Monday, December 21, 2009

The Things that Open the Heart

The talk was on When Hard Things Open the Heart. Spirit Rock Meditation Center is WAY out in the hills of Marin, outside of San Rafael, CA. As I drove, twisting and turning through the unfamiliar neighborhoods, opening out into a stretch of rural road nestled between soft, rolling, green hills, I was shivering from the cold and the wet and from ending a relationship I had hoped would last. Wet grey felt lay across the land that day, dripping and primordial. I didn’t want to leave the house, but in the interests of “moving on” and my sanity, I decided to get up at 7:30 am on a rainy Sunday and go. I had paid $50 for this event, after all, and had never been to Spirit Rock before, though I’d heard about it for years.

Settling in to the meeting hall, listening to the teachers and audience members talk, I heard stories of dead wives, of fathers who had suffered strokes, of losing 401(k)’s to Ponzi schemes, of traumatic brain injuries that crippled a budding career. My problems seemed so trivial in comparison, but, in keeping with the spirit of the talk, I tried not to judge myself for feeling so lonely, lost, and bereft. Sadness was a comfortable old coat I wore, and that was OK. As another teacher put it once, sadness is a teacher, too, and my job was to welcome it in, to talk to it and learn from it.

After lunch, tired from not sleeping well the night before, I decided to leave the talk. I had heard it all before, and though at first I had been comforted by hearing the same information I already knew, now I noticed I was falling asleep during the meditation exercises. So, I snuck out, walked out into the dewy wetness that surrounded me in a strangely comfortable embrace. The world was muffled and resting, drinking in the water that seemed like it would never run out.

I walked, bundled up in my coat the color of the clouds. Up into the Spirit Rock complex, past the dining hall and the dorms, where I found a creek rushing under a tiny wooden footbridge. Stayed on the footbridge for awhile watching the water churn muddily. The water that flowed and eddied around any obstacle without complaint, but slowly, irrevocably changing the landscape as it did so.

Walking back to the parking lot, I passed a serene stone Buddha and made an offering of a quarter, wishing peace and happiness for all beings.

Approaching my car, I felt balanced and almost as serene as the Buddha, though still sad and longing to for home and sleep. I was heading to a friend’s music performance that night, and wanted to get some sleep before heading out. But my car was blocked in, another car – a Honda hybrid - parked behind it, and surrounded by cars so no fancy driving would be able to extricate it. Shit. I couldn’t believe it. In a minute all of my equilibrium collapsed and I shouted angrily at the trees. Wondered : should go back to the meeting hall and ask the staff to make an announcement? The car had a pair of crutches in it; I couldn’t see myself asking someone to come out of the talk, get on their shoes and coat, and walk all the way down here to move their car, especially if they had mobility problems. And besides, everyone would know I was cutting out early. I swore. Should I go back in and sit out the rest of the talk? No, I didn’t want to do that. The smell of wet leaves was calling me. I couldn’t go back inside.

I realized after a few choice comments about whoever designed double parking spaces for a place like this, that getting pissed off at a Buddhist retreat center was missing the point. The universe, I decided, was telling me something. So, reluctantly, I walked some more. Heading down the long winding driveway, past the sign that read “Yield to the Present”, my shoes getting wet from the grass and mud, I walked.

The clouds were doing a dance with the sinking sun – dark grey was interspersed with the most delicate gold that lit up the green hills with some previously unknown color. Clouds were caught up in the hilltops like seaweed, the light grey showing up in stark contrast to the dark green of the pines. I felt like I was in a cinematographer’s dream. I walked down to the highway, watched some nearby horses for awhile, then turned back and climbed into the hills. My feet were getting wetter and wetter – squish, squish. I jumped over a small pond that had formed in a hollow in the grass, and clambered up granite laced with pale green lichen. There was an old moldering bench placed under a crooked, wizened tree. The view was immense and green and rolling. The sky dripped. A damp breeze blew. Hawks circled above, while in the trees, crows hopped from branch to branch, gossiping with one another.

My sadness and my wet feet and the grey sky and the gold-lit hilltops and the crows and the hawks and I sat and watched the world for awhile. There were no problems or solutions, no dashed hopes, jealousy, or angry “should have beens”. There was only this moment. And below me, people sat around in a room and talked about opening the heart. I realized for the millionth time that for me, my heart only opens in a place like this. The only place where I know viscerally how it feels to be interconnected with all beings and the planet: outside, surrounded by teeming life and light and wind.

After that, I trudged down the hill, me and my sadness, and eventually I got out of that parking lot and drove home.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Love is a Bird

We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it. – Rilke

I think the hardest thing love asks of us is to let go of the one we love most in the world, in the service of the happiness and well-being of both. We don’t like to hear that, we want to hear that love conquers all hardships. That’s what we’re told from the minute we’re born. “All you need is love” and all that. But most of us, eventually, realize that this isn’t true. All you need is the right time, the right place, the right circumstances, the right person, and then, yes, love might bloom. But if those other things aren’t in place, you can have all the love in the world and it still won’t work out. Because life intervenes.

As another relationship ends, I find myself reacting differently than I have with other breakups. In most other ones, I found myself talking about it incessantly, usually using bitterness or anger to hide my grief and sadness. This time, I don’t want to talk about it. At first I thought it was because I didn’t really want it to be true, and not talking about it was a form of denial. But then I realized, that though this might be true in part, that by not talking about it, I’m also attempting to preserve the sacredness of this moment in the lives of myself and my love. By not talking about it, I’m trying to keep it private and away from prying, judging eyes. Well, except for this blog post.

In this tender, sad, yet strangely beautiful time, I don’t want the imprecations that I’ll “soon find somebody else”, or exclamations of “he did what to you?” or tender reassurances of “It’s OK, honey, time will heal the pain.” I know those may be true, and that they’re offered with sincere care, but they don’t help me right now. I’m still deeply in love, whether or not it makes sense logically. Telling me I’ll get over it soon enough s like telling a new widow that she should start dating again three weeks after her husband dies. I need time to grieve, to digest the meaning of it all, and to become acquainted with the person I am now.

Every relationship changes us, romantic or otherwise. How can they not? As I struggle with feelings of anger and disappointment at myself for having put up with certain things, and miss and wish for the good things we had, I have to realize that there is no such thing as wasted time. Whatever happens in a relationship, the time was never wasted if we can learn from what happened and grow into ourselves. This is our purpose, I believe. To live, love, and grow.

In our culture, the information we get about love is almost purely pragmatic. Magazines publish articles on “Red Flag to Watch For” and “What Not To Do on a First Date” and “26 Sex Tips Sure to Make Him Fall For You”. But the emotional part is strangely absent. There’s no acknowledgment of the complexities of love – the way it mixes longing with need with selflessness with ambivalence with hope with disappointment with confusion with elation with not knowing what to do but wanting more than anything to do it right, and then wondering if you can’t seem to do it right, if it’s better just to leave, but clinging to the idea that love will , somehow, watch out for us. And then when it’s over (or should be), books like “He’s Just Not That Into You” sternly admonish women to “get over it already” and go out there and find Mr. Right. Dating books abound, relationship books expand to cover shelves and shelves of bookstore space, but in none of them have I found the emotional resonance, the heart truth that I have experienced in actual relationships.

This stuff is hard. And complicated. This is why we act in romantic relationships in ways we would never act with friends or family. Love makes us meet ourselves, the bad and the good. Love is the closest and best way to learn about ourselves that I have found. Heartbreaking, heart-expanding, heart-humbling, love is a bird not to be held tightly. It’s sacred, this way we find one another, the way two hearts can meet and resonate with one another for the time they have with each other, and how they break and quiver with sorrow when they can no longer be together in that old way. To tell me to move on, get over it, is to not understand this deep sacredness.

If we are truly present with our hearts, we will never “get over” any relationship. They change us. We will never be the same. And that’s not necessarily tragic, if the way we let them change us is to let them allow us to grow into the people we were always meant to be, to learn love’s lessons not in a bitter, punitive way (“Well, I’ll never do that again!”) but in a truly present, compassionate way. To understand our mistakes and the mistakes of our lovers as things we did because we wanted to be loved and to love, and to perhaps learn that those ways don’t work so well, but not to punish ourselves (or our ex-lovers) for not being perfect, the way we would never punish a child for not being able to play the violin like a virtuoso.

I watch my emotions with interest. The way they change and shift, sometimes within minutes. There’s the disappointment, the pure missing, the anger towards both of us, the crushing grief, the compassion, the loneliness, especially at night and in the morning and weekends. There’s confusion and sadness and even some hope for a someday future with my love. There’s the realization, the learning, the understanding, that hits me in the gut at the strangest times. Then there’s a deep sense of pure love, in all of its complexity, that I can sometimes find and settle into the way one settles into a comfy old chair, content with what’s happening no matter what.

Every day is a new adventure for me now, as it probably always should have been. But all I can do is try to be present with it, try to learn from it, and try not to judge myself and my love for our mistakes. And understand that the love we shared is not gone, only changed.

Friday, December 04, 2009


Reeling from a recent decision for lover and I to part ways for awhile, at least romantically, I was curled up in bed, watching a movie on my laptop, feeling lonely and bereft. At night, in the dark, alone with oneself, these emotions come welling up from our darkest fears and threaten to overwhelm us. Dark night of the soul. In my despair, I reached out, energetically, to my man, seeking his comfort out there in the spiritual plane, something for my crying soul to hold on to.

And I found it. As soon as I had the thought to find his energy, I felt him there with me, as if he was in the room. I asked him "I that really you?" And he said "Yes". The timbre of the voice was his, the soft way he draws out the syllable, the deep tone of the 'e', the slight uplift at the end of the word. And I could see the way his eyes crinkle up when saying it, the depth and spark of his eyes.

I felt him as if he were lying behind me in my bed. I talked to him for awhile, and eventually he started stroking my hair, his hand heavy and warm on my forehead the way he used to do when I was upset. I felt his other arm around my chest, and with his hand on my head, I felt totally held. I started to feel sleepy and warm. As I drifted, every so often I would have an anxious or worried thought, or want to ask his reassurance that everything was going to be alright. But when I did, he said "Shhhhh. Don't think, just feel. Do you feel my love for you?" And I did, so I stopped talking, stopped worrying. Love was enough, no matter what else was there.

Eventually, I fell asleep, and slept well and deeply for the first time in a week. When I awoke, I still felt the weigh of his hand on my forehead.

I wonder if he was feeling my presence, too, in his sleep or wherever he was? If I was comforting him as well. Or if I made it all up. But the lesson remains: "Shhhhh. Don't think, just feel."