Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around
There is a reason that the First Noble Truth in Buddhism is “Life is Suffering.” This tells us that when we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong. What a relief! Suffering is a part of life, and we don’t have to feel it’s happening because we personally made the wrong move. In fact, heartbreak and joy are inseparably linked. Desmond Tutu, who openly admits to crying easily, said “Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.” (The Book of Joy by Desmond Tutu, The Dalai Lama and Douglas Carlton Abrams)
Not only is heartbreak a natural part of life, but it has its own set of gifts to impart. Pema Chodron, in her pivotal book When Things Fall Apart, explains the gifts of both extremes of human experience and how they need each other. “With only inspiration, we become arrogant. With only wretchedness, we lose our vision. Feeling inspired cheers us up, makes us realize how vast and wonderful our world is. Feeling wretched humbles us. The gloriousness of our inspiration connects us with the sacredness of the world. But when the tables are turned and we feel wretched, that softens us up. It ripens our hearts. It becomes the ground for understanding others. Both the inspiration and the wretchedness can be celebrated. We can be big and small at the same time.” (Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart)
Before we can fully experience heartbreak, and realize it’s gifts, we must become hopeless. When we are in the midst of a heartache-- a personal crisis -- we can shut down or we can touch that throbbing quality. There is a tender, groundlessness to heartbreak. (Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart). Before we can touch that quality, we must accept that no matter how hard we try, we can’t get it all together. “Ye tang che” in Tibetan means “totally and completely exhausted”, we might say “totally fed up”. Giving up hope is the beginning of the beginning. We long for security and control, so we may struggle to hold everything together. However, no matter how hard we try, the ground just keeps moving underneath us. Trying to get lasting security teaches us a lot, because if we never try to do it, we never notice that it can’t be done. It is for this reason that the first step in every 12-step program is “admitting that you are powerless.” It is from this place that we can experience the gifts of heartbreak.
Our lives are filled with heartbreaks, big and small. Tiny heartbreaks are the ones we experience every day as we move through the world in relationship to other people. These are the conflicts, the reactions, and the “taking things personally.” These tiny heartbreaks are a chance for us to grow and take ownership of our stuff.
Jen Sincero, in her book You Are A Badass, explains the first step in navigating tiny heartbreaks-- “Own Your Ugly.” Start noticing the things that drive you crazy about other people, and use them as a mirror. Become fascinated by, instead of furious about, the irritants around you. If you actively don’t like something, it’s because it resonates with you on some level, it has meaning to you. It is often a quality that you have yourself or it is something you’re actively trying to repress. Or maybe their behavior triggers a fear or insecurity inside you. For example, if someone made fun of you for being short all the time, but you were really tall, you probably would think nothing of it. It is only when the arrow hits the mark that we begin to experience strong feelings and an urge to react. Often our first reaction is to blame others, or sometimes ourselves. If we stop blaming long enough, we can “own our ugly” and discover the soft spot underneath our hard exterior.
The next step is to “Question Your Ugly.” (Jen Sincero, You are a Badass). Who do I need to be for this situation not to bother me? What am I getting out of being this way? How would I feel if I wasn’t this way? By asking these questions, you may decide that you can let some things go, and you’ll see the situation more clearly. That is the time to set healthy boundaries and make good choices about who you want around.
What about the larger heartbreaks-- the break-ups and disappointments in love? First, we must examine the concept of “being in love.” Eckhart Tolle, in The Power of Now, explains that real love has no opposite. He says that if in your relationships you experience both “love” and the opposite of love - attack, emotional violence, and so on - then it is likely that you are confusing ego-attachment and addictive clinging with love. If your “love” has an opposite, then it is not love but a strong ego-need for a more complete and deeper sense of self, a need that the other person temporarily meets. Real love doesn’t make you suffer. It doesn’t exist in some other person-- it is a state of being deep within. You can never lose it, and it cannot leave you. We have all had glimpses of real love, when we realize our sense of oneness. Most romantic heartbreak is ego-related. If you fell in love because your relationship made you feel more complete, seen, and worthy, then when the infatuation fades, the painful feelings will reappear. It’s like taking a drug that no longer works anymore. The only difference is that now we can blame our partner for the pain.
As I look back on one of my most painful break-ups, under circumstances that caused me to question my self worth, I recall the debilitating pain. I also remember the moment in which I realized that the vast majority of my very intense hurt was because of my ego. I realized suddenly that in the long run, the separation was probably best for both of us, and that I wouldn't want to be with someone who didn't want to be with me. My worth was not lessened by someone else’s choice. And if I let go of believing that I was “less than”-- if I knew my own truth-- I could let go of the injury to my ego and quit suffering and move on. And that is just what I did. This even paved the way for forgiveness. Now I have learned to recognize that any time I have a strong visceral reaction to a criticism or something someone says it is almost always ego-related. That is a humiliating pill to swallow at first-- that all this intense suffering is because of a wounded sense of self. However, quickly the humiliation turns to empowerment as I realize that I can feel better just by remembering who I am. Villainizing others and victimizing ourselves serves no one, and only serves to further separate us from the connection we desire. If you’re feeling rejected and abandoned because of a break-up, I recommend reading this quote by Jeff Brown.
"Sometimes people walk away from love because it is so beautiful that it terrifies them. Sometimes they leave because the connection shines a light on their dark places and they are not ready to work them through. Sometimes they run away because they are not developmentally prepared to merge with another - they have more individuation work to do first. Sometimes they take off because love is not a priority in their lives - they have another path and purpose to walk first. Sometimes they end it because they prefer a relationship that is more practical than conscious, one that does not threaten the ways that they organize reality. Because so many of us carry shame, we have a tendency to personalize love's leavings, triggered by the rejection and feelings of abandonment. But this is not always true. Sometimes it has nothing to do with us. Sometimes the one who leaves is just not ready to hold it safe. Sometimes they know something we don't - they know their limits at that moment in time. Real love is no easy path: readiness is everything. May we grieve loss without personalizing it. May we learn to love ourselves in the absence of the lover." - Jeff Brown, Uncommon Bond
After a significant heartbreak, it is always beneficial to spend some time alone. We often want to fast-forward through this step, especially if our love was ego driven in the first place. We need another fix! Another person to help us feel lovable again. If we pause, and get into a love relationship with ourselves, we often find we can be perfectly happy whether we are in a relationship or not! We can focus on friendships, and nurturing ourselves. We can take ourselves out on dates, and buy ourselves gifts. It also gives us a chance to learn the lessons we need to be learning, so that we’ll be ready when love does come along. And when it does, it will not complete us, it will simply enhance an already full and interesting life. (Melody Beattie, Codependent No More).
If you find it difficult to be alone, you might want to consider Pema Chodron’s teachings on loneliness. (Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart). Loneliness is nothing to be fixed. It is not a problem to be solved. When we feel the heartache of separation, we may feel “hot” loneliness, complete with an urgent desire to find someone or something to keep us company and ease the pain. We can turn this “hot” loneliness into “cool loneliness” if we can pause and stay with the feelings. By refraining, we can sit with the loneliness, the yearning, even for a few moments without resolution, we may create the space to recognize that all feelings are fleeting. That the nature of our sensations will change. We will also discover our strength and ability to stay present with the fact that we may be alone, but there is not a problem. When we look directly with compassion and humor at who we are, then loneliness is not a threat and heartache is not a punishment.
If a relationship ends, and heartbreak ensues, there are techniques for helping you navigate the grief. The first is “acceptance.” Eckhart Tolle says this is your first chance at surrender. So much of what causes heartache is our wanting things to be different than they are. As you grow in your spiritual life, you are able to accept anything that happens to you. You accept it, not as a punishment, but because it is part of the fabric of life. It’s going to happen whether you like it or not, so we begin to look at ways to transform an experience into something positive. We can look at and question our assumptions about our experience, and let there be room for not knowing. We think we know what will bring us pleasure, and we think we know what will bring us pain. But we don’t know. (Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart).
If we struggle with accepting the situation causing our heartbreak, our second chance at surrender is to feel and accept our feelings about the situation. Do not resist the pain. Allow it to be there. Witness it without labeling it mentally. Embrace it rather than trying to solve a problem, make the pain go away or become a better person. Maitri, or “loving-kindness,” is the practice of cultivating unconditional friendliness to whatever comes up in your mind. “To feel the longing, the loss, the yearning, is a way of feeling the rich and embroidered texture of life, the torn cloth of our world that is endlessly being ripped and rewoven.” (Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams, The Book of Joy). Rather than creating a story around our feelings and giving all our attention to the person, event or situation that seems to have caused them, we can focus on the feelings themselves. There is no shame in feeling things. We all have emotions, and they are our messengers, pointing out where we are holding back. These are opportunities to either open up or shut down. If we choose to open up, we can face our fears and see them dissolve in the power of our presence.
In order to open up to the heartbreak, we must get comfortable with groundlessness. Groundlessness is when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening. It’s too much. There’s no way we can manipulate the situation to make ourselves come out looking good, no matter how hard we try. We’ve been sucker punched by life. This off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation. We can open our minds and hearts -- we can lean in. When we reach this point of groundlessness, we may want to avoid it -- to ease the pain. We may try to numb ourselves through substances, materialism and other distractions. The advantage of a spiritual practice is that even if we do shut down or numb out, we can no longer do it in ignorance. We see very clearly that we are shutting down.
It is also helpful to recognize the gifts of grief. Grief is a reminder of the depth of our love or, as Rob Brezny says, it “demonstrates our capacity for deep feelings.” Loss strengthens our humility which makes us smarter. (Pronoia by Rob Brezny) Arrogance falls away when we experience the shock of suffering. We can use grief as a motivation to generate a deeper sense of purpose. If we can find meaning in our suffering, we are less likely to become bitter. Look for the opportunity in every situation. You can’t always be grateful for what is happening, but you can find gratitude for the opportunity contained therein. (TedTalk by David Steindl-Rast) Think of everything as a workshop that you signed up and paid for. Notice that painful experiences bring joyful experiences into sharp relief. You may have experienced this when you find yourself in a fulfilling relationship after a painful one. Heartbreak breaks down your defense mechanisms that have desensitized you to the world’s secret beauty. (Rob Brezny) It inspires you to be gentle with other people’s hearts, leading to intimacy.
Even science recognizes the benefits of sadness. One study found that sadness lasted many times longer than more fleeting emotions like fear and anger. While fear lasted on average 30 minutes, sadness often lasted up to 120 hours or almost 5 days! New studies by Psychology researcher Joseph Forgas show that mild sadness has many benefits. It makes us more sensitive, more generous, motivates us to reach out in support and solidarity, motivates us to change our situation, and even improves our memory and detail recall. Just like a physical muscle grows stronger when it is offered resistance, we grow in kindness when our kindness is tested.
Recognize you may not know what will come from your suffering when you are going through it. The Dalai Lama describes the intense sorrow of being exiled from his home in Tibet for the last 50 years, but acknowledges the blessing of how much broader his world experience is as a result. Since we can never know for sure if an experience will end up being “good” or “bad” (and most often the answer is both), it is best to avoid concretizing your experience. You may have heard the story of the farmer and the horse. A horse runs away from the farmer and his neighbors say “Oh, that is too bad!” Then the horse comes back accompanied by a wild stallion! So the neighbors say “What wonderful luck!” The farmer’s son breaks his leg trying to break the stallion, and the neighbors say “Oh, how unfortunate!” When war breaks out the injured son does not have to go fight! The neighbors are amazed by his good luck! The farmer points out no one ever knows what is good and what is bad. Even if we did know for sure that an experience was bad or unlucky, this too shall pass. It is the nature of things to always be changing, and this includes our feelings of heartbreak.
When we move beyond our ego-driven relationships and heartbreaks, we may find that we experience a whole new level of heartbreak. Bodhichitta means “Noble or awakened heart.” Bodhichitta is characterized by an innate tenderness for life. This type of heartbreak stems from a kinship with the suffering of others. We can no longer distance and insulate ourselves from others suffering. We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves, but actually we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated. We see ourselves as separate from the whole. If we try to shield ourselves from discomfort, we suffer. Yet when we don’t close off and we let our hearts break, we discover kinship with all beings.
* (For further reading, check out “When things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron, “The Book of Joy” by Desmond Tutu, The Dalai Lama and Douglas Carlton Abrams, “You Are A Badass” by Jen Sincero, “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle, “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie and “Pronoia” by Rob Brezny. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)