Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Zen of Relationships

* [Note: this highly personal post was formulated while I was sitting bedside with a patient at the hospital].  

When I was younger I used to have a totally different philosophy about dating.  I don't think people would have recognized (or even liked) that person at all.  I started out in high school wholly naive and wanted to wait for that “someone special” (puke) and the whole fairy tale of sharing myself unequivocally, etc.  It took getting seriously fucked over several times, and getting cheated on for me to come to my senses.  Unfortunately, I “over-corrected” the car, so to speak, by turning to humanities natural response (one might call "defense mechanism") of wanting to protect myself.  I managed to do a really good job through college with a philosophy of something akin to, 'well if girls don’t ask whether I'm sleeping with anybody else, then it's their own fault for ASSUMING that I wasn’t.  It's not MY responsibility if they get hurt.'  I actually became quite the self-serving prick for a while there (to the point that friends actually would refrain from introducing me to girls they knew). 

Throughout it all, I began to notice my boredom and restlessness when I started dating someone longer then a few months.  This again, was a defense mechanism that I was unaware of at the time.  Whoever I was seeing, no matter how awesome they were, I always found myself looking around for something better - ALWAYS!  It was like I could never be satisfied.  The Replacements song "Unsatisfied" summed it all up for me at the time: ("Look me in the eyes and tell me/that you're satisfied/Are you satisfied/I'm so, I'm so...dissatisfied.").  'Life is too short' I would tell myself, not paying much attention to the negative energy I was releasing into the universe that inevitably, if you believe in karma (which I do), comes back to you.  And you know what I found?  There always WAS something better.  But there lies the inherent problem.  There always WILL BE something better - someone better looking, someone funnier, someone more interesting, or smarter.  People merely trade the 10 most undesirable traits of one relationship with the 10 most undesirable traits of the next one.  The question that begs to be asked - if there's always something better, how the hell is it possible to EVER be content?  This was something I was slow to realize. 

 "Looking for alternatives is the only thing that keeps us from realizing that we're already living in a sacred world." - Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

It wasn't until years later, after questioning why people tend to continue the perplexing habit (or one might call a ‘cycle’) of being attracted to the EXACT type of people who would treat them poorly (typically mirroring how they were treated in childhood), that I learned about trauma theory (of the human tendency of reenacting childhood trauma in current life situations) and "schema chemistry" (feeling a chemical attraction to people who are inevitably bad for you, and feeling nothing for those that would treat you the way would like to be treated).  It was around this time that I realized why some girls repeatedly date guys who treat them badly, or, as in my case, emotionally aloof/unstable girls who didn't give me the deep, emotional connection I was looking for.  It's a common thought in schema therapy that head-over-heels romantic attraction should be seen as a “red flag” as it is often a sign of bad schema chemistry.

[A great book on schema chemistry and why we repeat the trauma of our childhoods in with fixed behavioral patterns is a book called "Emotional Alchemy" by Tara Bennett-Goleman.  It's actually based on Schema Therapy, which is a main component of the approach that I take with my clients.  Great book.  Highly insightful.  Definitely worth reading:].

Also, although I've never been a really big fan of Oprah, here is a really good article that interviews Jeffrey Young who has been developing schema therapy since the early 80's.  Its pretty good insight into what I do with my clients (the flashcards are especially helpful):

[My client is farting unapologetically in is bed.  Lovely].

Anyway, throughout the years I came to see that it's not the world or other people that create our unhappiness (although we all tend to do a good job of blaming everybody else).  What I've learned is that our unhappiness is most often self-created through our own ignorance and lack of deeper introspection.  It basically comes down to a natural human tendency to be drawn toward novel stimuli.  This has been validated by science in numerous studies.  But the ennui comes right back in as soon as you're habitualized to the novelty - the main reason why the honeymoon ends. 

I was under the spell of that delusion my life, that I was 'supposed' to be happy (a very entitled Western belief).  I further followed that thought with that idea that if I wasn't experiencing happiness, then there must be something 'wrong.'  I obviously didn't see anything wrong with myself (as the human ego is highly motivated at orienting itself towards self-protection), so I naturally came to the conclusion that there had to be something wrong with who ever I was with.  It was THEIR fault!  Obviously THEY were the cause of my unhappiness!  This was a very primitive, self-serving form of thinking that obviously neglects the fact that we all create our own realities. 

Writing this all out reminds me of how silly and self-delusional all this really is, yet, if we don't practice mindfulness, we will continue to do it most of our days.  It took me a while before I realized that it was this exact belief (which I wasn't really very conscious of at the time) that was causing my unhappiness.  It took me some time to realize that suffering and boredom are part of life.  There’s no escaping that (if anybody doubts that life is suffering then maybe they also doubt that we all get sick, grow old, and inevitably die).  

The lesson I’ve learned is that in order to have a healthy relationship we really have to actively CREATE an environment of appreciation and gratitude.  Although it might sound counter intuitive to some, in order for relationships to last we have to consciously WORK at maintaining on attraction after the initial excitement of the honeymoon period ends (which it inevitably WILL).  With the passage of time, it's easy to forget what we initially found so alluringly attractive about a person.  This is natural and very human.  Personally, I try to make an effort every day to be mindful and appreciate the things in life I'm likely to take for granted.  But like everyone, I'm human and often forget to do this.  Sometimes it's hard to realize (especially under the dominating influence of a highly active limbic system of our emotional brains), that our self-entitled agitation is nothing more then a creation of our own mind self-serving reconstruction of reality.

I whole-heatedly believe that relationships are definitely about compromise.  This much I've learned in life.  There is no such thing as a perfect relationship.  Such fairytales and happy endings are mainly for people who don’t have the stomach to stick around for the rest of the story.  I've compromised a lot in my current relationship, and I don't see this as a bad thing.  We all have to practice getting past our own self-entitled narcissism.  Actually, I think it's a pretty mature approach (not to mention, more realistic).  For instance, I’ve ALWAYS seen myself winding up with someone who was highly tattooed (I have a major thing for full sleeves).  This person would be a wild, voluptuous, anti-establishment, Goth looking individual, with dyed hair and piercings (tasteful ones), who was highly adventurous and was an artist or a musician (or did something creative), who was highly informed about world issues and enjoyed watching horror movies with me.   This doesn't sound much like my current fiancé though.  Actually, She is none of those things.  

Many people also close themselves off by making arbitrary restrictions for themselves (as they complain about continually being single).  I had a friend who had height restriction on who she dated.  She said that it was a matter of attraction, but I always saw it more as an unconsciously culturally influenced hijacking of the brain - of the temporal lobes forcefully shutting down the limbic system, and another symptom of an ultimate self-created unhappiness and inflexible dualism. 

Sexual preference is definitely a culturally sanctioned phenomenon.  Personally, I've wanted to date someone who was shorter than me for YEARS.  It's actually never happened though.  Such is life as a short guy.  I've dated a number of girls that were several inches taller than me (being my size, I don't really have a large choice of options here).  And yes, it was awkward, but if I had told myself, no, I can't date them, they're too tall and 'everybody is looking at us' or whatever, I think that would be very unfortunate, because, besides not getting a chance to know some amazing people I have been automatically putting up a barrier to the world (and inevitably, my own happiness).  This also holds true with weight as well.  I'm not as attracted to thin girls as I am more voluptuous ones, but I keep happening to date tall thin girls (what's that about anyway?).  

The fact of the matter is, when all is said and done, people are much more than their bodies or their outward appearance.  These bones that support them do not belong to us anyway.  Their ownership is just an illusion.  They inevitably belong to the earth - if not now, then soon enough.  Actually, if we were to really get into an honest debate, the idea of “self” is nothing more than a mosaic of fleeting moments strung together in a linear sequence, overlapping each other, passing themselves off in an illusion of ownership, but I digress.  That may sound depressing, but then again, there really is a mere razors edge between despair and enlightenment.  It’s just another reminder that with every breath, we really do live in a sacred world.

[Stop farting you disgusting creature.  Seriously, wtf?].

My fiancé is actually none of the things I've mentioned.  BUT, if I had stuck to my guns and not opened myself up to her, I would have never gotten a chance to know the beautiful person that she is.  She's a highly caring, spunky, funny, beautiful, open-minded person who likes to talk about deeper issues and analyze the intrinsic motivations of human behavior - things that I'm most inherently interested in.  She shares a faith with me - not of some sky fairy (although she does sway that way more than I do), but of the insurmountable potential of humanity.  She also puts up with me, which is always a plus.  One of the most important things I've learned that I personally value in a relationship is a deep connection and somebody who has the ability to feel compassion for others.  This is a large part of who she is, and consequently why I'm attracted to her.  Everything else is just gravy.

I vividly remember a few years back, a slightly overweight friend of mine who was just had poor hygiene, etc, was dating this completely mind-blowingly beautiful girl who was head over heals for him (not to mention the fact that she was very sweet, had a great sense of humor, awesome taste in music, and was really fun to be around).  Predictably, he also treated her like shit, leaving us all scratching our heads.  I always thought to myself, that it was a shame that he had NO IDEA how good he had it, and how much of a catch she was.  Rumor had it he was also cheating on her.  I remember thinking to myself, how on EARTH could he possibly grow bored with THAT!  It's one of the things I always think about when I find myself getting bored in my relationships (I always have this HUGE fear in relationships, of complacency, of sitting home, watching the dull glow of the TV, like the rest of tuned out suburban America, where we both become uninteresting, lazy, and fat and die in obscurity). 

Anyway, I always think about this couple when I look at my relationship.  Whenever we walk into a room together, I make a conscious effort to imagine what other guys might be thinking as they see my fiancé with new eyes, or what her coworkers might be thinking, or what random people think on the street.  I continually try to maintain my beginners mind, so to speak.  Now I know that a lot of this is what Jung would call anima and animus (projecting an image of perfected feminine or masculine archetype upon a person you feel an attraction for and, more often than not, exaggerating the positive aspects and minimizing the negative), but the exercise helps me find a greater focus and actually helps jumpstart my chemical attraction. 

It also helps me not fall into the alluring trap of taking so much of my life for granted.  It's a constant effort though (people who don't think a relationship should require any effort or either delusional or are trying to sell you something).  It’s kind of like the practice of death meditations, where you mindfully focus on the death of a loved one, or the loss of a limb, or of a sensory stimulus like sight or hearing in order to raise your awareness of it.  Although I forget the specific name for the techniques, I believe they also do something similar in Gestalt therapy. 

[Jesus, it's getting hard to breathe in here!]. 

It's so easy to slip into complacency in our everyday life.  I try and remember a phrase commonly used in most traditional Japanese tea ceremonies; "ichigo ichie" (which is roughly translated as "one time, one meeting," and is linked with the Zen concept of transience and serves as a reminder that each moment in life is unique). It's so easy to get stuck in your head, take for granted the positive aspects of your life and tune out the present world (which is the only place one can find happiness).

[My patient is smacking his lips like crazy as he's eating his lunch.  Nothing drives me crazier then that!  Although it hasn't been empirically validated, I think people who struggle with mental illness tend to do that a lot more then the average population.  My theory is that maybe it's a lack of being able to know social mores or a poor ability to empathize with another’s perspective?  What ever it is, it's pretty damn freakin’ annoying].

Speaking of taking things for granted, the last girl that I was dating, prior to my fiancé was actually sleeping with a coworker of hers for the last 6 months of our  2.5 year relationship.  Although I suspected it, I opted to trust her and not to play the role of “the jealous boyfriend.”  She actually had the gall to tell me that the reason she wasn't able to sleep with me was because she was working on her “sexual abuse issues” with her therapist, and it was bringing up a lot of issues for her, knowing that, being a therapist and a compassionate person, that I would likely understand.  Little did I know that this person wasn't sleeping with me because she didn't want to cheat on her lover – WITH ME!!! 

I actually found out about the whole situation from the very guy she was sleeping with.  She had made the decision to break it off with him, and told him all about how she had still been seeing me (he thought we had broken up).  He wrote me a letter telling me about the whole thing, I guess kind of pissed off about the circumstances.  I remember him specifically asking me not to be too mad are her because she was a “wonderful woman.”  He was obviously either delusional or had never known a real “woman” (a petulant child does not count). 

Now, my first impulse upon finding out was the familiar 'I am never going to trust anyone ever again' but that lasted only a few seconds.  Despite my overwhelming feeling of betrayal, I acknowledged that my trust was my choice, and that she did not deserve any control over of taking that away from me.  Aphrodite was the goddess of love, but she was often associated with the bow and arrow.  When we love, we open our hearts.  If we are to love deeply, then we must accept the inevitable pain that’s associated with such bonding.  It's the choice we make.  SHE was the one who violated that trust. 

Although I had my doubts at times, and would ask her about it from time to time, I could only trust what she told me (she was a horrible liar, BTW).  I made the conscious choice not to let this person continue to have power over my life by causing me to close off my heart to the world.  She wasn’t worth it.  She had her own suffering.  Opening our hearts up to the pain of the world is the only way we find freedom.  Although it might be difficult, if you're open to your pain without resistance, what seemed so solid and overwhelming inevitably passes through you like a fine mist. 

“To eternity, a mountain is no more solid that a cloud.” – Zen saying

I wasn't even really mad at her to tell you the truth.  I was more disappointed that she made the choices that she did (which inevitably affected me), but I was sadder for her.  I guess that’s my definition of forgiveness and compassion, asking questions such as, ‘what kind of suffering must she have been experiencing that would cause her to act so recklessly?’ 

Anyway, my choice was to remain open, even to the pain.  Although I have my doubts, I honestly hope that she finds the happiness in life she's looking for.  I am actually grateful for the way things turned out, because by finally having that inevitable closure, I was able to move on and give my full attention to someone who was deserving of it .