And Now For Something Completely Different

A couple weeks ago, just before my anniversary, a younger co-worker asked a few relationship related questions.  In effect, she was asking for relationship advice, in a broad, non-specific context.  The incident got me thinking about relationships and relationship advice in general.  Thus, this post.

I don’t like giving relationship advice.  I’m not comfortable being asked for relationship advice.  And I’m not going to give any here.

I’ll explain why.

Ultimately, almost all relationship advice—particularly that found in magazines, advice columns, and relationship sites—is generally useless.

I say this with some caveats, notably the “If you see these signs, then you’re probably in an abusive relationship and should run very fast” advice.

But, I think most relationship advice is useless because all romantic relationships are different.  Regardless of the issue, we like to believe there is one “fix-it” solution, whether we’re talking about romantic relationships, writing papers, or economics.  But, there is no single, perfect solution to any issue, just like there is no one perfect formula for writing an A paper in university.  Every romantic relationship is different, what works for me and my spouse probably won’t work for another couple, or the third couple across the way.  There are so many variables in play in any couple—from personal history to philosophies, education levels to family relations—that affect a romantic relationship that it’s impossible to generalize with any given couple.

In the end, though, I think romantic relationships are built on three things: friendship, attraction, and shared interests.  And the first two of those are great examples of the differences that mark romantic relationships.

Most of us have a variety of friends.  And we don’t interact the same way with all of them.  For instance, I have a couple friends with whom I went to primary school (and later secondary school), who know me in different ways than the friends I first met in secondary school or university (ex. they’ve known me since I was 6 or 7 years old).  I also have friends whom I first met in graduate school (at 24 years old), and we have a different relationship than I do with my friends from secondary school.  Then there are the friends I’ve made in the last ten years, mostly through aikido training.  Because we know each other from a martial arts practice, and generally see each other a couple times a week, often less depending on schedules, we have a rather different relationship.  There are things that we talk about that we wouldn’t, necessarily, with friends we’ve known through other venues, or people who are mutual friends with our spouses.

In the case of attraction, we all find ourselves attracted to a variety of individuals.  And the reasons for attraction are often not the same.  For instance, a person may find Chris Evans, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman attractive, or Julia Roberts, Alyssa Milano, and Jennifer Lawrence.  Different things draw the person to each of those individuals (and, yes, I know I’ve “dated” myself a bit with my choices there, I’m cool with that).  What attracts the individual is not the same in each case, just like no two romantic relationships are the same.

For me, this sense of differences, uniqueness even, is why being asked for relationship advice is a tricky situation.  I find myself thinking: what kind of personality types are involved, what shared interests are there, what attracts these two to each other . . . there are too many factors that differentiate the questioner’s experience and relationship from my own.

In a way,  I suppose this is something for writers and readers to consider as well, for character development, as every character is going to be, or has been, involved in family, friendship, professional, and romantic relationships.

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Letting Go of the Stick: Ego and Attachment

In aikido, we have a practice called jodori, or staff taking. Similar principles appear in sword taking (tachidori) and knife taking (tantodori). In these practices, it is very easy for the two training partners to turn the exercise, the technique, into a wrestling match over the stick. Neither is willing to relenquish their hold on the staff, bokken, or tanto as they struggle to retain control.

On the surface this becomes a battle of muscle or leverage.

Beneath the surface, though, it is a battle of ego. The mind, ego, says, “It is my stick. As long as I am holding it, I win.”

That is not, necessarily, true.

Rather, it is better to release the stick, to let it go. At some time, this may be physically letting go of the staff, but more often it is a matter of removing the ego’s attachment to the stick. Releasing the ego’s hold on the stick keeps the body from clamping down, from becoming static, a fixed point. Releasing the ego’s hold on the stick allows the body to move, to flow, to reposition, to act . . . and that way lies “victory” and “winning” . . . that way allows the aikidoka to reposition and execute a throw (which may strip the staff, sword, or knife from the opponent’s hands, or may send the opponent across the mat or to the floor still clutching the stick).

In training, I find that I am at least moderately good at this, probably because I cannot out-muscle most of my training partners.

Off the mat, out of the dojo, I need to work on applying this to life in general.

For instance, for a long time I held that the one who had the last word in a debate or argument was the winner. That was ego talking, being attached to control, to “winning”. This is not true though. Sometimes, the “winner” is the one who is willing to let go of the debate, to release attachment, to walk away, to move on with life.

Social media, despite its benefits, I think, makes ego attachment much easier. Not necessarily for the reasons commonly cited (tweets or such about where someone is or what they’re eating), rather for likes, reblogs, retweets, and all the other little numeric metrics social media is rife with. They create something measurable that ego can attach itself to, a stick by which ego can measure itself against others, if one becomes attached to the numbers.

A Zen koan comes to mind as well:

Two traveling monks reached a river where they met a young woman. Wary of the current, she asked if they could carry her across. One of the monks hesitated, but the other quickly picked her up onto his shoulders, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other bank. She thanked him and departed.
As the monks continued on their way, the one was brooding and preoccupied. Unable to hold his silence, he spoke out.
“Brother, our spiritual training teaches us to avoid any contact with women, but you picked that one up on your shoulders and carried her!”
“Brother,” the second monk replied,
”I set her down on the other side, while you are still carrying her.”

(Swiped from  http://goto.bilkent.edu.tr/gunes/ZEN/zenstories1.htm)