While not a Buddhist, the singer Neil Sedaka nailed it with his song “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.”
Particularly if you are still in love with the person you are parting ways with, you will experience what I find to be the most aptly named emotion: heartbreak. It literally feels like your heart is physically ripping open, breaking as a result of your loss.
While any student of Buddhism may quote to you that the reality of impermanence is a bitch, it’s a whole other thing to feel the loss of a relationship.
I empathize and know that pain.
If you have been with someone for months, or even years, and they simply disappear from your life it can leave an empty hole which is hard to fill. You may try to fill it with new people to date or sleep with, or alcohol or drugs or new hobbies, but that hole is so vast that those temporary distractions seem to get lost in there.
The first piece of advice I would offer anyone going through a break up is to sit with whatever emotions arise, without judgment. At times you may feel loss, as one of your best friends has left you and it no longer feels appropriate to talk with them about all the details of your life.
Or you may feel anger, in that they have done you wrong by abandoning your life together or that they did something mean-spirited that led to the demise of the relationship.
Or perhaps you just feel confusion: you have no idea what went wrong and how it all went to shit. Regardless of what you are feeling, that is okay.
The more you can sit with your emotions, both on and off the meditation cushion, the easier they are to work with.
It may feel like hell, but in the words of Suzuki Roshi,
“Hell is not punishment, it’s training.”
You are training to be with pain, which is great since we have this whole cycle of suffering we seem to be immersed in and it’s not like we’re never going to have to address pain again.
Working with these strong emotions is both hell and a training ground; it is also inherently okay.
Sometimes when people break up they need time to not be around the other person. Some try to maintain a friendship or at least remain on speaking terms right off the bat. Seung Sahn was once asked about this topic and said,
“Being a bodhisattva means that when people come, don’t cut them off; when people go, don’t cut them off.”
That means that when someone enters your life you should not shut them out of your heart. When they leave, don’t shut them out of your heart.
It is disrespectful to your partner to pretend that what existed between you was not of value. That is aggression, causing harm to your ex, and is a form of ignorance that harms you as well.
Don’t be surprised if you feel a wide range of emotions. Another musician, and a gentleman I consider a very amazing Zen student, Leonard Cohen once sang,
“I’m good at love, I’m good at hate. It’s in between I freeze.”
When your lover leaves you, you might want to vacillate between these extremes. One moment you love your ex, and can’t live without her. The next you hate her for the pain she has caused you, and never want to speak with her again.
This middle ground between these two is letting the infinite number of other emotions that come up wash over you like waves.
That is very hard to do.
That is where most of us freeze up and forget our practice. Yet that uncomfortable, uncertain, difficult place is that training ground for working with every other emotion in our lives.
There are many ways to exist in that uncomfortable zone between love and hate.
One tip Pema Chodron has recommended is that you can place a picture of your ex somewhere you will see it often. It can be your hallway, or on your refrigerator, or on your desk. Whenever you see the face of your old lover you can think to yourself, “I wish for your deepest well-being.”
I would recommend that if that phrase doesn’t ring true to you make one up for yourself. It could be “I wish that you find happiness” or “I wish that you will not suffer so much.” As with so much of what is being discussed here, the most important thing is that you make this practice your own.
To keep your ex in your heart may be scary, but you have to remember that we all love love. To receive or give it, even in the midst of your own heart-ache or feeling of loss, is an incredible gift.
From ‘Walk Like a Buddha’ by Lodro Rinzler, © 2013 Lodro Rinzler. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, Mass.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum