Article: Personal Responsibility: A Buddhist Perspective on Relationship
By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.
Summary: Relationship dynamics, especially those that cause us difficulty, can provide a window into our individual karmic patterns and foster self-transformation (as well as relationship transformation), if we choose to understand and heal these patterns.
Relationship forms the core of our experience as humans. We define ourselves and are defined by the nature of our relating. In Buddhism, there is a concept called “interdependence” which postulates that nothing exists independently. Everything exists interdependently. Applying this concept to relationship implies that we do not and cannot exist independently of one another.
It is through relationship that we come to know ourselves. It is through relating that we hold up a mirror to others for them to come to know themselves. By providing us with information about ourselves that we cannot see without the lens of relating, relationship provides us with a path of revelation. As we learn more about ourselves, our experience takes on richer meaning.
In order to learn as much as we can from the revelations our relating provides us, we must be willing to take responsibility for the ways we relate to one another. If we don’t take responsibility for our intentions, motivations, and actions, we entangle ourselves in a web of relating driven by karmic conditioning. This is one of the reasons the issue of personal responsibility is so emphasized in Buddhism. If we don’t take personal responsibility for our situation, we remain caught in samasara, the realm of suffering, incarnating into situations that are dictated by our previous actions and reactions.
The Karmic Dance of Codependency
The types of relationships we form in samsara generally tend to be codependent in nature. In the effort to escape personal responsibility, we form relationships that are destined to become a game of hot potato as people form patterns of imbalance around the issue of personal responsibility. The most common form of relationship that comes out of this game of hot potato is a codependent relationship.
There are some common themes in codependent relating, although it is important to note that every codependent relationship contains is own unique dance of karma. Karma forms the basis of our actions and reactions in relationship.
Karma refers to the consequences of actions. All actions are the consequence of previous actions, and all actions generate consequences. When we are unaware of the consequences of our actions, we tend to make choices in poorly informed ways. Simply put, the forces of karma help us become aware of the consequences of our actions.
When we become aware of the consequences of our actions, we become more aware of our motivation. As we become more aware of our motivation, we learn more about our intentions. As we learn more about our intentions, a window opens into a deeper level of our inner world.
One of the first ways we become aware of the consequences of our actions is through the effect our actions have on other people. Also, the way we react to others’ actions shows us about our habitual response. This is the dance of karma that is hidden in all of our inter-relating. If we learn the steps to this dance we become aware of the nature of our karma.
The dance of karma in each codependent relationship depends on the intentions and motivations driving each dancer’s actions. Everyone has a different motivation regarding the issue of personal responsibility – and everyone who is not fully committed to personal responsibility risks being driven by that motivation.
The most common form of codependent relating is one where the two parties’ imbalances in motivation regarding responsibility compliment each other. A common agreement at the heart of a typical codependent relationship reads: “I will take responsibility for that within you that you don’t want to take responsibility for, and, in exchange, you will take responsibility for that within me that I don’t want to take responsibility for.” A typical codependent relationship contract further reads, “In addition, once we make this agreement we both agree not to change. This is because, if we change, we may not want to take responsibility for what we have agreed to take responsibility for in the other.” And further, “If you change or if I change, that means you don’t love me anymore or I don’t love you anymore.”
Here, in a couple that is engaged in couples counseling, is an example of the karmic dance that is generated by complementary imbalances regarding responsibility. The dance steps in each individual are generated by their response to internal events and are revealed in their response to external events.
John: John is born into a family where both parents are alcoholics. He has two younger siblings. His mother stays at home and his father works outside the house. His mother is often unable to make breakfast and get the children to school because she is hung over. His father is raging when drunk, and turns his rage on John and his younger siblings.
In adulthood, John is a union carpenter. He takes on many responsibilities within the union and often winds up taking on the responsibilities of the general contractor on the job. He has a reputation of being a problem-solver and community organizer. Mary complains that he is difficult to connect with emotionally.
Mary: Mary is born into a family where both parents are children of Holocaust survivors. She has an older brother. There is harmony on the surface of family interrelating, but both parents suffer periods of depression. They usually “take turns” at being depressed where one parent is functional while the other is not. Mary is sickly and misses school frequently.
In adulthood, Mary has had difficulty holding jobs. She has chronic fatigue. She feels there is something missing in the relationship. John came into couples counseling at Mary’s request and reports he does not feel he has any issues.
Before we examine the dance of karma these two people are engaged in, let us look at the individual karmic patterns that are articulated through the circumstances of their birth families. From a Buddhist point of view, the play of karma takes place over a series of lifetimes. The circumstances of one’s birth, the reactions one has to those circumstances, and the way one engages with those circumstances reveal information. This information is about the nature of one’s karmic patterns that come to light through the circumstances of one’s birth. The way the individual relates to those circumstances throughout his lifetime offers further information about one’s karmic patterns. This is the play of karma within an individual lifetime.
Most people do not understand that the circumstances of their lives have so much to tell them about their deeper experience. They generally remain in patterns of action and reaction, even to the point of believing that life is just happening to them and they are just reacting to it. They don’t always understand that they can examine their reactions, change their patterns of reactivity and emerge out the experience of being a “victim of fate.” They don’t understand that their most intimate relationships are excellent vehicles for this process of change and transformation.
In the case of John and Mary, both are, as adults, externally in response to each other based on their internal reactions to the circumstances of their birth families. From a Buddhist point of view, these internal reactions are a function of their aversions and desires in this lifetime, and these responses are a reflection of the play of aversion and desire in previous incarnations. These internal reactions remain largely hidden until they are revealed in external reaction through the dynamics of interrelating.
As is often the case with intimate partners, John and Mary have opposite reactions to the same event. The same event in their case is that their birth families are headed by parents who are unable to maintain their parental responsibilities in a steady way. This is due to their inability to maintain personal responsibility to their duties as parents. In John’s case, the addiction to alcohol affects his parent’s ability to maintain personal responsibility. In Mary’s case, it is likely that the hidden, unhealed legacy of the Holocaust affects her parents’ capacity to steadily maintain personal responsibility to their duties as parents.
John and Mary have opposite reactions to the lack of stability their parents’ difficulty in maintaining personal responsibility creates. John seeks to take on as much responsibility as he can to keep creating more solidity for himself in a family system that changes in accordance to the whims of his parents’ addiction. Mary collapses and refuses to hold responsibility for anything in the hope that the vacuum she creates will draw any available resources into her. She does this in order to mitigate the effects of uncertainty generated by her parents’ emotional and mental instability.
Both John and Mary are, in their responses to the instability of their birth family systems, trying to mitigate the effect of the loss of power that instability creates. John tries to accomplish this by taking responsibility for all possible eventualities so he can control the maintenance of stability. Mary tries to accomplish this by avoiding all responsibility in the hopes that any available resources left in the environment will drain into the void she creates by not holding responsibility.
The imbalances in these internal responses to the same event remain largely hidden until they form a basis of attraction for John and Mary. The dance of karma begins as they marry one another. The dance is fueled by the opposite ways each is generating and experiencing reality. John is generating reality in such a way that he maintains responsibility and control over all the resources in the environment. This promises to reassure him as it mitigates the effects the unstable conditions of his birth family have on him. Mary cultivates collapse and draws resources into the vacuum that is created by the collapse. This reassures her as the attention she receives in collapsing mitigates the effects the unstable conditions of her birth family have on her. When John takes responsibility in the places she has vacated because of his need to control the stability of the situation, both feel their strategies are successful.
Both are out of balance because both are reacting to circumstances through aversion. Both are trying to avoid instability. The imbalance in these aversive reactions remains hidden, especially in John’s case, until the two meet and fall in love.
The process of falling in love from the perspective of this paradigm is an interesting one. The dance of karma is played out on several levels of relating. One level is the level of incompletely understood motivation. In this case the incompletely understood motivation for both John and Mary is to avoid instability. The other level is that of reactivity to external circumstances. In John’s case, the surface level of reactivity to external circumstances is become over-responsible. In Mary’s case, the surface level of reactivity to external circumstances is become under-responsible. They both hope to achieve stability, but they are each using an opposite method for achieving that goal.
The dance of karma is engaged as opposites attract. Each person’s imbalance regarding personal responsibility is complementary to the other’s. On the surface level of interaction, John is attracted to Mary by his need to take responsibility for anything in the environment that promises to destabilize him. Mary is attracted to John because her method of collapsing in order to bring resources to her works so well with him.
Their particular codependent contract reads: “We will medicate the wounding generated by the instability of our birth families through our connection. (This instability, in case the reader did not notice, was generated by their parents’ imbalances regarding responsibility.) To do this, we will allow John to gain control over all variables in the environment by taking full responsibility. John will feel relieved because he is in control of all variables. Mary will feel relieved because she can pull John into the void she creates by not being accountable for any of the variables. As long as Mary continues to collapse, John can maintain control.” Also, “If John changes that means he doesn’t love Mary anymore. And if Mary changes, that means she doesn’t love John anymore.”
The resistance to change that these kinds of agreements require in order to remain in effect is one of the primary features of unconsciousness. Unconsciousness is one of the primary drivers of samsara. Unconsciousness thrives on lack of change. If there is no change in response to action, there is no feedback loop regarding the consequence of actions. In essence, Mary and John further agree: “If I don’t know about the negative consequences of my actions, I have permission to continue to keep making the same choices regarding my actions; and you promise not to demonstrate to me any negative consequence as a result of my actions. In fact, you will support my imbalances regarding personal responsibility. In this way we can both be relieved of the obligations of balanced personal responsibility.”
In John and Mary’s relationship, if both were to continue to be driven by the consequences of the actions they take to medicate the imbalance in their relationship regarding personal responsibility, breakdown of their system is inevitable. This is because change is inevitable.
In Buddhism, inevitability of change is expressed as impermanence. Impermanence is viewed to be at the heart of all experience. All experience is change. The acceptance of impermanence is difficult for many because the experience of change throws most people into a fear of being out of control.
Both John and Mary’s imbalances around personal responsibility arise out of a desire to gain control over circumstances. Because change in their parents’ moods created such a sense of being out of control in each of them, they sought to gain control by stopping change. John tried to stop change by occupying everything in the environment through over-responsibility. Mary tried to stop change by vacating everything in the environment in the hopes that the vacuum she created would draw resources to her.
Tragically, they, like most people, do not realize that the best way to gain “control” over change is to take full responsibility for all their reactions to change. There is no way to stop change. Every action has a reaction. The actions that John and Mary took to try to restore stability by attempting to stop change have their own consequences. These consequences are the not the ones each hoped to create by entering into their codependent agreements around personal responsibility.
The consequences of John’s actions in taking responsibility are evident in his response to Mary’s search for help in counseling: numbness and lack of awareness achieved through emotional shutdown. John has to stop reacting to change in order to continue in his quest to fill the gaps in control that change creates. The end results of this kind of shutdown could take any number of paths as the consequences of actions taken to achieve the shutdown make themselves known. In Buddhism, this process is called “the ripening of karma.”
The ripening of karma can occur on any level of experience. In John’s case, on a physical level, this shutdown might manifest as a heart failure, arthritis, or any other physical disease that mimics the energetic patterns of emotional shutdown. On an emotional level, John might slip into a severe depression as all emotions are rejected. On a mental level, his mind processes might slow down to the point of his entering into a kind of dementia. On a spiritual level, John might subscribe to a nihilistic philosophy that matches the barrenness of his emotional terrain. These are all just potential consequences of the shutting down of response that is required for John to keep taking on more and more responsibility while trying to remain unconscious of the effects of his actions.
Within the constraints of the codependent agreement, Mary is unlikely to mirror the true consequences of his actions in taking more and more control because she is so invested in staying collapsed. But her actions to remain in collapse also have consequences that John is unlikely to report. The more collapsed she is, the more control he has. He has cultivated lack of awareness so he is not tuned into Mary’s physical deterioration (chronic fatigue), which is a natural a consequence of her actions in cultivating collapse.
Further potential consequences – or the ripening of karma for Mary as a result of her push to collapse – might include manifestations at different levels as well. On a physical level, she might experience a deeper level of autoimmune disease. On an emotional level, she might fall into dissociation. On a mental level, she might experience a dementia with a different type of anatomy. And on a spiritual level, she might gravitate toward philosophies that involve magical thinking, which would thrive in the vacuum she had created.
If the misery that is generated by actions and logical consequences of the cultivation of imbalance regarding personal responsibility continues, imbalance deepens. The crash that comes from the attempt to not take responsibility for one’s imbalanced reactions to change is inevitable. This is the curse of the codependent agreement. The process of revelation of natural consequences of actions is inhibited. Negative feedback loops regarding actions that do not produce harmony are inhibited. This produces suffering. It does not cultivate and encourage love.
Stepping out of the Dance of Karma
If we are willing to listen to the messages that are contained in our suffering, and if we are willing to change, impermanence becomes our friend rather than our enemy. If suffering is impermanent, there is hope in change. As we agree to participate in the dance of change, we become more willing to examine the motivations and intentions that are held in the karmic patterns which generate our suffering.
As we become more aware of our karmic patterns and the way they are generated by our aversions and desires, we may become motivated to examine our aversions and desires. These are well highlighted in our reactions to others. By examining our judgments and attractions to others we can find the places where we need to work to reduce our reactivity.
As we reduce our reactivity, the grip of our karma loosens. As the grip of our karma loosens, we become more able to respond less through the force of habit and more through conscious choice. Even if one partner in the dance is paying attention to the catalyst this attraction of opposites provides, the dance of opposites is highly effective in revealing each person’s karmic patterns.
The process of examining our motivations and letting go of the habits of aversion and attraction which enmesh us in karmic patterns that generate suffering is sometimes called “the dark night of the soul” in Western traditions. This is a process that involves individuation that many approach with dread. The individuation process dissolves the codependent ties that bind each party into the relationship. Dread quickly gives way to relief as the consequences of choosing personal responsibility over the circumstances of one’s life emerge.
Generally, the path across the dark night of the soul tracks back to the original wounding around which so many karmic structures have been built. As we sit at the edge of our wounding and listen to what our relationship interactions have to show us about our relationship to that wounding, we can change.
In John and Mary’s case, the path toward healing the relationship lies in each treading the path toward wounding they experienced as result of the instability they experienced in their birth families. To dissolve the karmic patterns she had created in avoiding personal responsibility, Mary had to come to terms with the effect her vacating responsibility had on her and on others. She had to confront the fear of being out of control in the presence of instability. Then she had to confront the source of her fear of taking personal responsibility. She had to heal anything else within herself that would prevent her from being able to take personal responsibility in all her reactions to events occurring around her.
For John to dissolve the karmic patterns he had created in taking on too much responsibility, he had to come to terms with the effect his taking of too much responsibility had on him and on others. He had to confront the fear of being out of control in the presence of instability. He had to confront the source of his fear that drove him to take too much personal responsibility for events around him. Then he had to heal anything else within himself that would prevent him from being able to take personal responsibility in all his reactions to events.
On the surface level of change within the couples counseling environment, the effects of this work toward individuation John and Mary would take would look quite simple. Mary would cease complaining that John was not present enough because, in the process of individuation, the true nature of the complaint would be revealed. The complaint was an effort to draw John further into the void she had created by vacating responsibility. She was, in fact, upset, because her machinations toward collapse had stopped working as a trigger to make John take more and more responsibility for her. Mary’s machinations no longer worked because John had gone numb to the effect over-responsibility had had on him, so that he could persist in responding to events with this imbalance. In the process, he had become emotionally numb to her machinations.
Mary would seek to step forward into taking responsibility for getting the stability she wanted in new ways. John would stop trying to ward off emotional contact as he thawed in the process of becoming more attentive to the effects that taking too much responsibility had on him. The impasse they had reached in the relationship could become the path toward balance for each of them individually.
The impasse that brought John and Mary into counseling is a natural result of the actions and their consequences in their dance of karma. The steps of this dance were generated by the imbalance regarding personal responsibility each brought to the dance. By examining the effect of each step in the dance with a determination toward change, the relationship provided a vehicle of transformation for both of them.
This process is possible for anyone who finds themselves in an impasse in personal relationship. Everyone has karmic patterns whose anatomy remains largely unconscious until it is revealed through interpersonal relating. As we persist in running the patterns of our imbalance through our personal relationships, the problematic aspects of those patterns become more evident. The problematic aspects are generally due to our relationship to those things we avoid and those things we desire. If we are willing to take responsibility in understanding how our desires and aversions are driving us as we generate karmic patterns, our relationships become potential fields where we can pursue enlightenment.