Unveiling :: Tending prickly relationships

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Do you have a difficult relationship with someone you care about? I hope you don’t, but most of us do at least some time in our lives. And many of us have learned the hard way that as painful as it may be, it is even more painful to put off doing something about it. But what? 

Through the practice of meditation, we are cultivating compassion and joy that helps us to connect with others from a spacious heart rather than from a tangled knot of accumulated judgments and preferences. But we have a lifetime of habits of weaving thoughts and opinions into mental veils about every person we know. When a difficult person comes to mind, our attention likely takes a deep dive into dukkha, suffering, chasing down painful memories and hurt feelings in the veil our thoughts have woven about that person.

Our practice is also to cultivate spacious awareness. So we are learning to recognize those veils when our attention gets entangled and gently bring our focus back to the present moment. We become aware of how these thought threads activate challenging emotions, and strong judgments, and drain our energy. We care for the person we have been thinking about, but they may put our ability to feel compassion or joy to a real test, which we often fail. Then we may feel bad about ourselves, launching our attention into another dukkha dive, this time into our personal identity veil, tightening knots of negative thoughts about ourselves. So, who can blame us when we are even less inclined to reach out to this person we may love but…

For self-preservation, our solution may be to avoid the prickly person. And if in doing so, we’re comfortable with that, then no problem. But if it’s someone we love and feel the need to find peace with, putting it off is ultimately much more painful.

Our inclination may be to turn away or to put off thinking or doing anything about it, but the veil metaphor offers an easier less fraught way to look at a difficult relationship. We can lay one of our veils out before us and explore it without claiming it as who we are. It’s a complex weaving of thoughts and emotions, but it’s not us.

We can see that the veil we have woven of the difficult person is full of frayed threads and tangled knots of painful emotion. But it also has threads of delightful memories and loving emotions. If we don’t find any of those after a thorough and whole-hearted investigation, then the relationship is not worth saving and we will have no regrets in letting it go. (We may want to be sure that our identity veil isn’t still holding on to painful remnants of things that person tried to make us believe about ourselves.)

But if we find something worth making an effort to reach out to the person, then what? How do we motivate ourselves to do it now rather than procrastinate some more? We pause to consider how we would feel if we lose them before we get around to reaching out.

Lost chances
Life is not eternal. When we procrastinate and then lose the chance to mend the relationship, we’re left with uncomfortable thoughts and emotions that our attention chases down, again and again, increasing our misery. Mourning with regrets is so much more challenging and painful.

The grief for a loved one with whom we had a good easy relationship, whose veil we tended well while they were alive, is full of sweet memories that ease our sorrow. We still miss the physical person: the sight of them, the sound of their voice and laughter, their touch and scent, and their ability to surprise us. But the veil we have woven about them is still ours, and when we feel the need, we can wrap ourselves in the veil like a soft warm shawl. It doesn’t bring them back, but it is a comfort.

But if we lose someone we love and are left with a veil of thoughts and emotions that are painful, our grief is not comforted by a warm shawl but is burdened with a heavy yoke of thoughts and emotions that wear us down.

The veil metaphor helps us understand a little better why grief is different for the same mourner over different losses. We are dealing with different veils. Who wouldn’t choose a veil filled with memories and emotions of joy and laughter, so that even though we may feel the loss deeply, the veil about that person is light, uplifting, warm, and comforting? When we think about them, our heart may be full and our tears may flow, but the memories may cause us to smile or even sometimes laugh through our tears.

When we procrastinate healing a relationship, we are choosing to continue to weave a painful veil, tightly knotted with harsh judgment, regret, shame, deceit, resentment, hatred, anger, hurt feelings, or loving words left unsaid, a veil burdens us rather than lightens our hearts.

Again, I hope you don’t have any relationships with such heavy veils, but it happens, doesn’t it? We keep thinking, I’ll contact them later. I’m not up for it now. Or maybe I shouldn’t have to call them. They should call me. We get so busy. We’re not sure what to do. And we think there will be time in the future to soften a rough relationship. But we don’t know, do we?

Life is full of wonders but it never makes promises. Many of us, especially these days, live habituated lives, finding comfort in what seem like reliable patterns. Life does have patterns, but they are patterns of anicca, impermanence. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. But we do know that no one lives forever.

Has this exploration brought to mind someone in your life who is important to you but with whom you’ve fallen out for whatever reason? Perhaps you have lots of happy memories from your early days with them, but they’ve changed and it’s just too hard to be with them now.

If someone has come to mind, let your attention follow any threads of thought and emotion in your veil about this person.
Notice sensations in your body that come up in response to this exploration. Perhaps there’s tightening or clenching, pressure, or an ache. Whatever you notice, recognize how you are carrying the weight of this unresolved relationship within you, affecting your well-being. Maybe you are carrying anger towards this person and that anger is tied into a chronic pain you experience. Just notice how your veil about them affects your whole being, even though you may have put them out of your life.

Now, challenging as this may be, imagine hearing that they had died. Where do you feel that news in your body? If you feel it in your chest area, the heart space, your connection is too strong to not make an effort to resolve your relationship.

If the imagined news activates only a little sadness, akin to how you feel when someone famous dies, then perhaps your time with that person is done. You can let the veil fade. (And of course if you feel relief or even jubilation at the news, that’s probably a relationship you are better off not trying to resurrect!)
How does that feel to let that relationship go? If you will feel a lightening and brightening in your heart space, you have your answer. You can send thoughts of loving-kindness to this person without your attention chasing down and dredging up the same old same old stories again and again. You might imagine a little mental letting go ceremony, tying the veil with a bow, and releasing it as a gift to the universe. Then if it floats by occasionally in your thoughts, you can just wave, throw kisses, and wish the person well. No more deep dukkha dives for you!
But if your heart is not lightened by the thought of letting go of the relationship, and if imagining their death was heart-wrenching, then it’s worth taking the time to help the relationship and tend your veil of thoughts about them.

Mending a relationship veil
A relationship is precious and delicate, so before taking on the sacred task of healing it, we give ourselves at least a few minutes to center and settle our minds. We set our wisest intention before taking on this sacred task. We are not here to ‘fix’ the person. We are here to help heal the relationship. Each relationship is unique, but here are some ideas to consider:

  • Maybe we realize that we don’t want to spend a lot of time with them, but we can maintain friendliness in our occasional communications.
  • Maybe when we talk we can guide the topics to ones that cultivate joy rather than discord. How about those Warriors? Or Remember when we were kids and we played…
  • We might find something we enjoy doing together rather than discussing world events that turn into rants. Not every relationship blossoms over deep conversations.
  • We can notice if the relationship is better in certain situations and not in others. For example, one-on-one rather than in a group, or vice versa. Or at a certain time of day, or without alcohol present. We can comb through memories of flare-ups and see if there was some commonality to the circumstances, and avoid those!
  • We can stop waiting for them to do something that may not be possible for them to do, given their perceptions, their blinding veils about us, the world, and themselves. For whatever reason, they may be tied up in knots. That understanding can spark some compassion in us. After all, we too have been blinded by knotted veils. We know what that’s like.
  • We can notice if our veil of that person is getting in the way. Have we created such a solid idea of who they are, that there’s no room for them to be themselves, to grow and change? We all have veils of everyone we know, but our veil is not the person, just our ideas of them. And many of those ideas are bound to be outdated or inaccurate, and the rest are filtered through our amassed opinions and judgments. So an important part of mending our veils is to lighten them, make them more transparent, so we can see through them to the person in front of us, who, just like us, wants to be seen, authentic, and unfiltered!
    Though they may get in our way, these veils are not enemies to be avoided. But when they appear, it’s skillful to notice if they are light, transparent, easy to stay present with, and maybe even fun to dance with. Or are they heavy and burdensome, drawing our attention deep into a painful mental vortex or tight knot of memory and emotion? 
  • We can forgive the person. If every time we see or talk to someone, we are seeing all their past mistakes instead of the living being in front of us, then they naturally feel defensive and act out. (If those mistakes were violent or abusive, proceed with great caution, if at all. Sometimes our heart is misguided, especially if we grew up in an abusive household.)
  • Send a letter. When I gave this dharma talk at Marin Sangha, one wise member of the group said that the person who came up for her struggles with addiction. Having phone conversations is painful and frustrating. So what came up for her was to write a letter. I loved that idea and can imagine the recipient keeping the letter in her purse and coming upon it when she most needs to be reminded that she is loved.
    If your relationship quickly spins out of control in person or over the phone, this might be a skillful thing to do. That said…
  • Pause before speaking, sending a text, email, or letter. Given the fraught nature of past communication typical of challenging relationships, it’s wise to look over any missive with fresh eyes and see if it is coming from our wisdom or our hurt.
  • If we’ve lost touch, can’t find the person, or if reactivating a relationship with them would be not just uncomfortable but dangerous for us, we can send them metta, thoughts of loving-kindness whenever they come to mind. May you be well.
    If the relationship is extremely difficult, we might choke on those words at first. We might add some expletive-embellished descriptors to the blessing. May you be well, you rotten x#@&! But with practice, we may find sending loving-kindness can soften and release the tightly knotted threads of our thoughts about someone. And that is well worth doing.
    At the core of loving-kindness is the recognition of anatta, no separate self. There is no ‘other’. When we rest in that awareness, then we see people differently. We don’t ascribe enemy labels to them. We see them as being just as vulnerable and filled with fear as we may be. We see their poor choices as unskillful means to deal with their fear. Perhaps they are struggling in the darkness without the benefits we have found in our practice and teachings. Understanding this, compassion arises. So we send metta, and whether they feel it or not, the act changes us, changes our energy, changes our patterns, changes our understanding, and changes the veil we have about that person.

Never too late for love
Even after a loved one is gone, if the veil we have of them is not a comforting shawl but an unbearable burden, we can in our own time and in our own way, explore and infuse the threads with lovingkindness. We might spend more time with joyful memories, and less time anguishing over the frayed threads and tangled knots of lost opportunities, misspoken words, and all the ways we or they might have done better. Maybe there is nothing we could have done. We don’t know their reasoning, what they’ve gone through, what they may have misinterpreted, all that went into weaving their tight tangle of thoughts, saturated with painful emotion. We don’t know! Recognizing we don’t know can be very liberating!

At memorial services, people usually refrain from speaking ill of the dead. And there’s a good reason for that. A grieving person should never have to take in new prickly and problematic threads that the dead cannot refute or corroborate or redeem themselves, leaving them with more painful or disconcerting thoughts. That is so unfair.
But hearing good memories, even from people who only knew the person casually may weave new brighter threads into our veil. Perhaps the person we are mourning made a difference in places beyond the scope of our memories and perceptions. Our veils about loved ones are often myopic. This wealth of goodwill and sharing is one of the gifts of such gatherings.

To ultimately unveil, we need to see the veils we’ve woven, recognize the knots, and take time to loosen and even release them. But we can also accentuate the light-filled threads that inspire and warm us. The lighter and brighter a veil is, the more easily we can see through it to the interconnected ever-changing nature of all life. We are not blinded by the veils. Instead, we can dance with them, enjoying being alive in this moment just as it is, and celebrating those with whom we have had the privilege to share the experience.


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