How to mend a broken heart according to Buddhism


This continues on from Why do I feel so lonely?

So close and yet so far

I have recently been in New York City for a week. People often say they feel lonelier in the middle of a huge city surrounded by long queue at airportmillions of people than in a rural area with hardly anyone around. A friend of mine who used to live in London said he always felt somewhat alone there. Then one weekend he did a Buddhist meditation retreat “in a field with a bunch of hairy men” and “never felt happier or more connected.” There was no turning back!

I think this is because, when we are surrounded by others, we are holding even more tightly to our own sense of personal space, trying to protect ourselves from uncomfortable intrusion by strange “others”, increasing that gap. It can be useful though — as mentioned in this article, in huge cities like NYC we have microseconds to connect to the waves of humanity walking past us, and if we pull it off it can feel wonderful.

Crammed like sardines on the Path train to New Jersey, trying to assert some sense of control over their environment, everyone was vigorously avoiding eye contact, even as we were forced to bump up against each other around every corner (the sense of powerlessness not helped by being diverted to Holboken where the doors wouldn’t open.) I found this a useful opportunity to connect to my fellow suffering commuters in my heart, the only place we can be in control of our experience and, ironically, feel we have enough space to relax.cherish others

Story of a broken heart

I am going to give an example now of an ill-fated romantic relationship; but problems, mental pain, and loneliness caused by self-grasping ignorance and attachment can arise in other relationships too, with friends, family, children, pets, etc.  And, as I said in the previous article, loneliness is not about whether or not we are in a relationship, or even about whether or not we find someone attractive; it is about whether or not we are controlling our ignorance and attachment. For any partnership, or friendship, to work, we need to reduce these, and increase our love. With a wise motivation and a heart full of love, it is possible to have strong, enjoyable, and helpful relationships.

Beginning:

Have you ever been having fun in a restaurant with friends when someone gorgeous walks in and, before you know it, your happiness dives out of your body, under the floorboards, and into them?! We were having a smooth, harmonious, warm time with our friends, not really fixating on ourselves, finding everyone interesting, feeling connected – and then what happened?! One minute we are enjoying everyone without grasping, the next minute we are clinging onto one person for dear life.

It is now up to them to make us happy and we have to get their name, phone number, lifelong devotion …

At the beginning of this love affair, we set ourselves up in need. We didn’t need them before, and they didn’t make us need them; that is all on us, or our mind of attachment. We are no longer the whole orange – we are half an orange and we need the other half to feel whole or complete. We give our power away – “There goes my happiness, it just walked out the restaurant door,” we give them the key.

give heart to you

“Oh, oh, you better be careful what you do with it!”

If we do manage to get it together with them, we then need to receive approximately 20 texts a day, (perhaps a few less if we’re from Mars), or we feel lonely. If happiness depends on a text or seeing them, then it’ll never be enough – there’s a brief relief if they call, and then the anxious waiting starts again.

We can check out our sense of self when we are thinking, “You make ME happy”. There is a strong sense of me, “What about me”, which is isolated, and therefore vulnerable to separation anxiety.

These Lifehouse lyrics seem to sum it up quite nicely, as do a million other song lyrics:

Every time I see your face
My heart takes off on a high speed chase.
Don’t be scared it’s only love
Baby that we’re falling in.

I can’t wait ’till tomorrow
This feeling has swallowed me whole
And I know that I’ve lost control…

Won’t be easy, have my doubts too,
But it’s over without you, I’m just lost, incomplete
Yeah you feel like home, home to me.

Herein follows a few weeks or months of bliss (or days or hours, depending) … there is a lot of attachment but it is seemingly in synch in that neither of us can get enough of the other, though if you check there is already tension in the mind. Sooner or later, one person starts to pull away. And whether that affair flames out or develops into a long-term meaningful relationship depends on genuine love and respect.

Middle:

Attachment puts our life on hold – if we are not in the other person’s physical presence, life is what is happening while we wander around missing them, feeling alienated from our environment, homesick, wanting to be somewhere else. Even when you’re with them, the other person can never do enough, can never reassure us enough. Meanwhile, you may notice if you look around — no one else is bored out of their mind watching the clock, waiting on tenterhooks for the weekend, sulking and/or playing emotional games, or tapping feverishly into their smartphone; they are just getting on with their day.

wiFIHave you ever been a waiting mode, wanting badly for someone to call you, email you, or return a text? Hours, perhaps days, go by and … nothing?! And you feel increasingly powerless? That is attachment at work. Every day brings new ways in which we can torture ourselves – in the old days, we could at least have some time out with the mental excuse that they might have missed us on the phone while we were shopping (or, even further back, the horse was taking a few weeks with the letter); but now we are glued to our smartphones and there are a hundred ways they could, and yet are NOT, contacting us.

Here’s a word of advice:

Never invest your happiness in something you cannot control.

This clearly includes other people’s behavior. We can hardly control our own behavior, let alone anyone else’s. Attachment, or uncontrolled desire, is based on an hallucination that happiness comes from OUT THERE. So we want power and control over our external environment and other people, but the only power or control we have any hope of gaining is over our own mind.

There’s nothing wrong with finding someone attractive, even incredibly attractive — the mistake we make is when we grasp at them as inherently attractive!

With uncontrolled desire, we often defer our happiness, “I’ll be happy when they finally get here!”; or else we try and get back to what once was, “We had such a great time then, why can’t we be like that now?!” Love is always in the present moment. Attachment ranges over the past and the future, missing out on the real bliss of being fully here, now, connecting to our pure and peaceful nature, real union. We can make plans and even have desired outcomes, but as soon as our happiness depends on those plans, we’ve lost control of it.

Attachment is conditional and therefore vulnerable – I once heard a song lyric, “For as long as we’re together, I’ll love you forever.” Love is unconditional, we just want them to be happy regardless; and we get to choose who we love, so love can last.

heart breakAttachment makes us act oddly, like a bumbling idiot desperately seeking attention. Someone told me the other day: “I was so cool at first as I could tell she loved me. Then she showed interest in other things, her own life and friends, and I felt excluded, and started to act oddly to get her attention. It didn’t feel like me, but I couldn’t help it.” Through his insecurity and loneliness, he said, she felt less and less close to him, and the relationship ended. Who cannot relate to that? Who hasn’t either heard or said things like: “I can’t give you what you seem to want from me! I feel cornered by you! You seem to expect my undivided attention!”

“Why don’t you love me anymore?” soon becomes “You selfish b****.” A vicious circle ensues of one person trying to get more attention and the other person feeling claustrophobic, closing off, and pulling away. And as the rose-tinted attachment specs come off and the feelings of aversion and betrayal begin, what was quirky, fascinating, original, or cool in our partner becomes strange, peculiar, weird, and distant.

A friend showed me a joke in the New Yorker, a man talking to a woman:

“When, exactly, did all the stuff you love about me become all the stuff you hate about me?”

There are endless self-help videos on how to get and, even harder, how to keep your man or woman. Some of them are pretty amusing, especially when it comes to the differences between Martians and Venusians; but they don’t seem to be addressing the root cause of the difficulty, which is the self-isolation of ignorance and exaggeration of attachment.

Of course, addressing these delusions completely doesn’t happen overnight, but as soon as we get started, the better our relationships with others are going to become.

End:

heart break 1If our love affair ends due to attachment, our heart literally aches. Attachment is “sticky desire”, it is like peeling sticking plaster off a hairy arm. We were already lonely when we were in the relationship, and we are still lonely now that it is over. We can’t live with someone, but we can’t live without them either.

Union

Seeking union and connection is part of our Buddha nature. We are just going the wrong way about it, projecting and externalizing the source of our happiness while holding tightly to a sense of a real self and other. We need to seek union through love and wisdom, bliss and emptiness, not ignorance and attachment.

More next time, in Part 3! Meantime, your insights into this subject are welcome in the comments.

 

Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Children Of Light.

  2. Attachment, its rare for me to learn about a heavy self- grasping I and laugh. I really love waking up and realizing I have a lot to learn. Rolling through the wisdom and love and giving up on the need to grasp so hard. These articles help me emendesly.Working through my needs of the inherently existing self. Thank you, lol, its shameful I—-

  3. Anonymous says:

    I feel that the object of the attachment is interchangeable and the condition itself within the “grasper” is the sticky problem. There is also the secret fear of abandoning this pattern because its narrative gives ordinary private life a compelling shape!

    -Don May

    • Yes, such a perceptive comment, I think you hit the nail on the head. Attachment is a massive sideshow distraction but it is what we have been turning to for meaning for lifetimes.

      We want that compelling narrative — it seems to give our life meaning, society promotes it, it is emotionally a huge pull — yet it distracts from real progress (we go round in circles) and blocks our genuine love and wisdom.

      And it does seem to be the case quite often (maybe always!) that we just switch out objects of attachment — though you can usually only tell that once the attachment has faded! (Doesn’t attachment make its object seem unique at the time?!)🙂

  4. gentlemindphilosophy says:

    I enjoyed this essay, and agree with a lot of it. Problems arising from sexual love are a question of motivation (love/lust/other). We can’t navigate it succesfully without realising that we ARE only one half of the orange, male or female. Marriage is unselfish (giving) and selfish (of the self made male or female). It is something we can do only because of our otherness and the otherness of another.

    • Yes, I agree, we do benefit from cherishing others, for sure, but at the same time we don’t want to be holding people as inherently other because that induces attachment and aversion.

  5. Andrea says:

    Hello Luna, I have now my heart broken from “being in love” for too long with a “friend with benefits” that finally is going to marry to a girl he met few months ago. Definitely, I am responsible of my own suffering, but he has some responsibility too. I never told him I was in love with him, and I need to tell him just to say what for long I wanted to say, before I say goodbye . And I don’t want to blame him, but I think he must know the consequences of our dangerous relationship. I want to separate from the good feelings I have for him, like tenderness, care, respect, from the bad feelings, like attachment, jealousy, etc. I want my love for him only focus in his happiness, and to be unconditional, with no expectations, as it should be. Should I tell him all of these? What you suggest?
    Thanks.

    • Whether you tell him or not, I think the main thing is to feel it yourself. Try to feel the love and let go of the attachment — it is the best way to get past this pain (and attachment is absurdly painful :-(). We have been everyone’s lover at some point in our beginningless lives, all our dreams are broken in the end — but what endures is our good heart and its good results.

  6. Venerable Lady says:

    Whoa, those pleasant feelings that come from being very attracted to some one!I remember them well. I’ve analysed it over the years and it was the pleasant feeling which made my mind feel so calm when I was with this person but there was so much ‘clinging’, too. I am certain we have all been there like you say in the article. The desire to be with them was so strong because I craved to experience all those calm feelings again. This was their ‘specialness’. The power we give them to bestow happiness on us in the shape of pleasing feelings is, from my own experience, an exceptionally risky strategy for long term happiness! At the time I tried to analyse the ‘failure’ using the 3 Cs…compatability, commitment and chemistry test….which roughly says if you don’t have all 3 in a relationship it wont ‘work’. but in reality it was about how my mind projected and saw ‘happiness’ in that relationship and that relationship alone.Therefore, as you point out so clearly, understanding what is actually happening in our mind is such a potent teaching and a blessing. Of course, my mind is still a ‘work in progress’! Thanks,Luna xxx

    • Very well put. I specially like this analysis: “The desire to be with them was so strong because I craved to experience all those calm feelings again. This was their ‘specialness’.” Those three C’s are interesting too as you can’t make someone else have any of them even if you feel you yourself have them🙂

  7. So clear explanation about self-grasping concept in Buddhism Luna! Congratulations. Is difficult to really understand the root of the problem due to our ego, who distorted our seeing. As you have said, there are a lot of media that shows us the search for the ideal couple, and the romantic love as the highest love. And people trust the media.
    Romantic love have a huge component of selfish, because the person who is in love with other expects a lot of his partner, he expect the partner makes him happy, and this is so dangerous.
    I think the best way to have a loving relationship is to want to give; if both members of a relationship want the same, want to give, they will have success for sure. I remember now the prayer of Saint Francis:
    ” O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
    To be consoled as to console;
    To be understood as to understand;
    To be loved as to love.
    For it is in giving that we receive;”
    So, the real loving person don’t look for anyone, instead, he loves, always, alone or accompanied. Maybe for this reason a lot of marriages become broken. There are a lot of things to say about this topic…maybe is the great topic indeed. Congratulations again.

  8. Thank you for this great inspiring article.

  9. That was so helpful, thank you! I have had a bad breakup once upon a time and I have been studying dharma for a few years now, and working on my attachment. Being a Buddhist and getting back into dating, I am mindful (as best as I can) of the dangers of attachment. The issue that I now face is that if I start to see even mild attachment in the ‘datee’, I want to run away as quickly as I can even if I do like the person because I get scared that the other person may get hurt as I don’t feel the same attachment towards that person. I seem to be using all the dharma terminology to paint this as dharma but I know it is not since its an agitated mind, I just haven’t been able to tease out the exact underlying delusion yet. I seem to be attached to the other person not getting attached to me. Ugh, dating still remains complicated!

    I actually forwarded your article to my ‘datee’ and immediately got the text ‘Are you insinuating you’re going to break my heart? :(‘. Thats not my intention but I seem to want people to be immune from getting hurt before I feel comfortable dating them, which is no different from trying to control their behavior! Do you have any advise on that?

    Just a subtle note below: Your contribution to my life and others’s lives is deeply appreciated and you’re so deeply loved!

    • Synchronicity — Madeline in the comment posted just before yours says “in avoiding the pain that attachment delivers what most of us will do a long time before we uproot its cause is go for what wont hurt.” Which is a good point.

      And also, as you are saying, Yona, we can tie ourselves in knots trying to prevent the other person developing attachment for us in case it hurts them. But in fact they are responsible for their own minds, so as long as we are not playing games with them, I think we can relax about that too.

      • Your advise was very simple and very clear, thank you! As long as I know my intention is well meaning, I can relax! Wow, simple words.. and I feel lighter already!

  10. Madeline says:

    I really like this article, i do. But I don’t agree that attachment is an entirely useless state of mind. I tend to think that it’s an inevitable state of mind, even a desirable state of mind at the start of any new, significant relationship. Feeling completely undone by another has its benefits. But mostly I worry that in avoiding the pain that attachment delivers what most of us will do a long time before we uproot its cause is go for what wont hurt. We’ll go for what we can deal with rather than what we want. In practical terms I think we all know what this looks like. So in support of this idea that falling apart in what we call love is not all bad, I’m sharing a link to a rather meandering essay by Jonathan Franzen that says what I would say if I was nearly as clever. Thanks again for another very thought provoking article.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/opinion/29franzen.html?pagewanted=all

  11. Jon j says:

    “Never invest your happiness in something you cannot control.”

    So true, I messed up my life from a heartbreak, turned to drinking and drugs. Tried to end my life twice, I just couldn’t let go. All the while that other person moved on and is very happy with someone else while I drowned in misery for years, I’m trying to get better. Thanks for this article, it will help many!

    • I wish you a quick end to the misery. And you can know you are not alone — we all seem to go through something similar at some point. Hopefully, with Buddha’s advice helping you, you’ll emerge stronger, wiser, more in control of your happiness and life, and more able to help others.

    • ….. But if you look at that then you would also have to take into consideration the illusion of control we control nothing…

  12. I have to tell you a story, reading that about the subway.🙂 Last Boxing Day, I had persuaded Mum to come with me for a weekend course on Taking & Giving. On the train from Huddersfield to Manchester, the train was really packed. Many cancellations. I could hardly breathe with what space I had between myself and everyone else. A few minutes in, someone tapped me on the shoulder trying to draw my attention to my Mum, who was at the other side over a sea of heads. I added a few inches to my height by standing on my toes. Are you okay Mum? I asked, worried about her tiny self and her inexperience of crowded, standing trains. But she waved a big bag of Kettle crisps. “Share this big bag of Kettle crisps with everyone on this train”. No, I thought no, this isn’t how it works! People don’t. Especially not in these circumstances! Only I was smiling.🙂 But I liked the idea. So I did a quick recollection of my favourite bodhichitta meditations, started reaching (physically as well as mentally) out over the sea of heads to as many as I could, making eye contact, waving the bag, poking it to them, trying to not look like an idiot asking if they’d like some crisps. To my surprise, of what I could see, many brimmed with a smile and took some. Really, the best bits were seeing their reactions. Mind you, I’ve since tried that again but my wife said “don’t” hehehehehe🙂🙂 she likes to keep a low profile with people😉

  13. I think it was mainly the pain of allowing my heart to be broken that brought me to Buddhism. I have tried to control the worst excesses of desirous attachment, but this article shows me I still have a way to go. I think we can fool ourselves into believing we are less attached than we actually are.

    • For sure! I don’t want to wait around to find out …

    • JoeSomebody says:

      Whole-heartedly agree. This article gave me a lot to think about. I always tell myself “you have a lot to work on, Me”, and only a month later I think I’m ready again, of which we know I am not. The sad thing is, I’m 31. I expected these thoughts and feelings to stop years ago. I still have a ways to go, I guess.

      • Ha ha, couldn’t help a smile when i saw that you think 31 is old … still, as we can die anytime, it’s true there is no time to waste however young or old we are.

  14. Polly Kadampa says:

    Hi Luna thanks for such a helpful article. You brought back a memory of myself as a teenager with a broken heart wishing I could go back to the feeling of happiness I had before I met him but with no clue how. If only I’d known about attachment and it’s opponents and that dharma really works. I think some older people think they’ve grown immune to this disappointment – but if they were then wouldn’t the world be full of happy old people? The same attachment continues as we get older unless we get wiser and learn to recognise it as blocking genuinely good relationships. Lots of love xxxx

  15. Lotusblossom888 says:

    Lol I have the giggles again🙂 I must be from Sirius for I can not be that serious! We shine a pure light when we allow pure Love unconditional to radiate to other sentient beings🙂 I think I skipped by Mars on my journey through the stars .. A little joke you know helps a pure diamond to glow x

  16. Thank you, Lu, for detailing the beginning middle and end of this painful cycle. Reading such a clear, modern description of how the uncontrolled desire cycle plays out helps weaken that tendency to identify with “loser”…and that it’s nothing personal…but that’s just how attachment works!! Thanks a million. (Haha, now if I can only resist the urge to send it to “him”.)❤

  17. wonderful lesson on cultivating a loving heart!
    if only they came with a lifetime guarantee not to break🙂

    • Love protects our heart from breaking …

      • picnik says:

        I wholeheartedly agree, pure love unconditional, without expectations does indeed protect:-). I would have loved to be at York Uni for your talk on May 21st but I am away. I find your website content inspiring and read it to understand some of the more difficult aspects of Geshla’s teachings. Thank you:-)

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