It’s been far too long since I’ve posted here! I was inspired to start writing again by a disturbing but very educational experience I had recently.
A few weeks ago, I attended a conference for psychotherapists to learn a model of therapy called Functional Analytic Psychotherapy. I was expecting it to be a typical conference where there are a series of presentations with me taking notes – like a big classroom. Instead, it turned out to be a VERY experiential conference with a set of exercises where the conference participants were assigned to groups and asked to do role plays with each other using our authentic emotional struggles/issues. The three pillars of Functional Analytic Psychotherapy are Awareness, Courage, and Love – so we were asked to do role plays in small groups with these pillars in mind. Awareness is pretty easy to define – mindfulness in the moment to what is happening for you, the other person, and what is happening between the two of you. Courage was defined as a willingness to be open about your experience in a genuine way – which made sense to me and something I believe in doing and cultivating in myself. Love, however, was a little trickier to define – especially when thinking about showing “love” to people you just met at a conference. I was initially quite nervous about what would happen in our role plays, and then proceeded to have a very negative series of interactions with one of my role-play partners – so negative, in fact, that I decided to talk to the conference organizer and change groups. I definitely wasn’t feeling the love!
In the days and weeks following that experience, I have been reflecting a great deal on what was coming up for me during those interactions that was so intolerable, and the word that keeps coming to mind is “understanding” – or really, “misunderstanding” in this case! And then I was reminded of a definition of love from Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love.”
Yes, of course! The basis of giving love to another person – regardless of context or the nature of the relationship – is understanding the other person’s experience, or even the active attempt to understand is quite loving. This just rings so true when I think of the people in my life that I feel loved by – these are the people I feel understand me and I understand them. My role play partner at the conference did not understand me, and I did not understand him, and we caused each other pain and were not loving because of this.
So, as often happens, these great truths like the quote from Thich Nhat Hanh sound so simple! So, then what gets in the way of understanding someone else? A lack of understanding for ourselves! Here again, Thich Nhat Hanh has some valuable things to say:
“When we learn to love and understand ourselves and have true compassion for ourselves, then we can truly love and understand another person.”
Ah yes, if I’m in pain but I don’t support myself in the moment with compassion and understanding, then I will react in a negative way to myself and/or the other person. At the conference, I initially reacted negatively to myself during the role plays assuming I was doing something “wrong” when my partner criticized me, and so tried to adjust my behavior so I wouldn’t be criticized anymore (people pleasing) and when that didn’t work, I shut down (stone walling), and when that didn’t stop the criticism, I left the relationship (reacted against). This is my negative, reactive cycle – usually it doesn’t happen in one 24 hour period (ha!) but this is what it looks like when I am feeling some sort of discomfort in a relationship, but don’t feel “permission” to feel the way I am feeling so don’t stop to give myself understanding and compassion. Without compassion and understanding for myself, I can’t even be interested in where the other person is coming from because I am in emotional pain and either angry with myself or angry and blaming towards them.
Shortly after this conference (perfect timing!) I started an online course led by Pema Chodron called “Making Friends with Yourself”. There has only been one lecture so far, but in her first talk, one of the main ideas was to bring attention to how we physically begin to feel when someone criticizes us, so that we can begin to be familiar with the feeling, learn how to tolerate it, and how to send compassion to those sensations. The goal, she said, would be to learn how to be with that awful feeling for 3 minutes before reacting to it – and that starting with 3 seconds is a good first step! This reacting to feeling bad is what generally leads to conflict, and a lack of understanding between two people – even if they love each other, they can’t really “love” – at least in those moments. The motivation for me to learn how to tolerate my painful reactions and be more compassionate or friendly with myself, is so I can be better at loving others.
“The more you understand, the more you love; the more you love, the more you understand. They are two sides of one reality. The mind of love and the mind of understanding are the same.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Thanks for reading! As always, your questions and comments are welcomed!
If you are interested in learning more about Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings and writings on love, his book, “How to Love” is a great read! http://www.amazon.com/Love-Mindful-Essentials-Thich-Nhat/dp/1937006883/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1434286618&sr=8-1&keywords=how+to+love
If you are interested in the online course, “Making Friends with Yourself” taught by Pema Chodron you can still register! http://www.shambhala.com/pemacourse