Here’s the latest from The Under 35 Project, by Angela Allan, on how Buddhist practice buoys a long-distance relationship.
Out of Mind, Heart Grow Fonder
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “out of sight, out of mind” are the two aphorisms most relevant to a long-distance relationship, and at first they seem to be opposites. The first suggests that love flourishes in a long-distance relationship — presumably because you can’t really appreciate something until it’s gone — while the second implies that a relationship deteriorates when two people are separated, most obviously because they lack physical togetherness, but also because potential mates who are in sight have the advantage over their long-distance competitor. If the aphorisms are opposites, which one reflects a deeper truth? And what does any of it have to do with Zen?
In my junior year of college, I studied abroad in Spain, leaving my boyfriend of four months behind in Connecticut. We loved each other but we didn’t say anything about wanting to have a long-distance relationship; we knew we would each be living separate lives, and we tacitly accepted that it wouldn’t be practical to try to stay together. Neither of us wanted to appear clingy, so at first we were judicious about the length of our emails and the frequency of our phone calls. But adjusting to Spain was tough for me, and I quickly became dependent on my boyfriend’s encouragement and support. Our emails got longer and longer, and our phone calls more and more frequent.
We missed each other, and ended up concocting and carrying out a crazy plan to meet in the Canary Islands for a week. That marvelous week—hiking mountains, chatting with locals, and running bare-assed across undulating sand dunes—made us dizzy with affection. When he went back to Connecticut, we planned via email and Skype an epic three-month European adventure to embark on once he finished school in May. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” clearly proved victorious in our case, despite the fact that we both started the semester expecting to experience “out of sight, out of mind.”
The only problem was that I was only really happy when talking to, writing to, or gallivanting across an island with my better half. The rest of the time my mood fluctuated between apathy and depression. I hated the school I went to, I missed my friends from home, my host parents were authentic pro-Franco fascists, and the party culture of Spaniards seemed vapid, superficial, and unfriendly to the liver. To add insult to injury, the winter was incessantly cold and rainy, and I was afflicted by a never-ending parade of minor illnesses, from food poisoning to pinkeye. I was not a practicing Buddhist at that point, and it seemed totally natural, given my situation, for me to be self-pitying and depressed (why me?). The only highlights of my day were the Skype conversations with my boyfriend, which I would never be the first to end, and which always made me a little sad because he seemed so much happier than I was (a fact I attributed to his superior luck).
After our three-month European adventure, we spent the next year together at college, living in what I still consider to be the ideal set-up for a young couple: separate apartments, a five minute walk apart. Actually, he didn’t live in an apartment, but in a university-owned mansion called Buddhist House, which hosted daily meditation at 8 a.m. “We should go to morning meditation,” he always said, and we went a few times, but mostly stuck to our tried and true pattern of postponing our wake-up ‘til ten minutes before class and making a mad dash across campus in our PJs. Without any kind of meditation or grounding practice, I had a tumultuous and stressful senior year, overwhelmed with a full course load, grant applications, and a senior thesis. Through all my glum moods, I relied entirely on my boyfriend to cheer me up—a needy and unattractive habit. Yet I never stopped to consider that a simple prioritization of zafu over snooze button might help me chill out and actually appreciate things.
It wasn’t until after graduation, when I stumbled into a yoga studio, that I discovered yoga and meditation as tools for detaching myself from obsessive negativity. Once I began a daily practice, I found myself connecting to a deep and wondrous aliveness that revealed all my previous stress-inducers to be silly minutiae. I was so successfully bitten by the Zen bug that I quit my job and applied for a short-term residency at a Zen monastery in the Catskills. By this time, my boyfriend and I had been together for almost three years, and we weren’t concerned about being long-distance.
The only potentially troubling thing was that I would have no cell phone service and only have access to Internet once a week. This meant that if it turned out I had made a mistake and the “monks” were just a bunch of escaped psychiatric patients in the icy emptiness of upstate New York, I would have no one to call and complain to, except on Mondays via Skype. Indeed, during the first Monday Skype call, I expressed almost precisely those concerns. Who were these bossy bald ascetics, and were they crazy, or was I, or both, or neither, or were all thoughts of all people everywhere mere expressions of total delusion? More importantly, why did I have to wake up so early and spend all day cleaning floors?
“Are you sure you want to stay?” my boyfriend asked. “Do you need me to come rescue you?”
“Yes!” I said. “I mean, no. I have to stay until sesshin.” I had made this promise to myself because my boyfriend had lived at a monastery and done sesshin a year before we met, and I wanted to prove that I was equally hardcore.
“Okay,” he said. “Enjoy it!”
“No wimping out, Angela, make the goddamn most of this,” I thought to myself after that phone call. So I stayed, and I meditated, and I read zen books, and I began a full-time experiment of living entirely in the present. When I was conversing with the other residents, I listened deeply and carefully, and when I ate, I tried to notice every gustatory sensation. When it was time to scrub floors, I noticed the soft lemony smell of the all-natural, organic scrub liquid, and felt my heart sending blood in happy pulses to the pads of my fingertips, and heard the winds swooshing like ghosts outside, and saw tapered icicles hanging from the eaves, and watched an intricate, fascinating spider. I tried not to entertain any thoughts that were not immediately relevant, and although I would sometimes get distracted, frustrated or bored, I did not blame my external circumstances or the fact that I was apart from my boyfriend, but instead understood that I was only experiencing a temporary disconnection from the wonder and magic pervading everything around me.
In the basement of the monastery someone had put up a cartoon with the caption “Zen birthday card,” and a picture of a monk reading a card that said, “Not thinking of you.” I smiled whenever I saw it, because it represented a truth that I was slowly realizing: the more I lived in the present, the less I thought about my boyfriend. There’s just too much to absorb in the present moment for boyfriend-memories or boyfriend-feelings to have a place. And during meditation, in which the only present moment is the stillness of the zendo, the deep, vibrating peace that I felt in my cells and the cells of all things dissolved concepts of “boyfriend” and “long-distance” entirely.
It’s a cliché expression of love to say, “I couldn’t live without you,” but my monastery experience was really about recognizing the opposite: I could live, joyously and profoundly, without you. I love you, and prefer to be with you, but I don’t need you in order to have a fulfilling life. I recognized, through meditation, that sometimes what appear to be expressions of deep love are just deep neediness and dependence, which corrupt instead of enliven a relationship. Anyone who has ever been dumped eventually realizes that they don’t need the other person—it’s just harder to come to this realization during the relationship instead of fifteen pints of ice cream and twelve Lifetime movies after it.
When I returned from the monastery after learning all the important life lessons that I’m sure I’ll spend the rest of my life forgetting and re-learning, I was overjoyed to see my boyfriend again and smother him with sloppy kisses. We finally got to have the “comparing monasteries” conversation now that we’d both lived in one –“Really? You read that translation of the Heart Sutra?”—and I was excited to have someone less serious than a monk to talk to about Buddhist philosophy. He had meditated every weekday for the month that I was gone, so we conversed about everything from hip flexibility to the cool-soundingness of the words “cosmic mudra.”
At some point in the days following our reunion, he mused, “It’s nice that we can be away from each other and not have it be a big deal,” and I agreed. To a large extent, “out of sight, out of mind” defined our experience—we had both spent the last month engaged in our immediate surroundings, and hadn’t thought about each other too much. Yet “absence makes the heart grow fonder” was clearly in play as well—how else could you explain such a lovey-dovey reunion?
Looking at them in a new light, these two seemingly opposite aphorisms worked together to strengthen our relationship while we were living separately. Even though we weren’t thinking about or talking to each other very frequently, our personal practices of meditation and present moment awareness had the side effect of reinforcing our emotional connection. Of course, just as the “not thinking of you” cartoon referenced, Zen is about achieving a non-thinking state of consciousness—an experience that brings the practitioner “out of mind” by disconnecting him or her from mental chatter. Without these meditation-induced “out of mind” experiences, I would probably still be needy, dependent, and generally glum. So I’d like to propose the amalgamated aphorism “out of mind, heart grow fonder”—although, like the Zen birthday card, I doubt it will catch on at Hallmark.