If you are not open to the reality that people change,
you will have stale relationships of your own making.
Jennifer Taylor is a Buddhist teacher who lives in Alive Springs in the centre of Australia, and exudes all the warmth and peacefulness of the desert. I was on a week-long retreat where she was one of the teachers and I had an opportunity for a half-hour appointment with her in which I could address any aspect of my practice. I decided to seek an opinion on a troubling relationship with a female friend I have known for several decades. I made a full presentation to her of the history of the relationship, complete with revealing anecdotes. I was curious to know whose ‘side’ Jenny might take, or what advice she might suggest. What would be her answer? Her response, however, was not what I expected: ‘You seem to view this relationship in very distinct parcels, all neatly tied up with string. I’m just wondering if you’ve acknowledged the mystery in the situation?’
As a matter of fact I had not. Not even once. Over the years that I had chewed over the details of our interactions, mystery could not have been further from my mind. Yet Jenny was right: there was so much in this relationship that I could never know for sure. I was relying on my memories and my fixed view of an unknowable other. How ardently we believe the stories in our heads, as if they are the only version of events. Jenny was asking me to surrender to some not-knowing, to let go of my stories from the past, all my educated guesses and assumptions, and to try to relate to this friend afresh as a new person in each new moment. When we freeze our perceptions of the characters in our lives we blind ourselves to mystery. The longer we have known someone, the higher the danger of seeing them in a fixed way and the more important it becomes to meet them afresh in the present moment.
With people we have known for years, such as family members, we can stop seeing them with any clarity because we forget to stop and look. When we do finally pause to look at a relation with open, non-judgemental attention we can feel struck by a view that is free of the distortions of our usual needs or self-interest. We find ourselves asking, ‘Who is this?’ in a way that does not seek definitive answers but leaves us open… I have found that remaining open… trying to refrain from labeling, and even letting bygones by bygones has kept relationships alive and full of possibility. There is also an element of relief, along with pleasure, when we bring such openness to our daily encounters with others: it does not feel pleasant to hold a grudge, to dislike another, to intentionally shut somebody out of our life. We feel happier, and even more confident in ourselves, when we can love ourselves, when we can love others freely, and we can do this more easily when, as many a Buddhist puts it, we ‘get out of our own way’.