Qualities That Support A
By Keith Weinstein
Copyright, October 1, 2004
All rights reserved
article was inspired by the writings and work of Dr. Alan Morines. In the past few years, since publishing
his book, Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, Dr. Morines has been reviving the
little known Jewish practice of Mussar through public talks and an Internet
learning program that is reaching people across the United States and
throughout the world. In his book,
Alan depicts, through wonderful writing and in a deeply honest manner, his
experience of Mussar. Mussar is a
clear and powerful practice for working on your soul that was created by Rabbi
Israel Salanter in 19th century Lithuania and was largely lost
during the Holocaust. Alan
chronicles his encounter with it and the impact it is having on his life
beginning with a time when as a man of significant accomplishments and then
some failure he became lost and began searching for a path. It is Alan’s work that gave me the
focus through which to write this article. I wish to express my gratitude to him for making the jewel
of Mussar available to me as well as to the modern world at large. You can visit his website by typing in
Mussar to you Internet browser and clicking on “Mussar with Alan Morines.” If you find my article valuable, I
encourage you to read Alan’s book.
Table of Contents
II. Trust; exercises for cultivating trust
III. Gratitude; exercises for developing gratitude
IV. Humility; Character Quality Chart, patience, exercises for cultivating humility
V. Vigor; exercises for cultivating vigor
VI. Diligence; exercises for cultivating vigor
VII. Inner Resource and Playfulness; Individuation and Inferiority; Silence and Quietude, Nourishing the Soul, Resiliency and the Pace of Modern Life, Exercises for Cultivating Inner Resource
VIII. Exercising Healthy Boundaries; Firmness, Mutual Sovereignty, Honor, Shame, Exercises for Cultivating Healthy Boundaries
IX. Loving kindness; Generosity, Excessive Self-Sacrifice and Subordination; The Dark Side of Lovingkindness, Forgiveness
X. The Wholesome Heart; Authenticity, Integrity, Approaching Conflict With A Wholesome Heart,
XI. Equanimity; Exercises for Cultivating Equanimity
Character Qualities That Support A Solid Relationship
How many people do you know that have a solid and loving marriage? How many others don’t quite seem to be able to put it together? What are the building blocks of successful relationships? Often marital therapists and self-help books on marriage focus upon the importance of open communication, developing common interests and learning to compromise. But there is rarely a full discussion of the role that each person’s character plays in the success or failure of a relationship. In this article I will discuss in practical terms how a person can cultivate their character to support their relationship.
For better and worse, the person that you are is what you bring to a relationship. Of the many aspects of a person, it is the character that over time has the most powerful impact on a relationship. It is perhaps passé, to talk about character in most circles nowadays, probably because the term is associated with the enforcement of social norms and moral judgments of a more conservative era. This is unfortunate because being able to realistically evaluate one’s own character and identify areas that are in need of improvement is a fundamental asset in life. If you aren’t looking in the mirror, you’re destined to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. And this is particularly true in the arena of relationship.
There is a particular reason why discussion of character does not generally take place in therapy. Character enters into the realm of values and ethics. An important principal of psychotherapy is that the therapist does not impose his or her values and morals upon clients. This is part of a more general principle called therapeutic neutrality. The therapist conveys an attitude of neutrality and acceptance as the client discusses deeply personal issues. This is because to be successful at a deep level, therapy must create a safe space where the client does not feel judged nor too easily approved of.
Therapists are sometimes averse to directly addressing issues of character. We do think in terms of positive character qualities such as truthfulness, healthy boundaries, and trust. But we usually don’t see it as our role to provide clients a map by which they can systematically evaluate and improve their own character traits. For one thing it isn’t a formal part of our training. Still I have found such a discussion to be helpful and important for many people, particularly those who are concerned with relationship issues.
In a general sense, we all know what it means to have good or bad character. We are not just born with character nor is it written in permanent ink during our upbringing though both these factors play a significant role. Character is malleable and amenable to change as long as a person is willing to change. It requires a sustained effort, some objective observation and an approach that goes beyond reason to include action, emotion and belief. I’ll explain more about this in the suggestions for cultivating character qualities. Let’s just say for now that despite the truisms, “a leopard doesn’t shed its spots,” and “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” change of character is possible. In particular, when you reach an impasse in your relationship, don’t blame the other person. Instead, ask yourself how is my character contributing to the problem?
In order to change something you have to be able to label its parts and figure out how they function. Fortunately, most people have a basic working vocabulary for talking about character, albeit one that may need some dusting off. In this discussion, we will look at ten character qualities that support relationship: Trust, Gratitude, Humility, Vigor, Diligence, Inner Resource, Healthy Boundaries, Lovingkindness, Open-Heartedness, and Equanimity.[i]
Trust is having an overall sense that things will work out. Of course, logically we know that at any moment it is possible for bad things to happen. But it is crippling to live in perpetual anxiety about such things. Having a base level of confidence in one’s existence is at the very foundation of character. A person who needs constant re-assurance will eventually suck their partner dry.
Trust first develops in the parent-child relationship through what is called “good enough mothering.” Parenting is never perfect and doesn’t need to be. The famous psychiatrist D.W. Winnicott, said that if a parent responds accurately and in a timely fashion to the cries of their infant 40% of the time,[ii] then it will be good enough for the child to form a healthy attachment[iii] and develop trust. Trust is gradually internalized so an older child knows they are OK even when their parent is temporarily unavailable.
The single adult with a healthy attachment will share feelings and become vulnerable when they are ready to meet someone and the right person comes along. If there is chemistry and things progress, then the beginning of a new attachment may form. At this point, the same feelings of safety and anxiety that occurred in infancy reoccur. To the extent that a person’s internalized sense of trust is solid, they will be able to ride the waves of anticipation, worry, happiness and exultation.
However, the person who has a hard time trusting will not tolerate this. They will experience the waves as a loss of control and go into defensive maneuvers. Some will feel compelled to distance themselves emotionally, by keeping things casual, seeing other people, becoming partially unavailable or breaking off the relationship entirely. Others will need to externalize the waves by creating a lot of push and pull drama in the relationship such as harrowing arguments followed by blissful make-up love. Still others will feel compelled to try and cement things too soon before disagreements have been aired. This is usually because one or both people cannot tolerate the possibility of abandonment. The result is a kind of pre-mature, false trust that constrains the couple from being real with themselves and one another. This situation becomes stifling until one person becomes secure enough in themselves to risk upsetting the apple cart.
As relationships progress, trust issues become apparent in the person who is ambivalent about making a commitment, though there can be other factors involved in this as well. Or perhaps a person makes a commitment but continues to find fault in their spouse and fantasize about others or other situations such as more wealth. This too can be an issue of trust because attaching in love to one particular man or woman involves partly surrendering one’s independence. When people actually do this they paradoxically feel a lot more freedom because they give themselves permission to be emotionally honest in their relationship without having to hold back.
All of the above patterns usually are evident early on in a relationship but can easily continue for years with neither person being able to recognize it or being willing to talk about it.
You may have noticed that in this discussion of trust, many other character qualities have been mentioned. Like a living tree, all of the parts of one’s character nurture and influence the other parts. But trust, in particular, forms the root for all the other qualities.
Exercises for Cultivating Trust
· Close your eyes and visualize a comforting scene from childhood when you felt held in a parent’s loving embrace. Remember your childhood home and bedroom. Recall a special place in nature you liked to go to be alone.
· Use your imagination to create an ideal scene. For example, imagine you are sitting nestled against the trunk of a beautiful oak tree. Feel the tree lending you its solidness and strength
· What kind of music do you listen to? Is it calming, affirming and uplifting? Does it portray a world that you feel safe in? Or is it merely compelling and exciting? Make a point of sometimes choosing music that nourishes your sense that the world is a good place. Classical music that is spiritual, gospel music, pop music that affirms human relationships, and new age music might be places to look.
· What kind of natural settings nourish you? For some it is water: lakes, rivers, oceans or gurgling streams. For others it is mountains and forests. Most people feel an enhanced sense of well being from spending time in nature. This helps build up a reserve of trust.
· Stand comfortably with your knees slightly bent. Imagine that your tailbone is lengthening to become a real tail that helps you balance against the ground. Now begin sidling back, forth and forward slowly, paying attention to the sensations in your legs, pelvis and hips. Feel how the ground supports you solidly wherever you go. Imagine what it would be like to move and think like an animal.
· Keep a nightly log focusing on how you practiced trust that day. Simply reflect and note examples where you became anxious and worried or where you remained confident and trusting that things would work out okay.
· At the beginning of each day or when you are about to leave the house for the first time that day, say an affirmation about how you want to practice trust. This could be, “I’m going to let it flow,” or “I trust that things will work out today,” or for those who are comfortable with the Divine, “Wherever I go, God is with me.”
· Ask the people you love to share a hug with you. T o the extent that it is appropriate to the relationship let yourself lean into the hug and actually have the sensation of supporting one anothers weight. Do you tend to hold back your body and share an “A-Frame” hug?
· Allow yourself to get in the mood to be silly and laugh.
· Sing with others, whether in a secular or religious setting.
· Go to a sporting event with friends and let yourself get carried away rooting for the home team.
· Serious or long-standing issues of anxiety, trust and attachment require psychotherapy treatment to be resolved.
Gratitude, alongside trust, can be labeled as “receptive” character qualities that form the foundation of the self. They are receptive as opposed to active because they do not involve doing anything, they involve just being able to receive. Though not as fundamental as trust, a person’s sense of gratitude in life will have a great impact on their life. When it is absent, a person often walks around with a sense of entitlement expecting the world to give to him or her. If people give to them, they do not know how to say thank you and mean it. This may be due to narcissism, a negative trait we will discuss when we approach the quality of humility. But it may also be because they simply aren’t able to identify the feeling of gratitude within themselves. It hasn’t been sufficiently modeled for them or it was modeled by one parent but ridiculed by the other parent or by the peer group.
To experience gratefulness is to feel a welling up inside oneself of appreciation to be living this moment of life. It can be a private emotion felt at the end of a day of satisfying work or it can be shared as when grandparents, parents and children come together in words of love and joy at a family reunion. Gratitude is itself a feeling state that is primarily composed of joy but it can also contain threads of sadness as when one is reunited with a long lost friend and breaks down in tears. In some cases there can even be a slight hush of shame as when one is overwhelmed by sudden good fortune and asks, “Do I deserve this?”
The capacity for gratitude is a character quality closely linked to trust and humility. It grows out of some deeply held, unconscious beliefs about whether one deserves to receive from the bounty of life. And when one does, is it okay to open fully and receive from the depths of one’s being. The expression of gratitude can take different forms: simple, heart-felt words of appreciation, spontaneous words of blessing or more formal words of prayer liturgy. It can be directed to a person, a group or to God. It is a moment when the soul is revealed directly.
Because gratitude is so revealing of the self, it can expose one to hurt depending upon how other people respond. Precisely because expressions of gratitude bare the soul, others who are uncomfortable with their own vulnerability will feel compelled to do whatever they can to distance themselves. This includes disrupting the moment, through humor, sarcasm, changing the topic, refuting what the person is saying or even insulting the person for being so shameless. People who have a high degree of gratitude are well aware of this phenomena and over time take responsibility to gauge their level of disclosure to their audience.
In a marriage or committed relationship, the capacity to experience and express gratitude is a great source of joy and bonding. Feeling fortunate or blessed in having built a loving bond with one’s partner is one of the most direct means of opening the heart. To hear one of my clients describe it, “I lay beside my wife in the morning while she slept and my daughter was in the other room and I felt an indescribable happiness.”
The self has a tendency to wall off the heart by becoming bored, ungrateful and hungry for something more. Because of this, it is all too easy to begin to take one’s partner for granted and no longer see in them a precious opportunity to love and grow together. This can cause a person to stray. At such moments, and against one’s better judgment, one can easily slip into dangerous patterns such as habitually seeking entertainment and nourishment outside of the relationship. If this is done at the expense of sharing nourishment within the relationship, the couple’s life together will grow empty and strained. Even if one never crosses the line of infidelity, such a pattern can cause serious harm. It is important to guard against the tendency to stray by exercising the restraint of healthy boundaries and inner resource, character qualities that we will discuss below. But remembering to feel grateful for the gift of your partner’s presence in your life prevents you from straying at the start. If you feel grateful that you are attached you don’t wander.
One way that people sometimes have to learn about gratitude is by almost losing their relationship. When on the brink of losing a marriage, a person often awakens to how deeply attached they are. The waves of fear, loss and sadness that hit you can perform a slow rite of purification that strips the wall of your heart. If you are lucky enough to repair the bond, then you will have opened yourself to gratitude in a painful but thorough way. If you are not so lucky but you do your grief work, then the next time you find love, you will be more acquainted with the importance of gratitude.
Buddhist teachings tell of the realm of the Hungry Ghosts wherein live mythical beings with tremendous bodies and pin-hole sized mouths. People whose lives are constantly driven by desire for more things and experiences will go to this realm in the after-life. No matter how much this kind of person acquires, they always yearn for more. Satiety, the sense that we have had enough (before we get a stomach ache), comes through gratitude.
Exercises for Developing Gratitude
· The next time you sit down to a meal at home, hold hands with those at the table if there are any and close your eyes. Take a moment to visualize all the steps that it took for this food to come to your table: the farmer planting the seeds, the sun warming the ground, the wheat stalk growing tall, the farmer harvesting on his combine, the truck driver delivering the wheat, the flour being ground, the baker making bread, your partner or you yourself going shopping and preparing the meal. As you go through the “picture book” make a point of silently saying thank you to each of the people and plants and animals along the way.
· When you begin eating, take time to appreciate the appearance, the aroma, the texture and the taste of the food. Chew slowly, take your time. Savor and enjoy each bite.
· When you come home in the evening, pause a moment when you park and close your car door. Imagine for a moment that you do not have a home or a car, that in fact you will have to make the best of it tonight, bedding down as best you can. Literally look around for a moment and identify where in the nearby vicinity would be the best spot to offer you some safety and shelter for the night. Imagine yourself spending the night there. Now, pinch yourself and see how you feel about knowing you’ll have a roof over your head tonight.
· If you live with family, pause a moment before you walk into your home in the evening. Remember how this person(s) first came into your life, whether by being introduced by friends or being present at their birth. Think for a moment about how a significant portion of your life happened because of this person.
· When you go to sleep at night, think of three things that happened today for which you are grateful.
· In the morning when you awaken, sit quietly for five minutes with your eyes closed. Focus your awareness on the sensations in the center of your chest. Follow the sensations as your breath moves up and down. Imagine that within the region of your heart is a battery that can receive energy from the world. With each breath, your heart opens a little more and fills with energy until it is brimming over.
I have come to appreciate the definition of humility as “filling one’s shoes appropriately.” This means neither taking up too much space with an inflated sense of self-importance nor taking up too little space through self-debasement. When a person knows his own worth, he does not need to assert it but neither does he allow it to be taken away. When a humiliating or embarrassing situation occurs, the soul fluidly responds with dignity, assertiveness, humor, candor or silence and remains connected to the proper amount of pride and self-esteem that is humility.
Life has its fair share of humbling situations. Graceful is the person who can avoid the knee jerk reaction to assert one’s self worth through anger, a vendetta driven urge to “show them” or “prove something,” or adopting an air of superiority. Such strategies will over time develop into a character that takes to heart the saying, “The best defense is a good offense.” This kind of character style constantly needs validation from other people. They are usually uncomfortable with quiet. And they often have a hard time with patience. But most centrally, they need to construe reality such that it is always reflecting back to them a sense of importance. A contemporary Buddhist teacher recommends, “Let go of trying to be right and let go of trying to be the star of your own movie.”
Many spiritual and philosophical systems describe moderation or finding the middle way as the key to wisdom. If you examine the chart “Character Qualities that Reveal or Obscure the Soul,” you will see that each ideal character quality is surrounded above and below by descriptions of traits that either over-develop or under-develop the ideal quality.
Character qualities are always about moderation. Humility is the proper balance of self-esteem vis-à-vis respect for others. It is possible to miss the mark of humility above or below. At the upper end, people miss the mark through grandiosity and inflation. At the lower end, a person misses the mark by having low self-esteem. Paradoxically, both of these character problems can be seen as rooted in internalized shame.
Internalized shame[iv] is a hidden but pervasive feeling of defectiveness, unlovability and worthlessness. It operates analogous to scar tissue that has not healed properly; it impairs flexibility and responsiveness while being an on-going source of pain causing a person to compensate for it by modifying their behavior. By way of example, this dynamic can be seen operating in the man who refuses to feel sadness because it would be shameful to “break down.” Instead he uses defense mechanisms like denial, becoming emotionally distant, asserting power, using sarcasm, projecting feelings onto others, or transferring blame, as a means of not feeling his sadness. The sadness is said to be “shame-bound,” the shame automatically prevents the man from experiencing his sadness directly.
A similar dynamic is portrayed by the example of a woman who has difficulty asserting power. When she wants to assert herself by making a request or saying no to someone else, she experiences a painful self-consciousness about being “pushy.” So, instead she limits herself to minimal attempts to assert what she wants and feels dissatisfied, resentful or discouraged. Her natural expression of assertiveness is interrupted by an internally generated emotion of shame, a feeling state that can be further compounded by a negative cognition about herself (like “I’m weak”), causing a second layer of shame. The woman may defend against these feelings of shame by using the same mechanisms mentioned above or perhaps by adopting an air of moral superiority wherein she wins by losing, so to speak (“I’m a better person because I put decency before getting what I want”).
Whenever shame occurs, life is knocking at the door of your “cracked identity.”[v] This is your deepest fear about your inadequacy and defectiveness that came through your early experience of being mothered and fathered. Current experiences that brush up against your cracked identity are painful and can produce extreme feelings of sadness or fear that echo down to the deep recesses of the psyche. These feelings are often related to fear of abandonment or engulfment stemming from childhood. Fear of abandonment arises when a parent has a pattern of going away or being emotionally distant and unavailable. Fear of engulfment arises when a parent does not properly gage their level of effusiveness and engagement to fit the child’s temperament.
One common parent-child situation that can cause both engulfment and abandonment fears can arise for the child when their parent experiences them as an extension of themselves. The parent is subtly or overtly invested in having the child match a certain image of how to be. Whenever the child asserts their identity in a manner that does not match this image, they receive messages of disapproval or disparagement.
To speak generally but often accurately, internalized shame is fundamentally a doubt about one’s right to exist: do I have permission to be myself and still receive love and support?
When a person reacts to internalized shame through grandiosity, the shame of their cracked identity is traversed so rapidly that it is never felt. The person leaps over any situation that reflects negatively upon them, with a burst of self-assertion, transfer of blame from the self onto another, or by adopting an attitude of silent superiority. The result is that opportunities to feel one’s deeper feelings and grow are constantly missed.
When a person walks around in the world with an inflated sense of self-importance, they take up a lot of space and often over step the boundaries of other people without being aware of it. In moderation, confidence, pride and a ready ability to assert one’s needs is an asset. It is part of what makes for effectiveness, charisma and leadership. But it can be over-balanced. The primary problem with this character style is that the ego thinks the world revolves around them. This is narcissism. Such a stance undermines a person’s ability to cooperate and get along with others. Over time other people find it abrasive, draining or humiliating to be around the person and may choose to distance themselves emotionally or physically.
The truth is that our society models and rewards character that is over-balanced for pride and self-importance. The media surrounds us with images from the entertainment industry, business and politics that portray pinnacles of external beauty and strength. And we are often moved to admire these images and model ourselves after them. Unfortunately, these images much less frequently convey the value of an interior life, humility and the need to balance one’s needs with those of others. The result is that we are handed a distorted compass and ruler by which to orient and measure ourselves.
It is of course no better to under-shoot the mark of humility. Failing to consolidate a sense of self-esteem leaves you defenseless, dependent and unable to take control of your life. Responding to humiliation by buying it hook, line and sinker serves no one. Beating yourself up or going into a funk of self-doubt is not filling your shoes appropriately. In the “pity-pot”[vi] or in a fog of shame, you have nothing to offer yourself or anyone else. Here a person is constantly falling into the crack of internalized shame and is unable to stand up with a proper amount of self-esteem.
Growing up with a parent who lacks humility can predispose a person to have internalized shame. A young person needs their experience to be empathized with and valued by a loving parent. When this doesn’t happen because the parent is too caught up in themselves whether through grandiosity or low self-esteem, the child internalize a sense of unworthiness or un-lovability. As the child matures and begins to gain self-esteem despite their parent’s narcissism, they may abhor their own healthy inclination towards pride and never allow themselves to get “too big.” This too is not filling one’s shoes appropriately. When the character quality of humility/self-esteem is under-developed the person lacks luster and the ability to project themselves into the world. (the persona)[vii]. Then the soul’s light is obscured and it is difficult for others or the person themselves to see who they really are.
I consider the quality of patience to be a part of humility. People who become impatient easily may legitimately have brains that operate faster than others. Or they may have a stylistic preference for action oriented thinking that doesn’t “get bogged down in details” or “processing emotions.” Or they may just tend to run anxious and have a hard time lending others the time they need to do things in their own way. But over time a person has a social responsibility to come to grips with the fact of their frequent impatience and the effects it has on others. It’s no fun to be around someone who put pressure on you to hurry up by becoming tense and irritable or by making demands or mocking your slower, more thorough or thoughtful style. Impatience will push people away.
People who get impatient experience an unpleasant build up of internal pressure. For some this may occur quite rapidly. Typically they have a confident sense of how things should go or should be done, only the other person is not following their game plan. And so they tell them directly or indirectly. If this is done in a manner that is even subtly judgmental of the other person then it will cause problems for the relationship. An impatient person needs to closely examine if they feel they feel entitled to have the other person accommodate them. If so, then there is an assumption of superiority at least in that moment. Relationships suffer under this kind of assumption.
It is legitimate to ask other people to accommodate you so long as you don’t assume they should. And people who are on the receiving end have to look at whether they feel overly defensive or even self-righteous about being able to take their sweet time. There is no absolute right or wrong here. Loving and respectful relationships require that you give the subjective experience of the other person equal status with your own. Neither more nor less important. This is the beauty of humility in relationship.
There are two more important things to be said about humility. First, it is the gatekeeper of honest self-reflection. More than any other quality, humility determines whether a person will be able to look at him or herself in the mirror and consciously change. As long as you need the world to reflect positively upon you, it’s not possible to grow in the areas where you need it the most. Thinking about your negative qualities is not easy. No one particularly likes to hear about how they fall short and need improvement. But being open to learning from this kind of feedback from others is essential for character development.
Last but not least, humility sets the table for grace to occur. Grace is when the universe moves serendipitously through no effort of your own and things change for the better. Suddenly after a long dry spell you meet the right person, your business takes off, a loved one miraculously recovers from an illness. It is an important spiritual principle to recognize that you cannot achieve your goals nor fulfill your desires by willpower alone. In life we all depend upon a certain degree of luck, synchronicity, and the good will of others. If you think the world revolves around you and that things happen because you make them happen, you will not recognize moments of grace when they appear and may even alienate others who would otherwise be inclined to help you. Conversely, if you think you are not worthy of acknowledgment, help and good fortune, you may push grace away when it comes knocking at your door.
It boils down to this: at both ends of the spectrum of humility, grandiosity or self-debasement, you miss the mark. Then, in either case, your cup is too full of your own ideas about what will happen in your life and there is no room left over for grace. To the extent that you find the middle ground and cultivate humility you make room for grace to occur. And since the miracle of love is so interwoven with grace, your humility is required for you to be seated at the table of a loving relationship.
Exercises to Cultivate Humility
· Write down the names of five to ten of your closest friends and work associates. Then place them in numerical order in relation to the qualities you consider most important in a human being such as “success”, “overall integrity” and “family values” so that you have at least three differently ordered lists. Now rank yourself on the lists. Are you able to tolerate viewing people in your life as more cultivated or less cultivated in certain areas than yourself? Is it uncomfortable? What does this tell you about whether you are over-shooting or under-shooting the mark of humility?
· Vow to spend a day practicing patience. Begin the day by affirming that you will notice it when you become impatient and choose to respond differently. In the moment when the impatience starts to build say to yourself, “Just today I’m going to value the other person(s)’ time more than my own.” Decide beforehand on how long you can realistically practice such self-restraint. For some it might be one to five minutes in any given situation. When the allotted time has past, assert yourself as gracefully as you can to move the interaction along as you normally would. Review your practice of patience at the end of the day in a journal entry. Describe factually how you handled a few situations that came up. How difficult was it to keep to the allotted time? How excruciating was it? Were you able to assert yourself gracefully without exasperation after you had waited the allotted amount of time? What did you learn about yourself? Is this a practice worth repeating?
· Some people may come to learn that they are too patient. The criteria I would suggest here is whether the person is frequently thwarted or conflicted in asserting their own agenda with others. If you think you may fit this description then vow to spend a day practicing being assertive. At the beginning of the day affirm that you are going to practice putting your needs ahead of others (without getting yourself fired or causing harm). Then when you notice yourself in a situation where you are listening to another or assisting them to get what they want ask yourself if there is anything you would rather be doing. If the answer is yes, then give yourself permission to change the subject and assert what you want to talk about or do. If this is not workable with a particular person, then think of something you’d rather do away from that person and excuse yourself politely to do it. At the end of the day make a journal entry that describes how you fared in asserting yourself instead of being patient. Pay particular attention to how it felt to do this or even to just think about doing it. If it caused a lot of anxiety or paralysis then you have some work to do in learning to fill your shoes more completely.
· Make a list of five or ten of what you consider to be your major accomplishments. How much do you consider to have made these things happen on your own? How much do you recognize that many factors beyond your control made these accomplishments happen? How much awareness and value do you place on the good will of others and Providence that brought you to where you are today?
· How good are you at receiving compliments? What happens inside when you are acknowledged: do you cringe slightly, change the topic, or immediately give a compliment back? Make a vow to practice receiving compliments fully for one week (compliments don’t come every day). Whenever you are appreciated or noticed positively in any way, even non-verbally, make a point to pause in mid-stream and take three breaths. Let the acknowledgment in all the way before you say or do anything in response. Let yourself smile if you feel so inclined. Is this awkward for you. Are you inclined to not believe it or discount its importance as in: “I was just doing my job.” Or do you just skate over the compliment as if its not relevant, “My excellence is a given, I already know about it.” All these are forms of internalized shame with varying degrees of subtlety. Note how your experiment with accepting compliments goes by making journal entries.
· How good are you at receiving criticism? When someone criticizes your attitude or behavior do you pause to listen or immediately refute it? How hard is it for you to consider that there may be a grain of truth in their complaint? Ask your closest ones how they feel you fare with criticism. Do they typically voice their complaints to you or more often refrain from doing so as to avoid conflict? Write down some of the complaints that you receive from others. Look to see if there are any themes. Would you be willing to work on any of these? This is a painful but powerful way to cultivate humility.
· Are you too ready to swallow criticisms hook, line and sinker? How good are you at standing up for yourself when you don’t agree with criticism or feel you are being ill used or taken for granted? If this applies, practice being assertive in putting forward your agenda with others and in telling them how you want to be treated. This is a hard habit to change so start with small steps.
“Strong mind, strong body.” (Ancient Greek Proverb)
“The body is the temple of the soul.” (Unknown)
I have a lion within me (poem)
Trust and Gratitude can be grouped together as “receptive” character qualities. They are more about being than doing. Humility sits on the cusp of receptive and active by balancing the doing of “asserting oneself” with the gracefulness of just “being oneself.” Vigor on the other hand is “active,” it is about having the energy, vitality and will to do.
Sometimes this dichotomy of passive and active or being and doing is referred to as feminine and masculine. In Chinese philosophy it is described as the interplay of Yin (feminine, cool, spacious, the fertile ground) and Yang (masculine, hot, concentrated, the potent seed). In Jewish mysticism or Kaballa, it is referred to as Shekina (the feminine presence of God dwelling within the world) and Yesod (the masculine force of God acting upon the world). In pragmatic human terms the character quality of vigor is about having energy, drive and will.
We are all genetically endowed with varying degrees of physical vitality. And during our formative years, we develop habits that help or hinder our ability to draw up that energy when we need or want it. But as adults it is important to make choices that support and enhance the health and aliveness of the body we have been given. Loving, appreciating, respecting, nourishing and relishing in the joys and strengths of the body is the way to do this. Cultivating vigor is about affirming the aliveness of the body in all its capacities.
Vigor is apparent in our capacity to become aroused to pleasure or aggression. It is a major factor in our ability to be passionate, to throw ourselves fully into our work or our chosen forms of personal expression be they art, politics or sports. Conversely, vigor is apparent in our ability to let go, to let the rhythm of the body take over as it can in music, dancing and sex. Allowing ourselves to be overtaken by a wave of emotion, through the mediums of movement, sound, visual attraction, or touch can clear the cobwebs, release our stress, and get us out of our heads. This can even be a gateway to the experience of ecstatic states of union with the world or our mate.
Appreciating and embracing vigor when it rises is very important in a relationship. This may seem so commonsensical that it doesn’t need to be said. But it is worth saying because to some degree all of us have received messages that our bodies are shameful. When we get excited, our bodies become a lot more visible, we flush and glow, our faces convey emotions, our voices rise or get throaty, we sweat, we undulate, we move, we get hard, we get wet. All these things are wonderful; but in the wrong place at the wrong time they can be embarrassing. So we all have learned to modulate excitement and put on the breaks. For many people, however, the breaks don’t come off much at all and this is a problem. It leads to a habitual repression of vigor, sensuality and physicality.
Repression of vigor of course leads to problems with sexual interest and responsiveness. But more broadly it can steal from a person the available energy to stand up to the pressures of life and take advantage of it’s opportunities. Such a person may be very nice but they will lack “umph” and may easily lapse into a “couch potato stance” or be a “negative nelly” who is never willing to go out on the town or have an adventure. This is a real downer in a relationship.
Each person’s bodily needs are different but cultivating vigor means attending to these needs. This means eating healthy food and drinking in moderation if you drink. It means not overdoing it with stimulants like caffeine, sugar or nicotine. It means not working such hard and long hours that you feel perpetually stressed and fatigued. And it means exercising and releasing stress in the way you do that best. To quote the sage words of my brother who qualifies as a vigorous and well-adjusted workaholic, “If I get a really killer work out once a week it’s like a reset button.” For a client who I’ll call Mitch, sharing a vigorous walk with his wife in the morning and then going for a longer hike on the weekend is just the ticket. For a couple I know, sharing a leisurely walk on some evenings after dinner is what they need to stay happy.
Whatever form it takes in your life, cultivating vigor enhances immune system functioning and staves off the aging process. These are important benefits in family life. My own personal prescription is to combine an aerobic workout three or four times a week for half an hour with an internal practice like Yoga, breath meditation or Tai Chi. Chinese medicine teaches that cardiovascular exercise strengthen the lungs and heart. But internal practices support all the body’s organs in replenishing the essential energy they need to function properly.
If humility allows one to be open enough to look at one’s character, vigor gives one the energy to pursue the inquiry. Because as the saying “Strong mind, strong body” asserts, mental clarity requires vigor and physical stamina.
Exercises for Cultivating Vigor
· Find a photo of yourself that captures a day when you did something physical that you really enjoyed. Buy a frame for it and put it on your dresser. Pause whenever you see the picture and remember what it felt like to be in your body on that day.
· Make a list of activities you have enjoyed that got you up and out of your routine. Add a few activities you’ve never done but would like to in your wildest dream. Keep your ears and eyes open for activities that aren’t “you” but are appealing all the same. Commit yourself to doing one activity from the list every two weeks.
· Get together with your partner (if you have one) and your friends and plan a party that involves expression: karaoke, dancing, drumming, making music and singing along.
· Get out your favorite albums (or CD’s) going back to younger years. Sing along, play “fake guitar”, and generally get raucous.
· Try one of the following activities at least once: participate in a martial arts class, a kickboxing class, or go to a rifle range.
· If you don’t already have a regular exercise routine, make room in your life to walk, uphill if you can manage it, ride a bike, swim, run or take an aerobics class for at least half an hour three or more times a week. Make it your intention to do this for one month and then ask yourself if it’s a habit that is beneficial enough to make a priority.
· Take a class in Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong or breath meditation. Consider learning a twenty minute stretch and deep breathing routine that you can do almost every day.
· Read a book on nutrition. Become educated about the dangers of trans-fatty acids, excess amounts of simple carbohydrates like pasta, bread and sweets as well as saturated fats like meat. Learn about the benefits of anti-oxidants like leafy greens and omega-3 fatty acids like deep-sea fish oil or flax seed oil. Learn about healthy food combining and prevention strategies for diabetes.
· Learn to cook three healthy vegetarian recipes from a book like The Moosewood Cookbook.[viii]
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now when? (Hillel)
The character quality of diligence means paying close attention to the details of life. It involves following through with chosen tasks and projects thoroughly and consistently. It means not getting distracted or inattentive. It requires a facility at prioritizing and managing time well. Diligence is an invaluable quality to have, as it is in large part what makes for effectiveness. When it is present a person’s life and relationship is in order and when it is absent things are perpetually in disarray.
Diligence requires the clarity of mind to scrutinize things from many angles yet not get bogged down. It involves neither being hasty nor reticent to act. It requires being a pragmatic problem solver, one who tries out solutions and corrects for error in a timely fashion. Most essentially, it involves getting the dirty work done. It can involve many a long slog for which there is little outward reward. It is not glamorous, though it is satisfying when results appear. It can be thankless, as only people who are diligent themselves will be able to imagine how much work went into getting the job done.
In family life, diligence means doing the dishes and laundry and putting off play until the house is clean. It means planning for celebrations of anniversaries, birthdays and holidays. It means being considerate of the needs of your partner and the family when making plans and commitments. It means patiently discussing details and thinking things through so that plans go smoothly. It means recognizing that sometimes, you have to make sacrifices. It means sometimes leading and sometimes following. It means making agreements and keeping them. It means saying what you mean and meaning what you say.
Diligence means holding up your end of the bargain. It means meeting the financial needs of your family and it means being careful to budget and not spend money frivolously. It means preparing for mishaps and emergencies: first aid kits, smoke alarms, health insurance, life insurance, a cushion of money if there is a tragedy and financial planning for retirement. These are daunting considerations that a couple approaches according to their means and values. But they are the details and material responsibilities of family life.
People who are under-developed in the area of diligence have a hard time getting things done. They may be careless, apathetic or perpetually disorganized. They may have never held themselves accountable and learned to stick to a task until it gets done. They may assiduously avoid unpleasant situations or responsibilities. The extreme picture is that of someone who repeatedly experiences failure and is excessively dependent upon others. This can involve harmful substance abuse or addiction, or compulsive involvement in sex-related activities or gambling. If there is also a lack of humility and truthfulness, then the person may engage in a lot of denial about their shortcomings and have a sense of entitlement that others ought to help them out.
The partner of a person who lacks diligence will have their patience tested again and again. They may feel used and over time drained and exhausted. It can be very frustrating. The partner may have to look at their own issues of co-dependency and low self-esteem; in the language of character they may be too humble and lack healthy boundaries. If and when they choose to change it will have immediate and uncomfortable effects upon the partner who lacks diligence because that person has come to depend upon the status quo.
The person who overshoots the mark of diligence often has a stiff or wooden persona (The persona is the outward “face” that a person conveys to the world). They may be too serious and goal oriented. They characteristically focus on details and lack fluidity and adaptability in responding to situations as they arise. They may be excessively orderly and spend an inordinate amount of time planning in order to avoid negative outcomes. Their expression may be overly controlled and their primary orientation to the world may be to find fault in order to resist change. They have a hard time going with the flow. They experience a sense of personal power primarily by applying the brakes. They have a hard time saying “Yes!” wholeheartedly, and may have a hard time being decisive. In the extreme, they may be miserly or exhibit obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
The partner of this kind of[ix] person may often feel that no matter how hard they try it isn’t good enough. They may feel alternately saddened and frustrated that their partner doesn’t ever seem to loosen up and let go. Over time this can evoke a response of despair and distance. The partner may come to feel that they are not acknowledged, validated and appreciated. This can lead to painful feelings of shame, resentment or rage. In order to effect change, the partner must feel the shame but not get overwhelmed by it. Then they can be effective in speaking the truth as they see it without blame or hostility. Because the person who is overly diligent may be quite obstinate in their viewpoint and style, the couple may well need professional help for things to improve.
Exercises for Cultivating Diligence
· Read and practice the principles of Stephen Covey’s, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
· What are your tools for organizing yourself? Do you use a calendar, daily planner, a journal, a palm pilot or some other mechanism? Without a system for keeping yourself on task, many things will slip by you and you will not complete things. Commit yourself to writing and reviewing your to do list on a daily basis (except weekends).
· It is helpful to think in terms of long- term goals, mid- term objectives, and short- term tasks. Begin with your goals and from there set forth your plans for how to get there one day at a time through daily tasks.
· Some people are very organized at work but lose their focus at home. Sometimes one partner has a hidden assumption that the other person will take care of the details of the home, children and family life. Such a system can work well if it is agreed upon explicitly. But the’ partner with the hidden assumption’ has to be responsive to requests from the ‘take care of the home partner’ and root out any hidden entitlement beliefs. Like: “I work hard so she should take care of it all at home.” Have an open discussion on this topic with your mate.
Inner Resource and Playfulness
This character quality refers to the habit of taking time for activities that nourish the soul and the soul of the family and community. In traditional tribal and religious communities some of these activities were clearly delineated by the ritual calendar, e.g., the weekly Sabbath as well as the major celebrations of Easter, Yom Kippur, Ramadan, or Buddha’s birthday. But, the outward form of ritual only points us in the right direction. For inner resource to happen, a person must cultivate a personal source of renewal and spiritual rejuvenation.
Many of the exercises for cultivating character are also methods for developing one’s inner resources. Each person by the time they reach adulthood has had experiences that were deeply fulfilling, inspiring and nourishing. It is important to identify these experiences and return to them again and again as a touchstone for one’s spiritual life. Spiritual can best be defined as that which helps us feel whole. It is by no means limited to religious gatherings or the reading of sacred texts though for some people these are practices that instill a sense of wholeness. The cultivation of inner resources can also cover the whole gamut of leisure activities.
Probably the healthiest and most direct way that people rejuvenate themselves is through play. For some sporting events, musical concerts, art galleries, fairs and festivals, or celebrations with friends and family are the best and most reliable sources of rejuvenation. Letting loose and having a good time renews the spirit. For others exercise and adventure are like life-blood. Having fun is an important part of opening the door to finding one’s inner resources because it allows you to draw on the energizing quality of vigor. But it is not all of it.
Individuation and Interiority
Individuation is a central concept in psychology.[x] It denotes a lifelong process that begins in the gradual psychological separation of the child from its parents and culminates in the on-going cultivation and integration of the self. In layman’s language individuation means: becoming your own man or woman. This lifelong process requires that you are taking time to listen to the quiet voice within. The seminal writer on adult development, Daniel Levinson, explains the perspective that Carl Jung brought to this topic:
Mid-life individuation [roughly age 40 and beyond] enables us to reduce the tyranny of both the demands society places on us and the demands of our own repressed (instinctual) unconscious. We can begin to give more attention to what Jung calls the “archetypal unconscious,” an inner source of self-definition and satisfaction. Archetypes are, so to speak, a treasury of seeds within the self. Most of them remain dormant in early adulthood. Through the process of individuation in middle adulthood, as a man [or woman] nourishes the archetypal figures and gives them a more valued place in his life, they will evolve and enrich his life in ways hardly dreamed of in youth. Individuation is not without painful transitions and recurrent setbacks, but it holds the possibility of continuing self-renewal and creative involvement in one’s own and others’ lives.[xi]
Interiority is the habit of listening within; it is a habit that some of us are predisposed to by temperament and it tends to develop more in the latter half of life. But it can also be learned through role modeling and practice. When you get to know someone who takes time to ponder their own thoughts and quietly honor their own feelings, it often has an impact because it invites you to honor yourself in the same way. Interiority is the capacity to focus one’s energies within and temporarily tune out other concerns. Over the years, this allows the gradual emergence of the voice of the self amidst the sounds of the world in all its variety: wisdom and ignorance, grace and harshness. Without the quality of interiority that inner resource brings it would be impossible to hear one’s own voice above the din.
If humility is the gatekeeper that allows one to engage in self-reflection, and vigor gives one the will and mental clarity to persevere in a difficult task, inner resource is the quality that makes sure to set aside a time and a place to do the work.
A friend of mine who is in his seventies and deeply involved with his Lutheran Church commented upon the helpful role that regular attendance and involvement in his church community has played in the cultivation of his interiority. He imagined that people of my generation (I’m in my forties) who are generally much less involved with the structure of a church or temple must find it more challenging to develop the habit of interiority. I had to agree. This is the challenge that C.G.Jung outlined so eloquently in his work Modern Man In Search of A Soul.[xii] Without a healthy respect and involvement with the Divine, the gods will come to haunt us as personal neurosis and social breakdown.
Silence and Quietude
“A rolling stone gathers no moss.” (Folk saying)
Being quiet and still with oneself is essential for the development of an interior life. This can be time spent walking, making or listening to music, doing arts and crafts, time spent with nature, or sitting by a fire. Meditation and prayer are other ways to dwell in silence. The activity cannot be so engaging that you do not have time to ponder, daydream or go blank. Time spent this way allows you to be with yourself without distraction. It allows you here what is going on in your head, the background chatter that you are too busy to hear when you are engaged in the world. This helps you calm and settle into yourself. Then you can gain a perspective on whether you are staying within your personal boundaries or are over-extending. This quality of safeguarding time for interiority is essential to all of the work of cultivating character discussed in this article. If your not taking time to listen you can’t possibly improve.
Some people have a hard time with quiet and down time and avoid it like the plague. This is usually because they have a back load of feelings that they are successfully avoiding by always keeping new sensory input streaming in. This is problematic for a relationship. There is a deep level of connection and bonding that can only occur when a couple can be comfortable with one another when nothing is happening. This starts gradually when people spend time together and reach moments when nothing needs to be said. In the initial stages of a relationship there may be a lot of excitement and talking. But at some point it is important to allow moments of silence so that both people know they don’t have to be “on.” As long as you feel you have to be “on” you are not free to truly relax or be authentic. Instead, you are always monitoring what you say and do. If you yourself are comfortable with silence and quiet afternoons you bring a real asset to your relationship. It allows your partner to feel the support of loving companionship without any requirement to be actively sharing or giving back at that moment.
Of course one can overshoot the mark in silence as well. It is difficult to build up the trust and mutual understanding necessary for a solid relationship when one or both people is not actively sharing thoughts and feelings. And this doesn’t just mean deep conversations; you have to discuss and coordinate the nuts and bolts details of daily life if you want to function well as a couple. And certainly for some people a busy social calendar, athletics, adventure or all of the above and then some is what makes them happy. As with all of these character qualities it is a question of moderation. A more extroverted person will not need as much silence and stillness nor will they want to change their ways radically to accommodate a more introverted partner. I am only advocating that some time spent quietly alone and as a couple is important.
The individuation process weaves through all the character qualities. Wherever a quality is being cultivated, individuation is occurring. However, the limiting and focusing aspect of cultivating inner resource gives particular support to this process. It is the difference between sampling water from the entire ocean and fully savoring and being nourished by the water from one own spring.
Nourishing the Soul
THE WIND, ONE BRILLIANT DAY
The wind, one brilliant day, called
To my soul with an odor of jasmine.
“In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.”
“I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.”
“Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.”
The wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:
“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted
Cultivating inner resource is about finding the still, quiet voice within. It is the practice of nourishing one’s soul. Each person has a responsibility to develops their own way to do this kind of work. As mentioned above this can take many forms. For some it is making sure to take walks in nature, reading good literature, or painting, for others it is about traveling or exploring a new place and meeting new people as often as they can. Journal writing, church or temple services, or meditation practice can support this process. For some dancing and singing may be most helpful. Some people might call it getting away from the grind and recapturing a sense of freedom, “an open space in my head where I get to feel like myself again.”
Whereas diligence relies heavily upon left-brain, logical, sequential thinking, cultivating inner resource relies upon right-brain, emotionally toned, big picture, outside the box, “fitting all the pieces together,” kind of thinking. It is what we want from our weekends; quality experiences that help us feel like ourselves again. Sometimes this is so we can go back out there and work hard all week. But sometimes, getting back in touch with ourselves will help us recognize that we need to re-order our life priorities. Therefore, it is not as simple as the saying, “Work hard, play hard.” Cultivating inner resource is about making a sacred space in one’s life where one can go to get away from the pressures of the world and remember the value of things that cannot be bought or watched on TV.
If a person has cultivated this quality, they bring a great wealth to a relationship. They already know how to nourish themselves so they don’t expect the other person to do it. In fact they will probably want to share the nourishing things they do and so are prepared to add structure and direction to the developing life of the couple.
Interests or hobbies are more than just activities, they are practices that help a person cultivate the mood and attitude that they have found to be fulfilling. It is important for a couple to find common interests so that they can dwell in the same feeling toned space together. This is central to the creation of a sense of home. Buying furniture and art, gardening, taking time to prepare and share good food are all important activities for a couple because it helps them get in synch with one another. This brings about feelings of mutual validation, appreciation and affection. A capacity for inner resource is directly related to the ability to generate a romantic mood.
Resiliency and the Pace of Modern Life
Inner resource also supports resiliency in the modern world. The pace of life is increasingly accelerated and this puts pressure on families. Where the husband went off to work and the women stayed home two generations ago, now women typically have to work at least part time. While women may be happier to be working, especially if their spouse is willing to pitch in around the house, one result is there is less adult attention available to tend to the home life. In addition, parents often want to supplement their child’s education with activities that the schools offer less and less, like sports, music, dance, and summer camp. The need to save for higher education, and the cost of housing and health care have all increased dramatically. All these pressures pull our attention outwards to earning money and transporting children and away from the inner life of the family and the individual.
One result of these new pressures is that parents by necessity have to be very effective at budgeting in order to balance the checkbook and get everything done. Meeting all the obligations can begin to feel like a juggling act and at a certain point this can erode the fabric of family life. Inner resourcing, like having healthy boundaries, which we will discuss later on, allows us to recognize when we are in danger of becoming over-extended. Safeguarding or re-gaining a sense of peace, well-being and harmony at the center of the family is best kept as a number one priority. Inner resource involves having a sixth sense that recognizes when family life is spread too thin and having practice at re-instating balance by getting off the tread mill.
This can mean working less overtime hours or signing the kids up for one less after school activity. Coaching your son or daughter’s soccer team might be more important even if it means less income that year. Or, on the other hand, choosing to forgo a sport’s season might be important so that the family’s own natural rhythm of doing things together on weekends, like making pancakes and going for a walk together, is not lost.
No less important is that a couple safeguard their relationship. To do this they must balance their desire to do everything they can for their children on the one hand with their needs as a couple and as individuals on the other hand. It does you and your children a disservice if you completely sacrifice your own needs. It is important for the couple to reserve time to go out on dates and have adventures that allow their love relationship to continue to thrive.
Exercises for Cultivating Inner Resource
· Make a vow to spend four hours or more in stillness and silence. Do this wherever you would feel most nourished: at home, in a forest, or by the water. Walking is okay, so long as you don’t have to interact with people much or pay attention to traffic. If you prefer being at home don’t turn on the TV or the radio. Peaceful music is okay as is reading poetry but avoid picking up the newspaper or a novel. The purpose is to get into your own rhythm and hear your own thoughts. If possible “arrive somewhere,” and just let your mind go blank as you gaze off into nature, savor the silence or listen deeply to a piece of music. At the end of the day make a journal entry as to how this experiment was for you. Was it nourishing? If it was difficult why? Was it because you felt restless or that you had to do the exercise the “ right way?” Were you able to arrive at your own rhythm? In being alone, did you experience loneliness, sadness, embarrassment, worry or fear?
· Make a point of observing how much you “air time” you take up in conversations with others. Is it 50/50 or do you tend to do more of the talking? If the latter applies try spending a day being receptive to your experience of being with others without filling the space with speech? Be interested and attentive to your feelings as well as their feelings but resist the compulsion to verbalize things right away. Does it make you feel anxious to be together in silence when you are not doing anything? Try and stretch your capacity to sink into this shared, interior space some of the time.
· Sit down and make a list of experiences you’ve had that were deeply nourishing. Moments when you felt your life all came together, when you felt incredibly peaceful, when you didn’t need to do anything and it all seemed to flow. Write a paragraph, if you can, describing each moment and how it helped you feel about yourself. Go back over the list and note any common themes as well as the distinct parts of yourself that are represented in these varied moments. Try to name these different parts of yourself and what different kinds of settings nourish them.
· Make a point of specifically describing to your partner what rejuvenates you. What kind of activities, what kind of setting, what kind of mood. Then make a point of periodically asking for these moments to happen.
· Have you ever spent a week or more in your life away from electricity? Not working, not surfing the net or reading the newspaper, no television, cars, shopping, none of the aspects of modern life? Do you remember sinking into the simple rhythm of the day, the sun and clouds moving across the horizon, eventually cooking some food when your hungry, the sun going down, the night sky appearing and you taking in all that grandeur and silence?
· Or perhaps you remember a time in adolescence or young adulthood when you would go off to a beautiful place in nature after school or work, every chance you could, and just do nothing but take in the elements? Do you have the capacity to dial in to that relaxed, non-goal oriented state of mind again? Do you remember how it felt to breathe that freely?
· Can you imagine sharing an outing like this with your partner? Or with your family? Is there resistance in your relationship from one or both of you to relaxing in to this non-goal oriented state of mind? Are you able to get excited about planning and enjoying such a day?
· Do you have friends who you can share with on this level? Could you put together a vision for a simple gathering in nature amongst your friends where everyone would just relax, talk share food and perhaps make music, and take in the sky and the fresh air?
· Is there a religious or spiritual community that could support you in rejuvenating yourself and helping you get in touch with your core values?
Exercising Healthy Boundaries
Exercising healthy boundaries is about valuing one’s self and not “giving away the gold,” by offering what is precious in your soul to others that can’t appreciate it. If you’ve ever shared an important insight or vulnerable feeling with someone and they didn’t value what you offered, you may have noticed a pang of disappointment or self-consciousness. You may also have felt irritated or annoyed, like you’ve been de-valued or ripped off. It is important to recognize over time that some people will not have the awareness or inclination to value certain parts of you. Healthy boundaries give you the impulse control to remember this when your spirit expands with something valuable and nourishing. If you tell the first person you meet, or your Uncle Joe who always talks about himself, you may quickly come to feel deflated. As the expression goes: “Fooled me once, shame on you, fooled me twice shame on me.” It is important to be selective in what you share about yourself, to whom and in what context.
Healthy boundaries are first and foremost about sovereignty – being the master of one’s own castle. It is about being able to say no to situations where one could easily lose one’s center, where one’s soul could become lost and confused. This “knowing” draws on the quality of inner resource that we spoke of before, whereby you know what is nourishing to you and when you are in danger of letting your connection to it get thin. Exercising healthy boundaries is being free to speak and act with power and authority without needing permission from some external authority. What is required is that a person learn to validate themselves and not require others to validate them. Self-validation makes it possible to speak and act in accordance with one’s inner voice and accept the consequences.
In life and in a relationship it is important to have conviction, to arrive at carefully considered and heartfelt beliefs and be able to honor them. Values, principles, preferences and identity gradually consolidate over the life span, particularly during the first three decades. By the time a person is 30, he or she knows what kind of food they like to eat, what kind of entertainment they enjoy and whom they find attractive. At this stage of life, Usually a person has a picture of what kind of family life they hope to create, what kind of career they aspire towards and a sense of orientation towards their community and society. Being able to hold onto this identity as one moves into an intimate relationship is a key factor in whether that relationship will be able to sustain meaning and satisfaction for both people.
It is important to be able to assert oneself clearly and firmly without being overly inhibited or embarrassed. Convictions and preferences that are not stated will fester and over time grow impossible to ignore. The shame and fear that goes: “If I tell him/her who I really am, they won’t love me anymore,” must be overcome or else the life-blood will be strangled out of the relationship. You need to have the room to be yourself in a relationship. Being able to express an important conviction when you sense or fear your partner may disapprove requires a person to draw on the qualities of trust and humility (filling one’s shoes appropriately).
The character quality of exercising healthy boundaries overlaps with that of walking with a wholesome heart (practicing truthfulness and vulnerability). The focus of healthy boundaries, however, is being able to hold onto one’s identity in the face of “partner pressure.” To take a lesson from the adolescent years, it is important to be able to “say no” to peer pressure when it goes against our values. Of course, the capacity to resist pressures to conform to group norms is enormous and continues beyond adolescence. Exercising healthy boundaries goes far beyond “just say no to drugs,” but this is a good example of it in action. (I’m talking here about resisting pressures to drink or smoke in order to fit in. I’m not making a blanket statement about substance use and abuse). As adults, we have had to make compromises by curtailing our individuality in some areas in order to fit into society. But it is essential that these compromises do not cut into the bone, the essential aspects of who we are.
In a relationship, it is important not to back away from asserting values and preferences that are essential to your identity. For example, a wife may feel that she does childcare and housecleaning on weekends by default and her husband does not seem to notice. If this goes against her value system, then she will begin to feel a rising resentment that is poisonous to her soul. This will be either expressed directly in a firm discussion of those values or it will go under the radar of couple communication and become a source of festering resentment that will put a chill on the couple’s ability to play together.
In a different example, the husband may feel compelled to make career choices that go against the grain of who he is as a person in order to earn more money. At a certain point, if he does not stand up for his core values, then a part of his soul will begin to die over a period of years in a work environment that is unsupportive or hostile to his basic nature. This can have disastrous effects upon a man’s capacity for compassion, vulnerability and vigor. If a man begins to recognize this and starts talking with his wife about it she may be less than supportive depending upon her own relationship with money and her own individuation process – the life long work of becoming your own person. At this point, the husband might abort the process of listening to his soul unless he is able to exercise healthy boundaries and be an advocate for that part of him that wants to change his life.
Firmness is a central aspect of having healthy boundaries. It is often necessary in life to take and hold positions that others do not like. When they turn up the heat through confrontation, castigation or threats it is important not to cave in. In relationships, the most powerful force that causes people to give in is the fear that the other will withdraw love and support or actually abandon you. To be firm is to be able to stake out a position yet remain in dialogue continuing to search together for solutions that can work for everyone.
Firmness in the family does not balk from peering over the edge of the cliff but neither is it interested in worrying about worst-case scenarios. Nor is it focused upon winning at the expense of others. Firmness is not proving who’s tougher or engaging in brinkmanship. It is about having the stamina and tenacity to keep bringing a conversation forward while letting the other person(s) know that business will not go on as usual in this area. It does not mean, except as an absolute last resort, handing down ultimatums or refraining from activities that do not actually violate one’s integrity. A family needs to keep on functioning while they are trying to work something out. Exercising healthy boundaries in relationship means remaining steadfast and firm about core values but not being inflexible. What is required is an attitude of respect for oneself equally balanced by the same attitude for one’s partner.
For a relationship to be healthy there must be room for mutual sovereignty; both people need room for their souls to live in alignment with their chosen values and sense of inner authority. This is true regardless of whether the couple define their power relations as egalitarian or patriarchal. Mutual means two-way. Mutual sovereignty denotes that my “kingship” and your “queenship” are equally important, my needs, wants and desires are neither more nor less important than yours. Put another way, both of us have within us a spark of the Divine, so it is important treat one another as a reflection of God.
Every person differs in the manner in which they express power. And there are often some stereotypical differences between husband and wife in this matter. Men are predisposed to act forthrightly according to principles and from an evaluation of what is best for the family. Women are more likely to consult with family members and close friends in order to consider decisions from a variety of perspectives. Men are oriented towards achieving outcomes and results. Women are interested in the process of change and how the changes will affect each person’s well being. Men build and maintain the infrastructure, women plan social occasions and fill the house with warmth.
Obviously these are gender stereotypes and will not ring true for many people. It is quite possible for the man and woman to fit reverse descriptions of the above or for both to share in some of both the “male mode” and the female mode” of making decisions and exercising power. And of course some couples are not heterosexual. I apologize if for some my generalizations are offensive, naïve or just muddy the waters. But, I include the stereotypes because I feel that in many instances they can be helpful in building respect and understanding.
A typical conflict in the area of mutual sovereignty arises when the husband becomes impatient when the wife wants to fully discuss the details of how a decision will affect everyone. If for example, the woman is very concerned and worried about choosing the best school for their child, attending parent teacher meetings and closely monitoring the child’s social adjustment, it is important that the husband validate the concern and show interest. He may not, however, be as motivated and concerned as the wife is and she needs to accept that. The couple that can accept their different areas of specialization and priority will function well.
When couples argue over how money is spent for instance, it is important that each person’s perspective is listened to and validated. When disagreements cannot be resolved in a timely fashion it may be necessary to compromise. But it is important that neither party engage in tactics that undermine dialogue such as acting unilaterally or stonewalling. Both people have to look at how they exercise power and authority in the service of the mutual good.
Power is the ability to set in motion change in the world e.g. refinancing a home. Authority is the ability to set forth moral principles and judgments of right and wrong that guide and influence dialogue and behavior. In a classic couple power struggle, the husband acts unilaterally to make decisions without adequately discussing it with his wife and eliciting her full agreement. The wife adopts an attitude of moral superiority and emotional distance making it hard for the husband to approach her with constructive dialogue. A cycle ensues where the husband repeatedly exercises power and the wife authority and neither feels acknowledged or appreciated. Anger, resentment and distance is the typical result. Certain things are just not talked about and a kind of cold war develops that may be benign or malignant but is never ideal. Mutual sovereignty and the respect and harmony it can bring, becomes a wistful dream; to varying degrees a kind of helpless, depressed cloud settles in over marital life for which no amount of outward achievement, status and wealth can compensate. The couple’s capacity to play together and rejuvenate themselves is seriously impaired.
Often when people speak about character they are actually referring primarily to the qualities of conviction, firmness, courage under fire, and resoluteness that have come to exemplify strength of character, “true grit” and having honor. In my view, these qualities fall within the domain of just one aspect of character, what I will call exercising healthy boundaries. Because of the powerful and at times distorting influence these ideas have on the discussion of character, I will take some time to discuss them here.
Honor, in particular has to do with loyalty to principles and identifications that come from our parents, the community and society at large. In our society when people speak of character, they are often referring to ideals of bravery, having conviction and acting with honor. These qualities are often held up as a measuring stick by which to gage a person’s capacity for leadership. They can be projected onto a living or deceased parent, leader, or President who carries a mantle of honor. This person, usually a man, serves as a bulwark against fear and shame. He is ‘steady at the helm,’ ‘straightforward and honest’ and possessed of ‘true grit’ so as to guide us through ‘dangerous times’ and uphold our ‘pride and dignity’ before all. Loyalty to such a person is imperative so we can ‘circle the wagons’ to ‘protect our women and children.’ Dissension is shameful, unpatriotic, cowardly and risks calamity. Unflinching courage and steadfastness to the chosen leader and cause will redeem us and help us to be found ‘worthy of grace’ as individuals and as a nation in the eyes of God.
I am purposefully utilizing the language in which honor is often couched so as to remind the reader of the powerful sentiments, whether positive or negative, that it can evoke. Such words can form the willingness in a person to “make the ultimate sacrifice” and “put their life on the line.” Or, for those who believe “the pen is mightier than the sword,” such ideals can spur a person to “fight the good fight with all their heart for what is true and right.”
When honor motivates a person it ignites (and sometimes inflames) the character qualities of vigor and healthy boundaries. These are essential parts of a person’s character and one can either under or overshoot the mark. When under-developed, a person may lack fire and conviction and be judged as “wimpy.” When over-developed, a person will have an identity that is actually shame-based and inflexible. Such a person will exercise avoidance, sarcasm, denial and projection of blame onto others frequently and often. This person will suffer impairment of other character qualities, including humility, vulnerability, truthfulness, compassion, wisdom and acceptance. These qualities can all be sacrificed at the altar of honor.
Paradoxically, when concerns over honor predominate in a person’s character the dynamics of “internalized shame” play a central role in shaping the person. As we discussed earlier, “internalized shame” refers to the knee jerk (automatic and rigid), avoidance and denial of situations, thoughts and feelings that could evoke shame combined with an unconscious assumption that no matter how much one does right, one is still unworthy and/or unlovable. Psychologically this dynamic is crippling to a person as they lack the ability to adapt and learn from life. Instead, they spend an inordinate amount of time and energy convincing and controlling themselves and everyone else to avoid the feeling of shame. This is ultimately destructive because what you avoid feeling will eventually dominate your life.
Shame is an extremely unpleasant emotion; it immediately interrupts joy, happiness and the outpouring of the self. In shame one’s face and body turn down and one pulls inwards. There can be a frozen or numb feeling or it can be hot and excruciating as in flushing with embarrassment or cringing when criticized. One can feels painfully scrutinized and judged unworthy by others and oneself. People generally cannot sustain connection with this emotion for very long. Instead they either withdraw from the situation or get angry and go on the offensive by refuting and attacking the person who provoked the shame.
In my work as a marriage counselor, this is the primary dynamic that sparks anger, arguments, emotional cutoffs (stonewalling) and chronic impasses. Both parties engage in a mutual dynamic of shaming and being shamed as they strive to receive validation at the others expense. Over time, there develops a powerful compulsion to prove that one is right whether through arguing, withholding, punishing, dismissive or hostile sarcasm, or adopting a stance of long-suffering, moral superiority.
The cure for internalized shame is to be able to identify and tolerate the emotion of shame when it occurs and then speak about it. It may be painful and difficult but feeling shame momentarily is healthy and essential to the process of adaptation and individuation. This makes it possible for both people to begin to exercise healthy boundaries in a relationship without destroying their bond.
In essence, exercising healthy boundaries in relationship involves the proper mixture of firmness and flexibility so that one can practice mutual sovereignty. It requires the ability to tolerate feelings of shame so that one can remain in dialogue, be receptive and be humble enough to be open to looking in the mirror. And it requires a balanced relationship with honor that allows one to maintain principles and extra-familial identifications without undermining one’s capacity for intimacy and the cultivation of the other character qualities. It is not a destination that you reach but a way of walking in the world.
When you walk hand in hand with your partner in this way it is a great support for your soul. Then the central relationship in your life becomes a source of love and respect. It also provides a wellspring of novelty and adaptability because you have a direct connection to not one but two living and breathing souls. This kind of deep, solid support for who you really are makes it possible to stand up and heal from the suffering that life dishes out. It becomes easy to walk across fire together (a marital rite I can recommend from personal experience).
In closing, when you arrive at a position that you come to realize is necessary for your integrity, your sense of wholeness as a person, then your relationship has to respond. In most instances, the working through of such realizations brings new vitality and awareness to the life of the couple as both people are supported in the process of growth and healing.
Exercises for Cultivating Healthy Boundaries
· Can you recall being at a social gathering and feeling affronted by something someone said or did. What value of yours was being transgressed? How did you respond?
· How have you responded when your needs are ignored at work or as a customer in a business setting?
· Are you able to tell your partner directly to stop doing things that you experience as hurtful? Do you hesitate to do this for fear it will cause a row?
· Make a list of on-going situations where your boundaries tend to get compromised. Describe specifically how you have responded in these situations. Track what you say and do.
· Once you have identified some specific situations, go back over them and ask yourself: Is this how I want to respond ideally? Give yourself permission to imagine saying and doing what you want without concern for how it will effect others. Now visualize yourself acting this way. What feelings come up? How much are embarrassment, self-consciousness (shame) and fear present?
· Decide upon a healthy strategy for setting boundaries in each of these situations that you can pull off. Commit to training yourself to respond in these ways. Keep a log of when your boundaries get pushed and how you responded. Be kind and patient with yourself, even just noticing that your boundaries are being compromised and writing about it in a log is a step in the right direction. Retraining yourself takes time.
We come now to the character quality that people typically associate with a love relationship. The easy flow of give and take, the gentle, and “we don’t need to go anyplace special” comfort a couple can have with one another, the loving attachment and desire to spend time together day after day. In reality, this idyllic description is not only about love, but rather, depends upon all the other character qualities to sustain it. Still it is true that lovingkindness is one of the most valuable qualities that one can cultivate to support a solid relationship.
Lovingkindness involves the spontaneous out-flowing of the self directed towards providing for the well-being of others. Lovingkindness as it applies to relationship is not about the good feeling you have when you first fall in love and believe that the person you’ve met can fulfill all of your needs. It rather, as M. Scott Peck defines it in his book, The Road Less Traveled, is the “will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own and another’s spiritual growth.”[xiv] This requires your willingness at times, to temporarily bracket your own needs in order to focus upon the spiritual nourishment of your partner.
The amalgam word “lovingkindness” is a translation into English of a concept that is deeply entrenched in Buddhist, Christian and Jewish tradition. In Hebrew the word is “Chesed,” in Greek “Agape” and I do not know the word in Buddhism. The idea applies more broadly than the love of one’s spouse or family to include acts and an overall orientation that nourishes and supports people in the community and world at large. This includes altruism, the act of giving with no thought for a reward, only the satisfaction of being able to serve others.
Lovingkindness requires sensitivity, compassion and empathy. Some people are innately attuned to the non-verbal signals and indirectly stated requests that convey how a person wants to receive love and attention. Others have to work to cultivate this sensitivity in marriage by becoming an astute listener and observer of their partner. By noticing patterns over time and following our intuition, it is possible to gather glimpses into the inner life of our partner that they might not be able to reveal to us directly. When does he get animated and excited? What helps her feel safer and more in tune with her own rhythms? What conversations does he typically abort by becoming abrupt and turning on the TV? What requests that go unattended provoke her to withdraw and start responding in one-word sentences?
Becoming a compassionate listener and observer of your partner’s words, moods and behaviors allows you to go back and “pick up the trail where it left off.” When things go wrong in a conversation and your partner pulls away, you may feel powerless to jump start communication. If however, you yourself are not angry, there is a practical tool you can use. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes (empathy) and guess at what your partner may be feeling. Though it is not your responsibility to be a mind reader, it is usually within reach to make an educated guess and bring it up in a supportive way. Though their first response may be irritation or resentment, a guess that shows compassion even if it isn’t fully accurate will usually re-open lines of communication.
Having a ready ability and willingness to give of yourself, your talents and resources is the essence of generosity and this is a central aspect of lovingkindness. Generosity is directly related to one’s sense of trust in abundance – a belief that there will be enough to go around. People who have a hard time with abundance may hoard what they have out of an unconscious fear that there will come a time when they won’t have enough. This is often rooted in childhood experiences of deprivation in the family or the society at large. Our earlier discussion of the character quality of trust is particularly relevant here.
Alongside trust, the character quality of gratitude provides the foundation for generosity of spirit. When a person walks in the world feeling grateful for what they have, they experience abundance. Whether they are rich or poor, they feel blessed and they have a desire to share what they have. When gratitude is absent on the other hand, a person is perpetually aware of what they don’t have. It is often difficult for such a person to share easily. Paradoxically, however, if despite themselves they do wind up giving to others, they often experience the very sense of abundance and open-heartedness that comes through the joy of giving.
Generosity applies to giving of oneself, one’s abilities and one’s resources. By “giving of the self,” I mean the willingness to be responsive and forthcoming when others are available and to be emotionally available to them even when they are not particularly open to you. Being kind and loving to a partner that has shut the door on you can be painful because it is so invalidating. But it can be very helpful in helping them come to a place of perspective so that they become willing to re-approach. However, if being this generous begins to erode your self-esteem (remember that humility/self-esteem is filling your shoe’s appropriately, neither too big or too small) or requires you to compromise your exercising of healthy boundaries (as when someone is demeaning to you and you begin to buy into it), then it is not healthy.
Some people have a ready ability to create abundance in their lives and yet still find it hard to share easily with those they love. Besides deficits in the qualities of trust and gratitude, this block can sometimes be related to an over-development of healthy boundaries. Such an individual may have excessively high standards and find it difficult to be generous when loved ones do not meet the mark.
Excessive Self Sacrifice and Subordination: The Dark Side of Lovingkindness
Is it possible to be too generous and loving? This question hinges upon whether a person is compromising their humility/self-esteem, inner resource or healthy boundaries. As you remember from our discussion of humility, it is important that a person “fill their shoes appropriately.” If a person gives “without a thought for themselves,” they may be avoiding their own voice. It is important to value your own feelings and listen to your needs when they arise. To not do this is to live a lie and construct a false self. Authenticity, which we will explore in our discussion of the next character quality, the wholesome heart, requires that a person pay attention and value their own experience. For some people, thinking and doing for others become an impediment on the road to wholeness. As always, it is a question of balance.
In the early stage of a relationship (which can last for years) there is usually a tendency to blur distinctions and ignore differences between the couple. The emphasis is instead upon how well the couple fit one another perfectly. This feeds into a euphoria that has both people seeing the world through “rose colored glasses.” This effect is to some extent bio-chemically driven by Phenylethelamine, a hormone released in the early stages of relationship that spikes the natural testosterone level in both men and women. This effect which bolsters sex drive and a sense of well-being tends to last from three to eighteen months. It is nature’s way of getting us close enough to procreate.
I call the overall effect of the initial stage of relationship the “urge to merge.” This phenomena overlaps with that of infatuation. As a relationship progresses however, it is impossible to maintain this level of euphoria. One or both people may try to prolong the “sense of springtime” in the relationship by denying any differences they may have and molding themselves to fit their partner’s image of an ideal mate. This leads to what psychologists call “emotional fusion” or “symbiotic functioning” wherein a person lacks sufficient individuation to handle the anxiety of asserting oneself in a relationship. Instead one or both people allow the delicious experience of merging to silence the healthy expression of individuality. Eventually, both people suffer from the stifling effects of this self-imposed impingement of the individuation process.
The psychologist Andrew Young has offered a cogent description of negative character traits in his work on schema. Schema are negative beliefs and unconscious assumptions that guide a person’s emotions and behavior. Two such schema are “Self Sacrifice” and “Subjugation.” Self Sacrifice is characterized by an excessive emphasis upon voluntarily meeting the needs of others at the expense of one’s own gratification. It overlaps with the concept of co-dependency. Here one derives a sense of self-worth by being needed and by doing for others. The person themselves may have difficulty realizing that their giving comes with strings attached. But upon close examination, often requiring psychotherapy, they will begin to admit they indeed have an expectation to be appreciated for their acts of self-sacrifice. Often such a person lacks the healthy amount of self-esteem that would allow them to experience appreciation from others more directly. Ultimately, inner self-worth derives from an acceptance and appreciation of who one is not from what one does for others. This is the being vs. doing dichotomy.
Subjugation, which is similar but distinct from Self Sacrifice, describes a negative character trait wherein a person surrenders power and authority to others so as to avoid confrontation or abandonment. One suppresses one’s feelings, especially anger, and one’s needs (including preferences, decisions and desires) because one feels that they are not valid and important to others. Whereas the schema of Self Sacrifice utilizes compulsive “do-gooding” to derive a sense of self-worth by being valuable to others, in Subjugation, one hides the authentic self so as not to risk rejection. This too can masquerade as lovingkindness as a person may appear to be the epitome of flexibility and considerateness always ready to react in an accepting manner to every behavior and request. In reality, however, this person is just withholding their real reactions because they fear retaliation. They do not trust that they can be who they are in a relationship.
Lovingkindness involves a free flowing desire to care for the well-being of others. But when the inclination to serve others interferes with one’s ability to assert one’s own feelings and needs then one’s humility, inner resource and boundaries are being compromised. Eventually, this kind of giving will strain a person’s inner resources. To maintain a loving nature it is important to pay attention and nourish one’s own experience. This means paying attention to one’s authentic experience including feelings of sadness, hurt, fear, anger and shame. These should not be labeled as “negative feelings” to be transcended. The quality of the wholesome heart involves going right through the muck when it appears in front of you. The quality of lovingkindness should not interfere with experiencing for oneself all feelings as well as having a voice with one’s loved ones.
No depiction of lovingkindness would be complete without a discussion of forgiveness. In a relationship, one’s feelings inevitably get hurt and one’s needs sometimes go unmet. This is the reality even in very solid relationships. It is just not possible for your partner to be perfectly sensitive, thoughtful and accommodating in all instances. In fact, as we discussed above, such partner behavior would inevitably involve some unhealthy patterns. Therefore the capacity to forgive is an essential quality in a relationship. And part of this capacity stems from lovingkindness.
Take for example the case of John being accused of being selfish and inconsiderate by Mary his wife. Mary is resentful about John not doing his part cleaning the house. When she comes home to a sink full of dirty dishes she blasts him with a blistering note. When the husband tries to explain that his friend needed him to listen to a crisis she was having with her adult son, and so he didn’t have time to do the dishes until he got home later, his wife cannot hear it. She walks away angry.
At this point, communication is in danger of breaking down. Both people must listen for the grain of truth in what the other person has said, even if they feel they are “right.” For Mary the challenge is whether she can give John the benefit of the doubt and let go of her resentment at him. It is one thing to do this objectively and quite another to do it subjectively. Forgiveness requires us to open our hearts again where they have become closed. This involves letting go of anger, shame and hurt in order to again feel appreciation and love. It is an organic process whereby certain feelings yield in order to allow other feelings to grow. True forgiveness cannot be coerced or faked. Nor should it be undertaken without a consideration of healthy boundaries.
From John’s perspective there can be the ire of the unjustly accused. “You have no right to attack me that way, you don’t even know what happened to me,” is a legitimate response. But if John goes further down this road uses this legitimate gripe as an axe with which to attack Mary then communication will suffer a further downward spiral. John may be feeling indignant (an absence of dignity) and be inclined to extract an equivalent amount of blood. To keep communication lines open, however, and bring healing quickly, he must be willing to forgive Mary her inflammatory reaction. He can do this by empathizing with Mary’s frustration around the dishes. Then he can remember that just as he is sincerely trying to train himself to be more diligent about chores, Mary has agreed not to use such a sharp tongue as is her habit. Changing habits takes time. Forgiving our partner means giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are overall doing the best they can to hold up their end of the relationship even when they disappoint us in a particular instance. Voicing discontent and criticism is healthy. But if we lose touch with the spirit of forgiveness then resentment and rancor will quickly cause the spirit of lovingkindness to grind to a halt.
The Wholesome Heart
The prevailing concepts that thread together the ideas in this article are balance and integration. We have talked about balance as cultivating a level of moderation in a particular character quality so that one neither overshoots nor undershoots the mark. Hopefully, this has been helpful in freeing the reader from ideals of perfectionism; it is not helpful to compare oneself to some ideal image of lovingkindness or vigor and always come up short. In the pithy wisdom of a Chinese proverb, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Each person has the capacity to manifest a character quality in a way that fits who they are as a person overall. And this brings us to the concept of integration.
Integration is lauded as the pinnacle of psychological development and the goal of psychotherapy. It is the ability to smoothly bring together different parts of the self as a whole. It is seen, for example, in the person who can act forcefully and aggressively when necessary while still remaining in touch with his or her compassionate and playful nature so they can draw upon it as soon as it becomes useful. Integration is the ability to rely upon any or all of one’s inner capacities in order to respond gracefully to the situation at hand. It comes only through years of experience growing comfortable with parts of oneself that were once relegated to the shadow realm – the denied aspects of experience. In our discussion, integration occurs in a person who can combine all of the character qualities into a unique and vibrant whole.
In Western literature and spiritual belief, the heart does not refer only to the organ that pumps our blood. Rather, it is considered the center or the core of the self where thought and feeling, intuition and concrete reasoning, blend. It is the place where wholeness arises. In Hebrew the root word for peace, shalom, also means wholeness, as in “walk in peace, walk in wholeness.”
The heart more than the mind is used to symbolize the soul or the center of the self. No doubt, this is partly because many human beings experience somatic sensations in their heart region when core feelings such as love, conviction, trust and gratitude occur. It is also true because the heart is depicted as the proper but often usurped ruler of the mind. The mind, with its impressive intellectual clarity, can easily usurp the integrative and at times opaque nature of the heart. When this happens a person may be outwardly successful and generate a sense of leadership and strength, but on the inside they will feel dry, uptight, unbalanced or suffer from doubt. They may be aware of “a fly in the ointment,” a sense that something is not whole in their life and despite their success fulfillment will be elusive. Or they may feel at peace with themselves until a setback or tragedy occurs. Then they will come to find they are lost and do not have access to the inner resources to rally themselves. Such a moment of crisis is actually an opportunity to look into the shadow and re-open the connection with character qualities that they have denied for many years. One way or another life has a way of re-introducing us to the denied aspects of ourselves. If we are pro-active about it, we won’t need a tragedy to wake us up. And if one occurs, we will be better prepared to respond with all of who we are.
In relationship, the wholesome heart is able to integrate and draw upon all of the character qualities that we have discussed. It taps into lovingkindness and showers affection upon the partner, but relies upon healthy boundaries to prevent too much of the self from being given away. It is diligent and vigorous at accomplishing goals that support the family, but it maintains connection with the sources of rejuvenation through play and inner resourcing so that the person doesn’t become a “human doing” instead of a “human being.” It knows when to follow and receive what the partner is offering graciously and fully so that the love given can be tasted and savored deeply. And it knows when to step forward and lead without any element of pride or righteousness when the partner is lost or in need of help. This kind of integration does not develop in a vacuum; it develops in the crucible of intimate human relationships where the complementary forces of individuation and desire for connection are dynamically joined.
The person who embodies wholesome heartedness experiences a quality of authenticity in their daily life and conveys this quality to others. To be authentic is to be sincere, vibrant and emotionally present. The person is “real;” others sense that they are not putting on an act. The authentic person does not evade topics or feelings that are uncomfortable. If they feel uncomfortable, they notice it and are become immediately curious about what is being stirred up. They will not feel constrained from expressing their discomfort but neither will they feel compelled to say anything. Because they have had lots of experience responding fluidly to moments of awkwardness or self-consciousness in themselves or others, they are often able to keep going deeper into something that is emerging whereas others would try to change the topic.
Authentic people are most of all, honest with themselves. They are curious about what makes themselves and others tick. They are driven to see things as they, more than by the urge to win, to be right, to be liked by others, or to experience physical pleasure. The person who has cultivated their authenticity can perceive when another person is being avoidant, insincere or is to some extent locked within an image of who they want to be. This awareness must be handled carefully as verbalizing it when a person is not ready to hear it can cause harm.
Authenticity is sometimes referred to as depth, as in “that person is deep.” This is accurate. Cultivating authenticity involves being curious about the underlying psychological and spiritual currents that make up the fabric of life. As the Sufi saying goes: “If you want to find a pearl, don’t look on the beach; dive deep into the ocean.” To cultivate authenticity is to become experienced at following things where they take you and not opting out because it’s too much work.
At the same time, children in their direct simplicity are wonderful examples of authenticity. There is nothing contrived or posturing about a well-adjusted toddler; they say exactly what comes to mind without a care for how it will be perceived. This non-censored quality begins to disappear as we understand more of the world but it is an essential aspect of authenticity. If we are fortunate, we are able to hold onto some of this quality from childhood. But in adulthood, we can work to free ourselves from the voices of the inner critic so that this authentic quality can emerge more and more of the time. Then we re-connect with an inner sense of flow that allows us to be in the world fully without experiencing frequent interruptions of that flow.
Obviously the word integrity is related to the concept of integration that we discussed previously but it has a somewhat different connotation. A person is said to have integrity when they are honest, forthright in admitting mistakes and responsible in following through on work to which they are committed The expressions, “My word is my bond,” and “The buck stops here” are relevant. . Having integrity can require a person to sometimes go beyond explicit commitments to include implicit ones: to help out in situations where one feels compelled by one’s values.
A person who has integrity will earn the trust of those around him and may be approached by friends and acquaintances for help and advice. The Jewish word for someone who lives a life with integrity is a mensch. It’s a good word because it denotes someone who is down to earth, approachable and reliable, rather than someone who has status, authority and power though a mensch can also attain these. Within his or her circle, the person with integrity does gradually acquire a degree of authority as people come to respect and trust that their thoughts and actions are not self-centered or chaotic but weave together justice, wisdom and humility/self-esteem.
Approaching Conflict With A Wholesome Heart
Conflict is an inevitable part of human relationships. Being able to argue passionately and respectfully is a high art. Wholeheartedness seeks the point of balance between lovingkindness and healthy boundaries by working to resolve differences flexibly without compromising one’s core needs and values. The marital therapist David Snarch in his book, The Passionate Marriage, argues that a person must develop a high enough level of self-validation and security in order to have the courage to hold onto him or her self while being sexually intimate with one’s spouse. The secret of sustaining intimacy and passion, he teaches, is retaining one’s identity while opening deeply to connection. Put a different way, one can experience the paradox of “being as one” without losing oneself in merging.
Conflict is as much a part of intimacy as is sex. In fact, healthy conflict can open the gate to intimacy where it has become closed. The wholehearted approach has faith that there is room for both people to speak from their authentic self. One doesn’t hold back from expressing one’s position of self-interest; preferences, feelings, needs and desires. But neither does one enter into competition as to who is more deserving or right. When feelings become hurt, they are tended to and examined by the person themselves in order to gain insight and skill in responding. But the other person is engaged and willing to understand the nature of that hurt without recoiling in defensive posturing. In a nutshell, the couple can argue heatedly, articulate their feelings and values fully, yet not stop listening empathically to the other person. Rather like what Snarch has said about sex, conflict presents an opportunity for both people to strengthen their bond of connection as it is tested by their opposing views. A marriage or relationship in which both partners are committed to individuation and sustained intimacy becomes a crucible in which a person’s character can develop.
“You can’t always get what you want,
But if you try some time,
You might find,
You get what you need.” (Rolling Stones)
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.” (Serenity Prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous)
Equanimity is the fancy word for the character quality that allows us to accept things as they are, not as we wish them to be. Like trust and gratitude, it strengthens the foundation of character. However, it tends to develop later in life. Equanimity is directly related to inner peace. When things go well, you celebrate. When things don’t, you may feel momentarily disappointed but you don’t fall into a funk. In this way your heart is like a sea worthy boat that can handle the waves of life without capsizing.
Acceptance brings the strength of resiliency to a relationship. Many of life’s problems like financial set backs, marital arguments, and illness require level-headedness and endurance. Most problems improve with effort over time as long as you can accept where you are now. Having a sense of peace with the present moment even when your not getting your way gives you a greater ability to bounce back from setbacks and over come obstacles. When you wallow in disappointment or allow frustration and irritability to overtake you, you become much less available for change to happen. Then it’s much harder to bounce back. Equanimity teaches us, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
Sages writing about equanimity sometimes counsel that it is even possible to have too much joy; one because it can befuddle your mind and two because you can easily seduce yourself into trying to stay happy – a fruitless endeavor. Put a different way, it’s important not to have an expectation that every day will be fantastic, thrilling and blissful because that’s not reality. Blah days or painful days are part of life. Don’t try to orchestrate your life so they never happen. When happy be happy, when hungry be hungry. Just live.
The person who lacks equanimity usually puts subtle or overt pressure on their partner to make things better. They may constantly be reacting to circumstances, unable to just be with what is. They may always be restless, unable to settle down and share in moments of peace. Over time, reactivity becomes an obstacle to intimacy. Restlessness and reactivity can undermine a partner’s self-esteem and trust because they constantly feel unaccepted and unappreciated. But if the partner has a solid base of humility, gratitude and trust they will know it’s not about them. Instead they’ll just detect the pattern that frequently something goes wrong. This needs to be talked about and addressed in a non-blaming way. The underlying attitude is: “I want to be emotionally intimate with you and when you are reacting you’re temporarily not emotionally available.
Is it possible to have too much equanimity? The person who is overly detached or one who adopts a laissez-faire attitude about life could be said to have over shot the mark of equanimity. To hit the mark of equanimity on the head is to be able to respond to situations that test one’s acceptance of difficult events by neither over nor under-reacting. Then the character is un-conflicted and the soul is allowed to shine through with a spontaneous, authentic and original response. Of course, we should not hold ourselves up to meeting some standard of how this “should” look.
Often one person in a relationship has more equanimity than the other. This is an asset for the couple so long as that person does not sit in judgment over their partner whenever the partner reacts strongly to situations. An important rule in relationships is that you don’t tell the other person the right way to be. First of all, there is no “right way to be” because each person is on their own unique journey of individuation. But secondly, to judge your partner is to show a lack of humility and equanimity. Equanimity includes accepting your partner’s habit of not accepting things as they are. There may be times when you keep your cool while they get hot, but that doesn’t mean you are more mature or spiritually evolved. If the example you set is valuable to them then they may choose to learn from it. Likewise, sometimes their willingness to have a strong reaction have some lessons for you. The cardinal rule is not to preach to your partner about how to be.
Exercises for Cultivating Equanimity
· Reflect upon significant childhood memories when you did not get your way. Draw up the scene in as full detail as you can muster. Remember the room, the time of day, who was there, and what was said and done. Pick the most poignant moment in the scene and zero in on your facial expression. What were you feeling? Now insert your adult self into this scene. Do you feel empathy for your childhood self? Imagine you can speak in private to the child. What would you say to him or her. Draw a balance between words of empathic support and words of guidance about the life lessons that can be learned from this memory. As you speak to yourself notice any sensations in your gut or chest that occur.
· Reflect upon disappointments and setbacks in your adult life. How long did they last? Did they provoke a period of re-evaluation of life priorities? Were there some side benefits even if you’d rather it never happened?
· Make a list of all the things you are grateful for in your life. Carry this list around in your wallet. The next time you are disappointed or feeling restless read the list slowly. Take a full breath to acknowledge each of these things.
· Keep a nightly log focused upon how you practiced equanimity that day. Note how you handled disappointments. Did you go into a funk? Did you drop your plans to be productive or enjoy the day? Did you refuse to acknowledge that you were disappointed? Or did you feel the pain in real time and then re-group and move on? If you tend to be restless, were you able to calm yourself and enjoy the day?
· Each morning say an affirmation as to how you want to practice acceptance. This could be, “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven,” or “Things happen for a reason,” or the Serenity prayer quoted above.
I hope that this discussion of character qualities and relationship has been useful to you the reader. There are many ideas only partly developed here and I hope in the future to go further in developing them. But the process of writing this article was very instructive. It helped me further clarify my own understanding and “languaging” of things that I have known about in a vague manner for a long time. Whether my ideas make sense to you or you find that they miss the mark, I hope that you will feel provoked to clarify your own ideas on this topic.. I would appreciate any comments you may have; my e-mail address is email@example.com.
My goal throughout has been to provide a practical road map for people to open a dialogue with themselves and others about character. Practical first and foremost means that something is immediately applicable to real life matters. It is in our intimate relationships and friendships that we most directly experience the gracefulness and dull or rough edges of our character. It is in the interpersonal arena that we find our truest test; it is here that “the pedal hits the medal.” I encourage you to wrestle with the ideas and re-make them in your own fashion so that they become individually tailored and therefore alive.
I’m very much aware that I have blind spots and that my each of my fellow human beings can see more clearly and deeply into certain areas of the self and character than myself. I do not mean to claim that I have even covered all of the essential character qualities; and would encourage you the reader to define for yourself what seems to be missing from this discussion and share that if you feel so inclined.
Keith Mitchell Weinstein
October 1, 2004
[i] Many of the ideas in this article find their inspiration within Judaism, specifically Kabala and Mussar. For an excellent, if somewhat scholarly, introduction to Kabala read The Thirteen Petaled Rose by Aiden Steinsaltz. For a modern, very accessible, introduction to Mussar read Climbing Jacob’s Ladder by Alan Morines. For a pithy and at times controversial work that tries to synthesize modern psychology and Mussar read Judaism and Psychology by Abraham Amsel.
[ii] D.W.Winnicott (source forthcoming).
[iii] Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Mary Hartzel, M.Ed., Parenting From The Inside Out, Penguin, 2003.
[iv] Gershen Kaufman, The Psychology of Shame, Springer Publishing Company, 1989: pp.57-84.
[v] Jett Psaris and Marlena Lyons, Undefended Love, New Harbinger Publications, 2000: P.50.
[vi] Sitting on the “pity pot” is a useful, vernacular term from the Alcoholic’s Anonymous community.
[vii] The persona is the mask or outward face that a person presents to the world. It is not the true self but it is vital and important to functioning in the world.
[viii] Mollie Katzen, The Moosewood Cookbook
[ix] Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
[x] Many psychological theorists have developed the concept of individuation. I have been particularly influenced by C.G.Jung and Margaret Mahler in my understanding of the term. But within the domain of relationship I would recommend the work of David Schnarch, Ph.D. who uses the related term of “differentiation” in his discussion of what allows a couple to sustain sexual desire and deepen intimacy. David Schnarch, Passionate Marriage, Henry Holt and Co., 1997,
[xi] Daniel J. Levinson, The Seasons of a Man’s Life, in collaboration with Charlotte Darrow, Edward Klein, Maria Levinson and Braxton McKee, Ballentine Books, 1978: p.33.
[xii] Carl Gustav Jung, Modern Man In Search of a Soul.
[xiii] Antonio Machado, “The Wind One Brilliant Day,” translated by Robert Bly. From the anthology, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, by Robert Bly, James Hillman and Michael Meade, Harper Collins, 1992: p. 99.
[xiv] M. Scott Peck M.D., The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, Simon and Schuster, 1978: p.119.