NYT bestselling author and Buddhist meditation teacher Susan Piver shares her Four Noble Truths of Love, a framework anybody can use for deeper, more fulfilling, and more connected intimate relationships.
Susan Piver Bio
Susan Piver is the New York Times bestselling author of nine books, including The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say “I Do”, the award-winning How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, The Wisdom of a Broken Heart, and Start Here Now: An Open-Hearted Guide to the Path and Practice of Meditation.
Her new book is The Four Noble Truths of Love: Buddhist Wisdom for Modern Relationships, which we talk about in our interview. She is a founder of Lionheart Press and a renowned meditation teacher who leads the Open Heart Project, the world’s largest online only meditation center. Learn more about her at susanpiver.com.
Introduction to the Four Noble Truths of Love: Buddhist Wisdom for Modern Relationships
Scott Snibbe: Last year my wife gave me a powerful book on relationships called The Four Noble Truths of Love. The book teaches how to make a relationship last by applying Buddhist principles as a relationship evolves from initial passion to long-term intimacy. The book helped strengthen my marriage by giving me some perspective on the inevitable ups and downs of relationships and gave me useful tools on how to stay compassionate throughout. Recently, we were lucky enough to score an interview with the book’s busy author, Susan Piver, which we share in this episode.
Interview with Susan Piver
Scott Snibbe: Susan, it’s an incredible pleasure to have you on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment today. Thank you so much for agreeing to join us.
Susan Piver: Thank you for inviting me. I’m glad to be here. Love a skeptic!
Scott Snibbe: I’ve benefited a lot from your writings and my wife will probably thank you too, not just for your writings, but for having you on the show and I bet she’s going to enjoy this episode too. So thanks again. In fact, she’s how I got The Four Noble Truths of Love: my wife gave it to me for a present.
Susan Piver: That’s so nice.
Scott Snibbe: You’ve been a student of Buddhism for a long time. How did you start applying these ideas to intimate relationships?
Susan Piver: Well, as you know, there’s so many teachings on love, relative and absolute, so much emphasis on loving kindness and compassion and practicing not just to be happy, but to bring happiness to others. And so, my husband is not a Buddhist, not a practitioner, but I noticed that I kept applying, just naturally, the things I learned as a student of Buddhism in my own relationship. When I became impatient or demanding or all the things that a person is, teachings would come to mind and they really helped me to not remain balanced, particularly, or even loving, but in the game, to remain connected. And that seemed very beneficial.
Scott Snibbe: You mentioned something a couple of times in your book, The Four Noble Truths of Love, that almost all the books that you ever saw about love were about how to get love and how you wanted to write a book more about how to embody love, right?
Susan Piver: Isn’t that interesting? I’ve been noticing that for a long time that most books about relationships are about how to get love, how to keep love, how to deserve love, how to get it to come back, how to heal so that you can attract it. And there’s really not much on how to love.
And Buddhism is a masterclass in how to love, I would say.
The Four Noble Truths of Love are obviously made up by me, and the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are obviously not made up by me: those are the core, essential, original first teachings of the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni.
One day I was crying because my husband and I just didn’t like each other and we couldn’t get along. And there was nothing to fight about. Just everything made us upset. Everything hurt. This went on for months and I still don’t know what governs these phases. Just like I don’t really know what governs the weather, I don’t really know what governs these phases of intimacy and non-intimacy. But one went on for a particularly long time of non-intimacy, non-connection.
And I was just sitting at my desk despairing, thinking I don’t know how to begin fixing this because we had tried all sorts of things, good things. And then, “I don’t know how to begin fixing this.” Crying, crying. And the very next thought I had was, I’ll begin at the beginning: at the beginning are Four Noble Truths.
And I was like, Who said that? Then I just started contemplating how, if something’s true, it should be always true. How could the Four Noble Truths — life is suffering/unsatisfying, grasping causes suffering, it’s possible to stop suffering, here’s eight steps to help you do that– how does that help me in my love life, in my relationship?
And then I just started contemplating that and they very easily transferred, so it would have seemed in that moment. Then I wrote the book.
Scott Snibbe: And can you talk a little bit about this word love? For those of us that are Buddhists, I think we learn that there’s a difference between romantic love and the Buddhist idea of love. Reading your book really helped, at least me, integrate those two forms of love a little bit more and see how they could be compatible.
Can you talk about that? What does Buddhism mean by love and what do we typically mean by romantic love?
Buddhist love and romantic love
Susan Piver: Yeah, I can try, but I would also like very much to hear how it worked for you?
Scott Snibbe: Absolutely. I think one of the most powerful aspects of your book as I read it was this idea of staying with the difficult parts of a relationship, that love wasn’t just at those peak experiences, or when you’re feeling good and great about your relationship. But that, perhaps, the deepest love was your ability to surf through the deepest valleys with that person.
And to just stay present with every type of experience with that person, including difficulties. That seems very different from the way I thought of relationships before I became a Buddhist; and also how we think typically in our culture, which is more about This person’s going to make me happy, they’re going to make my life terrific.
I could list dozens of things out of your books that I really appreciated, but in terms of relating to the definition of love, that was a very powerful aspect of it for me: Embodying love as a way of living through every type of experience with your partner.
Susan Piver: I appreciate hearing that. And my experience is similar: that sometimes I love my husband. Like right now, I really love him, maybe because we’re apart. But I was just feeling so much love for him. Sometimes I don’t feel that. Often I don’t feel that. From I don’t recognize that guy, or I don’t like him, or whatever, all the full gamut.
But love as a being with, as looking at things together, also became a central tenet for me. That love isn’t about feeling anything. Although when one feels loving, it’s great. But it’s about going on the ride together. Not “You should make me happy and I should make you happy.” Although I hope he will make me happy and I hope I can make him happy. But where are we in this bizarre journey of two, where it just gets more complicated the deeper it gets?
There’s some incredible disappointment, like, We’re never going to fix this — now what? And then there’s unspeakable deepening that just comes from time and knowing and staying.
I always want to add at this point that staying through difficulty does not include, in my opinion, problems that are beyond anyone’s control, like addiction or abuse. So I just always want to be really careful that no one thinks some Buddhist lady said I should stay in a relationship when there are these intractable problems. It’s very important to separate those.
Staying together as the ride progresses creates incredible intimacy, and love, as we all know, I think, ends and comes back and ends and comes back, but intimacy has no end. You can never say, I’m completely intimate with this person. I know them totally and they know me totally. Because love is alive and as a living thing, it grows and diminishes and changes. And I find that enlivening personally, and something one can commit to, as opposed to love.
Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it’s very nice, your approach, and quite unique, because I think most of the way that I’ve learned Buddhism really has to do with controlling yourself, even though you may be trying to do that for the benefit of all sentient beings. There’s even quotes in some of the texts that I read: “Find your happiness in virtue and not relationships” for example, is a line from a text I read recently, obviously designed for monks and nuns.
So your approach that really embraces intimacy, it is so refreshing and powerful. I think for those of us in relationships, it acknowledges that there is something special about a path tread together.
Even if you’re both Buddhists, it’s not just two individual Buddhists on their own paths, in the same house. But that how that relationship actually enhances our practice. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Susan Piver: Yeah, I’d be happy to, and just parenthetically, most of the writings on love from our traditions are written by monastics who weren’t married or weren’t married in the sense that we think about marriage. So this book obviously will not be the last and it’s not the first, but it is among the first books about relationships written by a Buddhist teacher who is married. And I look forward to all the books to come from other teachers.
Three ways to work with difficult emotions
Susan Piver: In our Buddhist tradition, there are three ways to work with afflictive emotions. The first is what you mentioned, which is, Don’t have them. Just try not to have them. Quell them, navigate around them. They’re dangerous. They’re painful for you and others. And all of that is true.
And that’s a really good way. That’s a really good view. It’s an approach that is very helpful. Strong emotions are afflictive: number one. Very Hinayana influenced.
But then the Mahayana view, one could say among many countless views of love, is that strong emotions may be afflictive, but they’re also potential bridges of compassion. Because when I investigate my pain; very particularly, when I encounter someone in my life who is experiencing that kind of pain, my heart goes out to them without thought.
I remember the great Tulku Thondop Rinpoche told me this when I was kvetching, talking to him about some problem I was having. He said, “Just think how much compassion you’ll have for anyone in the future you meet who has this problem!” That was very eye-opening. My own problems aren’t just about me. Investigating them and feeling them is not to be avoided because of the healing it could bring for myself and hopefully others in the future.
So that’ the second view.
The third view of strong emotions — and this is very broad, obviously — is, Maybe they’re afflictive, maybe they’re bridges of compassion, but every experience and every emotion is masking some kind of wisdom. What wisdom is masked by anger? What wisdom is masked by jealousy or disappointment? So those are really different and they’re each valuable — extremely, equally valuable. And different views are useful in different situations. So when it comes to love, intimate relationships, marriage, all three of those approaches are really useful.
But what is the wisdom here? Not, What am I supposed to learn? Or, Everything is actually good, whatever happens is fine. No, some things really aren’t fine. But what is happening? What is under the surface? What is the wisdom that’s trying to express itself? This is a very Vajrayana view, just to round the bases there. How’s that sound to you?
Scott Snibbe: In one sense, it’s familiar, it certainly resonates with the levels of teaching that I’ve had. But your way of expressing it, I think is very powerful: the way that it keeps coming back to a partnership and the connection with another person, rather than just your inner mental battles and joys and travails, I think that’s what’s really unique about your approach.
First Noble Truth of Love: relationships never stabilize
Scott Snibbe: I wonder if you wouldn’t mind going through the Four Noble Truths of Love a little bit. I wanted to talk about the first one, which I think is the one that’s extremely grounding and helpful to start with, which is that relationships never stabilize. Could you just describe a little bit about that and how that translates from Buddhism and how we ride that wave?
Susan Piver: Relationships never stabilize. Bummer. Well, the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism start with a statement of the root cause of suffering: Life is suffering because everything changes. The root cause, the root issue with relationships is that they never stabilize. They’re deeply uncomfortable. Just going on a blind date with a person you’ve never met before, it’s extremely uncomfortable.
What if they like me? What if they don’t? And then if you fall in love, that’s great. There’s no two ways about that, but it’s also quite intense and fraught and you think, Why did they look at me like that? And What if I’m mistaken in my judgments of them and they hurt me? It’s very uncomfortable.
Then in a long-term relationship, the discomfort is a kind of ambient irritation, I would say. Why are you doing that? Or, Why do you put that there? Or, Don’t get so close to me or, Don’t be so far from me. I don’t know what causes that irritation. I have some ideas, but it’s always uncomfortable.
To think, because it’s uncomfortable, it means there’s a problem here. Maybe there is, but maybe not? Maybe this is just the nature of it. So at first, the first noble truth, the way I first stated it was relationships are uncomfortable, but then I changed it to relationships never stabilize. And nobody ever told me that.
Scott Snibbe: I liked this very much. It helps you to relax a little bit. Because I notice how I am expecting the relationship to be good and I’m upset when it’s bad and want to change something: usually my partner, sometimes myself. There’s something very relaxing about the way you’ve stated it as “relationships never stabilize.” Because if that’s true, you don’t have to keep fighting to stabilize them.
Susan Piver: I appreciate what you’re saying. Because that’s how I felt too. And that’s my hope: that when you hear that first noble truth of love, you don’t feel distressed only, but you also feel some sense of space opening up. And then, as we know from our practice, when space opens up, all things are possible.
Second Noble Truth of Love: expecting relationships to be stable makes them unstable
Scott Snibbe: Then the way that you’ve translated the second Noble Truth of “expecting relationships to be stable is what makes them unstable,” which is a kind of koan or something. Can you talk about that? The more I think about that statement, the more profound it seems.
Susan Piver: The second Noble Truth of Buddhism states the cause of the first Noble Truth. And here, the same principle hopefully applies, which is, Thinking that this should be easy or comfortable or that it will work (and hopefully it will be easy and comfortable and work, as much as possible). But thinking a relationship should be that way all the time causes you to look at your partner differently, and yourself, and the relationship. Like, Is this a good one? and so forth. And that’s a very important question. All relationships end by some means or another. I’m not suggesting otherwise.
But weirdly, the more intimate we are with someone, the closer we are, the longer we are together with them, the more important they are to us, the less we are likely to see them. And the more we are likely to see who they are to us.
And that’s understandable, because your minds mix, your hearts mix. It’s hard to tell yourselves apart. But there’s a more neurotic aspect to that of “This means something about me.” When you say this to me, or when I approach you with this kind of issue, it means something about me and us. And then I’m not seeing you anymore. I’m only seeing what this means to me.
As we know, from our meditation practice, those are things to let go of. Not that they aren’t important. They’re very important. But you’re no longer attending to the present when you’re wrapped up in your thoughts about what you think about what is happening rather than what is happening. And the closer we are with someone, the more likely we are to actually miss the truth of their presence.
One way I’ve heard some of my teachers simply describe Buddhism is that suffering comes from wanting reality to be other than it is or clinging to a fantasy that doesn’t match the reality around us.
And I think you get to this, that relationships are naturally unstable. So if you expect them to be stable, you’re just railing against the nature of the universe.
Susan Piver: It’s like expecting experience to be permanent. It’s not going to work.
Scott Snibbe: Yes. And so, like the four Noble Truths in Buddhism, if it was only the first one or two it might be sad if you didn’t know that there was a way out of suffering and its causes. So your third noble truth of love says, “Meeting the instability together is love.” And this is a different definition of love than most of us have grown to expect. Can you expand on that?
Third Noble Truth of Love: meeting the instability together is love
Susan Piver: I know people can’t see me, but I’m holding my palms facing each other. A good partner is one who, when a problem arises, will face you. And you face that problem and you talk about it. I did this, you did that. How do we figure this out? That’s great. That’s a really good partner. That’s never to be undervalued, but I would say a great partner is one who will turn and face outward with you and look together at what is happening between you.
Now we love each other. Now we don’t. Now I love you but you don’t really seem to care about me. Now we’re distant. Now we’re close. Someone who will actually be on the ride with you. Whenever I think about this, I see my husband and myself on a roller coaster, shoulder to shoulder. Oh, I kind of wanted to throw up on that turn. And now we’re going up really slowly and now we’re coasting down. But if we can stay together as these twists and turns happen, even when they feel unpleasant, again, barring abuse or addiction, I think that’s love.
Scott Snibbe: A lot like the third Noble Truth in Buddhism, your third Noble Truth doesn’t necessarily say exactly how to do that, but it says it’s possible. We have some people who are examples of embodying this third Noble Truth, who we see from time to time. Maybe your own relationship is an example of that. So then you get to the final Noble Truth of Love, which is about the path, how to do this, which you connect with a number of different Buddhist topics of how to live a connected, meaningful, compassionate life. Can you talk about these tools, this final noble truth of love?
Fourth Noble Truth of Love: thoughtfulness, honesty, selflessness, and intimacy is the path together
Susan Piver: The fourth Noble Truth, like the fourth Noble Truth of Buddhism, is the eightfold path: view, intention, and so on. Here, it’s not only the eightfold path, but the way I thought of it is in concert with the three yana view. How do the yanas — they don’t progress one from the other, but they’re inseparable one from the other.
And they’re all important. The foundational vehicle, the greater vehicle, and the indestructible vehicle. So at first with any practice, whether it’s spiritual practice or a relationship, a very important thing is to establish the foundation. In your spiritual practice, if you lack all discipline and aren’t willing to keep things simple; simplicity, renunciation, discipline, create the foundation. So what creates the foundation in a relationship? To me, there were two things that came up. One was misleadingly prosaic-sounding “good manners,” which is being thoughtful.
Actually thinking about the other person and knowing where they are in time and space and making allowances when it is appropriate to do so, just thinking about that. I mean, if you’re in any relationship with someone that won’t think about you, you could have a great love affair, but it seems very hard to have a relationship.
Then the second foundational quality is honesty, which doesn’t mean just blurting what you think when you think it. It’s planted in knowing the truth for yourself and then deciding with discernment what to say and when to say it, or when to hold, or whatever might be appropriate for you.
But if there’s no thoughtfulness and there’s no honesty, whether because the person doesn’t know the truth or they’re dishonest, it’s not going to work. That’s a very unilateral statement, but it would be very hard to have a lasting relationship.
And then there are two more qualities. Once you have a strong foundation in your spiritual practice, your heart naturally opens. That just seems to be how we’re wired. If you have a strong foundation in your intimate relationship, your heart opens too. And the possibility of seeing the other person as having at least equal importance to yourself, sometimes more, is possible. The bodhisattva path, connected with the greater vehicle, is all about sharing importance. So if you can’t do that, and sometimes it’s not appropriate to do that, it would be very hard to deepen if you don’t see the other person as being equally important, which took me by surprise cause I was like, I thought this was about me?
And then the final quality on this path view is to look at what happens between you, barring abuse and addiction, not as an opportunity to deepen love, because that’s a mystery, but as an opportunity to deepen intimacy as we sort of alluded to before. Can this wonderful moment between us, this painful moment between us, this confusing moment between us, can this help me to know you better and to reveal more of who I am? Can you look at everything as a way of connecting more deeply, not of loving more deeply?
Difference between love and intimacy
Scott Snibbe: So intimacy and the way you describe intimacy, facing the world around you with your partner and getting to know your partner better and better. I really liked the way you make this distinction between love and intimacy. Is that a good way to summarize it?
Susan Piver: Yes.
Knowing the other person, beyond knowing they like this, they wake up at this time, you know, all those normal things. Good to know. But who is this person? What is their unique imprint and what is their experience of their life right now? What’s their experience of us? All of that is always in flux. Can I see this person and, equally important, can I allow myself to be seen and do they want to see me? That to me is very profound.
Scott Snibbe: Just to go back to the first point. I think there’s another profound point that’s worth reiterating that I was struck by the way you equate manners with kindness. Because I think, for a lot of us, manners are sometimes a way of masking the truth. You know, it’s just a formality you put on. But the way you’ve described manners is the fundamental respect and dignity and kindness that you show to another person. It’s one of the saddest things about relationships, isn’t it? That the person we love the most, we actually have the worst manners toward. At least, I noticed this for myself. I really appreciated your saying that. Do you want to elaborate on that further?
Susan Piver: Yes, interestingly, this is another reason to practice the Dharma, especially in the Mahayana view, because the closer we get to another person, the less able we are to tell the difference between them and ourselves and the more our minds mix, our beings mix, and so on.
And so the way we talk to ourselves can become the way we talk to our partner. And the way we talk to ourselves is usually not very kind. So that’s another reason to practice and know that your own gentleness toward yourself is not just good for you but really carries over into the way you talk to other people. It’s part of the bodhisattva path.
Another perspective on patience
Scott Snibbe: I was also struck by the way you talk about patience. I have not quite encountered the way that you talk about patience, which is a beautiful topic. It’s actually my favorite topic. I was studying it last night, the patience chapter in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. It’s a very famous text that a lot of Tibetan Buddhists study over and over again. But the way you described patience was emphasizing that it’s not primarily patience with the things around you but patience with yourself.
Susan Piver: Patience with yourself is the genesis point. And the formula for patience with self or other, weirdly, is having no expectations. If you don’t have expectations, all you have is patience. Of course, we should have expectations and we deserve to have expectations. But at the same time, if you were to loosen the grip that your expectations have on you, a space could open up and you find, well, I don’t know how this is going to turn out. I don’t know what’s going to happen. So I just have patience.
Scott Snibbe: And how does that relate to openness or curiosity? Are those related or parallel terms?
Susan Piver: I was really thinking the word curiosity. So it’s great that you mentioned it. Yeah, I would say in this case, they are parallel terms. You can’t have an expectation and simultaneously take an interest in what is happening. I mean, you can, but it’s easier if you separate them.
Scott Snibbe: I got that from Tara Brach because in her Radical Self-Acceptance, she talks about the mind of curiosity that if you can have the mind of curiosity, then that state of mind is antithetical to anger. If you’re curious about something, you can’t really be angry about it at the same point, because you’re naturally open to it.
Susan Piver: Or you can be curious about your anger, which is also helpful. Because we do get angry and we can take an interest in why.
Scott Snibbe: Even in your anger, even to be patient and curious at that. There’s so much in the chapter obviously about your fourth Noble Truth of Love, but that’s one that helped me a lot.
I was also struck by your describing the value of understanding different values and communication styles for different personality types in relationships. Can you talk a little bit about how that helps us navigate relationships? I think your dynamic with your husband may be similar to me and my wife’s sometimes. I was taking notes very carefully in that part.
Susan Piver: Yeah my only hesitation is I don’t know if I can talk about it a little.
Scott Snibbe: We’ll talk about it a lot if you like!
The value of the Enneagram in relationships
Susan Piver: Yeah, I have to say that I’ve been studying the Enneagram as long as I’ve been studying the Dharma. And so it’s really rooted in that. Nobody has to believe anything I say, certainly, but the Enneagram posits nine arcs of attention.
What does your attention go to in a situation? And that governs naturally what you talk about and what is important to you. So my attention goes to: What is meaningful? What does this mean? My husband’s attention goes to What is correct? What is right or wrong?
And that’s important too. If I expect his attention to land where my attention lands, then I’m setting us up for problems. But if I can see where his attention goes and he can see where mine goes, we can make more space for each other. So those nine communication styles, they have names in the Enneagram.
It has been so helpful to me, not just in my relationship with my partner, but in all of my friendships and familial relationships. So I see that my way of looking at things is just one of nine possibilities.
Scott Snibbe: I was very struck, just, for example, by the difference between someone who’s seeking safety and security as their primary value, versus someone who’s seeking connection as a primary value, or then someone who’s seeking the greater social sphere, these differences in where they’re looking for the greatest meaning in their life.
Those are really big differences between people and how they encounter things. And I noticed in my relationship, looking through that lens you described in your book immediately made me have more compassion for my wife. Embarrassingly. But it was good. Because a lot of times I would say to her, Why are you focusing on those little details? Shouldn’t we be looking at this other thing that’s more important from my perspective? But you really helped me understand how we have very different values. I don’t know whether they were born with them or where they come from, but how people come into all of their relationships with an extremely different ground level for what’s most important and what they focus on first.
Susan Piver: Absolutely. When my husband and I get in a fight, I’ve learned if I can enter the argument confessing some kind of wrongdoing, or, I maybe I didn’t do something wrong, but I see what went wrong. That’s very pacifying for us because that’s what is important to him. Something happened.
And I’m not thinking about that. But if I can acknowledge that, not to ignore what I think is important, but to let him know I see what he’s looking at. It allows us to remain close, even when we’re arguing. Not loving close, but just connected.
Scott Snibbe: We can talk about that part of your book for a long time. But we should talk about meditation. Again and again, you’re emphasizing that meditation practice is what actually helps you practice any of the things you talk about in your book in real life.
And you suggest a couple of specific meditation practices, mindfulness practices, some loving kindness practices and particular ways of having a conversation with your partner. Can you talk how those are useful? Our podcast is very interested in meditation. We usually alternate interviews and meditation episodes and you’re going to guide a meditation for us too in our next episode, which I really appreciate.
So could you talk about how you use meditation in relationships?
Meditation in relationships
Susan Piver: For me, just mindfulness meditation or mindfulness awareness. My husband doesn’t meditate. So I’m not saying it’s right for everyone, but it’s right for me. It allows me to track my inner experience in a much less reactive way. And I’m sure many people can relate to that. However you can do that. And to introduce space between what you feel and what you say or do: good, keep doing that because that’s really important. That’s the essential practice. That’s the foundational practice but it’s not the only practice.
And then loving kindness practice. The traditional loving kindness practice is you start with yourself, you think of something that is troubling you and you wish yourself well. Then you think of a loved one who has, or will, experience the same trouble. And you wish them well. Same thing for a stranger, meaning someone you don’t know but who you can picture that you don’t have any feelings about them. Then, for an enemy, someone who has hurt you or hurt people. And then for all beings who will also encounter some version of this problem.
And I tried this version of loving-kindness practice at another point in our relationship when I didn’t like him very much. Let me just do loving kindness practice. And he’s my loved one. But then I’m like, you know what? He’s also a stranger to me. And I know he’s also my enemy.
So I put him in every position. I started with myself, whatever was troubling me at the time. Then I looked at him through the eyes of love, which is very easy. Even when I don’t like him, I can still do that. And I wished for that version of him to have happiness and so on.
Then I looked at him as someone I didn’t know. Because he will always be a stranger to me. Sometimes I’m like, I don’t know, who is that guy? As close as we are.
And in some ways maybe he still doesn’t know himself. There are parts of ourselves we don’t know. And so I will never know him.
And then he’s my enemy. Not because he’s mean to me, although sometimes he can be mean, but because he hurts me out of his own woundedness and I hurt him. So can I look at him not as someone I hate, but as someone who is embroiled in pain and sparking pain in my direction? Yes I can.
And then can I look at all of him: loved one, stranger, enemy, and wish the totality of him well. And then us. So that seemed to be fair use.
And then the third practice is just conversation that involves listening: with just listening, careful listening, and then not responding. And then switching to being listened to.
Scott Snibbe: I liked your innovation to put your loved one in all the different places. In some of the meditations I’m familiar with, that’s most like a meditation on equanimity where you bring up a friend and enemy and a stranger. My teachers often said it’s hard to figure out who to put in that friend spot. Because your partner or your mother or father, you have very complicated feelings towards. So some teachers just say Put a pet there, maybe your child, someone you have complete selfless love for like a dog or cat. But I think your idea is a lot grittier and very practical, of putting the closest person to you in every one of those slots. And just see how they fit into every one of those places and relate to them and the meditation like that. I really enjoyed that.
Susan Piver: I’m glad. You can put yourself in every position too. You can see yourself as a loved one. You can see yourself as a stranger. You can see yourself as an enemy: not the part you don’t like, but the part that’s very wounded. And then you can do loving kindness for all of you.
Scott Snibbe: Yeah, that’s a great suggestion too. A lot of what you’re talking about are analytical meditations. That’s actually the emphasis on this podcast. Because obviously there’s a lot of mindfulness meditation out there, but not as much analytical. I don’t know if you typically use that term or talk about it.
In the Tibetan tradition, analytical meditation is where you actually think about things. Mindfulness meditation is more stabilizing where you accept and absorb yourself in things. But analytical meditation, as the Dalai Lama is mentioning in almost every talk he gives now, is to actually steer your mind using thoughts and emotions and feelings the way I think you’ve done very skillfully in your meditation.
Susan Piver: Thank you. Yeah. I think in the tradition I was trained in that’s called contemplation.
What if your partner’s not a Buddhist or meditator?
Scott Snibbe: You mentioned this a little bit already that your partner isn’t a practicing Buddhist. So what do you do when your partner isn’t following a path like you are? Even if they’re a little averse to it, if they’re not on board with this Buddhism meditation stuff. Can you do these practices one-sided? Or how do you make this work without trying to convert our partner?
Susan Piver: This is a question that often comes up with people, understandably, and I found it very useful in the sense that the only way I can convince him is to show up as this person who embodies and practices these things, not explaining them, not justifying them and not saying, Look, if you just had a little more curiosity or spaciousness or whatever… I just have to be these things.
And in all cases is the most compelling and the most inviting to embody the practice and this often transcends the need for explanation. So I just have to walk the talk and that is very useful.
Scott Snibbe: It’s very courageous, I think, for anyone who writes a relationship book who’s in a relationship, because their partner is going to read it and point out where you fall short of your ideals.
Susan Piver: Believe me, I’ll be the first to acknowledge my own foibles, but I’m not going to put anything out there that he doesn’t want me to say.
“Success” in meditation and relationships
Scott Snibbe: Yeah. I was really struck by the honesty at the end of the book where you just finished writing the book and you shared this fight that you had with your husband around this perennial issue of where to live. So many of us have those in our relationship, an issue that will never go away. You showed yourself painfully, but skillfully, riding through all the stages of acceptance and conflict and forgiveness and so on that you described in your book.
And it makes me really think how readers of your book should define success? If we’re able to. That last little part of your book hints at it, obviously. But if we’re quote “successful” in applying what you’ve written in your book, what does that look like? What does success with your Four Noble Truths approach to relationships mean?
Susan Piver: What does success in meditation mean?
Scott Snibbe: I asked Venerable Sangye Khadro, Kathleen McDonald, who’s one of my teachers that wrote a great book called How to Meditate? I asked her this recently, What’s the sign that your practice is going well? And she says, “Your relationships will improve.”
And I really liked that a lot because you can think you’re the greatest meditator in the world. You’re in this incredible seemingly single-pointed bliss, and then get up and have a fight at breakfast with your partner. A number of things you’ve put in your book are a little bit, circular or koan-esque. If you ask me, the answer is a little bit circular, that the sign that your meditation practice is going well is that your relationships get better.
Susan Piver: That’s interesting. I would say that if your relationship is going well, your practice continues to deepen, your realization deepens. And it doesn’t matter, by the way, if you’re good at meditating.
But in a relationship, similarly, Is our connection deepening? Is this alive or are we just in some weird contract to make each other feel safe? But is there a growing edge here and does love become more mysterious over time? is to me the tell.
Scott Snibbe: For a person who may not even have any experience with meditation, or just a little bit, could you try and describe what “deeper” means in terms of a meditation practice?
Susan Piver: That’s a good question.
Many people notice the following things when they deepen their meditation practice: They actually cry more and their sense of humor improves. You feel more. Things that would cause you to be reactive aren’t as triggering. You care more about yourself and others in the world.
So your heart kind of breaks. And to me, that’s the sign of success. I know that doesn’t sound very fun, but your heart just breaks. It breaks open. And you see that you actually don’t know anything. Which is true. But there’s something to be experienced here and a mission to accomplish and a person to be.
So for me, the way I think of it is, I used to think when I was young, Oh, I only just make decisions about my life and plan it and have all sorts of whatever strategies for me to create my life. And those things are important. One must be quite pragmatic.
But over time I have just come to see that I am actually not authoring my own life. I’m shepherding it and I don’t know where it’s going, but there’s a story being told by my life, by your life. What is that? Becoming more clear and more responsive to that is a good fruit of meditative practice.
Scott Snibbe: I think that’s very nice description that should make people curious, if not hungry, to try and meditate.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about or that you think is important?
Susan Piver: Yeah, there is one more thing, actually. I always think it’s important to point out that love and relationships are different. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean you’ll be able to make a life together that you both love. And that is important to distinguish between those things.
Scott Snibbe: Thank you so much for joining us, it’s really extraordinary getting to speak with you. I think people are going to benefit so much from this interview. And we’re excited to hear your meditation in the next episode, which, as you said, is absolutely critical to embodying any of the practices you’ve talked about with your partner to first practice on the cushion.
Susan Piver: For me, it’s critical. Yes. And thanks for having me. It’s been a delight to talk with you. Thank you.
Scott Snibbe: Thank you so much, Susan.
You can buy Susan Piver’s book The Four Noble Truths of Love in hard copy or audiobook. Customer reviews and the rest of Susan’s books for self-help and guidance on the spiritual path can be found here. And Susan’s Open Heart Project is the community she started for meditation and discussion.
For more conversation on romantic relationships, true love or any type of loving relationship, listen to our previous relationship episode Buddhist Relationship Advice with Elaine Jackson. Elaine covers everything from transforming our view of relationships to what to do when we are heartbroken. Elaine also leads us in a heart-warming loving-kindness meditation to bring improve our relationships towards all human beings. Lastly, dive deeper into the topic of love in Buddhism with one of our most popular episodes, What is Love?
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Digital Production by Jason Waterman