Alright 2011, here is the last of you. The second half of my story about my breakup begins on the night when I learned some information that answered my request for a clear sign as to whether to stay or to go. I had to go. That night, I ran down to the ocean in my pajamas and spent an hour listening to the waves (not a huge trek, I live four blocks from the beach). Then, I came back up to my apartment and spent about half the night in my car. The last half of the night, I spent on the couch. I was in pain and wanted to be alone, but thought I was pretty pulled together, considering. Looking back, I think I was in a bit of shock.
The next morning, I headed out for the last day in a three-day Buddhist meditation weekend retreat with the Eagle Rock Shambhala Center. I got to the Center and got into the breakfast line. Still relatively pulled together. Someone said hi. And I lost it, in the morning sunshine, trying to put a damn bagel in the toaster. I just broke down into big, sobbing tears. Someone was kind enough to immediately ask the leader of the retreat if she would meet with me quickly before we began the day. This wonderful woman pulled up a chair facing me in her small office, and listened to me pour my heart out. She hugged me. And then she sent me out to sit. Buddhists are great listeners, but they are not there to take you away from your experience. God bless.
For the next six or so hours, I did two things. I felt my pain, and I watched my response to my own pain. What I noticed as I sat there was that every time the pain got really uncomfortable, I would want to do one of three things. First, I would want to “blame” my ex-partner. I would feel these huge surges of anger and resentment well up. That got me the momentary relief of “pushing” the pain away from me, towards him. The second thing way I would react would be to blame myself. I would feel intense remorse and sadness and shame. I would then beat myself up. This got me the momentary relief of punishing myself for the pain I was feeling. The third thing I would do would be to try and avoid the pain altogether by ignoring it. Again, it was a passing relief of “stuffing” the pain away.
I realized each of these three reactions were just different ways to avoid pain. So I began to consciously try another way of relating to my pain. I sat right in the middle of it, without pushing, pulling, or burying it out of sight. I didn’t blame him. I didn’t blame me. I didn’t try and pretend I was not hurting. I just felt it. But more than felt it–I opened my heart to it. This act of opening your heart to what you are feeling is sometimes called “creating space” around the pain. It means that you access a part of you (or of Spirit, depending on how you view it) that is bigger than pain. Love. Love for yourself and the other person.
I began to perceive that being in pain is a completely different question than how you dealt with it. If you handle it poorly, you add what Buddhists call “suffering” on top of the original hurt. You are just floundering around, and drowning in your own hurt. (Think of someone who, years after a break-up, is still vengefully obsessed with their ex.) But if you confront pain directly, you process it cleanly, and can even open your heart.
There are two beautiful stories related to this practice that I would like to share. First is one that I actually heard the day before all of this went down. I was waiting for my private teacher interview and reading a book. In the book, there was this story about this dude who went off to India and wad meditating and wasn’t really feeling it. He was wondering how he could have a break-through. Finally, he went back to his hut in frustration. There, in the middle of the hut was a large rattlesnake. This guy was petrified of snakes. He was so afraid that he didn’t want to move. He was worried that if he rushed towards it or away from it the snake would strike. So he just sat there, and locked eyes with this snake for hours. What he was really facing his own terror in a very direct and naked way. There was no escape. And a funny thing happened. As the night gave way to day, his fear turned into total joy and gratitude. As the morning sun came up, he rose, walked to the snake, and bowed in thankfulness. The snake slithered away.
I remember that after I read this story, I went in to talk with the teacher and said, “Wow, I wish I had a snake to amp up my practice.” Again, you get what you ask for. After reading that story, I was able to understand that my own difficult experience could serve as a a spiritual teacher if I could face my own pain and fear without any filters. And I began to understand how that practice could lead to joy and gratitude.
The second beautiful story is an oldie but goodie and one of my favorites. The story is about that very important moment when Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, determined to rid his mind of all confusion and finally reach enlightenment. The god of illusion, Mara, decided to try and scare Buddha and get him to give up his seat from under the tree. Mara sends his armies to go fire arrows at Buddha. In response, Buddha did not attack. He did not flee. Instead, he said “I see you Mara, and I am not afraid!” (Some stories even say Buddha invited Mara to join him for tea!) Buddha held his ground. As Mara’s arrows met the force of Buddha’s light, they turned to flowers and fell to the ground.
I kept on thinking of that story on that day. I felt the companionship of Buddha holding his ground in love and light. And every time something came up that threatened to “unseat me” I would say, I see you! And I would try and meet it with my heart.
In the small group sessions that we held towards the end of the afternoon, someone asked about Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s (the founder of Shambhala Buddhism) phrase “the genuine heart of sadness.” They wanted to know what it meant. I felt like I could now answer that question, because that was where I had been living all day. My insight was this: the genuine heart of sadness is what you get when you allow yourself to tenderly meet pain without struggle. Yes, there is sadness. But that sadness is not scary anymore . . . instead, it fills you with love and strength. It is a beautiful and tender place to be.
At the end of the day, I had made friends with my pain. I felt like I had just weathered a storm and the seas had calmed. I knew that I would be able to get through whatever came next. What has happened since then? More storms. For me, unlike Buddha, this is not a one-shot deal. I have had to meet my pain with love over and over and over again. It comes in different forms. Now, I am not struggling so much with the actual event, but I do struggle with loneliness and loss. And there are other pains of life. But now, I try and recognize them as opportunities to keep on practicing opening my heart and holding my ground.