Blog: Relating to Relationship Part 2: Staying Present

By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.

Last time, we were discussing the all-too-common tendency to think that if we just ignore a problem it will eventually go away on its own or we won’t feel its effect. And then ignoring the problem leads to confusion about what is real and what is true. Unfortunately, one of the most common responses to this state of confusion is to go into denial about the fact that the effect of not being present is causing a problem. Denial is what I what I would like to focus on today.

In this context, we are looking at denial as the process of looking away from something – and then refusing to admit that we are looking away. This internal dynamic of denial is often not that well understood. This second act of looking away from the fact that we are looking away is the reason most of us cannot simply snap to attention when our yoga teacher says “Be present!”

We struggle because we are not aware of our own resistance to looking at our resistance to being present. The further we get away from our experience, the harder it is to get back to it. So, why don’t we know what we don’t want to know?

Usually, we head down this road because something is happening or has happened that we don’t want to have happened. So the path has as much to do with acceptance as it has to do with being present. We have to agree to accept whatever we are being asked to be present to.

That means we have to get our demands and our preferences to ease up a bit, so that we can accept something we don’t want to accept. But how do we do that? The prescription that Buddhism offers here is to think about something besides yourself. This is where relationship comes in. When we are in relationship, we do have to think about the other person – even if it is only to figure out how to get the other person to give us what we want.

The good news about denial in terms of relationship, is that, unless we are part of a family or cultural system of widely cultivated denial (to which we all are to a certain extent – more on that at another time), the other person is probably not going to be in denial about the same thing that we are denial about. And they are probably going to be loud about the effect that our denial is having on them. This can, if we are lucky, snap us out of our denial.

For instance, if we are looking away from the fact that mold is growing around the pile of unwashed towels we add to every morning after our shower, the person we are living with is probably going to say something about it. If we are going to be able to continue in relationship with this person, he or she is probably going to insist that we look at the effect our denial is having. So we have to accept that we have been looking away from the mold, clean up the towels and pay attention to where we hang our towel after our shower. So we realize we have to clean up our mess because it is going to have an effect on other people – and they may not want to hang out with us if we are pretending there is no mess.

Think about a mess you may have something to do with that someone has brought your attention to recently. What was your response to being told about that mess? Did you look away from it? Did you try and see what effect the mess was having on the other person? Did you realize that there was something about the mess that you had to take responsibility for changing? Did you change it? How did your response affect the person who told you about the mess? What effect did your response have on your relationship?

Look at all the insights you can get about yourself by being in relationship. And we are only talking about one mess. Imagine all the insights you can gain by looking at how your denial about the effect of your messes may be affecting those around you.

As you start realizing the effect of your denial on those around you, and then begin to perceive, through the mirror of relationship, the effect your denial has had on you, I am not asking you to beat up on yourself or engage in a self-blame fest! In fact, I would strongly encourage you in the other direction.

One of the reasons we have trouble coming out of denial about our situation is that the moment we peek out of our foxhole of denial, we experience a barrage of self-reproach. This makes us want to look away, run away or disappear altogether; and we remain in that goulash of confusion we were talking about several weeks ago.

We have to generate acceptance for ourselves and our responses. We may even have to think about being nice to ourselves.This is where relationship can come in handy as well. If we practice being nice to others, it can be very informative in learning how to be kind to ourselves. We just have to apply the lessons we learn in this regard in relationship to ourselves.

In his book, A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, Dr. Thupten Jinpa talks about the importance of interrupting inner negativity. In that book, he offers many helpful meditations for encouraging a more positive and helpful relationship with ourselves.

It is important to read what he has to say on this matter. I cannot tell you how many people have told me that it is okay for them to beat up on themselves. I had someone say, “I am not doing anyone any harm, I am just yelling at myself,” when I confronted him about his negative self-talk (that he had been in denial about – by the way!).

For this week, try to pay attention to the messages you are giving yourself. You might even want to start a journal where you write down, verbatim, every message you hear. This is a place where most of us are either in active denial, or simply not paying enough attention to feel the consequences of this internal negativity. Remember, as you are coming out of denial here, it is important to be kind to yourself!

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