There’s an old and peculiar mystical saying, which we can probably blame on the Sufis, that suggests “When the heart cries out in sorrow, the spirit laughs for joy.”
This strange idea casts a different light on the universal experience of heartbreak, whether it’s caused by romantic disappointment, the grief caused by death close to us, or the defeat of personal hopes and dreams. It implies that our spiritual progress may actually be served by a turn of events that we would normally regard as negative, sad, or even tragic.
The “heart” in this saying symbolizes all the feelings which attach us to the temporary world of bodies, relationships, and material circumstances. “Spirit” is the timeless, unattached, immaterial energy of pure love that is behind the time-bound world we struggle through every day. Thus, our heart can get broken but our spirit cannot.
In romantic terms, when we pine for a lost or perfect love, we are really mourning our disconnection from the eternal absolute of spirit. And no earthly love will ever really substitute for that connection, even if it lasts a lifetime.
That means heartbreak is inevitable. Heartbreak can be exceptionally painful so we instinctively recoil from it, and seek for ways to prevent it from ever happening again. We may become sardonic or cynical, wary of any future attachments that might lead to another round of heartbreak.
Women may spend a lot of time commiserating with sympathetic girlfriends about the general impossibility of relating; men may spend a lot of time watching sports to avoid thinking or feeling about relationships (or anything besides the playoffs, for that matter). And spiritual types of any gender identification may conclude that full awakening lies only in an enlightened singularity.
After all, the path can look much smoother that way! It’s relatively easy to convince yourself you’ve attained full self-realization when you’re not dealing with a partner who may annoyingly say, “Hey, wait a minute…” or “What about me?”
In fact, the spiritual path of relationship can seem so difficult that we end up unconsciously embracing bitterness, and calling it self-love.
Thus begins a general withdrawal from one’s own inner well of spirit that actually hardens the heart in its broken form, rather than keeping it open to radical change. Complacency is not enlightenment, and self-satisfaction is not the key to awakening.
The heart that’s breaking has a chance for remaking. This is not just a matter of becoming aware of one’s unproductive emotional habits, or recognizing toxic patterns we may be drawn to in others. Therapeutic reflection can definitely play an important role in healing. But if it’s ultimately used to reinforce a protective self-isolation, then it can defeat the larger purpose of spiritual growth—which necessarily includes the learning process of the heart breaking and remaking.
My spiritual discipline, A Course in Miracles, offers a fascinating perspective on the supreme spiritual challenge of relationship. In its “Manual for Teachers,” it briefly discusses the idea of a “soul mate” in different terms than we are accustomed to:
“The third level of teaching occurs in relationships which, once they are formed, are lifelong. These are teaching-learning situations in which each person is given a chosen learning partner who presents him with unlimited opportunities for learning. These relationships are generally few, because their existence implies that those involved have reached a stage simultaneously in which the teaching-learning balance is actually perfect. This does not mean that they necessarily recognize this; in fact, they generally do not. They may even be quite hostile to each other for some time, and perhaps for life. Yet should they decide to learn it, the perfect lesson is before them and can be learned. And if they decide to learn that lesson, they become the saviors of the teachers who falter and may even seem to fail….”
Contrary to the popular notion of a soul mate who magically fulfills our needs and desires and agrees with everything we believe, this “teaching-learning” perspective echoes the spiritual challenge of allowing the heart to break and remake itself.
Our greatest teachers on the path of relationship may be those who seem to cause us the most profound pain. That’s not because pain is actually useful in itself, but because we can choose to change its purpose.
Instead of letting pain teach us to build thicker walls against intimacy, we can let it teach us a practical wisdom that makes us more open to change and growth. That state of openness is what might be called an informed vulnerability. That inner quality doesn’t merely lead us toward “better choices” in relationship; it leads us toward the kind of accelerated transformation that may occur only in relationship.
The vital wisdom distilled from heartbreak can lead us into partnerships where the “perfect lesson” of transcendence is mutually recognized and celebrated. That’s the basis for a radical intimacy that surpasses the world’s usual definitions of love, devotion, and commitment.
Thus, the pain of heartbreak can teach us to hear the spirit’s laughter even in the midst of our most self-indulgent misery.
We can even learn to celebrate that everything in our time-bound world breaks and remakes, over and over again, until we are ready to go home into timelessness itself.
Author: D. Patrick Miller
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Amy Zirkle/Flickr