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Breaking the Cycle of Codependency

     Codependency describes a relationship where one party depends entirely on another for feelings of self-worth or validation.

     The relationship is generally one-sided with one party either exerting an unhealthy amount of control over the other (e.g. you don't leave the house unless I tell you) or enabling unhealthy behaviors in exchange for affection (e.g. I know he'll use the money for drugs, but he'll leave me if I don't let him have it).

     People can also engage in codependent relationships with objects and organizations.  For example, if someone is codependent with money, basing their self-worth on how much or little they have, their mood will vary wildly depending on the contents of their bank account.

     Similarly, if someone is codependent with their job, depending on it for their sense of identity, they may stay in an abusive or unfulfilling work environment because the thought of leaving is scarier than the thought of being mistreated.

Some of the signs of a codependent relationship are as follows:

  • Not trusting ourself to make decisions without someone else's approval
  • Feelings that everyone else's needs are more important than our own
  • Attempting to control the actions of other people for their own good
  • Wanting to feel intimacy with other people and feeling threatened if they get too close
  • Feeling threatened if other people's opinions don't align with our own

     Most of us show signs codependence in one or more areas of our life.  Maybe we use romantic relationships to boost our self-esteem.  Maybe we use money or status to build an identity that people will like.  Or maybe we try to control the thoughts and actions of others to protect our sense of self.

Thankfully, Buddhist practice offers a teaching that helps us break the cycle of codependency.  It's called Hongaku.

Hongaku is a Japanese word that translates to original enlightenment.  The essential premise is that all sentient beings are manifestations of the Dharmakaya, so they are by their very nature enlightened.  Thus, the practice of Buddhism is less about attaining something new and more about refining and purifying what's already there.

     One way to understand hongaku is to contemplate the nature of waves on the ocean.  The ocean is made of water, so the waves are also made of water.  Humans manifest from the Dharmakaya, which is the primordial source of enlightenment, so they are by their nature enlightened.

     Thus, it would be correct to say that humans are inherently enlightened.  However, this requires further explanation as humans do not possess a separate, permanently-abiding self.  Simply put, water has an inherent nature, possessing two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.  However, it constantly changes states; shifting between liquid, solid, and gaseous forms.

     Similarly, humans possess an inherently enlightened nature, however, that doesn't stop us from changing states; shifting between birth, aging, sickness, and then death

     One question that needs to be answered, however, before we can understand hongaku is, "If humans are inherently enlightened, why do we do bad things?"  This is a fair question, and to understand that we can look at the example of gold.

     Gold is a valuable resource, which has both entertainment and industrial uses.  And it's been used as a medium of exchange for thousands of years.  However, gold isn't useful the moment it comes out of the ground.  Generally, it has a number of impurities (silver, lead, copper, etc.) that must be removed before it can be sold.

     Similarly, humans have an enlightened nature, but we have a number of impurities in the way of greed, anger, and ignorance that must be removed before that enlightenment can be realized and manifested in daily life.

Buddhism serves as the refinement process that purifies our body, speech, and mind.  In the absence of spiritual practice, however, our greed, anger, and ignorance cause us to do foolish things.

That being said, we don't need to fully realize our original enlightenment to break the cycle of codependency.  We just need to know that it's there.  Because the understanding of our inherent enlightenment naturally leads to a feeling of inherent self-worth; 

     Self-worth is what allows us to break the cycle of codependency.  When we rest comfortably in the knowledge of our own enlightenment, we stop looking outside ourselves for validation.  If someone mistreats us, we're able to stand-up for ourselves or break off the relationship because we're okay with the thought of being alone.

     We don't feel the need to control others, because our sense of self isn't based on their actions.  And our relationship with jobs, money, success, etc. becomes healthier because we don't use those things to measure our self-worth.

     Thus, hongaku allows us to move through the world without getting dragged down by the fears, anxieties, and hurtful actions of others.   It creates a safe space within ourselves that becomes a refuge when life is hard.  And it helps us develop healthy relationships that are free from codependency.

Namu Amida Butsu

If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!

Breaking the Cycle of Codependency


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