Breaking Up, Mindfully
We can use meditation to "sit with" difficult events.
Posted July 26, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- Meditation can be used to attend to the various effects of potent life events, like the end of a relationship.
- "Sitting with a breakup" can be complicated, especially around being flooded with thoughts.
- Follow a specific sequence of observations: physical, emotional, thought, and awareness itself—with a return to the breath when we get lost.
I was given the opportunity recently to contribute some thoughts on the topic of relationships to an online health site. Actually, it's on breaking up. I offered some advice on navigating the emotional challenge of that very human but usually painful process. The briefest summary of my input was a "before/during/after" three-step: be deliberate, be clear, and take time to grieve. While all three of those steps can benefit from some mindful contemplation, I'll use the first one here (hey, recycling is good!) to riff on some particular tactics in meditation that can be used by our patients, our students, and ourselves to manage the process. That tactic: sit with it.
That is, we can use an event as a target for observation. It's admittedly a more complex one than an inhalation or a heartbeat. And the intention is not analysis, but merely attending to what comes up in the mind. There are both therapeutic and diagnostic pluses that one can obtain from meditating on the cascade of mindful stuff that comes with the fracture.
Breakups are often the product of arguments, betrayals, and/or minor disagreements that go nuclear—"hot potato" events that generate a hard-to-hold inner tension. Discharging that flaming spud via an impulsive breakup may be a quick solution but one that risks after-effects.
Instead, taking a break or separation to enable engaging the problem in contemplation allows for all of mind, not just the "fight/flight" part, to check in with. So, we pause, and we sit with it.
The tactical aspect of this in meditative work can be spontaneous, or it can be intended and planned. Either way, I generally find it helpful to sit with some basic "reps" of watching/losing/regaining attention using the breath as an anchor to reinforce the mindful stance. Then, if the breakup experience is currently present and alive, redirect the "lens" of awareness to "me and my breakup." If it's not so front-of-mind, or we're working to actively distract from the thing, here's a moment to schedule some attending to it more formally and intentionally. In my book Practical Mindfulness, I nickname this "theme ingredient" practice (Iron Chef fans will catch the reference). We unveil the breakup, or some aspect of it, as the "object" to sit with.
Events, like any other phenomena in the conscious mind, can riffle through any and all aspects of our experience: body sensations, emotional weather, "would/coulda/shoulda" thoughts and ruminations, and even in the quality and clarity of our observing. My own sense is that these more complex targets trend most of us toward distraction into thoughts, leading to other thoughts, and off we go into the blizzard.
So, a good suggestion in sitting with a breakup (or any potent emotional event) is to get a bit more structured and sequential if holding the thing in mind drives that distraction.
- Some time on "the breakup ... how's my body with this?" can calm the pattering heart and the tensing shoulders, or at least locate that effect.
- Moving to "breakup ... what are the feelings there?" can bring some surprises. Anger and sadness are expected, but maybe relief or other impacts can emerge.
- Looking at the thought bubbles that "my breakup" can generate can be the most challenging; but worthwhile, especially to see what ideas or memories make the heart go nuclear or attention go dark. Again, the goal here is not to add to the thicket of ideation, but to try to watch it. Dropping back into observing the body and heart can be helpful, even necessary, when thoughts dominate or overwhelm.
- Finally, consider some time on the "meta" thing: observing what "breakup" does to the clarity of the meditating itself. Does observation work better or worse on some aspect of the sequence? Does attention contract, or go pea-soup?
Besides the prospect of some useful information about how regarding the breakup works on our distraction, there is the benefit of identifying with that "watcher" mode, that welcoming, always-there home to rest in, whatever the ups and downs of breaking up bring in the body, heart, and head.
Breaking up can be impulse-driven or deliberate, shameful or self-respecting. We and our patients and students can use our mindful capacity self-awareness to manage and learn from it.
Sazima MD, G.(2021) Practical Mindfulness: A Physician's No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners. Miami, FL:Mango Publishing.