When we see our differences as opportunities to develop our capacities, we begin to meet them with openness and appreciation. This shift in our perspective transforms ordinary conflict into an extraordinary gift, providing us with information that we would otherwise be unable to access. This information tells us about who we are, what matters to us, what we most deeply desire, what we most greatly fear, and what places within us require the healing that loving attention brings.
Our emotional reactions to our partner are like a mine detector whose clicking indicates that something is lying beneath the surface awaiting discovery. When the detector goes off, it can be both exciting and scary because we don’t know exactly what lies beneath the ground of our awareness. In encountering these hidden aspects of ourselves, we clear the field of the mines that bring us so much stress. How can we be at peace with our selves and others if we feel that an explosion of grief, anger, rage, or terror could occur at any moment? How can we possibly relax the vigilant stance that seems necessary when danger seems omnipresent?
As long as our driving intention is protection in the face of threat, we will remain enmeshed in a win-lose game. When we recognize the existence of other possibilities that are far greater, and more fulfilling, the old game becomes less compelling. Ultimately, we give it up because the taste of real freedom and deep intimacy is so sweet that the promise of control can no longer seduce us. We give it up when we see a genuine alternative; then we can no longer settle.
Practicing increasingly higher levels of emotional honesty with ourselves as well as our partner leads to an enhanced ability to engage each other at a deeper level. As our capacity for authentic relatedness grows, previously entrenched defensive systems loosen their grip. Small openings allow for previously unattainable degrees of genuine connection. Then, we gradually gain the ability to see both inner and outer reality with clarity.
Opportunities to engage continually present themselves. While our differences may never go away, we become less attached to our preferences over time. This gradual letting go comes with the recognition of the suffering that our attachments cause. It becomes clear that we can survive without the habituated defenses that we thought were keeping us safe. We discover that not only will we not die if we let go of our tight grip of control, but that the joy that has been lacking in our lives will be born in the process of doing so.
Shifting our primary intention from protection to connection to our inner truth and to others can challenge us beyond anything that we have ever known. Most of us tend to underestimate the extent to which we are locked into self-fulfilling defensive patterns. Living in a world in which immediate gratification is not only valued but expected, we assume that something or someone is wrong if things don’t improve quickly. This belief causes us to take on either a “fix-it” or a “search and destroy” response to unresolved differences, both of which deteriorate our connection.
Our frustration drives us to “do something about a situation that is causing us discomfort. Sylvia Boorstein reminds us in the title of her second book that the solution is often “Don’t just do something, Sit there!” Strangely enough, the most effective way of defusing old patterns sometimes is to do nothing. Instead of indulging the desire to neutralize tension through actions or words, don’t explain, justify, criticize, defend, walk away, attack, apologize, accommodate; don’t do anything at all. We can find out what happens when we’re not busy trying to change things and are listening deeply to the current situation.
This may seem impossible or downright idiotic. What sense does it make to remain silent when someone is saying something we KNOW it’s not true? What kind of person would just sit there and let someone get away with saying things like that?
The urge to do something is the clicking of the mine detector warning that danger is imminent. When we don’t react to it, our anxiety rises. When we become more connected, we tune in to the anxiety itself instead of figuring out some way to silence the alarm. It is not easy to learn from our experience in the presence of what can feel like overwhelming internal and external pressure. With practice, we become increasingly more adept at shifting our attention from outside circumstances to our inner experience. By operating slowly and carefully, we understand each other’s point of view. That is the process of dismantling the land mines.