All too often, those of us with large dreams for work, creativity and community forget that the journey of love, family and relationship is central to a meaningful life. We get so immersed in the daily pursuit of professional achievement that we forget to attend to the journey of intimacy. As a result, we find ourselves growing distant from those we love.
Such preoccupation can arrest the development of the heart. It also undermines the bonds of love and affection that are necessary for the experience of closeness and connection, so central to our health and well-being. It is a real and growing danger that can undermine our happiness and the happiness of those we love. Angeles Arrien makes an astute observation when she suggests that many people come home from work every day, talk to their spouse or partner about work and the kids, and mistake that for attending to the relationship. Then, they are surprised when the relationship lacks fire or falls apart.
It is little wonder that intimate relationships drift from lack of focused attention, energy and careful stewardship. Intimacy is a mystery to be explored, not a routine to be taken for granted. Many of us have worked hard to clarify our aspirations and goals for our work in the world. But what of our vision for our committed relationship, our family, our friends and neighbors? A vision for family and relationship develops through four practices: open-heartedness, authenticity, generosity and gratitude.
To be open means that we are accessible, available, candid and unguarded. It is the ability to allow those we love into our thoughts, feelings, and dreams. We are receptive to those who are most beloved in our lives and honor them with our focus and attention, as though they were our honored guest. To be open-hearted means that we recognize that time together is a gift to be used consciously and that the journey of relationship is time-bound. We can't take it for granted. Open-heartedness means that we are giving of our affections and willing to forgive a mistake.
Openness also means that we provide a safe space for other people to share with us what is most important to them. We listen. Too often, our loved ones are met by a wall of judgment and criticism rather than understanding and support. Ultimately, open- heartedness allows love to be given and received, which is the journey of intimacy in a nutshell.
Learning to "say what's so when it's so" and to "tell the truth without blame and judgment", are two important principles of the Four-Fold Way, by Angeles Arrien. These principles are both the test and requirement for healthy relationships. Many people believe that intimate relationships require social lying if they are to survive. Social lying is saying what we think someone wants to hear or withholding our thoughts or feelings because we don't think another person can handle them. Nothing could be more damaging.
Authentic communication keeps relationships present, rather than focused on past transgressions, disappointments or grievances.Talking through problems rather than pretending they don't exist is a sign of relational maturity. Love is not immune to disagreement. Nor does it prevent misunderstanding or hurt feelings. In those moments, when anger and resentment tempt us to withdraw our affections, we must be able to place our allegiance to the relationship first and work through the differences that separate us until real resolution can be found.
"The practice of gratitude keeps the heart open," is a saying by a very wise woman that I know. The gift of family and friends is a blessing that supports our journey of the heart. Such a gift is not to be taken lightly or treated in a cavalier fashion. Those who have been blessed by love with a spouse or intimate partner, children, parents, siblings, or close friends, is wealthy in a way that material abundance can never touch.
To recognize that wealth, and be thankful for it daily, is a practice that contributes to nurturing those important bonds of the heart. Be deeply touched and moved at the miracle of companionship on a path of heart and meaning. It is a blessing and a comfort, especially in those times when the way is difficult and challenges appear around every corner.
Generosity is the natural response of a heart filled with gratitude. When the heart is full, we naturally look to share that abundance with those that we love. The gifts of time and full engagement are the greatest gifts that can be extended in relationship. When we show up with our loved ones fully, with no distractions, preoccupation or other pressing appointments, we make a gesture that speaks volumes about the importance of these people in our lives. Who could be unmoved by such commitment demonstrated on a regular and reliable basis? This is fertile territory for opening, deepening, softening and strengthening heart lines.
In this holiday season, we have an opportunity to envision a preferred future for our most important relationships, to see what is truly important in our own hearts, and to be thankful for all the blessings that flow from love of family and friends.
© Patrick O’Neill 2008. All rights reserved.