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According to the Buddha, “True love is born from understanding.” But when a relationship ends and the heart breaks, it can feel as though love itself has abandoned us, and understanding seems an even longer way off.
For six years Dale had been the great love of my life. In nearly everything I did and every place I went, he figured heavily into each moment. My thoughts and the way I saw myself connected to him. As anyone in love would do, I wanted nothing more than to make my partner happy. Scratch that; there was one thing more. I wanted him to make me happy too. More to the point, I simply wanted him. And the fact that we’d only been an actual couple for a fraction of those six years is beside the point. After our split, I divided my time by looking back and living in the imagined love we had, mourning what I thought I’d lost, and pining for a reunion that would never come. It would take nearly half of a decade for my heart to get the memo and douse the torch I carried.
Having the benefit of time and reflection, I now understand that my relationship with Dale had been forged more out of desperation than love, steeped in the hope of one day finding validation and safety in the form of a man who’d give me everything I’d missed as a child. I’d grown up against a backdrop of dead marriages and flimsy templates of what healthy loving should look like, so I cobbled my ideal together from the aching heart of a wide-eyed child looking to be whisked away by The One.
When we met, it wasn’t for the first time. I’d seen Dale in a dream weeks prior. By the time our paths crossed in person, it was as though we’d picked up a conversation we’d been carrying on for a lifetime. This is what true love felt like in the beginning.
For months we blazed together, sharing the secret dreams we’d guarded most of our lives. We expressed our gratitude at having found in each other the safety and intimacy of full disclosure. We encouraged the individual pursuits of the other; we introduced our passions with openness and excitement; we created and played together often. The freedom we found was dizzying. But the center would not hold.
If I played you a time-lapse pastiche of my relationship with Dale, you’d see a young couple—a mountain of hair and high hopes between them—swinging on swings, laughing with abandon, licking naughtily from the same ice cream cone, strolling slowly by the water: the usual stuff. Add to it the overlay of emotive music, i.e. My Endless Love or an equally dramatic song about dying or not being otherwise capable of living without your lover, and that would describe the face of our relationship perfectly. It was a façade, and the dizziness, music and emotion played loudly enough to keep me distracted from the fraying edges of that reality.
As soon as our relationship hit its first patch of turbulence, Dale and I did what had come naturally to us both: we pulled up stakes, turned our attention toward the exits and set about saving ourselves.
Too afraid of the inconvenience and challenge of becoming vulnerable, we retreated to our respective corners with no intention of returning. Rather than ending with clarity and mutual agreement, the two of us collected our belongings, muttering vague explanations and blame on the way out.
In my exploration of spiritual practices, I discovered some powerful Buddhist principles that helped me break up—finally and fully—from Dale and more importantly from the old ideas I’d embraced about relationships. Perhaps it was more my willingness to change—and my receptivity to those teachings—that made the difference when I arrived at this new information. Or perhaps it was a little of both: Buddhism and my own receptivity.
As the saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher appears.
In your own moments of change, who or what have been some of your own important teachers? Depending on where life finds us at any moment, we could derive insights from a blade of grass or breeze across our faces. For me, it was a handful of lessons that poured through a crack in my thinking, and I’m so glad it did.
For years after our official split, I pored over the past in a range of rage, guilt and grief at my inability to sustain loving bonds with men. I tried holding on to our good memories and used them as a measure against any new man I met. Clueless as to why that strategy never worked, I continued to bungle my way through dating before learning the importance of letting go and non-attachment as means of living fearlessly in love and leaning into the edges of what I thought was possible in matters of the heart. Buddhist teacher and author Jack Kornfield writes: “The entire teaching of Buddhism can be summed up in this way: Nothing is worth holding on to.”
The more I explored its wisdom, I began to reach for these teachings to help me heal my relationships with men and, most important, with myself.
Here’s some of what I learned in the process:
Let go. Without having a healthy template for loving relationships, all I knew was when I found something good, I was going to hold on to it with everything in me. I said I’d never repeat the relationship mistakes I’d witnessed as a child. But the truth of true love is that it can’t be contained by our tiny definitions and expectations. The attempt to control how we love limits our access to love itself and causes us suffering; letting go opens us to it.
Stay. I know people who face love with gloves on. Sleeves rolled up, they go in willing to fight to the death. I come by that spirit naturally. But I learned that love takes us to our edges to break our hearts down and open in service to making us whole, compassionate and receptive. Fighting for its own sake won’t get us what we’re after, but staying through the discomfort of opening to it will.
Witness. “In Buddha’s opinion, to train in staying open and curious—to train in dissolving our assumptions and beliefs—is the best use of our human lives.” Those are Pema Chödrön words and she is a Buddhist nun and writer who often reminds me of the gift of simply observing myself in present time, without the weight of the past and the anxious scrutiny of the future skewing the picture. When I was with Dale—in body and, later, in my mind—what I seemed to notice most was the dread of yet another disappointment in love. And because it’s what I focused on, it’s exactly what I got.
Cultivating compassion and presence—an inner esteem that builds through focused practice—is what creates the space for change within ourselves. It’s what’s at the heart of Buddhist teaching as I’ve come to understand it. Maybe you’re familiar with this popular saying, which I think the Buddha would approve of too: “The only way through is through.” The difficulty of heartbreak is real and it can be ravenous, but with time, it’s also its own reward. Only a heart that’s broken open can truly receive.
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