Susan Chapman: “Building a Green Zone Culture: Cooking Me into We”
This summer I performed two wedding ceremonies. Both couples were obviously in love and expressed their vows to each other with deep, tearful authenticity, witnessed by family and friends. My husband was there to give me a hand. He and I are celebrating our 25th anniversary this year, still in love. None of the weddings I’ve performed have included the traditional phrase ‘til death do us part’, but it is obvious that this is the intention. As the preceptor for their vows, I offer an elder’s blessing for the survival of these young relationships. It matters to me that they will be happy, but most importantly that the vows they’ve made will be transformative.
As a family therapist, I’ve seen the shadow side of the marriage vow. While most begin with love and good intentions, many end up collapsing like the roof of a house that was built too hastily, without enough support. In Buddhist terms a happy marriage is like a precious human birth. It’s rare to find that one in a million person you can share a lifetime with. But for most of us, marriage dies before we do. And, when it does, there is no funeral ceremony, no formal comfort for the loss. Most often it involves some kind of betrayal, a messy divorce, a legal ruling and divisions among family and friends. Just as a wedding brings joy to friends and family, divorces can bring crippling life-long resentments.
I often ask myself how, by creating green zones, we can better support the marriage vow as a way of transforming our red light patterns. The two main blind spots are eternalism, or mindless-heart, and nihilism, or heartless-mind. Mindless-heart encompasses all the patterns of wishful thinking that ignore the boundaries of reality. The logic of the red zone offers a fairy tale view that romantic love will bring eternal, blissful union. The intoxication of early love can easily slip into this misunderstanding and when the bubble bursts, the disappointment can be devastating.
[cc_blockquote_right]I often ask myself how, by creating green zones, we can better support the marriage vow as a way of transforming our red light patterns. The two main blind spots are eternalism, or mindless-heart, and nihilism, or heartless-mind.[/cc_blockquote_right]That disappointment can trigger the opposite, heartless-mind. This is the shadow side, where love turns to hate. When something doesn’t feel good we should throw it away and buy a new, updated version. So we close our hearts and fixate on why our partner is to blame for our unhappiness. We punish our lover for letting us down. We’re angry with ourselves for having been so deluded. We feel mistrustful and isolated, giving up on love, citing statistics that one in every two marriages will fail. These two setting sun belief-systems prevent our marriage vows from transforming everyday ups and downs into genuine intimacy.
My view of a ‘green zone’ is that it can be like a cooking pot that can transform the raw ingredients of ‘me’ into a nourishing stew of ‘we’. The way we do this is by seeing the whole picture, the seasons of relationship, from a mindful perspective.
1. Winter of solitude: We begin with the intention to turn the flashlight inward. Communicating with ourselves in meditation enables us to interrupt our wayward thoughts before they gain traction in reality. Mindfulness meditation is like sitting down with a good friend who’s a protector, shedding light on the boundaries and asking what is helpful and what is harmful in our relationships.
2. Springtime of deeply listening: In a green zone, we can listen to each other, sorting out the differences between our impulses and the wisdom of discernment.
3. Summer, making promises we intend to keep: The path of marriage is the opposite of a red light version of a comfort zone. It transforms selfishness into generosity, irritation into patience, impulsiveness into discipline. The Marriage Vow is the ultimate green zone where we can literally brings these teachings on mindful communication down to earth, where the ‘rubber meets the road’.
Cooking “me to we” is pretty challenging under the best of circumstances. It’s possible when all the ingredients are in place, when the container is strong and when both partners are practicing mindfulness to the degree that each is willing to dissolve personal territory while at the same time feeling the depth of aloneness. Not easy.
So, for one reason or another, many of our marriages don’t work out as planned. What then? A green zone is like a social village, where your marriage challenges are respected and supported — like the wedding ceremony itself. We know that isolated couples are silenced by the taboo that we shouldn’t talk about the hard times in our marriages, about our loneliness, about sexuality and our longing for tenderness. So if we want support and longevity for our marriages, perhaps we need to break that taboo and establish some meaningful connections with people that we trust. The container of a green zone offers protection to any relationship because of the fundamental ethical agreement not to be divisive but at the same time to encourage each other to find our truth.
4. Autumn, the season of letting go: Most of us are under the influence of a red zone society where the terms ‘failed marriage’ and ‘broken home’ cast a negative spin on the truth that marriage can be temporary, not permanent. Could we not find better terms that match the reality that many couples transition from one season of life to another by moving on?
How can we overcome our red light reactions and head in the direction of being able to say “thank you and goodbye”. This is the real challenge of the ‘autumn’ season. How do we create a graceful, supportive way to end marriages that are not working out? I have no idea how to do this, but would like to put this question out there.
Marriage and all our relationships, like life itself, have stages of beginning, middle and ending. There is no telling how long they will last. Using the power of small green zones, we can find ways to protect and strengthen our marriages, for the benefit of our children, family and for society as a whole. At the same time, we can also find ways to gracefully let go, without causing long-term harm to our families and communities. Small green zone groups can function in many ways, but in all cases they will give us a safety net to provide resilient and creative ways to bring about a better future for our human society, one relationship at a time.