Thich Nhat Hanh is my favorite Buddhist author. The gentle Vietnamese monk uses homely analogies to teach mindfulness, self-understanding, and compassion. I love the way he compares human relations to plants decaying into garbage, then composting into rich soil which feeds new plants. “We do not expect a person always to be a flower. We have to understand his or her garbage as well.”
I find his “In-Out” exercise helpful for curbing stress when driving through heavy traffic, waiting in line, or rushing frantically through a to-do list.
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.
One area where I do find the celibate monk lacking, however, is his marital advice. His recommendation that husbands and wives talk problems out before they become major obstacles is great in theory. It would, no doubt, work for couples who have gained control of their own egos and can overcome the temptation to manipulate the other into agreement. Unfortunately, few mortals attain that degree of perfection no matter how diligently they pray or mediate and practice mindfulness. Most married couples find, in George Eliot’s words, “invisible barriers to speech between husband and wife.” That’s certainly true in areas where compromise isn’t an alternative.
A friend told me her parents survived years of marriage by walling off a painful topic. In their early years, he wanted to take a job with great opportunity for advancement. She refused to move, and he missed the opportunity for a more fulfilling career. The decision could not be changed. I suspect they eventually reached a point where it was no longer an issue.
I don’t see how this couple could have compromised. She did not want to uproot the children and herself to move to a remote, inconvenient area, but his self-esteem needed success in his field which only this job would provide. What was the point in having a conversation that would likely end with blame and accusation: “You’ve always been selfish.” “You don’t care about what I want.” Discussing difficult issues requires more understanding of self and spouse than most of us have.
When I was a young wife, our Relief Society President told a story on herself. “It made me mad that my husband never rinsed out the basin after shaving. So, one day I told him we should each tell the other one thing that irritated us. He agreed and I told him about the whiskers. He said he would remember to rinse the basin, and I said, ‘Now it’s your turn to tell me what I do that irritates you.’ He said, ‘Nothing you do irritates me.’”
I remembered her story one day when George suggested we tell each other one thing that really bothers us. “Go ahead,” I said sweetly. “Nothing you do bothers me.” That little lie has saved me from hearing how many of my favorite habits get on George’s nerves.