After a breakup or another trauma, we can transcend heartbreak.
All of us at some point in our lives have experienced heartache. Life is extraordinarily skillful at bringing about these things in human affairs. As Buddha’s First Noble Truth reminds us: “All life is sorrowful.” And it is.
I’m 32 years old, and I recently had my heart broken for the first time in my life. I’m pretty old for such a thing to happen to me, but nonetheless it finally happened, and it pretty much threw my world into a tailspin that I’ve still not completely found my way out of yet (I’m getting “there” though). Immediately after the break up, I seemed to feel the loss and the heartache right down to my DNA. It felt like it seeped into every molecular crevice of my body, every breath a renewal of the heartbreak. It felt like a kind of death. My heart physically hurt and I often found myself shaking uncontrollably, nauseated, short of breath, and light-headed. I couldn’t sleep, my mind raced to ten thousand different scenarios where I saved the relationship, where I made her happy, where I was enough.
Of course these thoughts were delusional. I know that now. I was just making myself more miserable imaging how things could be other than what they were, which was pretty miserable. It had never been in my power (or anyone else’s) to make her happy or satisfy her. That, thankfully, wasn’t my job. My job was to be there when she needed me, to support her in any way I knew how. And I did that. Of that much I’m sure.
But one thing loss and heartache do is they really focus our attention. I mean focus us like a laser. Life becomes whittled down to its absolute essentials. Because we give so much of ourselves in relationships, when our care and concern are rejected or unappreciated, it calls into question our whole spiritual operating system. We begin to question our very natures.
Where do the qualities of love come from? Care. Concern. Compassion. Why did they fail? Was it me? Was it her? We also seek to find a way never to be hurt like that again, to never become so attached to another that our happiness, identity, and self-worth depends on anything or anyone external to ourselves.
Of course, we kick ourselves now because we knew better. We meditate, we go on retreats, we read books by the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh (some of us even read David Deida), and yet, here we are—heartbroken and surfing samsara without a surfboard. But we forget to anchor ourselves in ourselves, don’t we? All those wonderful feelings human relationships stir up! I mean, here is proof some part of the universe loves us and accepts us for who we are! It’s proof that we’re loved and are worthy! We’re okay!
Now we know this kind of thinking did us in before we even started. And that’s okay. It’s a very human response. But you know, we’re also better than that. We don’t have to have our hearts scattered to the winds every time we find ourselves heartbroken. We can be still and witness our hearts as they break without feeling it will rend us in two. Sure, we can ease the pain, which is helpful, but that’s not really the point, is it? The point is to sit with the pain and not disengage from it. Father Henri Nouwen once said, “The monastery is not built to solve problems, but to praise the Lord in the midst of them.”
Our human journeys are fraught with challenges that can undermine our essential happiness (if we let them). We can’t always be immune to heartbreak, but we can skillfully choose how to navigate it when it happens. In choosing to affirm heartbreak and not shrink from it we can integrate sorrow into our lives and view it as the opportunity for further enlightenment it represents. We can become stronger—more loving, more compassionate, and more whole. We can, as Joseph Campbell was fond of saying, “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” And this begins, as does everything, with the self.
While it’s not exactly a tabula rasa there’s an awful lot of wiggle room in human identity. Freedom is, to a large extent, built into our DNA. There is so much room for variation that if it is not freedom, it is as close to freedom as we’ll likely get anytime soon. The self is more or less a habit, a pattern of behavior we fall into and over time becomes to look more and more like our identity—fixed and solid. But it’s not true. With every choice we make we alter our identities and the cosmic tumblers recalibrate—they are always in flux. Since our identities are not fixed we can manipulate them according to our immediate needs. This means we have all the tools we need to design our own individuated responses to the world and its demands (such as heartbreak).
The more skillful we are in understanding the nature of the relative self the more skillful we will become at monitoring our internal states from which our selves are informed. When we do suffer heartbreak we are more likely to have a response to it which will help us navigate the experience and use it towards further spiritual growth instead of getting stuck in the pain and devastating our lives. It is in those moments of heartbreak we need to be paying the most careful attention.
One way to navigate heartbreak is to see the world in a new way. Many of you reading this probably meditate (or participate in some other spiritual practice), and, if so, you probably have already experienced this very particular way of engaging with the world. The kinds of states (and structures) meditative practices facilitate allow us to deeply engage with the world on a heightened level of consciousness that not only enriches how we participate with the world, but also allows our lives to become transcendently playful.
One aspect of this new way of experiencing the world is seeing all phenomena as strands of Reality that can be used to our purposes. Movies, music, people, fashion styles, and much much more can be looked at from the point of view of applications! This world is ours; every bit of it is a part of us, so why not begin thinking of it in those terms? Think of the world as the mind turned inside out. Everything is simply data to be used to enrich and support our lives. Every single thing can be made to serve us or undermine us, it’s our choice. Heartbreak doesn’t have to severely disrupt our lives; we can work with it to deepen our experience of life.
Since the self is a habit, we simply strengthen those habits we find useful and let the other habits that limit us or do not support our development fall away. Anything can be made an application! Be imaginative! And remember to have fun!
Start assembling your arsenal of apps, the more specific the better, but choose ones that you identify with on a deep level. They can’t be haphazard or they won’t work as well. They have to inspire you or have a deep personal significance to you; perhaps it’s a special movie from childhood, or the song that was playing when you ran your first sub five-minute mile, or the memory of the expression on your father’s face the day you told him he was going to be a grandfather. It can literally be anything. Find the apps that move you, then get out of the way and allow them to move you. And your apps don’t have to be limited to supporting your journey through heartbreak; they can be used for anything. For instance, if I need discipline I think of Miyamoto Musashi or Yukio Mishima; if I need to get my mojo going I think of John Shaft or James Bond; if I need spiritual solidity I think of Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars or Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu; if I need to be more logical I think of Sherlock Holmes, Batman, or Spock from Star Trek; if I need to feel warrior-like and assertive I think of Odin or Dr. Strange; if I need to be more life-affirming and energetic I think of Dr. Who; if I need to be more compassionate and loving I think of the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, or Jesus. The possibilities are endless.
Obviously your apps can be based on real or imaginary people, places, or things. I’ve found music to work exceptionally well (I even have playlists I run as apps for something as simple as gaining more confidence to becoming more contemplative). The point is that they have to affect you on a deep level, enough to alter your behavior. You have to be inspired. Run the apps you find beneficial. And don’t worry about faking it till you make it. That’s what they’re there for. The longer you use them the more likely you will establish those neuro-connections and can readily access them when you need them—they’ll be there for you until you begin to take on the very qualities you’ve been practicing. The goal here is creating more agency for yourself. The more freedom we experience the fuller and more whole our experiences of the world will be.
So if, like me, you find yourself with a broken heart, perhaps think of using apps in the way I described. We should try not to shrink away from our pain but meet it as well as we can with our full arsenal. If you see a picture of your ex or have a dream about them that sends all those painful feelings rushing back, just think of how (your app) would react. Would they flinch? Would they look away? Maybe they would say, “Yes, I’m deeply hurt, but I can choose to keep my heart open and still love them for the invaluable contribution they made to my life. I acknowledge their place in my constantly unfolding heart and hold them with love and compassion on their path through life.” In this way our apps can help us during the most traumatic part of our heartbreaks when we may need them the most. We can walk alongside of our pain and witness it with more clarity and wisdom.
There are a million reasons why we find ourselves here. Some of them we can never know, but some of the reasons we can. But one thing we can do is love. That much we always know. Sure, it may not be reciprocated, but is that ever the point? What I’m talking about is the radical kind of love that is so fierce and alive it will stop at nothing. It can’t be talked down or bought off. It can’t be intimidated or made afraid. I’m talking about the kind of love that will willingly go to hell if someone there needs us.
The choice to love in this way is heroic in the truest sense of the word and it is not an easy one to make (we will most likely need all of our apps to sustain us until we stabilize this kind of love). In fact, it’s probably the hardest thing any of us will ever do. This kind of hero may find herself alone sometimes (loving in this way will no doubt appear puzzling, even insane to some people). Her reckoning is with the world inside herself, unmoved by joy or sorrow, unmoved by hopelessness or despair. Her work is just to strive, to become more and more with each decision to love more fully, to endure if she can, to help when she can, and to become as wonderfully alive as her life allows. Others can only bear witness to her spirit as it strives with its own otherness. As her heart breaks, it also expands. But the breaking is actually not of her heart but her ego as it contracts to allow her spirit to love more fully, to become more compassionate (especially with herself), learning to be as gentle and tender with herself as she is with others’ hearts. With each choice to love the ego shrinks until there is nothing left in her but love.
Can you think of someone who might resemble the kind of hero I just described? I bet you can. I know I have mine in mind. So, center them in your mind and run that app until you can sustain it yourself. It’s going to be difficult, but what have we got to lose? The more our hearts expand the more of the world we can take into account until we are able embrace the entire world in universal love and compassion. This is the kind of love our world needs.
I think loving in this way we will come to understand that the world was more wonderful than we thought, and more dangerous. That it held more possibility than we ever imagined, and more emptiness. But that it was our world all along, and the choice to be a part of it was always only ours. How we navigate it is entirely up to us. Apps or no apps, the choice is ours. Let us choose love.
Ryan Ange is finishing an MA in English at East Carolina University where he is writing a thesis on Alan Moore’s Watchmen. He writes, lifts weights, meditates, trains to be a gnostic superhero, eats, and sleeps when he can. Life is good.
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