The Kamma of Relationship

‘And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation [of the four establishments of mindfulness]. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others …

‘And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, lovingkindness, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.’

S.47:19 – ‘At Sedaka’


Even when meditating on your own seems fine, you may notice that social contact stirs you up. Opinions about others, concern, attraction, irritation: how to resolve all that? How do we establish guidelines to help form healthy relationships? Is skill in relating to others even necessary for liberation?

The community of value

Well, we exist due to relationship; we all needed several people to even get born, let alone to survive infancy and learn about being human. We model ourselves on other people, from whom we learn a language and any kind of moral behaviour. A life without good friends is narrow and bleak; and families, friendships and communities thrive or splinter dependent on how skilful the relationships are. Our lives as individuals are blessed by good people: we can’t see our own blind spots, so it takes wise and compassionate companions to point these out in a way that is supportive rather than judgemental. For this reason, the Buddha greatly valued spiritual friendship (kalyāṇamitta), and considered association with wise people to be one of the requirements for ‘stream-entry’, the first level of awakening.

Given the variable nature of social relationships, the most reliable thing to belong to is a field of value such as this. To belong to the group no matter what it’s doing, or to follow a leader because they make promises is unwise: we enter a relationship of infantile dependence or of being dumbed down. Not only is such false association personally unreliable – given the power that comes with group belief and action, it can be a danger to humanity. We can all attest to the destructive ideologies that masses of people have adopted – often incited by promises of wealth, or by the power of a charismatic leader.  So we need to personally enter on a Way, a Dhamma, that is free from contaminations and is offers clarity and integrity. When this be accessed by anyone who cultivates that Way, the community of value arises, as a collective that enriches and is for the welfare of all.

Kalyāṇamitta is therefore not just a matter of friendship, but about a shared commitment to values that don’t harm or exploit others. It grows through cultivating relationships that steadily bring integrity, compassion and inquiry into a living focus. Such aspiration, effort and benefit form the spiritual communion that has involved millions of people throughout history. This living and ongoing legacy of skilful actions, aspiration and understanding is a ‘field of value’ (puññākhettaṃ), that can keep extending its boundaries.

To belong to such a community entails steady practice. It means that rather than compete, compare and focus on each other’s personal idiosyncrasies, we attune to the bright kamma in ourselves and others, and develop through acting and interacting in its light. To see and respect the good in ourselves and to be keen to live that out – this is conscience (hiri); then to see and respect the good in others, and to be keen to live in accordance with that – this is concern (ottappa). Conscience and concern are called ‘the guardians of the world’ – and as long as we listen to their advice, our personal world is aligned to the integrity and empathy that supports awakening.

We can lose touch with that integrity and empathy if we neglect valuing our own actions and those of others. This devaluing occurs when we see each other, not as fellow subjects, but as objects compounded of wishful fantasy or anxiety. This seeing of another through one’s own tinted lens is the ‘self and other’ program. In this, we might expect other people to embody our ideals – and consequently get critical when they don’t live up to them. We might also project our fears onto others; or imagine that everyone else is enlightened or near it, and we are the laggards of the group. Or that people expect us to be something we’re not. All of these are negative mental kamma: the mind has adopted a view that divides ‘us’ into ‘self and other’ rather than directly relating to another with respect, appreciation and compassion: just as we would like to be related to.

Of course, it’s not that all aspects of anyone’s behaviour are flawless, or that we ourselves always see things from an undistorted perspective – but how else can good qualities arise if we don’t acknowledge our potential for them? It’s not as if we can make goodness appear where there isn’t any. So, the field of value offers the common ground in any misunderstanding.  That common ground is remembered and brought into play whenever we to touch into the quality of integrity and empathy in ourselves, and ask another to do the same. Then there can be a dispassionate expression of how we see things, and a similar listening.  Mutual respect and equanimity can show us where we’re mistaken, or where ignorance has taken over the heart – and at the same time present trust and friendship.

So when there is deep attention in the relational experience, the heart also finds access to the inspiration and compassion that give it strength. We all have a measure of good-heartedness, and as we tune in to that capacity in ourselves and others, it grows. Then we can enjoy the nourishment of kindness, or the protective care of compassion, or the joy of appreciation, and the equanimity to hold the space that allows emotions to arise and pass. These measureless qualities soften and even eradicate notions about self and others; they are even called ‘doors to the Deathless’.

Becoming, conceit and proliferation: the relational vortex

‘Self and other’ is a divisive program, for sure. And it begins with birth. With the arising of consciousness (viññāṇa), our sense of being something is established on the sense of being within something: a womb, a family, a nation, a world-order and so on. This is how it happens: operating through the physical senses and the object-defining mind, ‘consciousness’ is ‘consciousness of ’ – a sight, sound, touch , thought and so on.  Consciousness therefore gives rise to contact. With contact, comes the experience of being contacted – heart-impressions occur. Thus relational awareness, citta as ‘heart’, gets activated: the heart experiences feeling and felt sense, and wants to be safe, stable and comfortable. So, as the affect-and-response program of citta-saṇkhāra forms a subject that’s being affected by an object, it kindles a psychological craving to solidify into a subject who feels secure and comfortable. Then, as this craving for being something (bhava-taṇhā) is contextual, it orients around oneself and one’s body, oneself and one’s territory, oneself and one’s role or job – but above all, it orients around oneself and other people. We want to know who we and others are, and where we stand – not just to learn how to work together, but in order to establish a secure identity. From this relational vortex of ‘self and other’, there thus arises the notion of a personal self. Holding a body as a boundary, and being locked into programs that juggle with the variables of the social world, this is self-view (sakkāya-diṭṭhi).

Craving to be or to become also extends into how secure I will be in the future, and into making notes on self-impressions from the past in order to determine ‘that’s who I am.’ This identity program begins as citta clings to my appearance and actions and goes on to cling to what is felt, conceived and programmed. Then becoming gives rise to an identity, and ‘I am’ is born: ‘I am an ageing, middle-class man who can’t understand the internet.’ Or ‘I am a shy person when it comes to public gatherings.’ And as if that isn’t enough, the citta is also flooded by the urge to not be(vibhava-taṇhā) as in ‘I want to get out of this situation/mind-state/experience of being incompetent’; ‘let me not be seen.’ So there can be tidal flows of ‘wanting to be’ and ‘wanting not to be’ as the urge to be accepted and liked by others builds up performance strategies and anxiety to become the winner, to the point where a person wants to be left alone or escape – through drink and drugs if need be.

The heart is relational by nature and so the references and programs that get established through relationship are pivotal. If what we’re born into is giving us messages of welcome and trust, then our references and programs get formed on a foundation of basic confidence in being here. But if it’s the other way around … if we have been fed biases, exaggerations and falsehoods; if we’re told by our family or society that we’re worthless, athreat or an expendable burden – we become insecure and confused, and possibly violent.  If we get the message that we have to be productive, intelligent and attractive – then even though we may personally acquire those qualities, we do so from a basis of anxiety, and hence still experience that ‘not good enough’ sense. So, if our intrinsic worth isn’t valued, we have to seek value through achievement, know-how, physical appearance, rebellious independence and so on. In such cases, the relational basis is replaced by strong individuation – ‘do it and get it by yourself’ – with a weak feeling for sharing, empathy or integration with others. But how can a self be separate from others? Instead, the urge for a strong, successful and independent self is a condition for narcissism, arrogance and relational dysfunctionality. History is full of brilliant but neurotic geniuses, ego-centred powermongers, and psychopaths with formidable powers of mind.

It’s worse still if we can’t achieve value through our own individual efforts: we experience ourselves as worthless. And if the judge of self-worth is our own performance-driven psychology, there’s always a ‘better’ or ‘higher’ that we can imagine becoming. So we never come out as winners. This loss of worth, or sense of being driven, can result in breakdowns, depression, substance abuse and even suicide. If, that is, the underlying relational quality is one of the desire to be a perfect self who gets their way, is never criticized and who feels understood.

Although such self-views are often the case in societies where there is considerable stress on individual achievement and little sense of innate belonging, not all societies operate this way. I remember reading an account of a game played by a tribe living in the Amazon basin. The British field-worker who was observing the game couldn’t understand the rules at first. He noticed that the players of the game would split into two teams, who were not necessarily equal in terms of numbers or apparent strength. Each team would grab a large log, and, hoisting it onto their shoulders, start running towards a point a hundred metres or so ahead. The logs also were not the same size or weight. As he watched, one team would draw ahead of the other, and as it did so, a member of the leading team would leave his or her team and join the other team. If a team was in the lead, members of that team would peel off and join the losing team. As the finishing line drew into sight, the excitement would rise until the teams crossed the line, often with very little distance between them. Eventually the field-worker found out the aim of the race: it was to have both teams cross the line at the same time! That aim was carried out through attention and strenuous effort, but with an overriding benevolent intent to arrive at a place with no winners and no losers.

Expanding our attention and intention to include others gives us plenty to work on. But bear in mind that relationship also includes how we relate to ourselves. One can avoid or suppress anxiety or self-criticism to a degree, but that gets more difficult to do when one meditates – if, that is, instead of jumping into a meditation program, we open attention and listen in a receptive way. For many people, that open regard evokes uncertainty: ‘What should I do? How am I doing? What comes next?’ This is the uncertainty that also plays out in relationship with others: ‘Am I acceptable to him or her? What do they see me as?’ Then the thirst for becoming forms self and other based on anxiety. This crystallization is what the Buddha called ‘conceit’ (māna), the process that weaves qualities that arise in one’s awareness into entities that apparently exist independently. Along with conceit come the comparisons and shifting hierarchies that form the view (diṭṭhi): ‘I’m this and the other is that.’ Or ‘I’m feeling this, but I should feel something else.’ And from that foundation of thirst, conceit and the view that ‘I’m this, but I should be that,’ the process called ‘proliferation’ (papanca) spins out narratives.

Making and adopting views of self is a basis for mental kamma; and mental kamma, for good or bad, is no small matter. Moreover, for the unawakened heart, this mental kamma occurs by default; that is, the kamma of becoming and conceit takes its cues from the old kamma of the mental tendency that is dominant at the time. In the case of someone who grew up in a family or society that didn’t see value as being intrinsic to being human, but rather gave the message that what you are isn’t good enough – the tendency is to feel anxious and unwelcome. And that affects the way you configure yourself and others.

To give an example: somebody makes a remark and that stands out. We notice it and think: ‘That sounded hostile to me.’ Obviously, we are all programmed to be sensitive to threat; based on that program, a felt meaning of those words occurs that will shape our actions and reactions around that experience. (A similar process could of course occur over them not expressing the gratitude or the consideration that we expect: here the bias is our sensitivity around not being welcomed or respected.) In either case, if such impressions are not filtered by deep attention, the underlying bias is not revealed and checked: ‘True, there can be threat. But is this actually a threat, and what is threatened?’ ‘Does this really mean I am unwelcome?’ Bearing in mind the fact that a lot of actions are not accompanied by deliberate intention but by muddled impulses, a review is worthwhile. Otherwise, if there is inadequate attention to the qualities that are affecting the citta, the mind conceives self and other based on that felt meaning. Then it proliferates and magnifies the experience in line with the intensity of the initial impression. And we get overwhelmed with proliferating views – such as ‘deliberate’, ‘aimed at me’ and ‘he always.’  A fatalist view can also get established: ‘I always have to put up with inconsiderate people.’ Acting and reacting psychologically, verbally or physically in accordance with these saṇkhārā, our minds stir up a sequence of thoughts and strategies that firm up the bias of those felt meanings. Eventually such saṇkhārā fix into a self-other view: ‘I’m seen as stupid or weak’, ‘me, the despised, me the victim’, ‘him, that pushy, insensitive pig’. Old programs run out that define ourselves and others, and our attitudes and actions take shape around them. Thus, through unmediated engagement with a perception, an existing bias is confirmed, a self and other established, and the basis for dark kamma laid down.

We could see things another way. We could shrug off the incident and decide not to engage with our interpretation: the remark was just a remark. But more to the point is to put aside adjudicating over the situation, and instead look to clearing the proliferations. True enough, if we feel that others are being disrespectful or downright hostile – well, maybe they are! But can we refrain from the proliferations that stick in our heart and add more negative patterns? What is more accurate is not that ‘she’s always like this’ but that ‘this habitual experience (of mistrust, etc.) arises when she says that, or when I look at that expression on her face.’

Through attending deeply, you can notice that although proliferation floods the citta with details, it deprives you of full presence: steady bodily presence gets lost, as does your ability to respond carefully and mindfully. That loss is a mark of ignorance; it robs you of groundedness, empathy and clarity. What is needed then is mindfulness of the heart, with the patience to allow a compassionate response – to self and other as these arise in awareness.

Kalyāṇamitta as a practice

This response is the direct practice of kalyāṇamitta. It begins with finding someone who models stability, empathy and clarity. A person who does more than say some well-meaning things, but also has the capacity to listen deeply without getting fazed or reactive. If you resonate with such a person, other qualities flow on: you meet, take in and feel the gist of what the speaker is saying. There is a non-attached engagement. Sometimes this is all that’s needed: to be able to speak, be heard and give deep attention to what occurred as one spoke. A kalyāṇamitta may or may not act as a teacher, but in any case has the respect to not barge in with lectures and ‘what you need to do is…’ This is because a true kalyāṇamittaunderstands that the citta can only learn from its own deep attention; that the purpose of wise companionship is to help us to listen to ourselves with dispassion. Kalyāṇamitta is thus about encouraging the Dhamma that’s ‘knowable in oneself’ (paccataṃ) and not about giving lectures.

The trust of another helps us to learn to trust our own capacities. It is an act of faith. Otherwise, becoming and conceit come up with the assumption that there’s something wrong with ‘me’, and I have to do something to make myself other than I am. This self-view can’t succeed. But clearing ignorance and imbalance doesn’t happen through simply affirming that ‘there’s nothing wrong with me.’ That’s just another self-view. Moreover, conceiving based on fortunate states such as ‘I am a genius/enlightened’ keeps needing more of the affirmation, approval or adoration of others. That’s also imbalanced. Clearing these imbalances only comes through suspending the assumption ‘I am’ for a while, and giving deep attention to qualities and energies that cause or release stress. So, if you want to be a true Dhamma friend to another, encourage this – and model it.

To become a true friend you don’t need to be full of ideas. The true friend begins in yourself, through cultivating and relating to balanced ease in the body; that helps to cut off the self-other proliferation. Aspects of the body may still get stirred by emotions, but the body doesn’t proliferate. So you can listen deeply, feel and be affected – but not fabricate ‘self and other’ out of that. Instead, when there is an emotional surge, you widen and extend awareness from the activated parts (often the abdomen, the chest and the face) to include the back, legs and feet, so the energy of the stirred-up state can level out and even discharge. This brings the heart and mind into balance; and it is only from that basis that you can get a feelfor simple threads of emotional ease and psychological space. It’s a shift from being tense or on guard to something more trusting, something intimate but not personal. Through attending to this firm but open state, you can step back from the personal biases, interpretations, old narratives and judgements. The natural result is true balance.

As heart-energy settles, you can extend the quality of that trust and benevolent intent into all the tissues and structures of the body; then extend that into the space around you: ‘May all this be free from harm or stress.’ You can then more specifically extend that to impressions of other people, especially those who mean a lot to you, both good and bad: either friends, or people you have difficulties with. Through meeting the qualities that come up as you attend to self and others, you cultivate value; you appreciate, release and forgive.

The mind that looks out from that fullness of heart can also inquire into any conceit, any notion of ‘I am this’, ‘she is that.’ Is the president that commanding entity that we like or dislike when he or she is asleep, or sick? How would we see them if they lost a child? Who is the comedian when they’re in deep stress about their mother’s dementia? How evil is the criminal who acted like that because they were abused by their parents, had little education and felt left behind by the mainstream of society? And, to bring the focus back home, when the mind/heart is conceiving people in critical or stereotyped ways, how deep is the attention? If we’re brooding over the faults of others, the heart is constricted and it can’t access the energy that supports full awareness. If there is a negative conceit, our hearts narrow and close down. On the other hand, a conceiving that blindly adores other people reduces discernment and sets us up for wanting more contact with the one who will make life perfect. Then again, we may indeed wish to avoid relationship altogether – but that sets up another negative relational quality. After all, we do share the planet with seven billion (and rising) other humans, and there’s only so many dogs, mountain tops and computer games from which you can derive a comfortable relational experience before there are problems with the neighbours, with the weather, and with your own mind. The good times alone won’t set you free.

What is needed?

A mutual life

Any self-view needs some solid ground, some ideological viewpoint or fixed mood or context to stand on; it craves solidity in what changes. And what is the success rate of that search? Do you ever get five stars? Does anyone? Is there such a thing as a self that has become solid? And yet is any self contented with being an ever-changing flow of qualities? The only free space and open ground is in the heart that knows letting go.

What hinders access to that are fetters (saṃyojana) that form a self, where there are only changeable qualities. These fetters come in clusters, of which the first three – ‘personality (or ‘self-) view’ (sakkāya-diṭṭhi), ‘uncertainty’ (vicikiccā) and ‘fixation on systems and customs’ (sīlabbattapāramāsa) – bind the heart to personhood. And personhood is insecure. That is, our personality arises dependent on social interactionsthat are always subject to change, so we can never guarantee that we’ll arrive at a comfortable and approved-of state in the future. Hence uncertainty and anxiety arise – so, to make our lives predictably steady, we grab hold of socially-approved systems and customs. The result of this tangle is stress – because all conditions change.

In terms of Dhamma practice, these fetters bring around clinging to the neat structure of one’s ideas rather than penetrating the nature of thought and concepts. This provides the individual with an intellectual standpoint, but far from releasing the mind, it limits the Dhamma to that person’s opinions. If, on the other hand, we disengage from trains of thought and attend to thinking as a process, we notice that ideas dazzle and stir the mind; they are attractive and they do give rise to a sense of certainty – but in themselves they come and go. They only provide certainty if they’re held onto – and that both generates conflict in those who have other ideas, and tightens energy in the head. In the grip of ideas, people can get dogmatic and generally obnoxious. A deeper sense of confidence in the Dhamma arises through seeing things as they are; that they arise and pass into something wordless and open. Since that experience is peaceful, the restrictive and constructed nature of conceptual experience loses its attraction. Thus there can be a letting go of fixed positions, and the arising of harmony and balance.

The search for a secure standpoint for the self is also the drive behind bonding to systems and customs. We get to know the ‘right way’ of doing things, and even of practising Dhamma, and the mind hangs onto it and looks down on others. The ‘right way’ is the way I see things; it’s the proper, fair and effective system or custom according to my conditioning – and there’s a self-view in that. This view doesn’t always stand out; it’s not as if we are mentally intoning ‘mine, me, this is my self.’ In fact, it’s often the opposite: as Buddhists, we think: ‘this is not “me” or “mine” – but things should be this way, this is right.’ This is because the way things should be, or seem to be, qualifies how I sense myself – as in touch with the truth or on the winning team. If I uphold that ‘right way’, then I gain value. I may even gain others’ respect by sacrificing my apparent self for the sake of the ideals that I have projected onto the group. But we can get attached to that self-denial view, and then feel affronted when others aren’t as heroic. ‘How come she’s so laid-back and finding it all so easy!’ ‘Why isn’t he practising as intensely as I am!’

For example, from time to time we have people in the monastery who are very diligent in the meditation hall … but difficult to work with in the kitchen because they have to have things done their way. That’s not right, is it? Yet generally their actions are based on what they find to be the most efficient way of operating in order to provide food for the community. So that sounds right …. Then maybe someone talks during times of silence … which is wrong! But they felt that someone needed some contact, or that some light-heartedness was good medicine …. Action based on compassion sounds like a wise point of view – right? Then someone wants to sit when it’s walking time, walk when it’s a sitting …. Maybe that’s what’s right for them. But we might feel: ‘We had an agreement to operate in a certain way to strengthen the group resolve and minimize disturbance, and people are expected to let go of their personal perspectives.’ That’s right too! ‘Right’ carries a very powerful energy, doesn’t it? You can get really convinced and really angry with ‘right’! But when that righteousness rushes in, notice the loss of groundedness, empathy and clarity. We swap relating to our fellow-humans for clinging to views.

Now I’m not saying that matters of behaviour aren’t to be addressed; that’s one of the values of spiritual friendship. But it’s the values of integrity and empathy that have to be steadily practised, not clinging to ‘law and order’. Nor is this about understanding others, or being understood by others: that also is an impossible wish. No one can view another’s kammically conditioned mind-set; it’s difficult enough to get some insight into one’s own. The correct approach is to replace these aspects of self-view with a mutual exploration of what arises in any situation or with any intention. This is right view: it rules out proliferating over a specific piece of behaviour and turning it into the view that ‘only this is right,’ or ‘she’s one of those,’ or ‘if I follow the rules I’ll be safe and no-one will find fault with me.’ Not so: the fault-finding mind will object to your smile, or what you didn’t say, or your non-smile and what you didn’t say. Believe me, it happens!

All of us like to have things go ‘my way’ because we know how to operate within those parameters. But that isn’t going to get us out of our habits and kammic programs. Sooner or later people and events won’t follow ‘my way’; so the unawakened mind feels disoriented; then latent ill-will arises, to flavour the heart with blaming ourselves, others, the leader, the past – and so on. Therefore we practise kalyāṇamitta and develop trust. Otherwise we can’t get past our attachment to our position, or certainty, or being in control. The heart contracts and clamps down, and the end result is the proliferating program of ‘should be’, which leads to frustration, irritation – and views about self and other.

Exploration and the inner friend

In direct experience, a behaviour or an appearance or a perception is a quality, not a self or another. Qualities, good or bad, depend on causes and conditions, and they can change. Hence the importance of ‘exploration of qualities’, dhammavicaya. This begins with deep attention, widening the span, and getting to the heart. This shift withdraws from the pressure and the reactivity of clinging to self. This takes some work, but through establishing mindfulness, and training attention, we focus not on the person, or right and wrong, or on the idea of ourselves. Instead, we approach experience by exploring its qualities, as they arise.

This approach penetrates self-view and touches the causal basis – which is the mesh of tendencies and assumptions behind our actions and interpretations. And whenever citta as awareness meets those perceptions and impulses, there’s an energy. The content of the heart is lively; that basis is energetic by nature. So we place goodwill, patience and integrity into the causal field as it arises right here. In the case of confidence and ease, qualities of rapture or uplift will arise, with an embodied effect. In the case of negative qualities, the response of steady goodwill will bring around the same uplift. In either case, we ground and widen awareness through the whole body – so that the ‘local’ effects in the head, chest or abdomen are steadied and soothed. This takes time and right attitude, breath after breath of it. Empathy will deepen and the citta will unify as it settles. Through this process, the awakening factors of mindfulness, exploration, energy, rapture and tranquillity arise and bring around the unified mind of samādhi. And one sees with equanimity: this attitude, this tendency, this mood is the old kamma that drives all of us. Then rather than adopt views that divide you and me and those ‘other people’, we set up the possibilities for our own and others’ release.

When you get this message, you start to shift the intent of your practice from one of trying to have or be something to one of handling and penetrating the suffering involved with the ‘me’ sense. The kernel of all relationship is a relationship with the heart. Then there is a release that also brings out its potential for wisdom, purity and compassion. And that’s the aim of Dhamma practice, whether we’re alone or with others, regardless of what’s going on.

Through direct practice like this, we learn that we only move past difficulties through a relationship based on factors associated with awakening. When the mind begins to appreciate the clarity and spaciousness that these factors instil, it feels more at home in that steady spaciousness than in any states. And it attunes to the inclinations that support that home. We tune in to those bright inclinations and the results from every occasion when we’ve extended patience over impatience; when we’ve extended caring over indifference or negativity; when we’ve extended endurance over the wish to cut and run; and when we’ve met the challenge of being present. And the powerful kamma of relinquishment attunes us to the source of all spaciousness: the intention of letting go.

This balanced and easeful awareness, like a good friend, brings wisdom into the events of our lives. At times we may feel moved to express an apology, or gratitude; or we undertake bright kamma from a place of fully settled presence. At other times the response of wisdom is just to allow things to settle and feel the peacefulness or equanimity of that. Through this process of living relationally, personal behaviour can develop and grow. Those forms of behaviour, although firm, clear and warm in general, are specific to each practitioner: all the wise beings I’ve known were real characters – with very different personalities. Ironically, we become more authentic people through being selfless. And the simple reason for this is that we operate with enhanced potential when awareness isn’t fettering itself with the strategies of self-view.

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