Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Lessons in Heartbreak

Last weekend I attended a mediation workshop lead by best-selling author and Dharma practitioner, Susan Piver. The retreat centered around her book The Wisdom of A Broken Heart. I stumbled onto Susan's Website while looking online for a good, easy-to-do meditation practice. As it turned out, she was leading this workshop in Atlanta and I was scheduled to be there on business the same week. This was definitely a happy coincidence, and I signed up before I could give too much thought about what I was getting myself into.
   Walking up to the Shambhala Center on Friday night, I steeled myself for the possibility that I might just be in for 36-hours of all-out kookiness. I had read some—not all—of Susan's book and found her approach to coping with the pain and disappointment of love gone array practical and comforting. But did I really want to spend an entire weekend "leaning into the pain of heartbreak"with thirty other participants who were bruised and fragile with grief? Am I really one of those people? Well, yes, I probably am. No way to back out now. The center director sounded the gong for us to file into the meditation room and take our seats on the bright blue mats. I followed the crowd like a good Kool-Aide-drinking devotee. The weekend would be an interesting experience no matter what, right? Right.
   After we were seated, Susan entered the room and took her place in front of the shrine. Susan is tall and thin and she wore a long dark skirt and a creamy shawl draped over her shoulders. She has great posture from years of good meditation practice. Her face was solemn but expressive. With her pixie 'do, she had the look of a noble elf. The room grew quiet with reverent anticipation. Many of the participants—mostly women—were long-time Susan Piver fans. Piver's first book entitled The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say "I Do" was a New York Times best seller. (It came out in 2002—too late to help me.) Then Susan smiled before breaking the silence with the hallmark statement voiced in her Heartbreak book: Every relationship ends in heartbreak. 
  She said this to make us feel better, to let us know we were not losers and cast-offs, but you could feel the ripple of emotional twinges zing through the bright, tranquil room. Piver went onto explain that all relationships—with friends, lovers, family, children—must end at some point in time, either by departure or death, and within those endings, someone will bear the grief of loss. End is inevitable. End is part of life. In a way, this knowledge does make you feel better about the feelings of grief and loss, because you can take comfort in knowing what you are experiencing is a natural occurrence, not some supernatural voodoo being visited upon you and only you.
  Essentially, what Piver teaches is impermanence, and it's a big part of Buddhist practice. Excepting that all things change and that death is inevitable is a core teaching of Buddha. For most of us mortals, excepting physical death is easier than excepting the person you love with all your heart no longer returns the sentiment. Why? Because of that little thing called attachment, which is the perception that you cannot possibly draw breath without that special person in your life. So, in a way, having one's heart broken is very much akin to death. Like death, the end of a relationship is the end of the future life you thought you had with the person you loved. Ah! And now we are truly getting to the heart of the matter.
   Whether a friendship or romantic liaison, when the relationship runs its natural course and comes to an end—by death, change or disengagement—it no longer holds the expectation of the perceived future. When we part ways with a person, never to be intimate again (and I'm not just talking physical intimacy here), that shared future ends, or becomes something altogether different. In that way, a relationship becomes a third-party in the mix. There's me. There's you. And there's our relationship.
   Think of it this way: A relationship is like a joint checking account where love and caring are the currencies. I put my love for you into the account. You deposit your affection for me into the account. The account remains distinct from us. The account is our relationship. When that relationship ceases, the account is bankrupt.
   Making this distinction between self and relationship is significant because it allows you to step back and look at The Relationship objectively. The relationship is not me and/or you. It's a life unto itself, and as such, bears its own fragility and substance. That's why you sometimes discover that you're in a completely different relationship than your lover, or friend, even though you thought he/she was in the same relationship with you. To endure, you must both recognize the relationship as a separate entity, and that your part in it is not you, but an outpouring of you. So problems arise when you fall in love with the relationship and attach expectations to it—ie:  We will buy a house, have 2.5 children, summer in the south of France and remind each other to take our meds when we're 90 years old— instead of loving the other person as they are right now without attachment or expectation.
   I befriended a lot of heartbroken people over the weekend. Most I will never see again. My relationship to them lasted exactly 36 hours. It was good. I loved them, and they might have even felt love for me. (I was the wise-cracker in the group, of course.) Now we will move out into the world and continue to shape our lives with Buddhist practice, or whatever means gets us from this place of disappointment and sorrow to a better, happier existence.
   On Sunday, I meditated.  (Yes! I really did meditate! It's like riding a bicycle: No one can really show you how to do it. You can only receive instruction, accept a gentle push and lift your metaphoric feet off the ground. You only know you're doing it right when you feel yourself balanced and are impossibly propelling yourself forward—even if doing so is a little wobbly.) As I held my attention on my breath, thoughts of my past heart breaks bubbled into my mind and I held each one up for just a moment, examining it before gently brushing it aside. Here's what I learned: If I didn't know love—that truly happy, blissful sensation of completion—I could not have had my heart broken. But knowing love is worth the pain, just as learning to meditate is worth having my foot fall asleep, because that feeling of bliss is the same feeling you get when you are filled with selfless compassion for all the world, including yourself—and that's a step toward Enlightenment. 

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