Living Deeply in Our Relationships
By Cassandra Vieten, PhD

Relationships are... as marriage psychologist Dr. David Schnarch says, “people-growing machines.” At our best in relationships, we support, encourage, love, and serve as models for one another.
At other times, they challenge us to grow. Anyone who has been a parent, a member of a family, or in a partnership (meaning all of us), can tell you nothing forces us to develop more, and nothing shines as bright a spotlight on those areas where we remain limited, attached, and tied up in knots.
Nowhere else do our habitual, hard-wired patterns make themselves known quite in the same way. And, some of the greatest life transformations come out of the loss of an important relationship, whether through separation, divorce, or death.

The process of transformation over the life span often appears like the hero’s journey. Each one of us, as the protagonist of our own epic adventure, must make tough decisions, struggle through mountainous landscapes, and undergo fantastic voyages, all the while avoiding getting lost in the dark forest or falling prey to traps or pitfalls, and outwitting dangerous creatures, perhaps with some help at key points from magical helpers or wise guides along the way.

Many spiritual and transformational practices appear to be individual enterprises. In a very real way, when sitting in silence in meditation or practicing yoga — it is between you, your mind, and your body. And prayer is very often a solitary affair.

Why then do we tend to, even when engaging in somewhat solitary practices like meditation, prayer, and yoga, be attracted to doing them in groups — whether in a group or retreat, or attending our church, synagogue, or spiritual center? Why do we prefer to get in our cars, drive across town, and shell out 18 bucks to take a yoga class when we could practice in our jammies in our own cozy living rooms?

There are lots of reasons, including support and encouragement of like-minded folks, personal attention and presence of a teacher, and a setting or environment that is specifically designed to support our practice. But it is likely that most spiritual traditions build in community experiences for more than these reasons.

Zenkai Blanche Hartmann, a roshi in the tradition of Soto Zen and former abbess of the San Francisco Zen center, compares being in relationships as part of living in a spiritual community to being in a rock tumbler, an analogy that seems to work for other close relationships as well:

“We live together, we sleep together, we work together, and we read together. Pretty soon everybody will see who you are. You might as well forget yourself… And that way of getting to know yourself is like rocks in a tumbler. We get to see where our rough edges are and someone else’s rough edge bumps into ours, and after some time you get polished up.”

Some of my colleagues and I have been engaged in a program of research on how people change their lives for the better. Over the last decade, we have explored in-depth how people make deep, lasting, and profoundly positive changes in their lives toward healing, wholeness, and flourishing.

We analyzed hundreds of stories of individual life transformations, conducted in-depth interviews with 60 teachers of religious, spiritual, and transformative traditions, and did surveys with over 1000 people.
Our research suggests there are several attitudes and practices that we can bring to our lives, and to our relationships, to make the myriad challenges we face each day into opportunities for growth and transformation.

The gist: big changes in life spring from changing things at the core — shifting our bottom-line view of the world and our place in it. When we change our worldview, changes in thinking, behavior, and priorities follow. As do changes in our relationships with others.

Here are a few things you can bring to each day to shift from reactively acting out old habit patterns in your relationships to consciously engaging with relationship as a transformative pathway.
1. Allow new or unique information to change your mind. Be aware of your natural cognitive tendency to fit what you experience into your current meaning system, or what may be old, outmoded ways of viewing the world. Cognitive science shows us that we tend to 1) not notice things that we don’t expect to see, 2) not notice even very obvious things when our attention is focused on something else, and 3) not notice things that change very slowly (for more on this phenomenon, go to

When we are relating to others, we are most often relating to our own image of them, fitting what they say and do into what we already believe about them. Be open to the possibility that another person might surprise you, and you might surprise yourself as well. While many of us wish with all our might to change difficult relationships, we don’t realize the extent to which we resist the very change we are hoping for.

2. Be Curious. Try bringing “beginners mind” to your relationships, as though each interaction were occurring for the first time (which in fact, it is). Suspend judgment. Bring an attitude of insatiable curiosity to each encounter. Rather than reacting automatically, inquire deeply.

3. Listen Deeply. Curiosity and inquiry must be paired with deep listening. Ask questions, and then be truly open to the response. Deep listening is not only the process of hearing, but being willing to hear something you have not heard before, because you are listening in a way you have not listened before.

Quaker writer and peace activist Gene Knudsen Hoffman, in her work on “compassionate listening,” says that “people open up to new thoughts and ideas when they are carefully listened to. Sometimes they even change their opinions as they learn to listen to themselves.”

In the end, our research has taught us that relationships are like every other arena of life. As we become more aware, more awake, and more conscious, we begin to be able to intentionally choose how we attend to each situation. As our mind opens, we become more open-hearted. And we begin to see ourselves, and one another with new eyes.

Cassandra Vieten is a licensed clinical psychologist and a researcher at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute in San Francisco. She studies how spiritual and transformative experiences and practices lead to health and well-being. Along with Marilyn Schlitz, PhD and Tina Amorok, PhD, she is co-author of “Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation in Everyday Life” (New Harbinger/Noetic Books). Join us May 3 in Santa Monica for a Living Deeply workshop

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