by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Relationships begin as the result of a variety of stimuli – family, love, respect, friendship, mutual goal, locality, hardship and . . . I’m certain you can think of others. Relationships thrive when those same stimuli are nurtured where appropriate, creatively re-described when needed. Most often the questions concerning relationships arise from within those involving family and loved ones because these are the folks we likely have intimate relationships with. Relationships with co-workers, acquaintances and people outside your tribe tend to be integrity based relationships.
Your tribe is composed of beings, beings because pets and service animals are included, with whom you have a deep sense of sharing your life. This type of relationship is an intimate one, one of experiences shared, experiences endured. Intimacy involves a sharing composed of many connections, connections that are missed when there is a loss of personal contact. In his book, “Intimacy and Integrity”, Professor Thomas Kasulis defines the concepts of intimate and integral relationships across many spectrums of human relationships. Relationship models that also arise in the Sigalovada Sutra.
Intimate relationships arise between parent and child, regarded friends, domestic partners and in the bond that can develop among students and teachers. These are the bonds that can have dramatic effects on how one sees themselves and the world around them. Integral relationships develop with friends who part ways as a result of time or distance and consistently arise in the connection between employer and employee. The relationship dynamic that can define whether it is one based in intimacy or integrity is the sharing without expectation.
To visualize an intimate relationship start with two circles. One is you and your experiences; the other is a close friend or family member and their experiences. Bring them together and overlap them. The section that overlaps is experiences shared in each moment (a+b) — talking about problems and successes, seeing the same movie or reading the same book, taking vacations together, it is where your lives intersect in intimate ways. Pull the two circles apart and the sharing of experiences is lost to both; the memories remain but the state of active involvement is gone. In an intimate relationship this loss of active involvement can cause suffering and unsatisfactoriness, depression and sadness. You lose what has become part of yourself, a sharing of experience and building of memories.
Intimate relationships are not always the result of positive interactions. Human beings look for connection, even if that connection is a negative one it can be viewed as ‘better than nothing’ for someone craving closeness. The Stockholm Syndrome experienced by hostages is one example. Response to captivity can change from rebellion and fear to acceptance and understanding, albeit a deluded understanding as the relationships become more intimate. Hostage totally dependent on their captors for survival; the captors dependent on the hostages as tools needed to accomplish their goals. There are documented examples of hostages that feel a loss after being rescued or released. The loss of active involvement causes the arising of suffering and discontent.
Integrity based relationships can also be illustrated with two circles; ‘a’ and ‘d’. Instead of an overlap there is a temporary line between them that represents an interaction. A relationship built on integrity is based solely on an individual-to-individual connection and it is often a singular interaction meant to benefit both. Think about the cashier at your local grocery store. You connect with them when you need food, they take your money, and when you leave neither person loses anything; these are shared moments, not shared experiences. Once the interaction is completed the line fades without a feeling of loss. The relationship with the cashier is renewed when you return to the store but it tends to toward the same dynamics each time.
Interaction complete the relationship dissolves. Some integral relationships repeat frequently; dentist, doctor, librarian, bus driver. Others may have little chance of repeating; person you meet on vacation, classmate, police officer. Individuals ‘a’ and ‘d’ have the potential of reconnecting. There is the chance of a repeated encounter that could lead to a more meaningful relationship, possibly an intimate one. Equally an intimate relationship can transform to an integral as interactions change, though residue of the intimate connection is likely to persist. Divorced parents fit this model.
Intimate and integral relationships aren’t limited only to person-to-person connections. We have links with possessions, ideas and delusions that can seem just as strong and just as important. In “Intimacy and Integrity”, Professor Kasulis gives an example of just such a individual-to-possession relationship. “Someone steals your wallet. Both the money and the treasured family pictures – negatives lost long ago – are gone. The money belonged to you; it was your money. But the pictures belonged with you not to you. In taking the photos, the thief stole part of your self, not merely something external like the money over which you held temporary title.” Cash is the integral relationship; the photos, the intimate.
We view these two aspects of relationships separately as a skillful way to understand them. In practice though there is no dualism when it comes to how we act as Buddhists whether it is an intimate or integral relationship . . . they are all relationships that require the same level of mindfulness, compassion and ethical behavior. The teachings in the Sigalovada Sutra offer commitments whose practice will strengthen intimate and integral bonds when they become part of HOW relationships are engaged. Whether engaged in an intimate or integral relationship the ideals of Buddhist philosophy and practice are applied. We interact with others through positive dispositions like compassion, acceptance, generosity and ethical behavior without regard to what type of relationship.