It seems to me that any relationship between two people is its own entity and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with any other relationship a person may have or who a person is deep down.
We feed any type of relationship we have with the energy of our conversations, attitudes, tone, style, ideas, and behavior. From this, we start to develop patterns—the longer existing and reinforced, the harder to change or break. For those interested in healing, self-growth, and improvement, this phenomenon can create massive roadblocks.
Of course, the deepest, most entrenched relationships we have are with our family, those who have known and engaged with us the longest. Have you heard a story that goes something like this: Frank seemed to live two different lives. At work, he was known as a friendly, gregarious fella who was always kind and quick to crack a joke. But, at home, he always seemed miserable, bitter, and quickly flew off the handle at his family no matter what they did.
Is Frank simply a duplicitous liar when he’s away from home, pretending to be someone else? Is who he is at home the “real” Frank? I don’t think so. Frank is just a regular person. His familial relationships are the product of many years of habitual patterns being reinforced and reenacted, which simply further strengthens them. People we know expect us to act in a certain way. They think they know who we are, so a sort of self-fulfilling dynamic is created where we treat each other how we think the other person is and how they think we are. You can imagine how this really stifles growth and change.
Think of one of your most long-standing, difficult relationships. When I use the word “entity,” I’m picturing this co-created cloud of inputs/outputs that envelop these two people. Every time we speak, move, or make any gesture whatsoever, we’re contributing to this existing entity that is the relationship between these two people. “Have you ever noticed how much noise Becky makes when she walks or closes doors or works at her desk?” Even though when Becky just shut her desk drawer a little too loudly and unmindfully, it wasn’t a big deal at all in that single instance, but I’m not experiencing that single instance. I’m experiencing the hundred other times she did it, and I’m immediately irritated when she does it this time.
And then think of a new relationship, “Frank at work.” When we meet someone for the first time, no entity of relationship yet exists. It’s a fresh start. If we’re basically kind, decent people (like most people are), we’re going to come into a new relationship being kind and decent. We’ll be friendly and courteous and continue to act that way, which will engender the other person to behave that way toward us. As time goes on, this relationship entity will strengthen based on these behaviors. Can you see how, using these examples, one might have different relationships with different people?
So, then, who are we really? Frank at home or Frank at work? I’d say, we’re not really either.
If we’re using others as a reference point for who we are, and our reference points are telling us different things about ourselves, what should we believe? Some of us may have many similarly typed relationships though. If we have an entrenched, difficult dynamic at home where an unhealthy entity cloud exists and we internalize that as who we really are, then we’re likely to replicate that in other relationships outside of that cloud.
When I was 20 years old, I moved to a different state where I didn’t know anyone except my mom and her husband. I think this was a valuable experience that I would recommend to a lot of people. Although it took years and years, this fresh start helped me to be outside of my existing clouds of relationship entities and allowed me to finally find who I really am. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have become a progressive Buddhist vegetarian had I stayed in the rural Michigan town I came from.
I started to see that who I am is fluid and more complicated than any single relationship. This also allows me not to take any person’s opinion of me too seriously—whether good or bad. For example, some people may have way too elevated opinions of me. We have a certain dynamic based on what inputs have went into our entity cloud as well as certain projections they may have from comments others have made or what they imagine me to be, and they may see me as something more than I am. The inverse certainly applies in the same way for those who may have formed negative opinions of me based on whatever.
So, if we are someone who is working on healing, self-growth, and improvement, we may be making actual, substantial progress in those areas only to be brought down by others who still relate to us from a fart cloud of who we once were—an entity that exists through our continued habitual inputs and outputs.
Relationships where the ruts run deep are the hardest to change. We get triggered and sucked into our old ways, and this causes discouragement and, likely oftentimes, giving up completely. But here may be a good way to gauge ourselves: If the vast majority of our relationships are strong, healthy, mutually beneficial, Frank-at-work type of situations and the only bad ones are the old, stale fart cloud type, then let us take solace in that. Don’t believe the fart cloud that says you’re still the same old Frank, you’re still a f*cked up person, and so on. They’re wrong. It’s the fart cloud that stinks, and it is a co-created entity that is running on old fumes.
But if we really want to go all the way in our healing and self-actualization, we have to face these old relationships too (or, in some cases, walk away) and try to clear our own roadblocks—for ourselves as much as the other person. I am no expert in this for sure, but it seems to be largely a matter of breaking old habits and patterns. The deeper the ruts, the harder this is. Meditation has been a big help for me. Not reacting in the way people expect is difficult but can be rewarding, and really is the only way to change old patterns—by creating new ones.
I think it’s important to develop a sense of self that is based on our own feelings, reflections, and introspection outside of what anyone else thinks of us. We need quiet, alone time for this. There is a Buddhist mind training slogan that goes: Of the two witnesses, hold the primary one. In his book Training the Mind, Chögyam Trungpa said of this slogan, “In any situation, there are two witnesses: other people’s view of you and your own view of yourself. Of those, the principle witness is your own insight. You should not just go along with other people’s opinion of you. The practice of this slogan is to always be true to yourself.”
I’ve come to believe, experientially and conceptually, in our innate basic goodness or buddha nature. Underneath our conditioning and superficial interactions lies a well of health, sanity, contentment, and wholeness. Healing and growth is an undoing process of letting go of our web of neuroses and learning to relax in this state of basic goodness. The more we’re able to do this, the more that feeling and experience strengthens and the more confidence we’ll have to swallow completely the unhealthy relationship entities we carry into our vast, spacious hearts—and no longer bite the hook of old, unhelpful patterns.