At the most human and spiritual levels of co-existence, we acknowledge and embrace one another. The meeting of eyes, the camaraderie of shared purpose, and the sound of mingled laughter lift us up. In deep relationships, the compassion and heart-sharing of love enlarges all things and the mutual recognition of souls is beyond words. Truly, community is an essential part of happiness and life can be fulfilling through relationships.
But that’s not how it usually goes.
Relationships also easily confuse and constrict our lives as well. Many people distort and narrow their awareness through relationships by identifying with their roles (their positions in their relationships). You are not most essentially a parent, a spouse, a worker, an artist, an activist, or whatever. These are labels, mere modes of interaction, that we use to facilitate relationships. All roles, just as all relationships, arise and subside like all transitory things.
One way of describing the work of spirituality is the ongoing effort to minimize one’s ego – to discard your ideas of who and what you are. Such ideas filter and limit experience by refusing possibility and blinding us to the immediacy of life. One underlying motivation of monasteries is flight from society to minimize the ego by minimizing one’s roles. Such a withdrawal is hardly an ideal long-term spiritual practice since it avoids resolution of the problematic parts of relationships: ourselves.
How can we find the most possible happiness in our relationships? How can we minimize our egos while remaining fully engaged with our lives? I propose three essential approaches for cultivating happy relationships.
1. Rediscover Servitude
To have many relationships is to serve in many capacities. The relationship of parent to child, for example, is ideally a perfect illustration of servitude because the parent puts the needs of the child above his or her own. It’s also easy to see the serving function of employees for company owners, vendors for customers, and producers for consumers.
It’s less easy to see how apparently-superior positions are also obliged to servitude. All relationships must, however, consist of reciprocal servitude or they foster blockages of the heart and strutting of unhealthy egos. Leaders must serve their people, teachers must serve their students, and artists must serve their fans. The corruption of a relationship lays in the artificial importance and meaningfulness that people get through feelings of superiority. When people begin to derive their self-esteem from their relationships, they start clinging to relationships out of a search for permanence that ultimately leads to loss and grieving.
What skilled professional has never felt the stirrings of bitterness when asked for stupid or trivial things? That broken angst of the heart is really misguided pride of the ego, compounded with an unrealized will to power that comes from unsatisfied self-esteem. It’s a confusion of the self with the role, of the permanent with the temporary. So long as any relationship is worth keeping, we need to practice gratitude every time we can be of assistance.
2. Find Your Boundaries
Reciprocal servitude without ego is the proper posture if you seek to cultivate happiness, but servitude isn’t slavery. We sometimes forget, in our enthusiasm, to put boundaries on our relationships. Limitations are a fundamental part of relationships because sometimes people are best served through refusal. Returning to parenting, it’s the parent’s task to guide the child. We provide orientation and keep the little ones from stumbling into crevasses as they explore the world. You can’t guide a child if you never say no, just as you can’t fulfill that role if you never say yes.
Servitude doesn’t mean constant obliging, absolute deferment, or some esoteric ideal of humility. The question of work-life balance is a good example of where people lose their way. The confused pride of professionalism stirs us to always be best-in-class or to honor requests from our managers, but that way leads to destroyed health and ruined relationships – which in turn destroys professionalism. You can only work your best if you have strict boundaries about working – if you sometimes refuse to work and refuse to do things outside your job description.
We can’t always work with other people to create mutually fulfilling relationships – sometimes their egos won’t allow that to happen. When that’s how it is, we need to leave those relationships or they’ll contaminate our other relationships. When one person or the other starts clinging to any role, the situation’s become desperate and sooner or later somebody’s going to have a painful fall. Clinging is a psychological issue that creates ruts and constricted awareness, ultimately affecting your overall happiness regardless of whether it’s you or the other person who’s clinging. When it becomes a coping mechanism, either the relationship has to change or it’s got to go.
3. Work on Yourself Spiritually
You’re good enough and lovable just how you are – you don’t have to change yourself to oblige somebody else. Any such demand or expectation is entirely the other person’s emotional problem. However, when you cultivate personal happiness through spirituality, you bring honesty and kindness to your relationships – and that transforms them more than any intellectually-based approach. Your life isn’t neatly divided into totally separate sections. Your life, mind, and awareness are all one unified phenomenon. If you work on your personal happiness, you’re working on your relationships. If you work on your relationships, you’re working on your personal happiness.
Most of the difficulty of a relationship comes out of conflicting egos – your own versus the other person’s. That conflict isn’t real, it vanishes when you stop being so tied up in your ideas about yourself and your emotions. Those things aren’t essentially you any more than your roles are, and there’s only one spiritual practice that I know of that ultimately helps you gain this perspective: meditation.
Meditation peels back the layers of your mind. As you undo all the gross accretion in your mind, you gain authenticity through self-knowledge. That shines forth as honesty, compassion, resolution, and tolerance. That doesn’t mean that this more truthful view of yourself in your relationships will always be liked or improve your relationships, but it does mean that your unsalvageable relationships will more quickly come to an end. When that happens, that improves the relationships worth keeping. Imagine your relationships without the baggage that drags them down… that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about distance between your consciousness and your thoughts or emotions. Letting ego go in your relationships means living free of blame, anger, and guilt. It’s a long road, but well worth it.
Cultivating Happy Relationships
Sometimes, the spiritual statement that all things exist within you confounds healthy relationships. That happens when spirituality is used an excuse for sublimation within a relationship – when people start to thinking that complete abandonment or devotion to another person’s ego is spiritual. You have to be a solitary individual first, to find your relationship to God and existence first, before flowers may bloom in your planting ground. You need time away from work to be a better worker, you need time away from your children to be a better parent, and you need time away from your friends to be a better friend.
Cultivating happy relationships is about cleaning the ground by working to have honest relationships without clinging. It’s about attending to all of your garden by limiting your obligations in relationships. It’s about preparing the ground through meditation or other spiritual practices.
Then it’s about planting seeds of praise, hugs, smiles, and laughter. From these, the flowers grow.