Saturday, March 7, 2009

Addicted to Love: Waking Up through Heartbreak

The Buddhist teachings on how to work skillfully with strong emotions have always made a lot of intellectual sense to me. But about a year and a half ago, someone I had fallen in love with chose to walk away from our relationship, and I was emotionally devastated. The attachment and the sense of abandonment were overwhelming. Every day for two weeks, I sat on the edge of my bed and cried. Many of those Buddhist teachings about working with emotions often came to mind during that experience, but when the rubber met the road I found handling my emotions skillfully to be much more daunting in practice than it was in theory.

What surprised me most in this whole experience is how hard it can be to simply let go. I found myself stuck in a pattern of trying to hold on to the past, even after it had already changed into something else — I just kept wishing I could turn the pumpkin back into a carriage. This emotional pattern of clinging persisted long past the point where I knew I should let go and move on — but I simply didn’t know how. I couldn’t stop myself from reflecting on how things could have been…should have been…if only I had…if only he had….

Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown teaches a workshop called “Addicted to Love: Romantic Fantasy, Relationships and Meditation,” in which she focuses on the neurotic aspects of romantic love, the role of romance and intimacy on the spiritual path, and the difference between romantic fantasy and genuine love.

One major difference between the two, says Simmer-Brown, is that romantic love is always characterized by a tragic sense of danger and obstacles that heighten the intensity of imperiled love. On a grand scale, think of Romeo and Juliet — the über-love story in our culture, and the template for a thousand other romantic stories — whose tragic romance was only intensified by the opposition of their families and the obstacles it put between them. In romantic love, there is always a feeling of death involved, which only serves to spur the lovers further into their romance. Thus, romantic love is unhappy love. By definition, it cannot be fulfilled. It is a set-up for disappointment.

I recall how it always seemed like my boyfriend had one foot in and one foot out, and how I dug myself in deeper in response to that. He let me know he had been planning to leave New York and move back to the West coast, so the thought that he might one day suddenly pack up and end our relationship was always like a sword dangling over us, warning me of the pain to come if I grew too attached to him. But, taking that obstacle as a classic challenge to the romantic fantasy, it only made me try that much harder to hold on, to persuade myself (and him) that we belonged together more than we belonged apart.

Simmer-Brown characterizes romantic love as a kind of theism: the theistic idea that the other person, the lover, the soul mate, the “right one,” is going to somehow redeem us, make us complete. It’s a kind of mystical longing for the divine, embodied in the form of the lover and the star-crossed connection. This is an idea that permeates our culture and is embedded in most of the stories that we tell ourselves about love. But because this mystical longing for the redemptive power of the divine is misdirected at another human being who is inevitably flawed and impermanent, it involves us in the pursuit of that which inevitably brings disappointment and unhappiness. My boyfriend was always going to leave, and he basically let me know that all along — by definition, I was setting myself up for disappointment and heartbreak by continuing to grow more and more attached to him.

Hidden deeper within the familiar narrative of romantic lovers and soul mates is a very problematic kernel of an idea: that we’re basically incomplete and deficient to begin with, and we need the lover to come along and rescue us from ourselves and our loneliness. In the Shambhala teachings, this idea would be described as the ultimate “setting-sun worldview” — the ultimate way of selling our selves short and failing to recognize and abide in our own basic goodness. "When we experience our lives through this lens of personal insufficiency," says Buddhist teacher Tara Brach in her book Radical Acceptance, "we are imprisoned in what I call the trance of unworthiness. Trapped in this trance, we are unable to perceive the truth of who we really are."

In “The Power of Now,” Eckhart Tolle talks about the addictive search for wholeness through romantic fantasies, which he describes as "an intense and universally sought-after experience":

[When] that special relationship comes along, [it] seems to be the answer to all the ego's problems and to meet all its needs. At least this is how it appears at first. All the other things that you derived your sense of self from before now become relatively insignificant. You now have a single focal point that replaces them all, gives meaning to your life, and through which you define your identity: the person you are "in love" with. You are no longer a disconnected fragment in an uncaring universe, or so it seems. Your world now has a center: the loved one. The fact that the center is outside you and that, therefore, you still have an externally derived sense of self does not seem to matter at first.

Simmer-Brown suggests that this kind of romantic love is not really love of the person, it’s love of love. Instead of seeing the other person accurately, we project onto them and focus only on those parts that confirm our fantasy. When the fantasy is broken and the warts are revealed, romantic love easily flips into aversion and hatred — attachment frustrated turns to aggression. "Just as with every other addiction," says Tolle, "you are on a high when the drug is available, but invariably there comes a time when the drug no longer works for you." This is one reason we so often have difficulty maintaining lovingkindness in our intimate relationships: our hidden agendas and our romantic concepts and ideals about the “perfect” lover keep us from appreciating and relating to the flawed human being who is right in front of us.

As meditation practitioners, we commit ourselves to a basic sense of cutting through “setting-sun” mentality and waking up from our own confusion. In the practice of sitting meditation itself, this involves lifting ourselves up by our bootstraps rather than waiting for someone else to do it for us. If romantic fantasy is unrealistic, then it stands in opposition to meditation, which is fundamentally about cultivating a more open and genuine relationship to reality. As we begin to clearly see the romantic theology that surrounds us and permeates our thinking, we realize how it confirms our habitual “setting-sun worldview” and sets us up for one disappointment after another.

Much of the propulsive force of romantic fantasies springs from our desire to escape our own loneliness. Habitually, when we feel lonely, we reach for something to make it go away, something to give us meaning and a sense of solid ground to counteract the feeling of groundlessness that loneliness entails. Romantic relationships are the universal cure-all, the thing we all tend to reach for in times of loneliness.

“Intimate relationships do not cause pain and unhappiness," says Tolle. "They bring out the pain and unhappiness that is already in you. Every addiction does that.” In retrospect, I can see that the amount of pain and unhappiness I experienced after the breakup of my relationship with that boyfriend was disproportionate to the level of commitment we shared or the amount of time we'd been together or any other common measure of a relationship's solidity. All that pain couldn't have been solely caused by the relationship or the breakup itself -- it was there in me already, and was triggered and brought out by those experiences.

Simmer-Brown points out that there is a difference between loneliness and aloneness. "Loneliness that gives up its plea, its complaint," she says, "is aloneness — and aloneness is actually the starting point and the basis of the spiritual path." We are always alone, after all, even when we are in love. Relating to our aloneness in a less neurotic way, opening to the experience of aloneness with compassion and lovingkindness for ourselves rather than grasping automatically for something to make it go away, is the fundamental act of making friends with ourselves, a pivotal step in growing up spiritually and emotionally.

Desire drives our lives, and we couldn’t exist without experiencing it. It’s when we blindly try to fulfill desire and get what we want, or try to cling to something we already have, that desire spirals into neurosis and attachment and even full-blown addiction. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche points out that our emotional experiences are supposed to be transient, temporary -- that's their very nature. When we fight against their nature and try to solidify our emotions into something graspable and permanent, we are fighting against reality itself.

Although romantic love might be basically neurotic, at its core there is a flame of lovingkindness and compassion towards the loved one that is fundamental to our being and should be cultivated, because it has tremendous power to benefit the world. So our aim should not be to extinguish desire (which is just as extreme, in the opposite way, as indulging our desires compulsively). Rather, our aim should be to learn to experience and work with desire in a more conscious, skillful and loving way. As Eckhart Tolle warns, whether we actually succeed in learning to do this may determine the survival of more than our intimate relationships:
Humanity is under great pressure to evolve because it is our only chance of survival as a race. This will affect every aspect of your life and close relationships in particular. Never before have relationships been as problematic and conflict-ridden as they are now. As you may have noticed, they are not here to make you happy and fulfilled. If you continue to pursue the goal of salvation through a relationship, you will be disillusioned again and again. But if you accept that the relationship is here to make you conscious instead of happy, then the relationship will offer you salvation, and you will be aligning yourself with the higher consciousness that wants to be born into this world. For those who hold on to the old patterns, there will be increasing pain, violence, confusion, and madness.
I do not pretend to count myself among the relatively small number of people I know who have experienced what Tolle calls "enlightened relationships." My own history of emotional intimacy, including this recent heartbreak, has been relatively unenlightened and brought me a great deal of pain and confusion, even a little madness at times. I do not doubt, either, that I have inflicted pain and confusion on others in the process. But I can still aspire to learn from the experiences I have had, and any future experiences I might have, in order to wake up from my pain and confusion and to help others do the same. And despite the tears I have cried over romantic love and the bitter taste it left in my mouth, I can aspire to continue extending a spirit of lovingkindness and compassion, forgiveness and tolerance, generosity and friendship, towards even those who have hurt my pride and let me down, who didn’t live up to my heart's or my ego’s plans for them.

Besides, what is the alternative? Carrying torches, nursing wounds, holding grudges, wallowing in bitterness or self-pity? Keeping my heart closed because I didn't get what I wanted? That way madness lies.

In the very experience of romantic heartbreak itself, perhaps we can discover what Chogyam Trungpa, in "Shambhala: The Way of the Warrior," called the "genuine heart of sadness" -- that tender, fundamental quality of our being that is awakened to the suffering of others and infused with compassion and wisdom. In the Shambhala teachings, the genuine heart of sadness is not regarded as depressing or a bummed-out state of mind -- rather, it is a quality of authentic presence, beyond our usual ego trips and our habitual ways of shutting down and building a protective fortress around our hearts.

When all is said and done, perhaps it is because my heart has been broken that I am able to open it to others, and even to those who have broken it. As Leonard Cohen reminds us in the song "Anthem":

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.


T. Michael Bow said...

Great stuff! I feel like anything someone could ever need to know about theirself, one can be guided to by the words if Eckhart Tolle. He just speaks in a way that rings so clear to me. This blog post reminds be how rare it us fir someone to find a truely unconditional love to share with another. I have found this love. I am lucky enough to have found it, not only in a partner but in two close friends as well. Sure there are still tendencies for neediness from time to time but there is an unshakable, unconditional foundation beneath all of that. That's something many don't even have with their closest family. I've known parents that don't even offer that to their children. It's good to see these thoughts translated from as many perspectives as possible. Eckhart says that words are not the truth, they are only sign posts pointing us in the direction of the truth. We need as many sign posts as possible to increase the odds that people can understand the direction they are being pointed in. It reduces the chances of misinterpretation.

T. Michael Bow said...

I understand your disapiontment in yourself about your own percieved faliures in your reactions to you recent heartbreak. The best you can do now is to be in the Now. What has passed is past. I have recently done just the same with a non romantic relationship. I just wrote about faliures in this today, coincidentally. We can't always be perfect and if it means we lose someone we live then we lose them. We can't lose love itsself. We simply find ourselve in a temporary life situation where we don't have someone close to share it with. I've been there, but even worse I've been in in the situation you describe where I thought I was in love when really I was simply attaching myself to an idea of what I thought was supposed to be love. I'd rather be alone. Love comes in many forms not just romantic. Lonliness isn't real. We are always alone and simultaneously never alone. What we experience of it is up to us and how we choose to percieve.

Stephen said...

Wow. Heat, density, and volume. Dennis, I love your introspective nature, honesty and intelligence. Please keep writing.


lydia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dutchman said...

This is a great post- thanks for writing it.

I've been there- it's strange madness this "love" that feels like "love" but is so rooted in something else.

The pain sure can feel real though, eh? It can be hard sometimes to remember that there is a greater love with us, within us, all the time, when we are stuck in a loop about a lost "love".

(yes, please keep writing!)

thanks again


Aruna said...

Hi-I just came upon this and want to tell you that it was so well written and so insightful and I was just disappointed that it doesn't seem like you've added to this blog lately. Please continue -- I would like to follow you on your journey. I'm on a similar one and would like to carry on together - in our mutual "aloneness." Blessings.

Éli said...

First of all, thank you... Reading your story has made me realize that we all, as human beings, experience similar experiences...It is conforting to know has we make more sense of how pain is dealth with... I have been in the breakingup process pain since almots 2 months now and I am searching for ways to help me just let go and accept... Your article has come at a good time and is definitely helping me make sense of all my nonsence emotions turmoil inside me...
Namaste ;-)