A Reason, a Season or a Lifetime

For those of us with families in different parts of the world, the summer holidays are a time for coming together. People travel to different parts of the country or even abroad as family members reunite for a brief while. I recently spent a month with my family in Toronto, Canada – four weeks that were equal parts enjoyable and challenging. Being with family is not always easy. Relationships are simple, but the ones that are the most precious and valuable are usually hard work.

The basis of all relationships is attachment. Attachment is a term used in varying contexts and has come to be (mis)understood as something one needs to get rid of in order to be happy or in a deeper spiritual state. I use attachment simply to mean the pull one feels towards something or someone. Attachment is natural, instinctual almost. We as human beings are uniquely drawn towards not only people, but also places and things. We become attached to ideas, beliefs, communities, and identities. The more intense the attachment, the more powerful the feelings associated with it. But attachment is not always positive. Sometimes it is fear-based, breeding anxiety or despair.

In Buddhism, attachment is defined as an attraction towards something that brings us pleasure or avoids pain. Since this pull is likely to cause anxiety and rigidity towards accepting “what is”, Buddhism offers the Eight-Fold path that describes a discipline, which enables states of compassion, loving-kindness, acceptance and equanimity. In Sufi literature, attachment to the self (ego) is seen as interfering with one’s ability to know and surrender to God’s will. Neither Buddhism or Sufism prescribe a pure asceticism or abandonment of social contact; rather they remind us to be aware or mindful of the anxieties and fears that are generated from the urge we have to pursue pleasure or avoid pain.

From a biological perspective, it is the bond that is enabled through eye contact, touch, and responsiveness that enables an infant to grow and develop. But the need for attachment is not exclusively for babies. Adolescents, while they push away from their caregivers, will do so in a balanced and calmer manner when they feel secure about the response they will receive when they come back. Adults are no different. We are social animals. We thrive on social contact, and research indicates, humans become sicker and die sooner if we are isolated from others.

People need people. Yet relationships can be stressful. It is the most common reason people feel depressed or anxious. Change, conflict, unmet expectations, the lack of understanding or acceptance, and loss can result in deeply damaging experiences. Anxiety, depression, or even traumas result from the way people interact with one another. Everyone I have ever met has at least one if not more relationships that are wrought with difficult emotions.

Learning to navigate the difficult emotions that are evoked through relationships is one of the crucial arenas for self-reflection and growth. Wayne Dyer aptly puts it, “What people do to you is their karma, how you react is yours.” No matter how a person behaves towards you, how you react to it is a choice.

The most common mistake we make in relationships is blame a person for how we feel or act in the interaction. “I screamed because you gave me a dirty look!” or “I feel annoyed because of your constant criticism”. In any given circumstance there are an infinite number of ways to behave or respond. Recently I asked a friend who is experiencing a challenging marital situation how he is coping, and he said, “my wife needs to put the marriage first, and then I will feel better.”  That shifts the entire responsibility of his state of being on her actions and reactions. How can any relationship move forward if one or both parties are blaming the other for how they feel or behave? This attitude is how 5-year-olds fight – “she started it!”.

The notion that we are free to behave any which way we choose regardless of how the other person is treating us disentangles us from a mess of complications. The truth is, how the person is behaving has very little, if at all, to do with you. It is more about their attitude, patterns, and habits. Take two people and confront them with similar scenarios ie being ignored by a family member. Chances are, they will both experience the feeling of rejection or neglect, but will respond in entirely different ways. The reaction most likely to cause harm is judgment, “She is such a self-involved person” or self-criticism, “I probably did something to deserve this.” What is likely to calm the upheaval, both internal and perhaps external, is curiosity, “I wonder why she is upset today, maybe I will ask her if it’s me or something else that is bothering her.”

At times, you may notice that a pattern of conflict is almost always repeated in multiple scenarios, not just a singular context. If you hear yourself say, everyone takes me for granted, or people are always taking advantage of my kindness – the common factor in how these people are behaving is you. Your attitude, beliefs, and habits are the common thread that weaves in a certain manner of relating.

More likely than not, somewhere in your subconscious, there is something that you are doing that is perpetuating similar patterns of behavior from others. Perhaps you believe that your self-worth is determined by how much you do for others. Perhaps you feel more powerful when you help others, but have difficulty receiving help.

Having said that it is your choice how you behave in response to someone’s manner of relating to you, is not to say that it is every easy to allow negativity to transform into harmony. That is where self-reflection, compassion, and equanimity play a significant role. Self-reflection creates a space to understand the dynamic, what it is the appropriate way to behave in the moment, given the context in the here and now. Compassion is kindness offered to both to oneself and the other, in terms of understanding and acceptance. Equanimity is a process of noticing what is – an openness to allow the person to be the way he is, and the relationship to unfold as it may. Equanimity entails abstaining from definitive judgments about the person, oneself, or how one will act in any future moment or scenario, building in a flexibility that allows situations, contexts and people to change.

Often we cling to notions of self, or imaginings of how a relationship should or ought to be for a sense of security and permanence. This only creates resistance from the natural ebbs and flows of life. And in that resistance we block a natural flow of people or situations. As the adage goes, “People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime,” but we do not determine which is which. Our work is to learn, to grow, and to develop as human beings, and allow others the appropriate space and acceptance to do the same.

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