Like Milk and Water

On top of everything else that is going on, one issue that a lot of people are dealing with right now is trying to get along with each other. Lockdown has unexpectedly led to us spending more time than usual in the company of our loved ones. But just because you love someone it doesn’t mean that being with them 24 hours a day is easy, as the saying goes you can have too much of a good thing.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if it doesn’t always feel like a precious gift; families can be hard work, even the Buddha had his own family issues. Ajahn Chah knew that sometimes the most testing people in the world are our own family, so if any of his monks thought they were close to achieving enlightenment he would send them home to see if they could maintain their calm and patience even with them!

It is genuinely difficult to live with other people, especially your own partner and family sometimes, but this isn’t a post about why families are so hard to live with. Instead I want to celebrate the fact that living with other people is a fertile ground for practice, and hopefully give you a few ideas to try. While it is undeniably hard at times, for everyone (including monks), the frictions of rubbing up against other people’s personalities and behaviours can help to polish away some of our rough edges in a way that little else can. If you are looking for challenging practices look no further than your loved ones.

But first of all we need to get our perspective right. The Buddha said that the whole universe, and all that is needed to create suffering and release us from it, is contained within this fathom-long body (AN 4.45). When we have problems with other people our focus is often on their behaviour, but as much as we might start from the perspective that our problems are caused by other’s actions, we always have to remember that the world we perceive is the one we have created in our own mind. So the first place we should look is in there.

I’m going to use one of my favourite suttas as an example of an absolutely best case scenario. It is the Culagosinga Sutta (MN31), and in it the Buddha has come across three of his disciples living together in the forest. In this excerpt he is in conversation with one of the monks, Anuruddha.

[Buddha] I hope, Anuruddha, that you are all living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.


[Anuruddha] Surely, venerable sir, we are living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.

But, Anuruddha, how do you live thus?


Venerable sir, as to that, I think thus: ‘it is a gain for me, it is a great gain for me, that I am living with such companions in the holy life.’ I maintain bodily acts of loving-kindness towards those venerable ones both openly and privately; I maintain verbal acts of loving-kindness towards them both openly and privately; I maintain mental acts of loving-kindness towards them both openly and privately. I consider: ‘Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do?’ Then I set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do. We are different in body, venerable sir, but in one mind.


From The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi p301

Anuruddha explains some of the details of their harmonious living arrangement. They share the chores amongst themselves based simply on whoever happens to be there at the right time; whoever comes back first from almsround sets the table, whoever comes back last clears the table, and whoever notices that something needs topped up with water, or whatever needs to be done, just does it.

It sounds so simple, rational even, and yet we know that if we tried to implement this approach in our own homes it would fail miserably, and pretty quickly too. So why have I used this as an example we can make practical use of then? While we probably won’t be able to blend like milk and water with our loved ones so easily, Anuruddha gives us some sage advice from his practice that we can use to work on our internal world.

I’ve got no doubt that these monks were lovely people, but notice that Anuruddha doesn’t explain that the reason they all get on so well is because he lives with some great guys; instead he talks about his own mental attitude and behaviour towards them.

He feels gratitude to be living with these men, so because of that he practices maintaining loving-kindness towards them in action, speech, and thoughts, both when he is with them and when he is not.

He understands his own role in the dynamic of the relationship, so he cultivates good conduct and kind thoughts to take away some of the conditions that create disharmony.

Many of the disagreements we have with our loved ones are six is our fault, and half a dozen is theirs, but working on ourselves isn’t to create a situation where only one of us is in the wrong. If we look on our loved ones with kindly eyes, we would never use our practice to take the moral high ground, instead we would use it as a way to help and support them, and love them even more.

So let’s talk about love, and loving kindness. Metta, or loving kindness, is the unconditional love that we cultivate through practice for all beings. By cultivating metta for his companions Anuruddha helps to create the conditions that help to maintain the harmonious living arrangement.

Worldly love though, between ourselves and our partners, is always conditional in one way or another, and it is useful to recognise this distinction.

Relationships have beginnings, so therefore they have endings, which shows that they rely on conditions, and like everything else in the conditioned world they change. This knowledge gives us a clarity with which we can examine the reality of relationships, and can help to take away any shame or sense of failure we have around troubles in our relationships. If it stops working then that’s ok, that’s just the nature of things in the conditioned world, it doesn’t mean that you failed or that you have done anything wrong, it just means the conditions have changed.

Relationships, marriage, and having a family have no special place in Buddhism, these are just personal choices. Marriage isn’t holy in any way, it’s seen as just a civic matter, and having children isn’t part of any divine requirement. It’s up to you, do it if you want to, and don’t do it if you don’t. If you want to stay with someone until one of you dies then do that. If you decide you don’t want to be with someone anymore then don’t.

But this doesn’t mean that relationships with Buddhists are coldly, rational affairs. What they might lack in ‘romance’ they make up for in reality. The acceptance of the conditionality of relationships means that from a Buddhist perspective a relationship can never be taken for granted. It is something that always needs attention and has to be constantly cultivated, because without this work the conditions that allow the relationship to happen will cease to exist. The practice of metta towards your partner allows you to see them as a whole person and not just an extension of you, so a good balance of conditional and unconditional love will help to you to have a relationship of equals who will work together to create the right conditions for harmony.

The fairy tale of romantic unconditional love in a relationship creates unrealistic expectations and requirements that can never be met. With this attitude there is no way to fix anything, because love should be enough; and if there are problems then you just don’t love each other enough. If you are so determined that you will love your partner forever you don’t leave any room for the days when you just can’t stand each other. When you feel like you don’t love them, or they don’t love you then in that frame of mind you create a crisis. But this doesn’t reflect the reality of relationships and their changing nature.

When you look at relationships from a Buddhist perspective and accept their conditionality, then you understand for the things you want to happen in your relationship you have to create the conditions that allow it to happen. In a conditioned world ‘just wanting’ something to be a certain way produces exactly no results. Only by cultivating the conditions will you have the opportunity to allow the thing you want to arise.

So by understanding the role of his own mind and actions in his relationship with his companions Anuruddha shows us that if we want to live in a harmonious situation with other people then we have to do our share of the work to create the conditions that make it possible; and he shows us that we can do that by using the unconditional loving-kindness of metta to support the conditions for our worldly relationships.

Anuruddha also shows us another great practice to try. Asking yourself “why should I not?” when you see there is something that needs to be done is a really interesting way to uncover the activities of your mind. What assumptions or stories do you have that mean you think the other person should do it? Maybe it’s not the thing itself that you’re angry about, maybe it’s something else. Don’t take your mind’s word for it, dig deep and find out what it’s really about. Do you think if you have to do everything yourself it shows that your partner disrespects you? Or is lazy? Or doesn’t listen? What is it really about? You don’t need to actually do the thing, just asking yourself ‘why should I not do it’ is a useful enough exercise on it’s own, but you can go on and grudgingly do the thing if you want to. I often find out that it was me who didn’t want to do it and was hoping my partner would do it instead!

Shoulds and shouldn’ts are red flag words for a Buddhist, they give themselves away as being the work of the mind. The world is just the way it is, and it doesn’t come with many rules beyond the laws of physics. Shoulds and shouldn’ts are just our mind’s way of saying ‘I want it to be like this’. So finding these stories, finding your shoulds and shouldn’ts is really useful because it will show you where your mind is being closed to reality, and is instead only focused on getting things it’s own way.

You might find by doing this exercise that you realise that you have created stories about how relationships should be, and what kind of a person your partner is, or your children are. These stories are unhelpful because they again aren’t based on reality, and they are the work of your mind trying to have things just the way it wants.

If you have created a story that your partner is useless, then that is all you will ever see. Not only isn’t it looking on them with kindly eyes, it will close your mind to the times when they are actually aren’t being useless. If you have created a story that your child is disrespectful then that is what you will keep seeing. If all you can ever focus on is how you wish your partner was different, you will only find faults, whereas if you see your partner as they really are you might find that they might not have the particular quality you would like, but they do have some other ones instead.

Ajahn Amaro often says if you love someone then stop creating them in your mind, stop making stories about who they are and aren’t, let them be themselves. You need to open your eyes and see them as they really are, and that is something that metta is useful for. When you go out of your way to develop a kind attitude towards someone, you are much more able to accept the aspects of them that are not exactly the way you would like them to be, but also to celebrate the good qualities that they have too.

Metta is also useful for dealing with the issue a lot of people are having, anger and frustration. When you look on someone with kindly eyes it is hard to stay really angry with them for long, and even when you are angry you will take steps to understand that it is a sensation, that you are experiencing it inside you, it isn’t a useful tool to help to resolve a situation, and you don’t have to unleash it on anyone else to make yourself feel better.

It can be useful to reflect that the Buddha was very clear that he felt anger had no positive benefits, and that we should always act to uproot it as quickly as possible when it arose.

He also said that being angry with someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Through reflection we can see that the impact of anger is on us, not on the other person. We are the one that is stressed, upset, our blood pressure is up, our heart is racing – it isn’t good for us. So when Anuruddha practices loving-kindness in his thoughts he both spares himself from the unsettling effects of anger, and spares his companions from the effects of him unloading that anger on them.

I’ll finish by pointing out a really important detail in this sutta; it isn’t just Anuruddha’s dedication to bringing the right frame of mind that makes the harmony happen, it’s the fact that the three companions share a common goal and common values. As he says, they are of one mind. For the kind of living arrangement in this sutta to happen, you and your partner need to share common values, and you both need to have a commitment to treating each other kindly. If only one of you does, then constantly being the one who does everything or accepts everything isn’t a compromise but a capitulation. Worldly relationships depend on conditions, and shared values is one that you need for a cordial and cooperative relationship.

I found it incredibly useful that Luang Por Sumedho points out that we can’t like everyone, because some people are actually really horrible. We can cultivate metta for everyone but we can’t like everyone because we all have different personalities and attitudes. Metta isn’t a cover all that absolves everyone of everything that they have done. It’s not the job of practice to make us ok with every situtation we find ourselves in regardless of the behaviour of the other person, don’t fall into the trap of trying to become some kind of Buddhist door mat thinking this is how you are supposed to behave.

You can stand your ground and make your point without anger or ego. You can ask someone to do something, or to not do something, there’s nothing un-Buddhist about that if you do it from the right motivation and the right attitude of kindness. That’s why we need to check what is going on in our own mind first.

So see if Anuruddha’s practices can be of any help to you in creating your own little haven of peace and cordiality, and if not then at least you can try to cultivate a bit of mudita for him and his companions – it’s nice to know that someone managed to find a way to live together harmoniously.

(AN – Anguttara Nikaya, MN – Majjima Nikaya)

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