With social pressure (and personal desire) to achieve, to be informed, to look good, to have answers, etc, much of the time our attention moves outwards and forwards (into the future). We seek out resources (materials, information, status) and anticipate potential problems. We do this intentionally, and it also happens in habitual ways, outside of our awareness. This capacity to anticipate, search and strive is useful for getting along in the world. It is part of what gave our bipedal ancestors an edge over other species. Interestingly, as Charles Darwin recognised, another trait of human beings that has helped us thrive, is the capacity for caring connection. Darwin spoke of this as ‘sympathy’. We have evolved to live in social groups and to contribute to the welfare of each other and the group. In Darwin’s words: “communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”
This interesting reflection can remind us of the importance of balancing our striving for achievement with the cultivation of caring relationships. This is of benefit for ourselves, others and the group. Our biology rewards us for engaging in caring connection through generating an internal sense of pleasure. (Note: serious neglect and abuse in early childhood can interrupt this response.)
Before looking at the ways we can develop a practice of relating well, it is worth noting that relating well requires a very different mindset to pursuing achievement. The pursuit of achievement involves a narrowing of attention around the goal, and a future orientation. Relating well requires a present moment orientation and a broad perspective – bigger than what I perceive to be in my personal interests. It is supported by perceiving the relationship as a third entity, separate from the people involved. What does the relationship need to prosper? If it were a garden, what would be the sunlight, rain, fertiliser, soil and weeding needed for it to thrive?
The photograph above illustrates some qualities that help a relationship to thrive:
How often do you take the time to stop, and look, and listen – to be present with an open mind and heart with the person in front of you, whoever that person is? By tending the relationship that is in front of us now, we strengthen the qualities needed in all relationships. This is the idea of making it a practice to relate well. What qualities can I call on to look after the three parties present – the other person, myself and the relationship? Making relating an intentional practice we are more likely to remember to pause, to listen and hear the other person’s perspective.
Continuing the analogy of the garden it is worth considering what equates to “weeding” in a relationship. What might we remove, or at least not feed? Most of the “weeds” (unwanted elements) in a relationship are born from reactivity based in fear/anger, from the pursuit of narrow self-interest or from a lack of insight. At the core of our ability to relate well with others is our ability to know and manage our own reactivity, emotions, biases, blind spots and interests. When we are unaware of how these are playing out, it is all too easy for our behaviour to be determined by habitual patterns that may not be in the long-term interests of anyone. Observing the “weeds” and not feeding them with energy and attention is a useful practice. Clearly seeing the harm they bring to oneself and to the relationship supports an ability to let them go.
A final reference to relationships as gardens, is to recognise that there are seasons where growth is slowed or even stops. Depending on the region it might be the cold of winter or the heat of summer when growth slows. Relationships too, ebb and flow. It is not unusual for a relationship to fall into a period that feels more dormant. Dormancy does not need to herald the end of the relationship. It may simply be a time when the conditions make full flourishing more difficult. As the conditions change (babies grow, self-awareness is gained, jobs become more manageable, intense emotions are managed), renewed growth once again becomes possible.
Remembering your intention to take care of the relationships in your life can change how you meet each person.
Dr Kathryn Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.