Science of Relationships
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Leveraging the Science of Relationships to Build a Compassionate Society

—An Introduction to the Special Section—

Beginning with the relationship between mother and child, the dynamic between two individuals is the source of secret and invisible power. Even though relationships between parents and children, or between romantic partners, can become confused, nonetheless the lineage of humanity stems from this caring feeling, the radiant hum of life… Good human society comes about through strength in our interchanges with others.

Sakyong Mipham1

When my cousin was born, my grandmother sewed for her a yellow blanket. It was beautiful not because of its individual threads, but because of the connections between them; moreover, it was beautiful because my grandmother—who spent much of her early life in an orphanage with no such blanket—had made it, in spite of the threads of her history. Though my grandmother was not often a source of warmth or comfort for her own children, she was able to stitch together a blanket that could be just that for her grandchild.

The strength and goodness of society, likewise, comes not solely from its individual members but from the bonds between them. In The Shambhala Principle, Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham describes “enlightened society” as beginning with “just you and me”—the connection between two people.2 One of the central points of dialogue between Buddhist teachings, Western social science, and theories of social change is the nature of relationship: Our relationship with our own minds is inextricably linked to our past and present relationships with others, and each of these in turn influences how we relate to our environment, to our culture, and to our political and economic systems.3 In attempting to engender compassion and wisdom in society, therefore, it is important to understand how these qualities emerge from the foundation of relationship.

The goal of this special section is to explore how contemplative traditions might work together with the science of relationships to build a more compassionate society. In the opening piece, Kent Hoffman provides an eloquent introduction to the nature of attachment, describing what this concept means for both Buddhist and Western psychological perspectives on the roots of human suffering. Drawing on Thich Nhat Hanh’s notion of taking refuge and John Bowlby’s seminal theory of parent–child relationships4, he suggests that integrating the wisdom of attachment theory and Zen teachings might allow us to understand suffering in a new way, to take refuge with our pain, and to offer a sense of belonging and empathy to the next generation.

We invite our readers to contemplate how our early experiences of “being with” and “being without,” as Hoffman describes them, influence personal and broader cultural patterns, and how shifting these patterns toward “security”—as Hoffman and his colleagues are doing in their work with parents and children—might plant the seeds for shifting social and political systems toward greater compassion.

Read Kent Hoffman’s “Taking Refuge in the Family of Things

Note: The introduction to the special section will be updated as additional contributions to the section become available in the coming months.


Jessica Stern is a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Maryland, where she studies attachment theory and human development. She is interested in the origins of empathy and how fostering secure human relationships may build the foundation for a more com passionate world. More broadly, how can the social sciences work together with contemplative traditions to uplift both our relationships and our society?


 

  1. Sakyong Mipham, The Shambhala Principle: Discovery Humanity’s Hidden Treasure (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2012), 86.
  2. Mipham, 85.
  3. Adam Lobel, “Practicing Society,” The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture, and Politics 1 (2014).
  4. John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss: Attachment (Vol. 1), (New York: Basic Books, 1969/1982).

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