Thursday, March 22, 2012

Relationships and the Trap of Commitment

A case for a new definition of commitment

Here is my latest article on relationships which was published in the spring edition of Yoga Connection magazine.

Last time I wrote about expanding our definition of relationship to look at our relationship with everyone and everything. Through doing this and creating true intimacy in our relationships with ourselves, others, and everything - we are more able to clearly see ourselves and grow. (If you missed it, you can find it on my website below.)  In this piece, I want to focus now on a single aspect of intimate relationship that can trap us and limit our ability to be healthy and grow: commitment.  And before you turn the page thinking this doesn’t apply to you because you don’t have a partner or think you already have commitment, remember, we have a relationship (and commitment) with everything, so this applies to our jobs, meditation, yoga, fitness, spiritual practice and more.

When I look up commitment in the thesaurus I see it is associated with words like liability, must, need, and ought. Yuck!  In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) it’s well known that if you throw “should” in there too you’ve got the perfect recipe for unrealistic expectations, cognitive distortions, guilt, and plenty of negative self-talk.  Actually, nothing should, ought, or must be any particular way other than what it is. In one of my favorite quotes Virginia Satir says, "Life is not what it's supposed to be. It's what it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference."  So we want to eliminate words like “should” and “must” from or vocabulary, but does that mean we also throw away commitment?

One way we may view commitment is as a static, permanent obligation. We assume once we commit to a relationship, be it a partnered relationship, a job, or a practice, that it will always be there, as long as we conform to another’s expectations, we will be fine and the relationship will last. This leads to the implicit contract of dependence that many of us have with our partner or employer. When we buy into the illusion of permanence, we have a false sense of comfort and security and our relationship can become dull, lifeless, and confining.   Even good relationships that bring us joy can grow dull and lifeless when we depend on them. And when the relationship goes away, it can leave us struggling to find ground.

The reality is that the relationship will end at some point. We will die, the job will change, our once abled body will not always be, and if we don’t keep working toward intimacy and deeper relationship with our partner or friend it will grow flat and the other person may want to leave. The same is true with the relationship to our jobs, if we don’t show up authentically, speak our truth, and keep growing, it grows stale. It is easy to assume the vows we make and the paper we sign somehow protect us from change and guarantee that our partner will always be there for us. It will end one day, it will not always be there, so why would we just rest on the false sense of security of a paper commitment?  By living with the reality of impermanence, we are able to live more fully co-creating the relationship we want.

Everything about us, within as well as without -our relationships, our thoughts, our feelings- is impermanent, in a constant state of flux. Being aware of this, the mind craves permanency… There is only one fact: impermanence. J. Krishnamurti, The Book of Life
It is not the relationship or commitment that is the problem, it is our depending on or clinging to it and the fear of it ending that keeps us from fully expressing ourselves and bringing life to the relationship.  When we are dependent on the other and fear that it will end and we conform to what we think the other wants, we are cutting ourselves off from our life force.  We are selling ourselves short, living in fear and not bringing our full self to the relationship. We are depriving ourselves and our partner of our best. 

But how to you commit to something that is guaranteed to end?  It is actually easier if we remember that we can count on nothing to be there tomorrow, and that is true for everything so we may as well not hold on to false expectations. When remind ourselves that it will end one day, it is a good reminder to bring our best energy to the relationship now. Any commitment not alive in the present moment is based on living in the past or wanting security in the future.

Really, the only thing we can commit to is being fully in relationship right now in each moment, to deepening in our relationship, to growth and understanding and to speaking our truth of the moment, knowing full well we could be wrong or it may change. By committing to be honest with ourselves and honest with the other in relationship, we are able to truly see where we are, we can work with it, and we can grow.  The other part of commitment is being present and being willing to hear our partner’s truth, and be okay when it changes too. 

True commitment helps us to trust and stick it out a little longer; even when our relationship partner’s current truth is a little hard to hear.   With true commitment, we practice unconditional acceptance of ourselves and our partner, for who they are, where they are, right now.  And not having an expectation that we or our partner will do this for us perfectly every day, they are human just like us.

As we grow and change, we are bound to do so in ways that are difficult for our partner. If we have no commitment, most of us find it easier to just leave. So having commitment can help us to feel safer to speak our truth and grow together, knowing your partner will be willing to hear you out and not just bolt out the door. Even those of us that are “happily married” probably have never defined our commitment in these terms, rather we choose to avoid conflict to keep the peace. But the price for this false peace is the deeper connection, love, and growth that is possible in authentic relationship. 

You could have this level of commitment in any relationship. This type of honesty is more likely with a friendship, because the risk is lower if they walk away. If you’ve had any good lifelong friends, you’ve probably been through so many conflicts and deepened in your relationship you don’t need to fear them leaving you because you know you’ve done it before. Speaking your truth can lead to conflict, which when met with commitment to relationship and understanding, can be worked though creating deeper healthier relationship.

When we are committed, we send the message to our self, our job, our friend, our partner that “I’ll be there for you,” which creates safety for us and the other person to be real and honest.   When we feel safe enough to take the risk to speak our truth in that moment, we open ourselves up to really see our beliefs and patterns and then when we see them clearly, we can actually change.   We can improve our relationship with ourself, with our friends, our partners, our job, and with life.

Commitment takes constant renewal and questioning. Why am I doing this?  Is what I’m doing leading me closer to this purpose?  What is my desire?  Commitment made once and depended on like a crutch is a trap and it grows old and stale.  Commitment can only be made in each moment, and when it is approached like this it is alive and fresh and becomes fuel and passion.

“When you truly embrace your human impermanence you connect with the power you have, and influence you have, over the time you have.”   Steve Maraboli

If everything is impermanent, what can we commit to?  Showing up fully in the present moment and giving fully of ourselves, speaking our truth.  Recently I was a participant in a men’s group and in an exercise, I told a man I just met 10 seconds prior I could see his sensitivity and fear. His eyes watered.  It was true for me in the moment, but did I go too far?  I was scared to be that honest with a man I don’t know, but I took the risk to share honestly.  In the next part of the exercise, the receiver was to share the impact it had.  He shared that it felt like a gift, given to him for no real reason. 

Show up fully, and give your truth, give your full self in each moment, and accept yourself and your partner in this truth.  Commitment is a gift to ourself and others in our lives. When we do this our relationship with ourself, others, and our practice will deepen. Commit to yourself and others to show up fully in each moment.  Your full self all you really have to give.  When viewed like this, commitment is not a trap; rather it’s the key to set you free.


What do you think? Better yet, what do you feel? What do you experience? Let's continue the conversation! You can find me at or email  Want to meet?  Here's how.

Chuck Hancock, M.Ed is a National Certified Counselor and a Registered Psychotherapist in the state of CO. He has completed comprehensive training in the Hakomi Method of Experiential Psychotherapy, a mindfulness mind-body centered approach. Chuck guides individuals and groups in self-exploration providing them with insight and tools for change. He also incorporates nature as a therapy tool to help shift perspective and inspire new patterns.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Reflections on a Path

This is an adaptation of a presentation I gave for the Larimer Workforce Center.  If you would like me to give a similar presentation to your group, I'd be happy to do so and revise it to make it relevant for your group's purpose, obviously, many more metaphors can be drawn out of this. Better yet, let's go take a hike together and experience it for yourself!

I’m about to tell you a story, but it’s not really my story.  It is your story too.  And it is not really about what you think it is.  Imagine you are setting off on a journey, a path, your particular path.  What is happening as you prepare for your journey?  Are you nervous?  Excited?  Calm? What are you experiencing?

I lock each door of my car one by one, making sure it is secure to protect my wallet, cell phone, and laptop I’m leaving behind.  As I pass through the gate, I stop and set my intention: right now, I’m going to leave the stress and to-do list behind, and just be present with the hill and what it has to show me today. 

As I set off up the mountain, I notice my body still stiff and mind still chewing on things.  I guess my intention doesn't just automatically make itself so.  Oh well.  I’m still carrying my keys because I don’t have any pockets, but I don’t want them. Do I really care about what is in the car anyway? I decide to find a rock to hide them under. Got to remember where I put them on the way down. (Or do I?)  
Now I’m free.  I’m carrying nothing.   Just a pair of Vibram Five Fingers on my feet and some thin layers of clothes.

I pass a group of hikers and I’m breathing hard.  I don’t know how much I really feel like running today. The hill is steep.  I haven’t run trails or hiked much this year, so I’m questioning my sanity for choosing to do this today.  It would be easy to turn around still, I’m quite tempted, but I keep going.

I wind my way up steep and rocky switchbacks.  Carefully placing my feet so don’t hurt my exposed toes.  Breathing harder, I’m approaching a woman with a dog.  I’m concentrating so much on getting oxygen and foot placement that when I look up to see where she is at I stumble and stub my toes.  Ouch!  But as I pass her she says, “Good morning.”  And it is. 

No matter how hard I try to step carefully, every now and then I step on a rock that digs right through these thin soles right into my tender foot.  But it is worth it.  I don’t want to be numb; instead I choose to experience everything around me.

I’ve been numbing for years, but I’ve learned that by keeping myself sensitive to it all, the joy and bliss I feel when things are smooth and soft are so worth the occasional pain when I trip or stumble.  And the risk of being so exposed helps me to be more careful, more aware, more alive!

As I continue picking my steps up the hill, my body and breath are falling into sync. My arms, my torso, my legs, my feet, my lungs, and my mind are all working together now and I’m feeling great!   As I near the top, my lungs are telling me that they can’t keep up, so I compassionately slow my pace to almost a walk to let them replenish my oxygen.  But my limbs continue to move freely, propelling me up the mountain much more efficiently than when I walk.  I have momentum and the help of all the different parts of me working together, which helps when things get tough.

I approach a junction.  I have no plan, no watch, just a couple of free hours with which to explore the landscape.  Yes, the outer landscape, and the inner one too.  I choose the path that will take me up and over the ridge and across the road to the water rather than staying on the same lateral path.  As I make my way over the ridge, and down the hill, I notice the joy that comes as I’m picking up speed going downhill.  It is both scary and fun.  I have to place my feet carefully still, as there are plenty of rocks, and I’m going downhill fast.  Finding all the soft spots for my feet, letting gravity pull me down the hill, it feels so good!.  A huge smile grows on my face. I could trip and fall at any moment, and I come close several times, but I keep going, doing my best to be in partnership with gravity. It all falls into place so perfectly and I’m giddy with joy.  I wonder to myself if trail running on steep rocky terrain isn’t a sure path to instant enlightenment!

As I make my way along the trail near the reservoir, the path is narrow and steep.  One trip or misplaced step and I could tumble a hundred feet down the sheer ridge into the water.  My gaze looks up from time to time to enjoy the full big picture view, but mostly I have to keep focused on where I’m stepping as it changes so fast! The path is mostly smooth, so I keep going, running full speed ahead.  I feel confident that my practice of careful footwork in the rocks will keep me on the trail. 

As I get closer to the inlet, I hear the water lapping up on the shore.  It calls to me. So I take a break from my running to scramble down to the water and sit by the shore.  I sit and practice mindfulness for a while.  Feeling my heart pounding, lungs bellowing, the winds and the dampness caress my skin, the cold rock under my butt, hearing the gentle waves kissing the shore, watching the patterns and colors in the ripples of the water.  My breath and my body become still.  It is a nice contrast to the brisk movement of the rest of my morning – kids, email, driving, running.   But my body starts to chill, so I decide to set off running again.
I make my way back to a junction, and this time I decide to go a different way.  A way I’ve never gone before.  It brings me right back to a junction I was at before.  I didn’t even notice that trail as being a choice when I was there last. 

I keep going and the trail seems to end.  But then I noticed it just changed.  And there was a sign even showing me which way to go!  All it took was to hop a barrier and the surface became smooth and easy.  But today this flat paved road was not my path, so I turned back to look for the way that felt right for me.

Right around the corner could be a nice smooth downhill, a steep rocky one, or a grueling hill.  You never know until you get there, and then you just enjoy the twists, turns, and surprises that are thrown at you.

If I go left, I head back down to the car, but I’ve already been right.  I’m not quite ready to be done yet, so I go right and enjoy the trail again.  Now that my body is more warmed up, I feel even more precise and enjoy the trail even more!  But I don’t know how far I will go.  So I keep running.  Eventually I decided I had experienced enough for today, so I turn around.

As I make my way back to the parking lot, the trail is smooth and fast, but there is one last small uphill stretch right at the end.  “It figures,” I think.  “That is how it always is.”  But I’m not angry about it, I just continue running.  Feeling my lungs, my body, my feet contact the ground.  The really, the trail is sometimes steep uphill, it sometimes levels out, it sometimes is gradually downhill, sometimes it is going down so fast it is scary, sometimes it is flat and boring, sometimes it is smooth and comfortable, sometimes there are lots of rocks and obstacles.  So I just keep running, knowing it will end soon, and I’ve done my best. 

Oh, and what I didn’t mention, is this whole time the path was talking to me.  Saying, “It’s just like life you know, this run you are on. All these things you are struggling with out there, I’m showing you how to deal with them. You are doing it beautifully, right now.  Just keep doing it out there too.”

This particular journey is coming to a close.  We don’t get to take anything physical with us, but you can choose to take with you some new knowledge, insight, belief, or feeling.  What have you gained by reflecting on this journey?  What have you gained by reflecting on your individual journey?  What new thought, idea, or feeling are you taking with you today, that will help you as you set off on your next journey?  What do you want to carry with you on the next segment of your path?

What do you think?  Better yet, what do you feel?  What do you experience?  Let's continue the conversation.  I'd love to hear about your path and how this has impacted you.

Chuck Hancock, M.Ed is a National Certified Counselor and a Registered Psychotherapist in the state of CO.  He has completed comprehensive training in the Hakomi Method of Experiential Psychotherapy, a mindfulness mind-body centered approach. Chuck guides individuals and groups in self-exploration providing them with insight and tools for change. He also incorporates nature as a therapy tool to help shift perspective and inspire new thought patterns.  He can be reached at or