[NOTE ABOUT THE TITLE: The author of this piece was named “Hottest Male Buddhist Blogger 2009” some months back by this publication, though he has repeatedly tried to concede the honor to its editor-in-chief.]
The last time I saw her I was not kind. I was all glower and silence—an ugly, effective combination I learned from wherever to inspire shame in those who have hurt me. Truth be told, it makes me sick to my stomach to do it because I know how badly it makes me feel when I’m on the receiving end of such a thing. But, despite my best intentions, it still comes out from time to time, when the hurt is deep.
So there she was—The Big Hurt—standing at my doorstep, and not knowing what to say but wanting to say something. She settled on “How are you doing?” though she seemed to want to suck the words back into her chest almost immediately.
In my own defense, I was more shocked than anything: I had not seen or talked to her for nearly two years. But all the pain came back in a millisecond, and I shot daggers. I nodded slightly, barely moving a muscle. I didn’t even take my earbuds out. Nor did I say a word. I let my cold look back do the rest of the communicating: You will not hurt me again. Never again. Not a chance. I won’t let you. Whatever you’re here for now—renewed friendship, peace of mind—you can’t have it. It’s all ruined. You’re the one who made this bed, now lie in it. After a few seconds of this, she left, saying only “All right.”
I may be a peace-loving Buddhist, but clearly I’m still as big and as vain a moron as any other guy. Yes, she was knowingly careless with my love; indeed, she rode roughshod over this heart that was never as happy as it was in the short time it belonged to her. But I also know that life has not always been kind to her. Actually, I would say that it has often been aggressively the opposite of kind: no one should have to go through any of things that she has had to endure. I’m not sure that this necessarily means she should get a pass on everything vis-à-vis me, but it does put things into some kind of perspective; it engenders some important measures of compassion in a situation that is otherwise charged with strong emotions.
“Matters of the heart are the hardest,” as the old platitude goes. It’s hard to sit with all these feelings and act skillfully: I adored her like no other and was completely devastated when she ended the relationship. It’s hard to come to the realization that much of my suffering could have been avoided had I paid attention to what was actually happening and not let myself get carried away by my hopes for and fears about that relationship. It’s hard to see that the outcome would have been the same no matter what I did or didn’t do. What she really wanted was just to not be alone—and who could blame anyone for that?—but I wouldn’t see the truth. I simply saw the green light, inviting me to at last let out all the love for her that was in my heart.
Hardest of all, though, is practicing in the midst of all this. I can feel like a failure, especially when I catch myself moping around or behaving like a jerk. When he was asked to define the essence of Buddhism, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi famously responded, “Everything changes.” Having such adverse emotional reactions to the very heart of the Buddha’s teachings, then, can make me feel as though I haven’t learned much of anything. It becomes all-too-easy to start identifying (in an unproductive sort of way) with the Indian Buddhist teacher Naropa, who was forced to confront the fact that, while he had grasped them intellectually, he had clearly not understood the teachings at the heart-level.
It’s true that the experience of pining can throw into sharp relief the enormous divide between “the walk” and “the talk” that can occur in terms of Buddhist practice. Some of the tradition’s mightiest pundits have even said so. Shantideva, for example, in his much-beloved Bodhicaryāvatāra (pg. 117), writes:
For what person is it appropriate to be attached to impermanent beings, when that person is impermanent, when a loved one may not be seen again for thousands of lives?
Not seeing them one finds no pleasure and cannot remain in meditative concentration, and even when one does see them one is not satisfied. One is tormented by longing, just as before.
One does not see things as they really are. One loses the sense of spiritual urgency. One is consumed by that grief, by hankering after contact with the one who is loved.
While uselessly preoccupied with that person, life gets shorter by the minute. For a friend who does not last, the everlasting Dharma is lost.
His Holiness the Sixth Dalai Lama, in one of the eloquent poems for which he is best known, applies this logic more directly to romantic love as well:
If I could meditate upon the dharma
As intensely as I muse on my beloved
I would certainly attain enlightenment
Surely, in this one lifetime
But I would be wrong to take these observations and use them as an excuse to wallow in self-pity. When I hear “you’re a failure,” that’s my ego talking. It’s a cop-out—a way I try to let myself off the hook in terms of the hard work of being a Buddhist practitioner. The tradition expects me to show up in all circumstances and learn from my mistakes, otherwise there’s no waking up. I must recognize the opportunities here. This situation and my increasing awareness of the places where I am still very stuck, like anything else—like everything else—are opportunities, invitations, to go deeper in my practice.
As I strive to remember this, the words of one of my teachers, Frank Berliner, come back to me again and again: “It’s called the noble truth of suffering, not the shitty truth of suffering.” In other words, as long as I insist on shrinking from suffering—instead of recognizing it as something that might teach me if I’m brave enough to look at it—progress on the path simply isn’t possible. Difficult as it can be, letting the world “tickle my heart,” as Frank’s teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche would say, is imperative to real spiritual development. If I can really experience suffering, let my heart be tickled, I can understand—I can grow.
Obviously I’m not yet where I’d like to be with regards to this relationship. Noticing resistance to the tickle is an important step forward, though. I can always ask myself: Where I am I putting my head the sand? Where am I being combative? Where do I need to be really and truly brave? I must always remember the words of the great Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche: “Your practice should be strengthened by the difficult situations you encounter, just as a bonfire in a strong wind is not blown out, but blazes even brighter.”
It helps too that the bodhisattva aspiration, no matter how many times I stumble, does not seem to fade away. That simple and earnest wish, so beautifully articulated elsewhere in the religious world by the great African-American theologian Howard Thurman (pg. 168), resounds in my being: “I want to be more loving in my heart.” I want to be more loving in my heart.
Fortunately there are those moments when selfishness is at least briefly overwhelmed by compassion. It is in these moments that I am able to genuinely forgive. More importantly, it is in these moments that the wish for happiness and freedom from suffering for all sentient beings without exception is at its strongest. I think of her, and attachment fades away—if only fleetingly. I think of her, and I know just how much I want for her happiness and freedom from suffering. I think of her, and I try to generate that much compassion for all sentient beings. I think of her, and I pray for happiness and freedom from suffering for all sentient beings. I think of her, and I vow to take on all the sufferings of sentient beings. I think of her, and want nothing so much as for all beings to be liberated from suffering.
Genuine moments of clarity like this may be fewer and farther between than I’d like right now, but luckily reminders to manifest compassion are around every corner. In fact, immediately following our last encounter, I was blessed to receive through those earbuds—the ones I wouldn’t take out for her—one such reminder from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers:
And when all of this is over
Should I lose you in the smoke
I want you to know that it’s all right
And may my love travel with you everywhere
Yeah, may my love travel with you always