A few years ago, I traveled across the country giving talks based on my book, The Wisdom of a Broken Heart. I drove from Boston to Victoria, B.C. and back, giving talk after talk, hearing story after story, meeting person after heartbroken person who was seeking some way, any way, to mitigate this astonishing pain.
Marilyn came home from a business trip to find that her love of eight years had moved out and taken the cat.
Carlene and her fiance were going around with their realtor looking at houses. The next week he sent her an email notifying her that he was in love with someone else.
Dan sold his house and was packing up to move from Texas to California to be with his beloved -- only to receive a call telling him to unpack because his boyfriend had decided he wasn't ready for a long-term relationship.
These kinds of things happen every day and every day they leave someone's life in complete free fall. Heartbreak from lost love is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. The pain takes you by complete surprise and it is simply not possible to move on.
When it happened to me (in the most prosaic way imaginable -- my boyfriend fell in love with someone else), my world went to pieces. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I could barely leave the house. The thought of him with her literally made we want to vomit. (For two years.)
Of course there are many kinds of heartbreak. People we love become ill. The job we wanted so desperately goes to someone else. We run out of money and have to move away. These are all very real sources of pain, but the sorrow of lost love feels different. Not better, not worse, just different. It has attributes that don't seem to go with the other forms of sorrow.
The first attribute is called shame. No matter how many times you tell yourself it's not true, a desperate sense of ugliness and undesirability arises.
The second quality is (insane) moodiness. You just don't know when the waves of grief and humiliation will re-arise. I remember once I burst into tears over a basket of jalapeño corn bread because it made me remember his fondness for hot peppers. I was sitting there minding my own business when suddenly some baked goods destroyed my equanimity.
The third quality of romantic heartbreak is a little something I like to call "obsessive thinking." It can seem as if your own mind is attacking you from moment to moment, mercilessly, unremittingly. "They are probably laughing at me right now. I hate her/him. No, I love her/him. I will never find love again, this was my last chance. If only I hadn't said boo or worn boots or chewed gum. I have unhealed wounds from childhood that made this happen. I am such a loser. No, s/he is. F*#k her/him."
All is not lost. There are actually ways to relate with these very difficult inner states and, perhaps surprisingly, they can be found in Buddhist teachings that are thousands of years old. They present a third alternative to the options we are usually presented with, which are:
Screw it: Go out, have a good time, forget about him/her, she/he didn't deserve you, dance it out, girl. (Sorry, but most of the advice is addressed to women.)
There is something very wrong with you: You made this happen because you have carried forward unhealed wounds from childhood. Heal them, sister, or you will "attract" the same treatment over and over until you work it out.
Okay, fine. It can be great to remember that you are awesome and useful to explore your psyche. However, neither of those are will make the pain less because they are both about getting away from it.
The third option is to stop running, turn around and look directly at your sorrow. Simply acknowledging and embracing it (without an agenda, simply as a gesture of kindness) has immediate pacifying effect.
There are three things you can do once you begin to develop a relationship with the pain and I found them so helpful I wrote a whole book about them.
1. Reassert dominion over your own mind..
Your thoughts will continue to run roughshod unless you develop a gentle way of relating with them. In Buddhist tradition this gentle way is called meditation. Here, meditation is the simple act of being with yourself exactly as you are. "Being with" (as opposed to "working on") turns out to be a more expeditious way of metabolizing sorrow.
2. View your sorrow as wisdom..
I know this sounds crazy because it just feels so bad to be in this much pain. And it is. However, it is there and you might as well try to learn from it.
Here's the thing about having a broken heart: you can feel everything. Everything. Your pain, your friends' pain, the pain of people on TV and also their joy. There is no more barrier between your heart and this world. In Buddhist tradition, this is actually the point of spiritual practice -- to have a completely open heart. However, the difference between you and me and, say, the Dalai Lama, is that his heart is open and stable. It is possible to stabilize your heart in the open state and it begins with using all of this emotional energy to give love in every possible way. I know that when you are heartbroken, you need love and may feel that you don't have a lot to give. However if you begin to turn the tables even a teeny tiny bit from "How will I find love?" to "How will I give love?" I promise you will be amazed at the power your own loving kindness has to heal you. But don't take my word for it. Try it. Be kind. Help out. Think kind thoughts. Give something away.
3. Let your heartbreak transform you into a loving machine.
Okay, now you know the truth: there is no protection from heartbreak. There is nothing you or I can do to banish the possibility. In fact -- don't be bummed out -- there is no relationship that will not end in heartbreak. People change. Relationships crater and no one knows why. And, of course, someone is going to die. I realize this may not sound very soothing... but it is always empowering to recognize the truth. Saul Bellow once said about death, "It is the black backing on the mirror that allows us to see anything at all." Acknowledging impermanence, while making me very pissed off, also conveys the astonishing preciousness of our lives.
At this point you reach a very interesting junction. Are you willing to love anyway now that you know it can never be made safe? If the answer is yes: wow. I want to be in a relationship with you because you are one courageous, daring and powerful individual who knows what it really means to love.
To learn to meditate: The Open Heart Project.
To read more of my thoughts on the wisdom of heartbreak: The Wisdom of a Broken Heart.
To dive in and work with the power of love to transform and heal: 21-Day Open Heart Immersion.