Buddhist practitioner Ray Buckner on the struggles of letting go after a relationship ends, and how being on the dharma path can help.
At this specific moment, and for over five months, my heart and being feel deeply broken— pained in a way not previously felt. It’s a pain that, sometimes, doesn’t diminish, even when countered with contemplation and deep reflection, or with mindfulness, or with socializing with friends or sangha.
I miss her very much.
I grew up with only the rare compassionate glance. As a gender-queer person, I was often ridiculed for my gender presentation. I received hateful speech based on my dress, mocking remarks based on my physicality and athleticism, and was treated like an indefinite “other” for lacking in a femininity expected of young girls. All this ridicule harmed my sense of self, and made me feel as if I was innately wrong, unattractive, and ultimately, unlovable, unneeded, and unwanted.
This worsened in college, as I entered into relationships that were abusive and unhealthy. My partners did not love themselves and so declared their power in the only way they unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) could: taking their anger and self-hate out on me. I came to believe that I was to blame for all of my relationship ills.
In place of compassionate listening, wise speech, and loving-kindness, I was cultivating shame, fear, and a sense of being invisible.
And so throughout these formative years, I had needs that were both unmet and actively admonished. When I had a “want” based on gender, I was mocked. In relationship, when I wanted my partner to treat my body with kindness, I got cruelty instead. When I wanted to be held, I was ignored. When I tried to speak my heart, I was not listened to and actively denigrated. In place of compassionate listening, wise speech, and loving-kindness, I was cultivating shame, fear, and a sense of being invisible.
The summer after college, I was given Thich Nhat Hanh’s book How to Love as a gift. In it, Thay (as he is affectionately called by his students) discusses what love is versus what it isn’t, in simple terms:
- If you are sad and crying all the time, that is not true love, for love brings joy and happiness.
- If there is only misunderstanding, that is not true love, for love is only embodied through insight and deep listening.
- If your partner makes you feel bad about yourself or does not love their self, that is not true love, for love can only stem from love of oneself and the desire and ability to love and support your partner—to bring peace to your own and your partner’s heart.
- If your relationship is not supported in times of struggle through talking openly and honestly with your partner to better understand their pain and suffering, then that is not true love, for true love must rely on consistent communication and compassion in times of light and darkness.
In essence, love is the consistent embodiment of care, compassion, kindness, and joy toward yourself, your partner, and each other as two interconnected and supported beings.
My most recent partner was so different from any woman I had ever met. Her presence fit strongly into Thay’s possibility-based framework of an honest, compassionate, beautiful love: When I cried, she held me. When I was hurt, she asked me about my pain. When I needed her, she was there. When I joked, she laughed. When we kissed, I knew she was experiencing bliss and a sense of home, just as I was. When there was misunderstanding, we spoke as honestly as possible in order to address feelings of invalidation and hurt. She looked at me with the eyes of compassion, she listened to me with the ears of Kwan Yin, and she loved me without exception.
Her tenderness created a tenderness in my own body which quietly spoke words of loving-kindness toward myself, and assured me that I am wonderful, beautiful, and lovable just as I am. So much of my trauma melted away with her, as it became possible to envision a life of compassionate abiding, love in its truest form.
I began to see myself as nothing, and I began to tell myself that I’d wanted too much from my partner; or rather, that I was too much.
But our relationship was not without pain and suffering. Our communication splintered with time, and we became less understanding and trustful. And now the relationship has ended. Since, I have been stricken by anxiety, nausea, panic, headaches, and the inability to eat. Even here, I blame myself — for my “inability” to cope with loss. My habitual responses to loss and suffering have returned: I began to see myself as nothing, and I began to tell myself that I’d wanted too much from my partner; or rather, that I was too much. That my partner did not want me; or rather, that I was not want-able. That if I could only have been different, it would have worked; or rather, if I was not myself, I would have been desired.
Though none of these judgments were or are based in reality, I am nonetheless stuck in a cycle of self-hate and rejection. So what can be done?
It helps to weaken the cycle if I stop and ask myself this one compassionate question: “What is calling my attention?” In other words, if I were to really sit with my reality — without judgment — what would I notice? What would that tell me?
I would notice that my body wants to be held. That I have no one to listen to me, when once she had listened to me so well. It would tell me that it is OK to miss her, and that even this scary moment of loneliness and uncertainty is OK too. That this person made me feel more loved, respected, and cared for than any romantic partner prior, and that I felt the same way. I feel the devastation of her absence daily. Letting go of such a relationship is never easy, but it’s all the more difficult to let go of the one that’s caused you to realize that the eventual, full opening of your heart was an actual possibility.
I will continue to meet my desire for love and connectedness with the intention of loving-kindness and a gentle embrace.
But I will continue, staying on the dharma path, knowing that the actuality of an open, loving heart will come from grounding myself in a compassionate commitment to understanding, joy, and interconnected happiness toward all living beings, including myself.
I will continue to meet these feelings of loss, trying to do so as my teachers would: with the intention of unflinching compassion. I will continue to meet my desire for love and connectedness with the intention of loving-kindness and a gentle embrace. I will continue to explore the question, why do I feel as though I am “not enough?” I will seek to rest in the knowledge that my heart is fundamentally good and my desire for love and happiness is just and right.