“Liberated relationships are one of the ways we actually create abundant justice, the understanding that there is enough attention, care, resource, and connection for all of us to access belonging, to be in our dignity, and to be safe in community.”
— adrienne maree brown, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good
When I first began working with my beloved friend and teacher, the late Uncle Bob Randall, listed Custodial Elder of Uluru in Australia, I would pull up a chair, place a microphone in front of him, turn it on, and listen for hours. His teachings were never linear. His words would wander through historic facts, ancient storytelling of crocodiles and arguing sisters who lived in the stars, emotional memories and stern lectures on essential spiritual protocols.
The teachings he offered me (and now through me, offers to you) were too overwhelming to integrate during those long recording sessions. So, after a long day of recording, I would return home, transcribe all the recordings, then return to him with dozens of pages to dissect every word. “Uncle Bob, what did you mean when you said…?” and “So when you told the story of the giant fish, did you mean that…?” Or “Will you clarify for me exactly how your people managed to…” and “I still don’t understand this principle, would you please explain…?” Like this our conversations would wander through the wisdom he gave.
Sometimes his downloads would arrive in inconvenient moments when I could not record him, like while on a brief and harried shuttlebus ride between airport terminals, or in the middle of a loud and bustling café. It was hard to hear him and my mind was distracted with details. Once after landing at Alice Springs while waiting at baggage claim for my suitcase, Uncle Bob suddenly began speaking about a concept called ‘right relationship’.
“First, everything starts with a feeling or a sense,” he began. “From there, a thought emerges…this is where you have the most potential to determine your outcomes. Your thoughts are very powerful because they drive actions. Once an action is done, you can’t undo it. And actions have enormous consequences.” Then he paused and lingered a little, both of us watching the suitcases go around. “So pay attention to your thoughts. Decide which thoughts you are going to believe, or follow, or act on. And just as importantly, decide which thoughts you are going to leave alone.”
My suitcase now in hand, we walked out to find his truck in the airport parking lot. Then he said something with a finality that seemed to shift the earth slightly on its axis: “You want to be in right relationship to all things,” he said.
We drove to his tiny modest home, a two-bedroom modular with a tin façade. Its porch welcomed us with a mismatched array of plastic chairs and table on a dirt floor. Over several cups of tea, we spent the rest of the morning discussing what he meant by that term.
What is right relationship? Right relationship means that the relationship we are in (with a living being, a place, a project, or an event) is organized around us in a way that contributes to wholeness and is guided by integrity and our values. When we are in right relationship to another, the energy around that relationship feels clean.
The concept of ‘being in right relationship’ comes from the principle of the interconnectedness of all things. In Uncle Bob’s cosmology this principle is called Kanyini – which means unconditional love with responsibility. The responsibility part of Kanyini gives the unconditional love part its teeth. It invites us to be robust in our relationships, to hold ourselves and others accountable. While we may not be able to change a person, their actions, or an event, we can recognize our interconnectedness with them (unconditional love), while organizing ourselves around them so that we are in alignment with our values and being clear, direct, and honest (responsibility).
Many spiritual traditions speak of a reality where all things come ‘into right relationship’ with one another — where there is universal acknowledgment of our oneness and through that oneness, a connection that implies the necessity to maintain integrity. Some examples include: the Jewish notion of Shalom, First Nations’ All my Relations the Lakota phrase Mitakuye Oyasin, or Nuutsumuut in the Hul’q’umi’num language. While these are not equivalent concepts, there is a commonality to them that speaks to how we are to be in relationship with one another, and even farther, a mandate to transform relationships to be more just and authentic.
It requires a bit of tending from time to time to stay in right relationship to and with another. Uncle Bob used to say, “keep the energy between you and others clean and clear.” What that means, he said, is that the space between you and other (be it a person, place, project, idea, or another living thing) is empty of unspokens, micro-lies, manipulations, judgements, negotiations, secrets, assumptions, self-judgement, distortions, struggle, and other clutter.
Like the Princess and the Pea, I can always tell when there is a lump under the proverbial mattress of my relationships. I feel uneasy. Something’s not congruent. That’s my body communicating the felt sense of something not being clear or clean between us. If it’s with a person, it might mean that I need to have an uncomfortable conversation with them, or I need to independently process some things that have crept into my psyche, that really have nothing to do with the other. Maybe I owe someone an apology. Or perhaps I need to check in with them to see if we are aligned.
If it’s a project or event, I may need to figure out a different way to organize myself around it. Maybe I need better boundaries. Maybe I need to change an internal narrative. Or perhaps I’m not in alignment with my values somehow and I’m out of integrity.
Right relationship does not mean everything is rosy and wonderful. It means it’s honest and upright. You can have right relationship with someone you’ve chosen never to see again. You can have right relationship to a set of circumstances that you will never enter into. Your decision to not be in relationship to someone or something, if it is in alignment with your integrity, is to be in right relationship to them or it. Right relationship to cancer might be to surrender to its reality and find the right doctors. Right relationship to an ex-partner may mean to forgive yourself finally for the relationship’s failure. Right relationship to an in-law may mean to give up expectations that they accept you.
There’s a brief scene in the brilliant American black comedy satire Don’t Look Up that pointedly demonstrates right relationship. The scene takes place towards the end of the movie, after a failed attempt to destroy a death-comet hurtling to earth. The comet has broken through the atmosphere and is now showering the entire globe with balls of fire. We see its impact all over the world, but perhaps most poignantly in the rain forest where a shaman is shown in ceremony facing the earth’s end in cinematic display of his right relationship to terrifying and total annihilation (image above).
A wonderful exercise to do is to create a ‘right relationship mind map’. Grab a piece of paper and draw a circle (or whatever shape you like) in the center of the page, then put your name inside of it. Then all over the page, map all your important people, places, and projects in your life. Next, draw a line from each person, place, or thing from them to you. Consider them one by one. Close your eyes and feel your connection to them. Next, write a number on the shape of each person, etc, on a scale of 1 to 10. One would be the worst connection, 10 would be the most clean, clear and connected. For those connections that are less than 10, write on the line what things you need to clear in order to make it a 10. Ten is right relationship.
Over time notice what happens to your energy, happiness, creativity, and productivity when you work towards remaining in right relationship to all the elements in your life.
When we strive towards right relationship to all things, as Uncle Bob would attest, we pave the way towards a life of joy and freedom.