Preventing Relationship Heart Attacks
Mindful conversation is naturally ‘we-first’, which means that the relationship between speaker and listener is valued. Whether we agree or disagree, it still matters that our listener can hear what we have to say. And, when we’re listening, we try to understand what the speaker is trying to convey. This instinct to communicate with each other proves that human relationships are basically good. Our most fundamental intention is to stay connected rather than to put up a barrier. Communication is how our relationships flow, like blood flowing through our hearts.
When the flow of blood through our hearts is constricted, we have a heart attack. The same is true when communication is blocked. When barriers go up, the flow of connection freezes into ME as opposite from YOU. Even though it’s completely familiar and habitual, this dividing line isn’t real. And the emotional heart attacks it triggers cause unnecessary suffering in our relationships.
By reconnecting with the mind of the present moment, meditation practice highlights the contrast between the flow of openness and the frozen mind that’s distracted by inner fantasies and fears. It unmasks the false self of ‘me-first’ and reveals it to be only an illusion, no different from the barrier itself. This so-called barrier is a verb, not a noun. It’s the shock and pain of losing our sense of attunement to another human being. This is a relational heart attack.
Unlike our physical heart attacks, the relational heart attack and the pain of disconnection isn’t a solid blockage. It’s a communication barrier that’s created by distraction. Instead of flowing outward, our attention gets caught by an inner preoccupation. Out of nowhere we’re hooked by a sudden need to defend or promote ourselves.
In the practice of mindful communication we create a ‘green zone’, a combination of personal and social meditation practices that welcomes our vulnerable fears and self doubts to surface in an environment of gentleness, curiosity and mindful presence. Here we can discover that our fearful states of mind are familiar, deeply rooted habits of mind but they are not our identity. They only have power over us only because we don’t examine them. Like the booming voice of the Wizard of Oz, the authority of our false identity falls apart when we take a closer look.
Over time, sitting meditation can prevent the heart attack of Me-First and all the suffering it causes our relationships. Meditation illuminates how we get tangled up in our own thought patterns when we’re not paying attention. By adding a contemplation practice, we investigate more closely, we might discover how these thoughts are triggered by a moment of anxiety, which we call the flashing yellow light. This anxiety is the fear of basic badness, the fear that somewhere deep down inside us we might find proof that we’re unlovable, unworthy or unforgivable.
In a green zone we can contemplate the difference between we-first communication and the habit of unnecessarily feeling we have to defend or promote ourselves. One way to do this is to use a traditional teaching called ‘The Eight Worldly Dharmas’. This could be re-worded as the eight mindless habits that block the flow of communication. These eight are sub-grouped as four sets of unrealistic hopes and fears. We could think of these as the eight pre-occupations that trigger the Me-First barrier.
1. hope for approval, or praise, and the fear of criticism, or blame.
2. hope for pleasure and fear of pain.
3. hope for fame, or to have our reputation protected, and fear of shame.
4. hope for gain and fear of loss.
How do these sets of wishes and fears undermine the flow of communication? What kinds of relationship heart attacks do they trigger? In the videos below, I offer a starting point for this discussion. I invite you to take these ideas into your own personal green zone, either alone as a contemplation practice or in dialogue with a friend, and see what you come up with.