I’ve always been one in search for spirit (despite my mother’s best attempts at raising me to be a good Catholic). But it wasn’t until I was struggling through my divorce that Buddhism really found its way into my mind and heart. There was something that seemed sacredly peaceful and whole about the Buddhists I’d observed—from a good friend who’d submitted her life to Buddhist principles, to the Bhikṣu who guided me in my first meditation at a local temple. Whatever brought the calm to them, calmness so deep that it radiated and grabbed hold whomever was near, I wanted it desperately.
Famed Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chödrön found Buddhism similarly. She was also divorcing and once wrote regarding her path, “When anyone asks me how I got involved in Buddhism, I always say that it was because I was so angry with my husband. The truth is that he saved my life.” It’s a common story. Most people find their chosen spiritual paths as they try to work through hurt, anger, pain, and/or confusion.
I wonder though how the teachings of the Buddha could bring peace, focus and understanding to our relationships while we’re still in them. Essentially, can Buddhist teachings help some of us avoid the pain we feel when we lose love—even if just for a little while?
I mentioned removing pain only for a little while because, well, suffering is inevitable. This is lesson one in Buddhism.
1. We will suffer. The Buddha teaches us that suffering is an unavoidable part of life, and that the key to conquering suffering is to face it with the same calmness and openness to which we face joy. Because we aren’t perfect, our relationships can never be. Yet society makes us believe that our relationship should be just that—all happiness, no pain. And so when the hurt comes (and it will, whether it arrives as mean words, selfishness, or the truly hard stuff like infidelity), we have to decide whether we will stay or go. And if we decide to stay, we must learn to face, breathe through, and find peace with the hard times. Doing so will make the sweeter times more syrupy and bring harmony to our unions.
2. We must live in the present. Toni Morrison wrote in Song of Solomon, “Wanna fly, you got to give up the sh!t that weighs you down.” So often we drag the pain from previous heartaches with us as we attempt to find new love. Or we refuse to forgive our partners for past pain caused (even if we stay). The past is the past for a reason, whether those reasons surround an ex-lover we need to let go, or a current one we need to forgive and love up.
We have to remember to pack light so we can move freely. “No bags” is a much more important adage than “no new friends.” We also must be mindful of how far ahead we’re planning our lives, including our lives with our SOs. Take it from a woman who married someone she probably should have only dated: even if long-term, sometimes we overcommit to the fantasies that we create in our heads. And often that over-commitment doesn’t work out well for us.
Interesting conversations, and even planning for the future, can be fun, hopeful and informative. But taking things as they come in the present may save us a lot of worry and heartache. Easier said than done, I know.
3. We have to mind our expectations and practice detachment. Planning for the future (and trying to control the destiny of our relationships as a result) often leads to an enormous amount of expectations, as we desperately try to hold on to people we probably shouldn’t. We sometimes create entire love chronicles with lovers who don’t realize they’re protagonists. I’m guilty, and so are you. (This is where you silently nod in agreement.)
Tough as it is, we have to be mindful of our expectations, and recognize that there’s nothing in the universe that demands that those expectations be met. Our hope, of course, is that we’re treated kindly and lovingly in our relationships—and if we’re not, we can certainly exercise the option to move on. But how can we effectively move on if we’ve tied our lives, our wholeness and our happiness to someone outside ourselves?
Learning how to effectively detach from those people and relationships that aren’t bringing us joy allows us to make room for the love and happiness that we’re praying for, and by proxy calling into existence.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and scribe. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.