I spoke at San Francisco’s LGBTQ Sangha on July 26, 2021 via Zoom.
In my dharma talk, I gave a preview of the conversations René Rivera and I will be having in our upcoming class, Finding Liberation in Relationship: Accountability, Conflict, Boundaries, and Feedback at East Bay Meditation Center. Have a listen!
Loose transcript, before Q&A
Tonight, I want to talk about liberation in relationship — all kinds of relationships from work to romantic, neighbors, friends, family. I’m teaching a 4-part class series on this with René Rivera this September at East Bay Meditation Center.
Finding Liberation In Relationship: Accountability, Conflict, Boundaries and Feedback
Class Series beginning on Wednesday, September 8th, with René Rivera
The Facebook event link: https://www.facebook.com/events/3853846287997810
I first came to dharma practice due to the suffering I was feeling in a failed romantic relationship. And I was quickly looking at my family conditioning, how I was trained to be in the world in ways that were never very functional. Some of it seems very basic, like I come from a white Midwestern family that is very conflict avoidant and has a hard time sharing any of our feelings, especially anger, fear, sadness, disappointment. If someone does share one of those feelings, everyone else runs away to hide — or occasionally escalates with their own feelings, as if there’s some kind of anger duel about to start.
I know our families and cultures can be really different around conflict. Maybe your family taught you about conflict perfectly? But a lot of spaces I’m in, and especially a lot of Buddhist spaces, seem to have adopted conflict avoidance as a way to bypass more complicated parts of being in relationship. So even if your family taught you something different, I’m guessing we’re all in spaces where there’s a need to work on our liberation in relationship.
Practice in relationship feels like a core part of the Buddha’s teaching — in the eightfold path, the Buddha offers instruction on Wise Speech, Wise Action, and Wise Livelihood that help guide our engagement in the world. The Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha include embodied wisdom, the teachings, and community as the three key aspects to support our liberation.
When the Buddha’s disciple Ananda described spiritual friendship as half of the holy life, the Buddha got angry. “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Spiritual friendship is actually the whole of the holy life.” Our spiritual friends keep us focused on practice, in honest ways.
That requires us to be willing to be honest with each other. In the class I’m teaching with René this September, we will get direct practice with giving and receiving feedback, identifying needs and setting boundaries, creating accountability, and making apologies. I’ll share some touchstones about that here.
When you hear the word ‘feedback’ — what’s your immediate response? Are you curious and leaning in to listen? Are you tight and defended about what’s coming your way? If you are like me, I might be having a bit of that defended response, but I’m trying to look cool and do the right thing that’s more relaxed and open. This is a place where our practices of mindfulness and detachment from ego are really helpful. We can pay attention to how we show up even thinking about feedback in a theoretical way. And through our experience from our practice on the cushion, we have more chance to be honest about how we’re showing up, and more openness that it might change. It doesn’t define who we are, in a permanent way.
I’m currently mentoring some aspiring mindfulness teachers, and our mentoring group has a structured process to offer feedback after each student shares a meditation practice with us. As I’ve framed it with them, this opportunity for feedback is gold, as you very rarely get an opportunity to hear how your instruction really lands for people. Especially as a learner, you want to know what’s working and what you need to work on. We’re intentional about inviting in an equal amount of positive feedback — what worked well, what you should continue, and why it worked — alongside constructive criticism — what landed poorly, what you missed, what you could try next time. It’s interesting to see how hard positive feedback is for people who are immediately thinking about all the things they did wrong. After doing it a few times, I can feel how we’re cultivating a community that values the flow of feedback, which can make space for other forms of feedback to flow as well.
A key form of feedback that can feel tricky to share is a boundary. I love this definition of boundary from Prentis Hemphill, “boundaries are the distance at which I could love me and you simultaneously.” Certainly in this time of COVID pandemic, we’re all thinking and communicating a lot about physical boundaries — about where we’re maintaining a 6-foot distance, where our masks are on, where we can hug. Emotionally, I think about boundaries as a place where I need to more clearly communicate and establish my own needs, even when they feel at odds with the needs of another person or a group. My partner and I have been in couples therapy, and when we have conflicting needs but don’t just want to be at a distance, we ask, ‘how can we be on the same team here?’ to get these different needs met. In terms of dharma, it feels like a place where this repeating line from the Satipattana Sutta comes to life, bringing mindfulness ‘internally, externally, and both internally and externally.’
Finally, I want to name an underlying framework of accountability, an ethics that ungirds how we show up for ourselves and others. In this great video series on Building Accountable Communities, Kiyomi Fujikawa and Shannon Perez-Darby share this definition that, “Accountability is taking responsibility for your choices and the consequences of those choices.” This sense of accountability really matches well with teachings on karma. Bhante Gunaratana describes this responsibility for cause and effect: “AT EVERY MOMENT we choose whether to embrace wholesomeness or unwholesomeness. We are not helpless, passive victims of fate. We are not pawns moved about by greater forces, nor do our experiences happen due to predetermination. In this moment we choose, and then in the next moment we experience the results of that choice, along with any continuing effects of past choices.”
As someone who can get overly focused on other people’s needs, I’ve appreciated conversations to find ‘right-size’ accountability. We most often talk about underaccountability, where someone has caused harm and won’t show up to be responsible. Overaccountability can also be a problem, where someone has caused harm, and creates a big production trying to demonstrate how responsible they are, essentially re-centering themselves. How do we know if we’re showing up too much or too little? This is where community, sangha, is the whole of the holy life, and help keep us on a Middle Path.