The Practice of Being Love

Awash in the pain of betrayal and a failed marriage, Laura Munson practices Pema Chödrön’s teachings on loving-kindness. It’s hard but it helps.

Laura Munson
20 August 2016
Woman holding flowers.
Illustration by Katherine Streeter.

I did not get married to get divorced. I did not have children to subject them to the confusion of split parents. I did not hold them in my arms on their day of birth and say, “I am going to raise you to be resilient.”

No. I went into marriage as deliberately as I went into motherhood. As deliberately as I went into creating the house that held us for almost fifteen years—a farmhouse in northwestern Montana surrounded by a haven of meadows, ponds, marshes, rocky cliffs, and thick conifer forests.

Yet now, I find myself in something called mediation. Mediation is where a professional guides two people through conflict—in our case—the dissolution of a marriage. Two people who have been together for their entire adult lives. Who know each other like old shoes. Who together have made every important decision for the past twenty-five years.

Mediation. We’re sitting across from one another with legal forms and a middleman at the head of a long table and a box of Kleenex, and we’re talking about things like who gets Christmas morning, who pays for our kids’ soccer cleats, and where our children will lay their heads at night—what pillow in what room in what house. And what about the possibility of them losing their childhood house altogether?

I had been practicing maitri on rejection—rejection from the publishing world, primarily, but also from family and friends and the general ways of the world. Now I had a chance to practice it on betrayal.

To comply with federal law, we’re also going through a list of extreme parenting sins, as if we would ever be those sinners. We’re setting rules—legal rules—about safety, third-party interactions, and drug and alcohol consumption, all with the threat of sheriffs arriving at the front door in the middle of the night. These aren’t conversations that we’ve had to have before. Our focus has been along the lines of organic baby food and whether we should go to Belize or Costa Rica for spring break and whether or not we concur with the teaching styles of the Suzuki method and Montessori preschool.

Meditation. I wonder: Is there heart language in such a trajectory? Is there a way to bring in loving-kindness, forgiveness, surrender, and gentleness when we’re discussing such pointed, laden subjects?

I was in London when this all started. It was the night before I was going on the most-watched talk show in the United Kingdom. I was going to discuss a memoir I’d written on loving your partner through crisis without taking their crisis personally. I was going on to talk about emotional freedom.

That night, I got an email.

It said something to the tune of: “I love you, but I’m not in love with you. When you get home, I will be living elsewhere. I finally know what love feels like. I feel it springing from me like I’ve never felt before. Our marriage is a sham.” I tried not to memorize those words, though each one felt like a hot branding iron on my most tender skin.

I went out into the rainy streets of London and stood in the cold, breathing deeply. For years, I had been listening to Pema Chödrön’s teachings on maitri practice. I had been practicing maitri on rejection—rejection from the publishing world, primarily, but also from family and friends and the general ways of the world. Now I had a chance to practice it on betrayal.

My understanding of maitri practice, thanks to Pema Chödrön, is that by sending loving-kindness into the world we can help increase love altogether. The meditation works like this: First we send loving-kindness to someone we love dearly, someone who is easy to love. Next we send loving-kindness to someone we are fond of, followed by someone who is neutral in our lives. Then we send out loving-kindness to someone who bugs us, and then to someone we really can’t bear.

Finally—and this is the clincher—we send loving-kindness to ourselves. That’s the hardest one for a lot of us. In fact, I’m not sure it’s really possible to send loving-kindness to ourselves until we’ve first practiced on someone we really loathe. Because most of us treat our worst enemies much better than we do ourselves. That stings, doesn’t it? But I’ve been paying attention to that in my life and have found it to be true.

So whether it ultimately was to change the world, or to change my relationship with myself, or to attempt the high calling of Being Love, I stood in those rainy London streets that night and I practiced maitri. I sent out loving-kindness to my children. Then to a new friend. Then to my son’s homeroom teacher. And then to someone who once stole something from me and denied it. And finally, with deep, sodden, city-stained breaths, I sent loving-kindness to my husband and his mistress.

At first I thought it. But something deep inside me said that wasn’t enough. I had to go further. So I mouthed it. But that wasn’t enough. I had to speak it. So I did. But that wasn’t enough either. I had to scream it. I didn’t want to—I’m not a screamer. Yet that’s why I knew I had to. So with all my best intention, and maybe all my anger and sadness too, I hauled off and spewed those words across the slick streets and into the lamp-lit night air. Against every nerve ending in my body, I sent them loving-kindness.

Now it is a year later. After months and months of couple’s therapy and wicked vacillation between reconciliation and split, we are in mediation. The funny thing is that every time I write the word “mediation,” it comes out “meditation.” Something deep inside me I contacted that night in London dearly wants me to practice sending out loving-kindness—even and especially now. So I am. I sit here across the table from my husband and, inhaling and exhaling, I privately send him loving-kindness. “Be Love, Laura” is what I think. “Be Love.”

Does it work? Does it need to work? Do I need evidence that it’s worth the slog on up to the high road? Does it matter? Because here’s the thing: I suffer less when I am living in the light of that love. And maybe the world does too.

Laura Munson

Laura Munson is the author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness.