Last summer, I met a man who led me to question my deepest held spiritual beliefs.
We met at my friend’s house one night at a party, and I knew instantly he was different from most men my age. Nothing looked particularly different, but I was immediately drawn to him. Over the next week, he texted my friend and asked if she thought “our energies flowed.”
We ended up both being at a concert the next weekend, and when we met up he told me an amazing story about how he used meditation to convince the woman at the door to let him in to the sold-out show with no ticket.
At this moment, I understood why he was different and why I was drawn to him. We ended up spending the night together, having some of the best conversations I have ever had. I learned quickly he practices Tantric Buddhism, is an accomplished yogi and worked at an apothecary and herbal medicine store. I can say that he is easily one of the most interesting and intelligent people I have ever met. He is an expert at economics, ecology, and, of course, eastern philosophy.
As I am romantically attracted to high levels of intelligence, I started to fall immediately. I started to imagine our relationship full of partner yoga, philosophical stimulation and tantric sex.
We started dating casually, but in my mind this was anything but casual. This was the real thing, or more importantly, he was the real thing. Every other man just seemed silly and selfish. So, for all of last semester I continued to torture myself by trying to hold onto whatever was happening with him. The more I got to know him, the more I understood his intelligence and admired him for it. I began to realize that I was no longer myself when I was around him, that I would hold my tongue whenever I felt that what I had to say might reveal my ignorance to him.
I became completely attached to the idea of him teaching me how to be on his level.
However, what I was not aware of (or what I chose to be unaware of) was that I was the only person in the relationship that felt like this. He was all over the place. He would constantly say things like, “It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is.” When we were supposed to hang out, sometimes he would call and tell me he forgot.
This caused me great emotional pain, but I wrote it off as part of his mystery and continued to try to hold on to him. Somewhere in the midst of him teaching me about tarot cards, Reiki and hand mudras, I completely lost control. I finally found a man who knew more about all of the things I am interested in than me. I was convinced that our ability to relate to each other through ballet and yoga was predestined.
When I started to see him less and less, I started to have doubts. It took over a month to get the courage to confront the situation and ask him about how he felt. When we finally talked, it became clear to me that we were on very different pages in regards to our relationship.
Through heavy tears, I told him how much I cared and that I did not know if I had the strength to keep our relationship going if he did not feel the same. He was incredibly kind, and told me he had no idea I felt that way. He told me that his body and mind were not in a place where he could be fully committed to me.
I told him he “sucked” for being so incredible. He told me there was another him that did not suck.
I was pretty devastated. I tried to handle the situation using the spiritual guidance that I had at the time. I was familiar with the Advaita Vedanta concept of Atman or Self, which basically states that all phenomena have an essence that is their divine nature (“Advaita Vedanta” n.d.). So, I had an understanding that at the ultimate level of reality, we are all the same. I tried to explain to myself that he and I were in essence the same being, and that he had just realized Atman more fully than I had. I convinced myself that if I could just realize what he had, I would no longer suffer from losing him.
For some reason, this did not work. Although I could convince myself that we were the same, it did not make our differences or the fact that he did not want to be with me okay. The suffering I felt as a result of losing him melded into the suffering of my impatience with my own spiritual practice. It was then I had the important realization that my suffering was a result of my desire to be like him, not be with him.
Coincidentally, I had already signed up for Philosophy as Buddhism for the spring semester.
Over the course of the semester, I learned a lot about what caused my suffering and how Buddhist philosophy advises to alleviate it. I also came to understand the perspective he might have had during our relationship, and why my actions were detrimental to us being able to grow as a couple.
Buddhism would explain my suffering as attachment resulting from ignorance. As Mark Siderits explains in his discussion of the Four Noble Truths:
Having been born with a body, senses and a mind, one comes into contact with the sense objects, and this cognitive contact brings about feelings of pleasure, pain and indifference. These feelings trigger desires, and desires that are conditioned by ignorance lead to the stance known as appropriation: taking certain things (including things that no longer exist or do not yet exist) as ‘me’, and other things as ‘mine’ or my possessions. It is this stance that fuels rebirth, this produces the suffering that is associated with all sentient existence. (2007:23)
This is exactly what happened. This man’s expansive bodhisattva compassion led me to associate being around him with feelings of pleasure. These feelings caused me to desire him and subsequently appropriate him as ‘mine’.
Buddhists explain there are three types of suffering, the second being the “suffering in getting what one wants because the desired object is impermanent. So the happiness we feel is always tinged with the anxiety about losing it” (Siderits 2007:20). I feel like this exactly describes my suffering while we were dating.
I was blindly happy because I felt like I finally found what I was looking for romantically, but I was also in constant agony over the fact that I might lose him.
The Four Noble Truths also offered me advice for how to overcome this suffering resulting from ignorance. In Siderits’s discussion of the second Noble Truth, he explains that what must be overcome is the ignorance of “the fact that all sentient existence is characterized by impermanence, suffering and non-self” (2007:22).
At first, I had trouble with the notion of non-self because I felt it was a direct contradiction to my previous understanding of the Self, or Atman. However, I found Siderits’ exhaustive argument for non-self from the impermanence of the five skandhas to be quite illuminating (2007:32-68). He explains that when we refer to a thing such as a person, “the ultimate truth about what are conventionally called persons is just that there is a causal series of impermanent skandhas.” (2007:60).
Early Buddhism explains the five skandhas, form, feeling, perception, volition and consciousness, make up everything that exists. Early Buddhists claim nothing exists over and above the five skandhas, and because all of the skandhas are impermanent, no true self can exist permanently (Zimmerman 2012). The thing we refer to when speaking about persons is merely a convenient designator, “a useful way of referring to the parts when they are arranged together a certain way” (Siderits 2007:54).
With this understanding, I understood how Self and non-self are not necessarily contradictory. We can view the concept of Self in Advaita Vedanta to be a convenient designator for the arrangement of all phenomena as inherently impermanent and therefore lacking in an individually existing self.
However, the Buddhists claim that this is not ultimately satisfactory because “our ontological attitudes should not be dictated by our interests” (Siderits 2007:55). In relating to our existence as an ultimate Self because it is convenient to do so for speaking purposes, we may still mistakenly identify ourselves as things that have an essence and endure. The mistake here is believing your individual self to endure instead of the impermanent nature of reality.
When trying to relate this to my own suffering, I came to realize that my prior understanding of the Self had prevented a true understanding of impermanence and therefore caused attachment.
I perceived the Self as a sort of permanent external essence that was to be obtained internally. I saw the Self as something this man had that I did not, and therefore ignorantly applied appropriative potential to the concept of Atman.
When I came to the realization that Atman is not something you can claim ownership of, it released my attachment to the idea of owning it as a part of my identity and simultaneously began to alleviate the suffering caused by my desire to own it.
In addition, an understanding of the Buddhist concept of emptiness not only helped to alleviate suffering caused by attachment to this man, but also helped me to understand how my actions and thought processes were the partial cause of the failure of our relationship.
For the Middle Way school of Buddhism, phenomena are characterized by emptiness and impermanence. So, at the ultimate level of reality, all phenomena are empty of inherent existence. Nothing exists at the ultimate level of reality. However, Buddhists do not believe this means that nothing at all exists (Garfield 1995).
The Buddhist claims that while nothing has inherent existence, phenomena can be said to exist at a conventional level (Garfield 1995). The Middle Way school uses the concept of the Two Truth doctrine to explain how this can be so. The ultimate truth is that nothing exists inherently; all phenomena are empty. At the conventional level of truth, phenomenon like persons and things are said to exist to facilitate linguistic communication.
During my meditation practice, I have attempted to have a direct observation of what is meant by emptiness. I have been able to observe my own thought processes and sensations as a stream of stimuli in constant flux. Nothing in my direct perception remains permanent except for self-awareness, which I understand to be impermanent because of my impending death as a human being. While I am still far from experiencing emptiness as a constant nondual state of awareness, I am becoming more comfortable with the observation of impermanence and therefore relating more directly to an ultimate understanding of reality as well my own mortality.
This understanding and experience of emptiness allowed me some insight into the possible mental states my ex experiences in his high levels of meditative practice.
I began to understand his ability to seem completely unattached to material objects and his relationships with others. I finally understood how he could just “forget” to call me. He was free from any desires to codify our relationship into an existent entity that was built on a set of culturally defined expectations. While I was busy writing up a mental list of expectations for our ‘relationship’ that would never be met, he simply perceived what was real, that we were casually dating and slowly getting to know each other.
By integrating an understanding of emptiness into my own suffering, I began to realize how I set myself up for my own heartbreak.
By thinking that ultimate reality contains an existent essence (Atman/Self), I created an imaginary void where I thought that essence should be. By conceptually relating this man with an ultimate sense of Self, I somehow created the expectation that he could somehow fill this void by teaching me his wisdom. However, I realized that he is just as empty of an inherent essence as I am.
Being empty himself, he could never fill the void I expected him to.
The void I felt had nothing to do with him, it had to do with my inability to reach enlightenment as fast as I want to. By placing these unfair and impossible expectations on him, I inadvertently destroyed any potential of us actually being able to achieve spiritual growth together. I was basically asking him to do the work I must do on my own, and by understanding this, I understood why we could not be together.
We would never work if I had the expectation that he could in some sense fill the void I felt in relation to my own spiritual development. By doing so, I denied emptiness as the ultimate level of reality and instead participated in the ignorance of samsara.
Jay L. Garfield explains that samsara and nirvana, or enlightenment, are two ways of looking at the same thing (1995). Samsara is perceiving conventional reality as ultimate truth.
Nirvana is simply seeing conventional reality as conventional, which is the same as perceiving the ultimate.
During my relationship, I did not see conventional as conventional.
I got wrapped up in the conventional Disney fairytales that glorify the ecstasy of love and make you believe in the reality of soul mates and happily ever after. I wanted to learn about ultimate reality from him, but I was trying to attach myself to him conventionally to do it. I misidentified my hunger for spiritual development as a desire to have a relationship.
By applying the careful discrimination to my thought processes that I developed through my meditative practice, I became aware of my misidentification of the conventional as ultimate. This allowed me to be able to let go of the expectations I had built for our relationship and I was therefore also able to let go of the suffering it was causing me.
My new perspective allows me to view my relationship with him as something to be cherished for the lessons it taught me.
I now see that the suffering I felt for him caused me to face my emotional attachments head on, something I would not have done had I not met him. His impressive dedication to his spiritual practice has also inspired me to advance my own efforts by practicing yoga and meditating daily.
If nothing else, this simple ability to be attentive to my emotions has brought great relief to my level of suffering.
Through my experiences with Buddhist philosophy I have become able to create space between my emotional sensations and how I react to them. In regards to getting over my ex, as well as a becoming a more patient and compassionate person, Buddhist philosophy has become an integral part of my self-development and the alleviation of my suffering.
“Advaita Vedanta.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 19 Apr. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advaita_Vedanta>.
Nāgārjuna, and Jay L. Garfield. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.
Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. Print.
Zimmerman, Michael. 2012. Unpublished lecture material. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado.
Cassandra Smith is an editorial intern at elephant journal. She is a fifth generation Colorado native who believes dance has the potential to liberate human consciousness from its cultural prison. Cassandra formerly trained at Boston Ballet and is currently a senior at University of Colorado Boulder studying journalism, sociology and philosophy. Read her blog at cassandralanesmith.com.
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