It’s The Relationships, Stupid!

When I worked as a psychologist, I advised clients that at any given moment their relationships with loved ones were either getting better or getting worse. They weren’t stable entities. You couldn’t put a relationship on the back burner and expect it to keep. Lately, I’ve been reading the American philosopher John Dewey, who placed the changing relationship between organisms and their environments at the center of his philosophy.  Organisms, he reasoned, strive to maintain optimal relationships with their environments. When they can obtain what they need from their environment while avoiding external sources of harm, all is well. When relationships with the environment go awry, however, organisms must experiment, reflect (if they’re the sorts of organisms capable of reflection), and adjust their actions to do what’s necessary to restore as close to an optimal relationship as possible. Like the relationships I used to advise my clients about, organism-environment relationships are never stable, but always, at any given moment, getting better or getting worse.

As a consequence of reading Dewey, I found myself thinking more about human flourishing—the best kind of life a person can live—and what it entails. Aristotle believed it meant developing one’s virtues, working to enhance one’s community, and contemplating truth.  Psychologist Martin Seligman says it’s characterized by positive emotions, engagement in life, good interpersonal relationships, and a sense of meaning and accomplishment. I want to propose yet another way of thinking about human flourishing: the good life is characterized by the quality of one’s relationships. Specifically, the relationships one has with one’s loved ones, with one’s community, with one’s work, with one’s body, with nature, and with oneself. At any given moment, any of these relationships may be optimal or suboptimal. If we’re wise, we optimize each as well we can. 

All sorts of mishaps create disruptions in these relationships and render them suboptimal: loved ones disappoint us, grow apart, leave, or die; social mores change, new leaders emerge, the economy undergoes busts and booms, and new conflicts develop; our bodies age, change in appearance, and become injured or frail; our vocational interests, job demands, job opportunities, bosses and coworkers change; our natural world is subject to climate change, invading species, earthquakes, tornados, wildfires, floods, and other physical catastrophes; our relationship with ourselves is challenged when we fail to meet our goals and obligations, discover new aspects of ourselves, fall prey to trauma, or observe declines in our abilities.

This is where Buddhist practice can help. Optimizing relationships requires our mindful attention to subtle breaches in our relationships within each of these domains. Once we become mindful of a breach, repairing it depends on our good will—cultivating the intention to care for and fix what can be fixed, and putting forth our best effort in doing so. Patience, persistence, courage, non-reactivity, empathy, practical wisdom, acceptance, and a willingness to see things from another’s perspective are useful virtues as we set about this work. Many of these are virtues that are enhanced by sitting practice, by setting aside time for silent contemplation, by cultivating the virtues of mindfulness, lovingkindness, acceptance, compassion, and equanimity, and by recognizing our impermanence and fundamental interdependence with all things.

Given that the classical Buddhist literature says so little about relationship, it may seem surprising to place Buddhist practice in this very different frame—one that suggests that its main benefit may be—not ending the cycle of rebirth or bringing an end to desire—but its capacity to enhance the relationships that characterize a well-lived life.   I’m increasingly convinced that as we become more acquainted with Buddhist practice in the West, that this is exactly where the Buddhism-of-the-future is heading– a melding of traditional Buddhist ideas with Western philosophical ideas regarding human flourishing.  

Stay tuned.