The divorce rate in the United States no longer tops the charts—in Belgium, a stunning 71% of marriages fail (even with access to all that fabulous chocolate). Still, a faltering marriage is nothing to ignore. Sara Napthali, author of Buddhism for Couples: A Calm Approach to Relationships, says that we can become more self-aware in our relationships. The fact that Napthali’s partner of nearly 20 years shows no interest in Buddhism hasn’t negated the value of her bringing mindfulness and compassion to their lives. She talks to Life Reimagined about how to transform a chaotic relationship into a calmer one
You say that even if only one partner tries to live by Buddhist principles, both will benefit. Can you explain?
The members of a couple are not separate, as we routinely imagine, but rather interdependent, so it is inevitable that a change in one person’s behavior will have some kind of effect on the other. For example, we are likely to see a reaction from our partner if we cultivate a climate of appreciation or compassion or joyfulness or peace.
A change in our behavior provides our partner with different conditions to respond to. The trick is to avoid being attached to our expectations of how we think our partner should respond to us: they may respond the way we hope or they may respond in an unexpected way.
Buddhism aside, it is only human that when someone treats us warmly and respectfully it becomes easier to treat that person the same way.
Some people dismiss Buddhism as monks and meditation. How do you convince skeptics that everyone can benefit from these principles?
Personally, I have nothing to do with monks or chanting, although I do try (and sometimes fail) to meditate daily. It is my belief that anyone, anywhere, can benefit from mindfulness, meditation and the cultivation of compassion, no matter what they do for a living, or where in the world they live.
You do not need to believe anything to practice Buddhism. You don’t need to start calling yourself a Buddhist (in fact, that would be discouraged). All you need to do is try out what the Buddha taught and see if it works for you. The Buddha was very un-bossy.
Buddhism embraces the realities of stress and suffering. Why wouldn’t we work to reduce them?
Most of our pain comes from resisting suffering: fleeing it, avoiding it, worrying about it, re-living it, tensing our bodies against it, ignoring it or denying it. If, for example, we feel anger arise, rather than act on it or suppress it, we can strive to “be with it,” with curiosity. We might observe where it is and how it feels in our body, the shallowness of our breathing. We might become aware of the thinking that fuels it. It also helps to remind ourselves that anger is impermanent—it never stays unchanged—and we observe the subtle changes. Being with our anger may or may not make it go away, but awareness will always take at least some of the edge off it. We aim to respond to our anger, or any other negative emotion, with self-compassion rather than self-judgement.
You say that a missing ingredient in sex is often mindfulness. Can you elaborate?
For this section of the book I contacted sex researcher and psychologist Lori Brotto. As Lori describes it, a woman’s mind swarms all day with details about her children and all the requirements of running a household. It is difficult to switch off this torrent of thoughts, especially for women who add anxious concerns about their appearance, libido or performance.
During her workshops, Lori uses the classic exercise of awareness of a raisin. Handing one raisin to each participant she instructs: “Study its shape, its contours, its folds. Touch the raisin with a finger. Look into the valleys and peaks, the highlights and dark crevasses.” The raisin exercise trains people to tune into physical sensation, to fully attend to their present experience, rather than slavishly follow distracting thoughts.
How can a couple turn around a boring or problematic relationship?
With mindfulness, or the non-judgmental, moment-to-moment observation of our experience, we become aware of whether our habitual reactions are helpful and we develop insight into more skillful ways to deal with relationship problems.
As soon as I tune into my breath in the present moment or the sensations in my body, I feel a shift in perspective. There is a wiser, more awakened way to be and it is mine for the taking if I can be awake enough to choose it. There are more skillful ways to interact with my husband than revisiting an old argument in the same old way: I could write my husband a sensitive, well-edited letter, for example, something I do about once a year. I could take responsibility for my own role in the problem. I can consider my partner’s perspective. I could find healthy ways to address my tension which I’m about to dump on my husband.
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