Balancing the Commitment to Self and Other
Linda: There is an old Buddhist story about a man who wanted to drink crystal clear water. He was a rich man, who owned a lot of property. One day he gathered his workers together and set out for that part of his land where he thought it likely that there would be water. Arriving at the designated spot they began to dig. Sure enough, at ten feet, they hit water. The man was overjoyed and he drank the water. In about three days, however, the well ran dry. So they went to another part of the land and dug another well. Sure enough they hit water again; this time at ten feet down.
Unfortunately this well had a high sulfur content, with an unpleasant odor and wasn’t at all nourishing. The man abandoned this well and moved on to dig another. This time the water was good, but it just came in a trickle. And so the man continued through out his life going from place to place digging ten-foot wells, and never really being nourished. He died disillusioned and unfulfilled. Ironically, the water that the man had sought would have been available almost anywhere if only he had dug a hundred feet down. The man had only to continue digging to find the rich flowing stream that he craved.
We live in a time where many people’s concept of relationship is like the ten-foot wells. Because there are so many easily available exciting alternatives, we may feel greed and impatience in our desire to have it all. For many of us, when a relationship get difficult, we seek another one or distract ourselves with something else rather than going more deeply into the issue.
Our culture, too, supports us in the notion that if things get too complex, we should move on to someone or something else. It is only through going down more deeply into our relationships that we receive the life waters that truly nourish. The commitment to drill down more deeply can take us to the real fulfillment that we long for.
Committing to loving each other without losing ourselves is every couple’s task. Balancing the commitment to self and other is one of the hardest things we do in a long-term partnership, requiring on-going calibration. The challenge is to cultivate the ability to love another while simultaneously honoring the truth of our own experience. Many of us are adept at giving love, but have trouble receiving it.
Some find it easy to focus on the needs of others, while some seem preoccupied with their own desires. Often those with opposite tendencies attract each other and marry. Because so many of us are unable to effectively come to terms with these differences, the initial promise of our relationship may deteriorate into hopeless despair or separation. This scenario is common, yet few of us possess the experiential tools necessary to come to terms with this challenge.
Everyone deserves a good relationship, and living in a relationship that is unfulfilling takes a terrible toll on one’s self-esteem. Over many months of chronic irritation, a person may start to wonder if there is something defective about him or her-self, and whether or not this level of relationship is all they deserve. By continuing to dig deeper, which may be arduous sweat work, we are choosing to believe that we have the personal power to improve the relationship.
What is required is to design a whole new scale of commitment.
Renewed commitment to the marriage must be coupled with a fierce commitment to ones own well-being or it won’t work. It is absolutely essential to balance both commitments to self and other. To dig deeper into the commitment to self, we can restore our self to a place of power by a change of routine.
Consulting with a professional or friend can give us ideas of how to practice compassionate self-care. Regular fitness workouts to keep our body strong, can result in a sense of personal power. Going on meditation retreats to cultivate mindfulness and to learn how to remain centered in our equanimity, even in the face of challenges, helps enormously. Making friends with people outside our “couple friends”, gradually, over many months will begin to reestablish a sense of self. These are only a few examples of ways we can strengthen the commitment to our own well-being.
And the care of other can take many forms as well. Showing up in a more meaningful way with our partner, stretching into their world, showing more interest in their life, and learning how to love them in the way they want to be loved are examples of digging down to the sweet water that nourishes. With the practices of forgiveness, looking through the eyes of gratitude, and non-attachment, we became less reactive. By focusing on what our partner is rather than what (s)he isn’t, the warmth and affection begins to seep back in.
With this rediscovered sense of self, and deeper appreciation of who our partner is, we may realize that we have been committed to the relationship all along, but may not have been enjoying it as fully as we could if we paid more attention. When both partners are engaged in this work, we learn that so much more is available to us, but that extra effort is involved. Ken Keyes says the secret of life is “sticking with it.” Those who continued to stick with the process of co-creating their partnership into a nourishing process know that it is not possible without some struggle.
I have heard from so many successful couples how glad they are that they didn’t give up and leave the relationship. Many reports that they were tempted to quit when serious breakdowns occurred. By continuing to dig deep, the journey of change and growth in consciousness, although rigorous at first, eventually became easy, exhilarating, and fulfilling. They are so grateful not only to themselves for hanging in there, but for their partner who was willing to take the journey with them, the journey of sacred partnership.