During the years that I lived at the monastery I often wondered how it would be to apply the tools I had acquired within an intimate relationship. Looking back on the relationships I had before I entered the monastery it was clear that I lacked both the skills and the maturity required to relate healthily to another in a personal way. After a few years of training, however, I began to feel that I could do relationship well if I were given the chance. It may seem ironic to the point of disbelief that it was the silence and cultural isolation that taught me how to relate effectively with others, and yet this is how it was. I had no opportunity to explore conscious relationship at the monastery, of course, as I did not have personal relationships with the other monks, but the desire stuck with me. When I eventually left the monastery I felt eager to test the practice I had acquired in the real-world laboratory of an actual relationship—if Life were so kind as to steer a willing and able female in my direction. It did, and to my delight I have had the opportunity these past two years to explore conscious relationship with my dear friend Anna.
I’m writing today in response to another friend, who asked me what I have learned during that time about conscious communication. Knowing that Anna and I practice offering feedback to each other, she particularly wanted some help in bringing feedback processes into her own marriage. What follows is a somewhat randomly organized collection of observations, tips, and tools that I’ve picked up along the way.
Perhaps it will be helpful first to consider what unconscious communication looks like. See if these sound familiar:
Person A accuses Person B of something. Person B gets defensive and either denies the accusation, ignores it, or attacks Person A in a similar way. Then the two of them argue about who’s right.
A is doing something that B takes issue with. In order to avoid an argument, however, B doesn’t say anything about it. It’s obvious to both people that something’s not right, but nothing is done. Tension builds until an argument erupts over something unrelated and usually insignificant—and the issue continues unaddressed.
A and B drop little hints about things that are not working or that they want changed. These are not heard or understood, and tension builds. A and B add aggressive or passive-aggressive tones to their hints, with no improvement. Both play the victim, and are so focused on their own resentment that they cannot hear the implied requests of the other person, and besides have no willingness to change.
What are the common elements in these types of scenarios (and of course there are others), in your experience? Consider these (and add your own):
Both people are identified (believing that they are who they believe they are, that their opinions and predilections are real and true, and that the way they see the world is the way it is)
Both assume that they are right
Neither are open to a point of view that conflicts with the belief system that’s operating
Both are projecting things onto the other that are not real
Both need to “win” or in some way subjugate the other
Neither are experiencing generosity
The love that brought them together has been lost
So long as both people involved are oriented around conditioning in this way there’s nothing good that can happen. What is needed instead, in your experience? Consider these (and add your own):
Both people are in touch with their authentic nature.
Both care about what the other is feeling
Both are willing to listen with an open heart and mind
Both are willing to be gentle and to apologize where appropriate
Both want the other person to get what s/he wants more than what “I” want
Both would rather be connected and loving than right
Neither believe in “winning”. Rather, the goal is a solution that works for both people
The love that brought them together has the first priority
It is awfully easy to live in the first set of bullets, and oh so difficult to live in the second. The most obvious question at this point, of course, is: what makes the difference?
The primary skill in conscious communication, in my experience, is the ability to disidentify.
Healthy communication can happen only between two people, and not between two personalities. Who we are authentically is love, generosity, and every form of goodness. When we are operating on the level of the personality, however, we are selfish, self-centered, inattentive, and mean. Obviously, we’re going for the former. If both people involved are disidentified (i.e., are centered in their authentic nature rather than in conditioned mind), then not much is needed in terms of structures and processes. Because disidentification is so elusive for most people, however—especially in relationship—it’s good to have a nice collection of tools at the ready to whip out whenever things get dicey. If we can provide ourselves with an environment that supports our natural tendency to love and let go, I’ve found, then that’s what will often happen. Everything that follows in the blogs on this topic is heading towards that end.
I’m not going to discuss the practice of disidentification here, as that is the underlying topic of all these blogs. I will offer some tools, however—but as I’m out of space I’ll begin that effort another day.