Relationship as spiritual practice

March 25, 2013

My husband and I recently attended a talk that Bruce Tift gave at the Shambhala Center in Boulder titled Relationship as a Path of Awakening. Bruce Tift, LMFT, is a private-practice therapist and instructor at Naropa University here in Boulder. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that Bruce is also a Sounds True author with an amazing audio program titled Already Free.) In his talk, Bruce discussed at length the both magical and disturbing nature of intimate relationships and how important it is to continually nurture and accept one another, while simultaneously and unabashedly encouraging growth. He highlighted common relationship patterns that he often sees in his private practice and helped trace them back to childhood—namely survival skills that we established upon first connection with our mothers, which no longer serve us. It should be noted that Bruce was not talking about survival skills which could be considered obvious reactions to abuse or neglect from a parent. Instead, he was referring to seemingly innocent details, such as our mothers’ own self-confidence, and how those nuances come to fruition in our adult lives and inform how we ultimately view the world, connect in intimate relationships, parent our children, etc. For me, discovering how much our lives are perpetually infused by even the minutest aspects of intimate relationship was both a beautiful and terrifying realization. How can we ever be fully aware of the implications of our behavior?

In his talk, Bruce also emphasized the need for couples to develop what he calls “healthy intimacy,” which involves building a strong connection, while at the same time fostering a sense of healthy separation. In Bruce’s opinion, the juxtaposition of connection and separation encourages couples to build a sense of individual independence and to shed their own self-limiting behaviors, while also fostering a depth of adoration and understanding for one another and their collective experience. What most resonated for me in Bruce’s talk is that individual development is only as effective as collective development—for in intimate relationship, the two are ultimately one. No matter how much progress we may make individually, if we’re not progressing in step with one another, our collective experience will be perpetually fractured. While this has always been obvious to me when it comes to goals and alignment related to our outer life—finances, health, travel, family, etc.—I’ve never viewed our inner spiritual goals as those that require the most attention and ultimately make our relationship work.

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As relative newlyweds, my husband and I are continually exploring relationship and the role that intimate relationships in particular play in one’s practice or personal growth. While people typically rely on those closest for nurturing and support, it is also those close to us who are best equipped to cast light on all our shadows. But how do we strike the balance between building the nest and deconstructing old patterns? How can we encourage one another to be vulnerable and to break our hearts wide open in relationship, while simultaneously using that same openness to examine and cast each others’ skeletons out of the closet? How do we prevent the very delicateness that we create within intimacy from also being used against us? In Bruce’s words, how do we negotiate the hard fact that our most beautiful and unconditional relationships can also be the most disturbing?

Bruce Tift

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Bruce Tift, MA, LMFT has been in private practice since 1979, has taught at Naropa University for 25 years, and has given presentations in the US, Mexico, and Japan. A practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism for more than 35 years, he had the good fortune to be a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and to meet a number of realized teachers.

Author photo © Steve Zdawczynski

 

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Bruce Tift: Already Free

Have you ever wondered how to hold the following two seemingly contradictory experiences? On the one hand, you feel in touch with the vast expanse of being. You sense that your true nature is infinite, boundless, unconditionally loving, and outside of time. And on the other hand, you know that in certain situations (usually involving other people!), you are avoidant, dismissive, reactive, and shut down, and—truth be told—you have a lot of healing and personal growth work to do.

Buddhist psychotherapist Bruce Tift is a master at holding these two seemingly contradictory views, and—ready for this?—he does so “without any hope of resolution.” In this podcast, Tami Simon and Bruce Tift talk about how, in his work with clients, he skillfully embraces both the developmental view of psychotherapy and the fruitional view of Vajrayana Buddhism, the blind spots that come with each approach, and how combining them can help people avoid these pitfalls. 

Tune in as they discuss unconditional openness, and how it is important to be “open to being closed”; how neurosis requires disembodiment, and further, how our neurosis is fundamentally an avoidance strategy—“a substitute for experiential intensity”; our complaints about other people (especially our relationship partners) as opportunities to take responsibility for our own feelings of disturbance (instead of blaming other people for upsetting us); how to engage in “unconditional practices,” such as the practice of unconditional openness, unconditional embodiment, and unconditional kindness; and more.

Bruce Tift: Already Free

Bruce Tift has been in private practice as a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colorado since 1979. He taught at Naropa University for 24 years and was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. With Sounds True, he has published the book Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Bruce and Tami Simon compare and contrast two different approaches to personal transformation: the “developmental” approach of psychotherapy and the “fruitional” approach of Buddhist practice. They discuss the blind spots inherent in each approach, as well as the ways they can be addressed. Tami and Bruce talk about the nature of neurosis and how neurotic tendencies almost always involve a sense of disembodiment. Finally, they speak on “unconditional practices,” and how unconditional kindness can transform one’s outlook on the procession of life. (70 minutes)

Bruce Tift: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy

Bruce Tift has been a psychotherapist since 1979, a practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism for more than 35 years, and has taught at Naropa University for 25 years. He is the author of the Sounds True audio learning course Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon speaks with Bruce about his perspectives on therapy as informed by Buddhist insights—examining how our “neurotic organization” exists to insulate us from legitimate suffering, why much of our growth comes from acting in ways that are counter-instinctual, and what it might mean to practice psychotherapy with the view that there is no problem we actually need to solve. (66 minutes)

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5 Tools to Create More Space in Your Mind

Busyness, distraction, and stress have all led to the shrinking of the modern mind.

I realize that’s a strange thing to say. Most of us don’t think of our mind as something with space in it, as a thing that can either be big or small, expensive or claustrophobic.

But just think about the last time you felt overwhelmed, stressed, or out of control. Chances are, you might not even have to think that hard. You might be experiencing that state right now as you read these words.

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First, our mind wanders. It spins through all sorts of random thoughts about the past and the future. As a result, we lose touch with the direct experience of present time.

Second, we lose perspective. We can’t see the big picture anymore. Instead, it’s like we’re viewing life through a long and narrow tunnel. We become blind to possibility, fixated on problems.

Put these two together and you’ve got the perfect recipe for eradicating space in the mind. The landscape of the mind begins to feel like a calendar jammed with so many meetings, events, and obligations that these neon colored boxes cover-up even the smallest slivers of white space. 

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Here are five tools for creating mental space. If you want to go deeper, check out my new book with Sounds True on the topic called OPEN: Living With an Expansive Mind in a Distracted World.

1. Meditation.

You’ve no doubt heard about all of the scientifically validated benefits of this practice. It reduces stress. It boosts productivity. It enhances focus.

That is all true. But here is the real benefit of meditation: it creates more space in the mind. To get started, try it out for just a few minutes a day. Use an app or guided practice to help you.

2. Movement.

So, maybe you’re not the meditating type. That’s fine. You can still create space in the mind by setting aside time for undistracted movement.

The key word here is “undistracted.” For many of us, exercise and movement have become yet another time where our headspace gets covered over by texts, podcasts, or our favorite Netflix series. 

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3. Relax.

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4. See bigger.

When life gets crazy, the mind isn’t the only thing that shrinks. The size of our visual field also gets smaller. Our eyes strain. Our peripheral vision falls out of awareness.

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Try it right now. With a soft gaze, allow the edges of your visual field to slowly expand. Imagine you’re seeing whatever happens to be in front of you from the top of a vast mountain peak. Now bring this more expansive, panoramic, way of seeing with you for the rest of the day.

5. Do nothing.

Now for the most advanced practice. It’s advanced because it cuts against everything our culture believes in. In a world where everyone is trying desperately to get more done, one of the most radical acts is to not do — to do nothing.

Even just a few minutes of this paradoxical practice can help you experience an expansion of space in the mind.

Lie on the floor or outside on the grass. Close your eyes. Put on your favorite music if you want. Set an alarm for a few minutes so you don’t freak out too much. 

Then, stop. Drop the technique. Drop the effort. Just allow yourself to savor this rare experience of doing absolutely nothing.

Nate Klemp, PhD, is a philosopher, writer, and mindfulness entrepreneur. He is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Start Here and the New York Times critics’ pick The 80/80 Marriage. His work has been featured in the LA Times, Psychology Today, the Times of London, and more, and his appearances include Good Morning America and Talks at Google. He’s a cofounder of LifeXT and founding partner at Mindful. For more, visit nateklemp.com or @Nate_Klemp on Instagram.

  • Cheryl says:

    Thank you for this reminder! I can absolutely relate to the ambivalence you feel. I could hear Robert Bly’s voice referencing Rumi, Hafiz and the Sufi pursuit of divine connection through intimacy, here, now.
    I am a psychotherapist, of the Jungian ‘persuasion’, as well as specialize in addiction & recovery with young adult women. I only mention these because two profound tools, from my experience both personally and with those I work with, came to mind while reading your post. I think they beautifully compliment the teachings that you mentioned in your article.
    The first of which is the book Projection and Re-Collection in Jungian Psychology: Reflections of the Soul by Marie Louise von Franz. The second is Boundaries and Relationships: Knowing, Protecting and Enjoying the Self by Charles Whitfield, a text I reference consistently with my clients. Its wisdom is extremely grounded, soothing, and in turn, empowering due to its ‘user-friendliness’.
    Thank you so much for your submission. It has lead me to the archaeological task of ‘Re-Membering’ which is so right for me to dig into, here, and now!

    • Jaime says:

      Hi Cheryl,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to write and for your insights!

      I appreciate your reaching out,
      Jaime

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