Investing in Harmony

By Allan Hunt Badiner A commentary on the fifth of the Five Awarenesses that couples promise to practice upon being married: "We are aware that blaming and arguing never help us and only create a wider gap between us; that only understanding, trust, and love can help us change and grow."

Looking deeply, it is easy to see that blaming and arguing do not help us. As soon as we hear the argumentative tone from anyone, the ego bristles, defenses tighten, and our reactive instinct kicks into high gear. The compassionate ear that one always expects from one's partner suddenly seems paralyzed and dysfunctional. Aggressive and critical speech puts our case, however just it may be, up against an impenetrable barrier of fear, separation, and defensiveness.

But blaming and arguing happen. It is inevitable that we will experience irritation at our partner, and there is a compelling instinct that wants to blame the other person for it. Expecting to forever leave behind blaming and arguing is unrealistic, and may set one up to become even angrier. The key is to prepare yourself for its eventuality, and train yourself to deal skillfully with the negative results. Practicing the art of listening and loving speech serves us better. When we are suffering, we often feel blocked and unable to express love and sympathy for our partner. We want to be taken care of, and when we aren't, it makes us feel unloved, unappreciated and angry. This is why it is so important to prepare for these times when communication is difficult, by practicing deep listening and loving speech daily, when everything is going well. Don't wait until you are having problems.

This is the practice: First, encourage your partner, or loved one, to grow and change by watering the seeds of their happiness and protecting their self-esteem. Express your appreciation for the helpful things your partner does, even if they seem second nature or routine. Don't wait for something unexpected to offer positive feedback. Every supportive and helpful thing should be acknowledged and appreciated. Take time to stop and listen to your partner. Be a loving pair of ears to hear the inevitable frustrations and difficulties that your partner will face. Loving someone in this way creates an environment of encouragement and stimulation to develop one's compassion and character.

Secondly, when you feel pain, anger, or suffering, don't try to express it right away. Breathing in, and breathing out, we can embrace our pain and suffering with mindfulness. Observe how these emotions make you feel, and what role you are playing in their creation. The base of suffering is within us, and it depends on our perceptions. We must recognize that our perceptions are colored by our unconscious desires and preconceptions. If we rush to tell our partner how we are feeling, we may miss the opportunity to examine the real cause of the suffering, and unjustly blame him or her for our pain.

At Plum Village, a practice has developed from this teaching called the peace treaty. We make a peace treaty by spending 24 hours with your suffering and angry feelings before trying to resolve the situation. This allows us time to reflect on and recognize our internal formations—old hurts and pains that have hardened into easily triggered patterns of reactivity—and contemplate creative solutions for whatever difficulties we face.

Thirdly, if the painful feelings persist, then we go to our partner and ask for their help. This is hard to do when we feel he/she is the cause of our suffering. When we are able to calmly tell our loved one that we are in pain and we need their help, it often destroys the obstacles to communication and creates the possibility of active compassion. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we practice these words like a mantra: "My dear, I am suffering, I need your help." The words summon the energy of love and invoke the sacredness of our mutual trust Fourth and finally, we practice breathing and smiling for ourselves and for our partner. People, like animals and even the insects, are part of communities of life. We need our communities in order to be happy and fulfilled. When we form a partnership with a loved one, we are creating a community of being. If our partner is not happy, there is no way we can be truly happy. Practice smiling to your partner at least once a day, not just for your partner, but for you too. When your partner practices walking mindfully, it isn't for herself alone, but for you too.

If our parents did not know how to create happiness and joy in a family, then we will not know how to either. We must take the time we need to learn and share it with our partner. Making people happy is an art we can learn by practicing in a community, even in a community of two. Like plants in a garden, we need each other's watering and care. We need to practice saying and doing things that make our partner happy, and not saying and doing the things that make him or her unhappy. As Thay often reminds us, "There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way."

When we practice the Five Awarenesses, like the Five Precepts, we bring protection, peace, joy, and happiness not only to ourselves, but to everyone. The happiness of one person or a couple is crucial to the happiness of the world, and by practicing the Five Awarenesses we cause the whole world to profit. When we recognize that our happiness is the happiness of those around us, and the birds, plants, and even rocks, we will do everything we can to make ourselves happy. It may well be that this experience of solidarity, of interbeing, of love and compassion, is itself happiness.

Allan Hunt Badiner, editor of the book Dharma Gaia, lives in Big Sur, California. This is the fifth in a series of five articles.

PDF of this article