The author of the book Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: a Buddhist Path Through Divorce Gabriel Cohen shares with us his thoughts on how Buddhism can be helpful in such a difficult time.
Buddhist teachings are of course geared toward helping us to face and/or relieve suffering. How is the kind of suffering that divorce brings with it different from other types of suffering?
I think divorce is especially painful for several reasons. First of all, to get married we have to really open ourselves up and make ourselves vulnerable to another human being. In order to convince ourselves to do that, we tend to idealize the other person. This is The One; I’ve finally found the person who will make me happy; I’ll be with this person forever. When it turns out that they don’t match our idealized vision, we feel crushed and betrayed.
Of course, exposure to Buddhist insights quickly reveals that a lot of our pain is coming from our heads, rather than our hearts. Some of our most cherished ideas have been shattered: that external things or people can make us happy; that something in life can be permanent and unchanging; that we can perceive another person’s fixed identity. The great thing about divorce, if I can use such a phrase, is that it can really wake us up to a truer sense of how life works. Nothing is unchanging or permanent; nothing has a fixed identity; we need to find happiness within. I would never want to go through the pain of it again, but my own divorce was the thing that set me on a whole new course in life, a way that helps me suffer less from painful things. I might never have gotten on that path if life didn’t give me a good kick in the ass, so for that I’m deeply grateful.
Your book is called Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: a Buddhist Path Through Divorce, and the book is concerned with positively transforming the experience of divorce. How does one do that? How does a former couple do that?
Doing that requires possession of a fundamental Buddhist insight: we think that external things cause us suffering, when we really manufacture a lot of that suffering in our own heads. Pain and suffering are two different things. Some things in life—like illness or a job layoff—are painful, but we add layers of suffering by spiraling into negative thoughts about them.
And we often want to relieve the pain of divorce by changing our former partner’s behavior. The bad news is that this is often very difficult or even impossible. The good news is that we can radically improve our experience of divorce by working on it from our own side. We can learn to see that expressing anger—thought it might temporarily feel like a release and a relief—doesn’t move us toward the peace and serenity that we ultimately want. We can learn to develop patience so that our interactions with our exes are less corrosive. We can practice forgiving our spouses for what they might have done. (This is not a matter of excusing bad behavior—it’s a matter of letting go of the burden of resentment that weighs us down.)
This is not just a matter of changing our intellectual understanding. There are specific techniques, such as meditation and mindfulness practices, that can literally retrain our brains to help us become more patient and happy—even in the middle of a painful experience like divorce.
Many people, when they think of the Buddha’s teachings, might picture him speaking to monastics, but he had a special concern for and understanding of for the lives and well-being of laypeople, including couples, didn’t he?
One of the things I love most about the Buddha’s teachings was that he didn’t try to just hand down a preconceived set of religious ideas. He said Make your life a laboratory in which you can test what I’m saying. And anybody can do that, not just monastics. When we think of a spiritual test, we often think of going off alone to a cave or a mountaintop. But if you want a deep spiritual challenge, just get into a romantic relationship. We find out really fast what makes us angry, what disappoints us, what pushes our buttons. And we can see that if we want a relationship to work, we need to work on developing patience and compassion, on letting go of some of our deep defensiveness, our protection of our precious selves. And we see that being loving really works. I think that I was pretty oblivious to a lot of my own behavior during my marriage. Now I’m trying to be a lot more mindful in relationships. The lab results are encouraging.