Sunshine & Showers – The Heart of Relationships
By Sherry Marshall
(BSc. Sociology; Masters Social Work; Master’s Social Ecology; Process Oriented Psychology)
‘If love comes and goes so easily it is not love we’re dealing with.’
Relationship with ourselves, our partner’s, family, friends and community present ongoing joy and challenges. At best, relationships are fulfilling, fun, deep, intimate and full of learning and bring happiness and benefit to ourselves and others. They can also bring conflict, hatred, anger, misuse of power, revenge and jealousy.
In this article, I’m going to discuss relationships, drawing from Buddhist and therapeutic methods, specifically Process Oriented Psychology. I am also going to include some practical skills and exercises.
Relationship is often viewed as ‘one to one,’ intimate relationship. I would like to broaden that, to include all relationships.
Just for a moment though, I would like to comment on the traditional view. It is a well-known fact that divorce rates keep rising and traditional family life is breaking up. Children are almost expecting to have a step mum or dad by the time they reach adolescence. Despite the government’s increased support and pouring thousands of dollars into pre-marital coaching and marriage guidance counselling, it seems that nothing can stem the tide of relationship break-ups.
Experts debate the breakup of family life and society expects us all to instinctively know how to have good marriages, sustain falling in love and be good parents, even though no one is actually taught how to do this in schools. So we fall ‘in love’ and if we don’t have the skills and a basic understanding of the dynamic and cycles of relationship, we fall ‘out of love’ again. Believing that ‘in love’ is a natural and continuous state and ‘falling out of love’ means the relationship is over, many then look for some one else to fall in love with. So, people wonder how to meet the ‘right’ person (literally, thousands are on internet dating sites) and then, after marriage, feel depressed and angry when they no longer feel happy.
PROCESS ORIENTED PSYCHOLOGY
Process Oriented Psychology or Process Work was developed in the last 25 years, by Dr. Arnold Mindell, a physicist and Jungian analyst. He and Dr. Amy Mindell and colleagues combine Jungian psychology, spirituality, modern physics and social activism to bring awareness to support individual and collective change. He discovered that the dreaming process goes far beyond our night time dreams and can be seen in body symptoms, relationship problems, group conflicts, addictions, extreme states of consciousness, social tensions and in death and dying. Process work is based on the assumption that the solution to a problem is contained within the disturbance itself and provides a practical framework and experience to unfold and bring awareness and meaning to our lives and help us live that.
Process Oriented Psychology talks about three different levels of relationship. The following just gives a taste of how Process work unfolds relationship issues.
Consensus Reality is what the everyday culture agrees on. People believe that this is the level that is the most important, the only ‘real’ reality. In doing so, we marginalize the other levels of our awareness and experiences. A strong hypnosis is created through the dominant culture, which is fed by the social/cultural context ie. tradition, history, family myths etc around what is valid. These are often reinforced by newspapers, television, advertising which tends to reflect the mainstream culture and politics.
In Process Psychology, we would look at our inner psychology and personal history on this level. Also we would look at issues of communication – signals and double signals, feedback, etc. Process Psychology states that we only take notice of parts of who we think we are, ie. we identify ourselves in a certain way and that is how we recognize who we are. There are many other parts of us, or ‘figures’ in the background that are trying to express themselves all the time, that are more unknown to us and don’t fit with who we think we are. eg. We think, ‘I am not an aggressive person,’ as we don’t identify ourselves as being angry. Yet, certain signals ‘leak out’ that are picked up by other people, such as a certain tone of voice or gesture. This then can lead to relationship conflict. A simple way of looking at Process Psychology is that it gives us a theoretical framework and experience to bring all of who we are, into awareness.
Signals are discrete pieces of information that we can identify and follow.
To help your signal awareness, learn how to track your own signals and double signals, (or mixed messages). Double signals are unintended communication. A simple example might be if you notice that your voice is raised in a conflict but what you are saying is ‘no, I’m not annoyed with you!’
- Ask yourself, what are my signals right now or in the last conflict that I had with someone? ie. verbal and non-verbal.
- How do I know and track what my signals are, from moment to moment? What am I thinking, feeling, what is happening in my body, what are my smallest gestures etc?
- How can I unfold that signal more? Notice what channel the signal is in eg, feeling, auditory, movement, visual, relationship, world channel. Amplify the signal by doing it more. See where it leads you.
Eg. Let’s say you notice you raise an eyebrow at your partner as he/she say’s something to you. If you decide to follow that signal in the movement channel, you could let your whole body become that raised eyebrow and follow that process into the unknown.
Watch out for ‘edges’! The edge often stops us doing what we need to do next, it is the boundary of your known identity. It separates who we identify as, from our identity further away from our awareness. Ways of recognizing edges in ourself include, feeling nervous, excited, scared, hestitation, boredom, sleepiness, feeling stuck, physical symptoms, patterns re-cycling over and over.
As I am writing this, I began to feel a little agitated and got up from the computer and went into the garden (movement channel) Then I looked into the sky (visual). I then marginalized the whole experience by coming back to the computer to continue writing.
I hardly noticed that I had just done that. So, if I were to take a few moments to amplify and unfold my signals, I notice that I lean back in my chair, become aware of my breath, and stretch my arms up into the air (movement channel). I then close my eyes and see the sky again. (visual) I then notice that I have a voice telling me to stop wasting time and get on with writing. (auditory)
This is an edge to continue with the process. I decide to go over that edge and amplify the stretching and the experience of being in the sky. I see myself dancing in the clear, blue, spacious sky. So, I spend some time visualising myself doing that.
So now, I am thinking that my primary process (what I identify with, in the moment) is to get this article finished as I am on deadline. My secondary process, (that which is more unknown to me) is revealed a little now, by following, amplifying and unfolding my signals. This leads me into a more dreamy and unfocused state of mind that isn’t task oriented, but more to do with dancing in the sky.
To integrate this piece of inner work, I am now feeling that I would like to have a more dreamy, dancing, spacious relationship with you, the reader, as well as being goal -oriented in trying to bring these ideas across to you. I’m not sure right now, how to do that. Then I realise I have already, by being more personal with you about my process, rather than just writing a ‘professional and objective’ article.
- Now notice what your feedback is to your partner or a friend or a family member or a community member? Are you giving or receiving positive or negative feedback or mixed feedback? Notice your posture, body language, spaces between words, tone of voice, silences, physical distance, rhythm of speaking, mood, atmosphere between you.
- Is your and their feedback congruent or are there mixed messages? Do you ignore that or follow it up? This is all signal work to help us in inner work and relationships, so we can become more conscious of who we are and how we relate.
The Dreaming level
Relationships are the meeting point of spirits. This is the background ‘dreaming,’ atmosphere, which includes mood work, fantasies, imagination and ‘high and low dreaming’ of the relationship and trance states. By unfolding the communication level of double signals, we can find the dreaming figures that are trying to emerge out of the consensus reality level. Relationships have more known and unknown processes, as well as the individuals within relationship. There is something trying to be expressed through the relationship. Relationship is a larger role. The couple together have a primary and secondary process – the ‘we and not we.’ The focus is on the field between the people, not the individuals themselves.
On the dreaming level, the relationship itself also has a background dreaming that is trying to be brought into awareness. The dreaming level in the background that we are not aware of, often brings people together and keeps them together. The background dreaming that people share are often why couples are together, when on the consensus reality level, they seem very ill -suited. Eg. a spiritual woman who is married to a bombastic and arrogant surgeon may unconsciously share a dreaming about having power over life and death.
Relationships often become stuck because of high and low dreams. The high dream is our highest and deepest hopes and expectations; eg. people will be kind and not hurt me. Low dreams are our worst fears, eg. people are insensitive and not to be trusted. When ‘the bubble bursts’ you fall into the low dream. In the high dream, there is a signal of the seed of the low dream and vice versa.
eg. you think that your partner/friend is kind, supportive and loving, a reliable provider for the family and will ‘be there’ for you. Just when you need them, they have a deadline at work and are not available in the way you expect and want. You then fall into a low dream, thinking they don’t care about you and put their work first. Then, they get a raise at work and book a holiday for you both in Paris. You swing back into the high dream of romantic love again.
The Sentient level
This is the level beyond duality, the timeless essence of our love and connecting on the transpersonal and absolute level. These are our extremely subtle experiences, not yet manifested or come into form, not even on the dreaming level. They are pre-awareness. It is the deepest level, beyond words. Often we connect with the sentient level through meditation or altered states of consciousness.
Generally, we tend to give validity to the consensus reality level and marginalize the other two. Buddhist practices, however, tend to give the dreaming and sentient level more centrality.
Practical Therapeutic Skills to work on Relationships
What we do and say either will escalate or de-escalate (raise or lower the temperature) a relationship conflict, either one to one, or in a group or community. The following skills may help you process difficult situations with people:
- Talk for yourself, ‘I am feeling…..’ Use of a third party or an unconscious coalition will always cause problems. eg Sally also says she has a similar issue with you and your mother agrees with me on this.
- Try to pick up your own double signals and become more congruent. eg, notice you say, ‘I feel angry with you’ and at the same time, smiling.
- Be open and willing to pick up an accusation made against you, consider even one percent of it, rather than deny it. eg. ‘yes, there is a small part of me that can be demanding’.
- Avoid using stereotypes eg since you’re a woman, I thought you would enjoy doing the housework!!!
- Notice and be sensitive to your own reactions and bring them in eg. you feel attacked and hurt. Rather than ignoring your hurt, bring it in by saying eg. ‘ouch.’ Your reaction may change what your opponent is saying
- Have a feedback loop eg. If someone apologises, don’t continue to attack them.
- Be more direct in your communication. Being indirect through sarcasm, gossip or being condenscending or patronising with always escalate an argument.
- Be flexible in learning how to take your own side and the other’s side. Step into the other person’s shoes, step back into your own. See your own and their point of view. Allow your self to become flexible and shift a little bit. If both sides become entrenched in their position, and won’t move, that’s how war starts.
- Stay in the now as much as possible. Bringing in unresolved arguments from three years ago and bringing up the past, is not going to help. Start with what is happening now and stay with one issue at the time. When you reach resolution on that issue don’t recycle it. Eg. ‘That’s good we have reached that agreement but you said yesterday…’ Be aware you are starting the fight again.
- If you are really stuck, think about your personal history. Is this topic similar to an argument your parents had, eg, over money, child raising, work etc Is this a conflict you have with a lot of people, not just your partner.
- Remember that change comes from changing ourselves, not expecting the other person to change.
METASKILLS IN RELATIONSHIP WORK
Behind the skills and techniques in Process Oriented Psychology are what we call metaskills, which also can be seen often as the result of meditation practice. Metaskills are a background attitude that shines through or are qualities that are a direct reflection of our most heart felt beliefs about life. They cannot really be taught but rather are demonstrated by our teachers in such a way that as therapists or meditators we slowly embody them over time.
- Beginner’s mind, being curious and open. In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the mind of the expert there are few.’ No matter how much we think we know, we need to remain open and receptive and discerning towards whatever is being presented in the moment.
- Compassion – finding the soft spot in our hearts and allowing a nurturing, loving, caring attitude to be in us, for everyone.
- Wisdom – developing wisdom in order to have clarity and discernment
- Humour – brings a lightness even to the most difficult situations and reminding ourselves not to take ourselves too seriously
- Mindfulness – bringing our attention, over and over, to what is happening right now and not letting ourselves be too caught up in the past or thinking about the future.
- Trust – having a deep and unshakable trust in the process of nature.
- Awareness – having a detached overview and consciousness of body, speech and mind. We are not caught in a particular part, but can view the overall process.
- Spaciousness – an ability to shift into a more spacious and limitless attitude and ‘let go’ of our blocks, barriers and limitations.
- Courage – having the courage to face who we are and situations, even if we are frightened or think people may dislike us for our beliefs.
- Fluidity – being fluid and spontaneous, with the ability to adapt and flow, rather than being rigid and fixed
- Humility –having the humility, rather than arrogance to deeply listen and ‘be with’ ourselves and others.
- Generosity – having a generosity of spirit that gives to all.
Practical Buddhist Skills to work on Relationships
The underlying belief system and goals of Buddhism are different from that of therapy, although, for me, Process Psychology interweaves Buddhist and Taoist principles into its work. I do not have space here to outline the similarities and differences. However, I would like to demonstrate some practical skills on how to deal with emotional issues within relationships, which are as relevant to sangha as well as to partners and friends.
- Coming home to ourselves. Doing sitting meditation practice and watching the breath. Whenever anger, impatience, jealousy or other strong emotions arise, we can become mindful of our breath, put our concentration back to the breath. We notice that our mind goes here and there, emotion goes here and there, but we just come back to the breath. We can do this, in the office, walking down the street, on the bus, in the middle of an argument, wherever.
- Being in the now. Often relationship problems trigger past memories, either from childhood or in the history of the relationship. It helps to realize that it is not usually what happens that is the problem, but how we react to it. Don’t get stuck in the memory. Come back to the now, and deal with what is happening now. Don’t keep stuck in the suffering eg. thinking, ‘I’ve asked this person so many times not to do this and he/she keeps doing it. Just deal with each time as if it is fresh and new. You could appreciate their other good qualities or not let it bother you so much.
- Be aware of your habitual patterns. Recognise your own particular knack of how you get yourself into a mess and how you stay stuck and remain there. Have a look at what you need to abandon and what you need to adopt. I would say, look at what works for you and drop what doesn’t work for you. Look at the crucial points, there are certain habits on which nearly everything rests, that causes problems.
- Recognise that anger is the compost. When we are angry, our attention is on the person or situation that made us angry. When we become mindful, our attention comes back to ourselves and begins to lose some of its destructive behaviour. Awareness ‘is a companion to our anger’, we can mindfully observe our anger.
Thich Nhat Haan says that anger is like the smelly organic material decomposing in a compost bin. We know we can transform the waste into beautiful flowers. We do not need to be afraid of, or reject the rotting material. We need the anger in the way the gardener needs compost.
- Look into the deep causes of your anger.
- Walking meditation. We can practice walking meditation when we are full of emotion, combining our breath with our steps and ‘giving full attention to the contact of the soles of our feet and the earth.
- Don’t hurt yourself. Think that when you get very emotional with someone, actually you are hurting yourself. You are the one who gets red in the face, uptight, stressed and obsessive about what has happened. Realise that when we hurt others, we also hurt ourselves.
- Go out into Nature, sit and look at the ocean or the sky. This helps you let go and access something bigger than yourself. I would like to finish with a quotation;
“Even the most exalted states and the most exceptional spiritual accomplishments are unimportant if we cannot be happy in the most basic and ordinary ways, if we cannot touch one another and the life we have been given with our hearts.”
If you would like to make an appointment to consult with Sherry Marshall, in Manly or Sydney City, please email her on
Sherrymarshall9@aol.com or phone 0411 155 091.