One of the ways that the contemplative path tends to affect change is in interpersonal relationships. This has less to do with any particular relationship, but instead changes the way we relate to the world in general.
In an unconscious state we’re made up of our desires, drives, fears, and anxieties. Our interpersonal relationships become a forum to act those out, to meet our needs.
If we need to be liked or get affection, then we act out that need in relationship. If we need to be competitive and feel a sense of control or dominance, we’ll act that out in relationship. If we mostly need a sense of safety and stability, we’ll act that out in relationship.
Whatever our central need is then becomes an organizing principle for the kinds of causes, churches, groups, ideologies, and theologies that we gravitate toward on a macro level in our lives.
But it also determines what we’re unconsciously looking for in small ways, in our everyday interactions. It frames the questions we ask ourselves as we engage in conversation or interaction. It determines what makes us feel like we’ve had a positive or negative interaction.
In either case, the questions are focused on the self. We tend to be concerned with whether my needs being met along with whatever else we’re engaged in. But the ego loves drama in whatever form it can get it. We want a problem to stew on, consider, to fixate on.
When we feel unsafe, uncared for, powerless, there’s more food for the ego to chew on. It wants to keep us jumping mental hurdles so it can maintain a sense of control.
The genuine change that takes place with continued contemplative practice is that we recognize how trivial our usual circle of concern is. We become aware that, ultimately, our sense of happiness isn’t contingent upon any kind of social input or feedback. The small self’s needs will never be met because it will always create new ones. The ego is ravenous.
With ongoing practice there’s a decrease or lessened attachment to a sense of self and an increase in becoming other-centered, or genuinely concerned with the well-being of others over and above my small scale and pointless emotional programs for happiness.
We become more centers, nodes, or channels of engaged lovingkindness for others, as objectively as we can be.
As an example of what this looks like in practice, I was on a plane recently. As a card-carrying introvert, being stuck in a confined space with a hundred other people for a prolonged period of time normally creates small scale anxiety. I’m normally prone to annoyance. The little ego-mind wants to find fault, differentiate, find ways of feeling superior, or vent and scratch and claw when it feels inferior.
We evaluate others and get annoyed at how slow they’re going or get annoyed at how long we have to sit there.
Instead, stuck in place as people file slowly by, I conducted an exercise of reaching out and imaginatively extending a warm embrace to the people passing. There’s power in the act of consciously extending that warmth regardless of gender, ethnicity, status, attractiveness, age, style. There’s freedom in that attentiveness.
We learn in that engagement and attentiveness. We see subtler realities beneath the surface. Someone tightly closed off and anxious beneath a carefully cultivated exterior. Someone else with a quiet strength. Someone else with an open radiance. Someone else in a state of tension.
Without the need for attention ourselves, simply taking a moment to hold someone else in our awareness and extend a warm embrace indiscriminately can be very healing. This little exercise cultivates an internal space and expands the capacity to engage with others with warmth and generosity. There’s a subtle Christlikeness to it.
Of course, if you are engaging in this practice in tight quarters or in a public space, don’t hold the gaze too long on any one person, just hold them in your mind as they pass. For most people, the day can be hard enough without someone following them with their eyes wearing a soft smile trying to “soul hug” them. That could get weird. We’re not trying to generate an interpersonal connection with someone, just to be a witness, to behold.
Some are even so closed off it’s enough to just hold them in your awareness for a moment. And who knows, maybe it even registers on some subtle level and lightens the load.
Much of our unhappiness is caused by the thought processes in our mind. We feel a default sense of lack or insufficiency. With a sense of agency and fullness from extended contemplative practice, we can choose to reverse the flow, we move from needy to generous. We shift the locus of control from outside us to inside us.
We all know the clichés that “it’s better to give than to receive” or “you get what you give” and “what goes around comes around,” but if we’re still fundamentally stuck in an unconscious egoic stage, those are just worn platitudes. Generosity takes practice.
For most of us, it takes some intention and effort to create the internal space for the incessant neediness to begin to dissolve and for the focus to shift, but when it does, how liberating.