As an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person), I am always astounded by how most people have not tried meditation or contemplative practices. Look at how much stimulus barrages us throughout the day: the hurly-burly of our morning commutes; the breaking news that seems to get worse with each alert; the emotional pullback we must exercise if we want to keep our clients or our jobs; the pile-up of deadlines; the uncertainty over whether our efforts or risks will pay off; the concerns over whether we will have enough left over for retirement or even for next month’s rent. All of this in addition to what Taoist philosophy calls “the ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows” that comprise a human life. How can anyone maintain sanity without repairing to a quiet refuge for at least 10 minutes a day?
And then there’s marriage!
A highly rewarding but highly rocky frontier that requires the utmost care and patience. Lest we forget, no matter who we are or what we might do for a living, we take our world home with us. And this world, wondrous though it is, is also a pressure-cooker. Far better for us all if we can find a way to, in the words of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn, “cool the flames.” Sages throughout time have recommended meditation as a practice for taking the heat off the situations in which we find ourselves, especially those involving our beloved.
For the past 20 years, I have been a meditation practitioner, mainly in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, and I cannot begin to express how much the practice has helped to gentle my naturally high-strung temperament and create greater clarity and harmony in my relationships, especially with my husband Julius who, for all his many virtues, can be quite a handful himself.
It’s impossible to narrow the marriage benefits of a regular practice of meditation down to just three, but here are three for the road:
1. Listening with presence
In traditional meditation, we are taught to cultivate stillness, no matter what states might be arising and passing away in our minds and bodies as we sit. Ram Dass calls this “Cultivating the Witness.” Anything and everything might visit us as we sit—boredom, restlessness, a cramped leg, sweet pleasures, buried memories, vast peace, raging storms, a desire to run out of the room—and we allow each experience to have its say without allowing ourselves to be tossed away by them.
What we learn through a steady practice of listening with presence on the cushion, we can later exercise in our relationships with our partners.
We can be there for them and listen with full presence and attention when they’ve had a bad day at work or when they come back with news that they’ve just landed the all-important account or as they recount what the doctor has told them about how their mother’s health has taken a turn for the worse. We can let the full spectrum of life in without tuning out or running away.
2. The sacred pause
Let’s face it: Couples have their fights and it’s during such moments of conflict that so much that’s been brewing beneath the surface can arise. As we deepen our meditation practice, we become more familiar with what Buddhist teacher Tara Brach calls “The Sacred Pause.”
As the conflict escalates, we can feel into our body, notice how we are reacting on a physiological level (tension in the hands, blood coursing through our brains, a narrowing mouth), take a deep breath and assess whether our mental state is, in Brach’s own words, “Fertile Ground for Wise Action.”
If not, we would do well to restrain our speech and withdraw from the situation until such time as we can respond with calmness and clarity.
It’s easier said than done, of course, and it takes a great deal of training, but it can make all the difference to our relationship and to the lives of those affected by the relationship.
In the Metta Sutta, the Buddha asked his students to begin each session of metta (loving-kindness) meditation by remembering, first, a time when they let anger get the best of them and, second, a time when anger arose but they kept their cool and did not act on it. I’ve long begun each of my own metta meditation sessions with this instruction and can say unequivocally that things always turned out better when I’ve kept my cool. I’m sure it’s the same for you and your partner.
We’ve probably all known those who are seeking the next thrill and not allowing themselves to settle down into the ordinary experience. At first, we might think ourselves clever for eluding boredom, only to find that whatever we run to next will elude us soon enough.
Married life is full of mundaneness—the bills, the chores, the same dinner we have every Wednesday night—but this need not be seen as bad news.
In fact, in Zen, there is no higher state than that of fully inhabiting our ordinary experience. In meditation, we learn to hang in there, right where we are, and see how the whole of life is right here where we sit. We begin to see how multifaceted and, indeed, how extraordinary even the most ordinary experiences (sweeping the floor, drinking a cup of tea) are.
As I said earlier, this is far from an exhaustive list of benefits, but these alone are reason enough to get thee to your meditation cushion or even just to a sturdy but comfortable chair, where you can begin your journey by simply watching your breath.
In many cities, there are meditation centers where you can take an introductory class. Or go to the library and check out a book. You can log on to dharmaseed.org or the Insight Timer app or even just watch talks from reputable teachers like Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, or Pema Chodron on Youtube. How you get started matters less than that you get started…for the benefit of all beings, especially your spouse!