Saturday, April 16, 2011

Playing With Fire

Starting a new relationship is a lot like being drawn to a bonfire. It's warm and comforting—especially if you've been cold for long time. Fire has a lot of great attributes: beauty, warmth, light and the ability to roast food. You love the fire when it's providing you with heat and light, but stick out your hand and get too close, and you'll come to despise it. Of course, the fire didn't leap out and harm you. It was just being fire, doing its fire thing, and, yet, you'll curse it and throw water on it when it gets out of control.
   As a newly single woman I'm now grappling with the grown-up realities of romantic relationships, and how easily one can fall into that love-hate trap. This is a pattern I fostered long ago, perhaps from my very first crush. I'd meet a boy and we'd hit it off. We'd talk and flirt and I'd go home, day-dreaming about how wonderfully smart and witty and attractive he was. In this early infatuation—before we really knew much about each other—it was easy to attach all types of wonderful attributes on the dude. He's a great athlete. He laughs at my jokes. He know all the words to Rapper's Delight. And then, when and if the relationship crossed the line into the physical, therein followed the dreamy, dopamine-laden emotions generated from kissing and such. Ah, those are heady feelings indeed, fueling the flames of deeper attachment.
   As the relationship progresses, and we get to know each other better, red flags arise. He bores me to tears with tales of his basketball heroism. He calls five times a day, and has nothing to say. He snorts when he laughs at his own off-color jokes. Wabam! He's annoying! Aversion trickles in. The intense feelings of infatuation, dare I say, love, wither with disappointment when the bubble bursts. Angry feelings arise. Poof! The intelligent, funny, athlete is now an self-centered ass. When we spend extended time together, I start to resent him. As much as I once longed to hear his sweet voice, I now only wish he would shut up. Sound familiar?
   Of course, it can work the other way too when the object of your affection suddenly retreats from red hot to ice cold, and indifference sets in on his end. He stops calling and you feel the intense pull of withdrawal. He breaks up and you are effectively crushed by your one-time crush. Once the disappointment dissipates, you are left seething and wishing all types of nasty retribution for the cad, who, by the way, is pretty-much the same guy you loved just days before. You find yourself sniggering when he trips on the basketball court and driving around at midnight on a Saturday night decorating the trees in front of his parent's house with toilet paper.
   After almost three decades since my first romance, the feelings of attachment and aversion are much the same as they ever were—except, I dare say, today I would never drive around in the middle of the night effectively littering some poor man's flora with roles of extra-soft Charmin. (At a dollar fifty a roll, are you kidding?) Yet, even in recent flirtations I've felt myself go through the stages of attachment and aversion. At first, I'm impressed with a guy and begin to think that there could be something there. He's so sensitive. So smart. So compassionate. And really he's just so-so. Sure it's nice to have some one to talk to and share the everyday stuff about work or our past marriages, but then, at some point I start sizing him up as potential mate material, and that's when aversion comes into play. Reality check time. He's too old, too conservative, too self-centered, too boring, too egotistic. He's too-too much. Ultimately though, it is me not him. I'm the one who's heaped on the attributes too soon, and piled up the flaws too late.
  Of course, the principles of attraction and aversion play out with family, friends and colleagues, too.  We build expectations of a person and when they fail to meet our expectations, the person loses his or her shimmer. What's important to remember is that we cause this sense of disappointment. Rarely is the other person at fault. When aversive feelings arise, instead of faulting the other person for disappointing us, we should look inside to figure out why we needed that person to be whatever it was that we thought made us so happy. Sleuthing out the source of our attachments and aversions allows us to shift the focus of responsibility for our wellbeing and happiness off others and places it soundly on ourselves, where it belongs.
   "But aren't Buddhists supposed to be happy alone?" you ask. "Aren't they supposed to be self-reliant and untouched by the emotional realms?" Well, yes, I suppose if you're a true bodhisattva you are self-aware enough to see past these emotions and not get tangled up in them. That doesn't mean you can't have intimate relationships. Adhering to Buddha's teaching just means you see all relationships as excellent ways means for Buddhist practice. My divorce is definitely good material for Buddhist practice. Being a mom? Excellent Buddhist practice. Meeting a new guy, falling love and getting burned? Yes, you got it. It's Buddhist practice. In fact, dating just may be the ultimate test of mindful living. At this rate, I might just reach enlightenment in this lifetime.


  1. I can relate to what you write about the love-hate relations. I think it must be a phenomenon of our generation, generation X - the lost one. Our society gave us a very good education, and with that education, and the wealth the baby boomers created, came the lust for freedom. Freedom to be independent, freedom to be creative, well in a way a self-centered freedom. And worse, it doesn't seem to really get better while we grow older. I wonder if for people like me (and you?) another form of relation is possible (even in good ol' Alabama): live your own life AND have a committed relationship. A well dosed amount of alone time, meditation time if you like, should help if things get boring or on our nerves. Wouldn't that actually count as good Buddhist practice too?

  2. Karl. Thanks for the comment. I think you're definitely onto something here. Balance is key, right? Recently, a friend reminded me that "Buddha’s teachings reveal that suffering comes from desire to have something that you don’t believe you have already." I think that sums it up nicely. It's all about perception.