What does Buddhism have to do with healthy relationships? Actually a lot, according to the Multiamory podcast team and special guest Annalisa Castaldo, Zen priest and Associate Professor of English at Widener University in Chester, PA.
In Episode 222 of the Multiamory podcast, the focus is on what we can learn from Zen Buddhism as a practice, not a religion, in order to have happier and healthier relationships.
The podcast discusses several key elements of Buddhism as they apply to healthy relationships: acceptance, non-attachment, and impermanence. These are often misunderstood; but once they are understood, they can be applied to relationships in order to strengthen them.
The goal of Buddhism is to let go of the desire for things to be different. This desire, according to Buddhism, is a cause of suffering. Constantly wishing for things to be different only causes suffering. But to actually make a change, we must first accept “what is.” Acceptance in Buddhist philosophy doesn’t mean being okay with what’s going on, it just means, “This is where I am now, this is my starting point.” An analogy would be holding your hand over a hot stove and thinking, “It burns, it hurts, and things will be so much better when it stops burning”; but until you accept the fact that your hand is too close to a hot stove, you won’t take action to move it.
People project into the future when they expect to feel peace, contentment or happiness within a relationship: “Things will be good when (we get married, once we open up, etc.)” but by spending so much mental and emotional energy on the future, they do not pay attention to what is going on in the relationship at the moment. The reverse is also true, with dwelling on things getting worse. Either way, says Castaldo, “Why not just enjoy what’s going on right now?”
Castaldo says, “The paradox in Buddhism is that you completely accept whatever is in the moment but also be aware that it’s going to change because everything is impermanent. Buddhism isn’t about passively accepting a situation. When you make a movement with your arm, you have to relax your muscles first before you can use them. You can’t reach for something if your arm is tense. You have to relax and then put the muscles into motion. In the same way, you can’t get out of a bad situation until you accept that you’re in it. One of the really dangerous things people do, not just in relationships but in general, is trying to delude themselves about what’s actually going on because they think that’s what will make them happy.”
To make a relationship work, we can’t hide behind delusions, or behind thoughts of a better future (“I’ll be happy when…”). We have to face the emotions that come up and then respond intentionally.
“The Buddhist idea of attachment is not the psychological idea of attachment theory,” says Castaldo. “Buddhism is not talking about detachment but about non-attachment. Detachment means being cut off – checked out – while non-attachment means accepting things or people as they are and not seeking to change them, hold on to them or push them away. Everyone has heard the saying, “If you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you it’s yours.” That is non-attachment. You can love someone more fully if you’re not attached to them because then you don’t cling to them. You don’t live in fear. Your brain isn’t constantly scanning to see if they’re changing or if they’re upset or they’re losing interest. You’re with the person in the moment. And when you drain the fear out of it, you can have a much more authentic connection.”
Attachment causes suffering. Attachment means needing things to function in a particular way; for example, wanting to go out to a favorite restaurant only to get there and find that it’s closed. If we are attached to eating at that restaurant, we could become upset if we find it closed, and allow that to ruin our evening. Non-attachment is choosing to try another restaurant, and having a perfectly good time even if it’s not the one we originally planned.
We have to let go of our patterns and accept the situation and the person as they are, even if it’s recognizing that we’re in love with the idea of a relationship rather than the relationship as it is.
Castaldo says, “All relationships end badly, either one of you dies or you break up.” Since many people worry about how their relationship will end – which leads to anxiety, clinginess, and jealousy – accepting impermanence (that everything is constantly changing) helps us focus on the moment and enjoy the relationship right now, instead of anxiously dwelling in the future.
Zen and the art of relationships
Accepting the situation, being non-attached, and recognizing the impermanence of everything, helps us modulate our responses. Castaldo explains it this way: “Say someone yells at you. The first thing that happens in terms of Buddhist psychology is not that you get upset, it’s just that you recognize there’s noise and your reaction comes from you labeling that noise as upsetting. The yelling itself is not ‘bad’; it’s your label that makes it bad; and the label that leads to your reaction. You want to expand the space between the thing just happening without a label, and your labeling of it.”
Sometimes our automatic reactions are instinctive and intended to keep us safe; but in relationships, we have a choice. Sometimes it is appropriate to yell back but in other situations, it’s better to pause and choose a more tempered response.
Castaldo recommends a loving-kindness meditation, also called a Metta meditation, as a way to deepen a relationship. She says, “Visualize the person’s face and silently say, “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe, may you be at peace.” A regular Metta practice will change your perception and attitude toward your partner.”
Whether or not you identify as a Buddhist, the practices of acceptance, non-attachment, and impermanence can dramatically shift the way you approach your relationship(s).
To hear the full podcast, which goes into much more detail about these concepts, visit: