What Romance Taught Me About Letting Go
Heartbreak can be our greatest teacher.
Posted Feb 29, 2012
When it was time for her to start college, she enrolled in the same school as me. Unfortunately, being on campus together changed our relationship for the worse. We broke up, and the second split was far worse than the first. In fact, I recall being so despondent that I thought I'd never be happy again. She was my first love, so I questioned whether I'd ever find someone to spend my life with. Although I knew that we weren't meant to be together, I missed her terribly. My happiness hinged on my relationship to her. Why is it that I suffered so much? Because I was attached.
As the saying goes, "The only guarantees in life are death and taxes." Barring your last breathe and Uncle Sam's role in your life, nothing else is certain. Life is full of change: you're born, you grow, you work—probably several jobs—and you age. In fact, the only thing permanent in this life is its impermanence.
Imagine that you're floating in a river. You can take two positions. In the first you can tell yourself, "I'm going to stay put, and do everything in my power not to budge." The river pushes against you. And despite the suffering it causes, you stubbornly maintain your position. Or you can take another stance. You can say, "I'll go wherever the current takes me, as uncertain as that journey may be." In my experience as a clinical psychologist, I can say that my clients who learn to take this approach, suffer far less.
When you're attached you insist on getting exactly what you want. And once you get it, you want more of it, or you want your circumstances to stay the same. You may say and think, "I need to have (you fill in the blank) in order to be happy." A common one for couples is, "I want to stay happily married for years and years." It's a wonderful hope, but even if you're able to stay together, one of you will die first, which means that if you're attached to your spouse, you'll suffer. I'm not suggesting not to love. I've been married for years, and I love my wife deeply. But when your happiness hinges on circumstances that are out of your control, there will always be suffering. Whether it's your current state of health, your relationships, your beauty, or whatever it may be, once you're afraid of losing something or want more of it, you'll suffer.
The Middle Road
Rather than say, "I need to have my health, spouse, kids, or whatever else you can think of," I suggest you switch the words "I need" to "I prefer". So instead of saying, "I need this or that," consider, "I prefer this or that" instead.
Imagine you're at your favorite restaurant. You can't wait to have the specialty of the house, which is Chinese chicken salad. Your server comes, you give your order, and you hear the bad news, "I'm so sorry, we're out of Chinese chicken salad today." What's your response?
You could let this ruin your meal. "You've got to be kidding. That's what I've been craving all week, how could you run out of your special dish?"
Or you could ask, "I'm disappointed, but do you have any other recommendations?" Because you weren't attached to absolutely having Chinese chicken salad, you were able to adjust to the unfortunate news, and you were still able to enjoy your meal.
There's more to the need versus preferences mindset, but that's the general concept. You can read more about it, and find exercises on how to work the mindset into your life in my e-book, Living a Peaceful Life.
The Role of Grieving
When you lose someone or something that you love, you need to grieve. In my private practice, you can imagine that many of my clients come to me because of a tragic loss. Unfortunately, most people grieve much longer than is necessary because their grieving is focused on their attachment. There's a big difference between suffering over attachments and grieving. When you're truly grieving, you feel better after whatever you do to express your sadness—whether it's crying, yelling, talking it out, or journaling. You sense relief and release. But when you're dwelling on the attachment, you won't feel better afterwards. In fact, you may even feel worse because you're stuck in the cycle of negative thoughts.
Meditation: Nature's Attachment Buster
One of the main benefits of meditation is that it trains you to live in the present moment. There's so much mental commentary swirling in our heads all day. Meditation teaches you to quiet your mind from this chatter. And there's a direct relationship between mental commentary and attachments. All of your attachments spring from your mind chatter, which comprises stories you've created to describe or interpret an experience. Once you've written a story about an event, you become attached to it. On the other hand, when you quiet your mind, then the attachments diminish as well. Allow me to illustrate.
Let's say that Karen longs to be in a relationship. She is presently single, and she's constantly worried about being alone the rest of her life. Karen and her best friend have a movie night. During the two hours they spend in the theatre, Karen is engrossed in the film and forgets about her fear of being single. Her attachment to being in a relationship has disappearred.
Afterwards, Karen and her best friend exit the movie. On the way to the parking lot, Karen sees a couple walking hand-in-hand. She is immediately reminded of being single and her fear of being alone resumes.
So what was causing Karen's suffering? Was it that she didn't have a partner, or was it her thoughts—in other words, the story of being forever single? If the suffering were completely based on her single status, it would have persisted throughout her time at the movie. But that wasn't the case. As she sat for two hours watching the film, she hit the "mute button" on her mental commentary about being single. As soon as she walked out the of the theater, the chatter resumed, and she felt miserable. Thus the suffering was a result of her attachment, and what she thought about the situation, rather than what was actually taking place in the present moment.
How to Address Attachments During Meditation
Meditation teaches you to be present and to control your thoughts so that they don't run wild. When you meditate, you follow your breath, prayer word, or mantra. Inevitably, a thought will arise. When then happens, your practice is to simply return to your breath, prayer word, or mantra. You do this over and over again. The goal is to carry this practice throughout your day.
But I'll add a technique that directly addresses our attachments. During your sitting practice, focus on the attachment that troubles you. When strong feelings arise—such as jealousy, anger, or grief—bring your attention back to your breath, prayer word or mantra. Once you experience calm, return to your attachment. Again the strong feelings will surface. When they do, focus on the peace within. Through regular practice, the attachment's intensity will diminish, and you'll eventually be free of it.
As you work, spend time with family, or are alone, your attachments will inevitably arise. Meditation teaches you to focus on the life that's unfolding right here, right now. As a result, you flow with life rather than adding stories to whatever is actually taking place. Meditation and living a meditative life frees you from suffering. And when you no longer suffer, you're able to fully experience the present moment.