When the Dalai Lama was asked to address the problem of depression and suicide in the United States, he was taken back that there was a situation to consider. Embedded in Buddhism and much of Asian culture is the idea of respect, not only for others but also for self. The notion of not liking ourselves is as foreign as not appreciating existence. Here in the West, value is not necessarily equated with just being. Our value increases or decreases with the money we make, the possessions and positions we have, or our overall standing compared to others. We live with debilitating core doubts such as, “Am I good enough? Am I lovable?”
At forty-two years of age, I’ve had my share of relationships. There was friendship, even marriage, but there was also much heartache. For eight years, I stayed in a marriage where I was beaten and threatened with my life if I left. Lacerations to my mouth and strangulation were not enough for me to realize that I deserved to be loved. It took the birth of my son, and another visit to the emergency room, to make me truly consider what a loving, respectful relationship would be. If my son was to have love in his life, it would have to begin with me. I would have to learn how to love myself and not accept the disrespect of someone who could not truly love me.
After my divorce, I had a boyfriend who had the same spiritual practice that I did. Though there was no physical abuse, he belittled those around him. Once, while caressing me, he froze, got up, and walked off without saying a word. Later, he said, “You look like a mother.” From that point on, whenever I looked at my body, I no longer felt lovable.
In our talks, he acknowledged that he felt insecure. In his past relationships, he thought that women didn’t love him, but had an agenda behind the guise of love to get something—a marriage proposal, a baby, security. He believed that it was always something other than him that was lovable. I was the same. We shared the belief that we weren’t good enough as we were, creating the dynamic in which he was belittling and I was belittled. It was only how we manifested our insecurity that differed.
True Love from Mutual Respect
What makes loving so difficult is that as we get closer and more intimate with one another, there is also a greater responsibility. Our dreams and hopes are closest to our hearts. It makes sense that we also guard our insecurities and self-doubts close to our hearts. That’s where they’re most protected. To put one’s ego aside to hear the needs of a lover, listening for what’s not being said, requires great courage. It means hearing beyond words and seeing beyond hurt. That is an act of a true love. It is no wonder that the root word of courageous, “coeur,” means “heart.”
Thay’s commentary on the Third Mindfulness Training makes a distinction between the Vietnamese words tinh and nghia, both associated with the idea of love. Tinh is love that’s passionate and completely absorbing. Nghia may grow from passion, but it’s the love that grows over time out of a mutual respect for one another. Only in the context of nghia can true love exist. As we gain greater access to our lover’s heart, we are also entrusted with the responsibility to safeguard what has been given to us.
In three weeks, I’ll be celebrating my third year anniversary with my partner. For the past three years I’ve had a good friend. He doesn’t share the practice that I have, but he’s learning. He, like me, has insecurities and doubts. However, he doesn’t cringe from responsibility. He takes the time to truly listen, not only to me but also to himself. What’s different about him is also what’s different about me. Though our relationship began with two people seeking solace from the hurt of previous relationships, because of a mutual respect for one another and for ourselves, our relationship continues to grow.