Mindfulness, Love, and Relationship: Polly Young-Eisendrath on “The Training of Love”

Polly Young-Eisendrath on the training of love: “The potential for love is present, but the requirements are actually quite demanding.”

Polly Young-Eisendrath
2 March 2009
Photo by Diego PH

The Buddhist lay precepts can be translated as, “I vow, I set my intention, to take the training not to kill, not to harm, etc.” The precepts ask us to commit to a training of the mind. If you enter the path of relationships, you are vowing to take the training of love. It is a training to break your heart. If you’re willing to break your heart, you’re willing to take the training of love. It is a training of the highest level, requiring an enormous amount of development, because it’s not something immediately present at birth. The potential for love is present, but the requirements are actually quite demanding.

Love requires knowledge. One must know, really know, the beloved. Sometimes we wonder whether the people who supposedly love us, such as our parents, really know us. We wonder whether we really know the people we supposedly love. You have to have a knowledge of the beloved to actually love. The other requirement is equanimity, a friendly, gentle, matter-of-fact awareness that you return to again and again. Combining knowledge of the beloved and the equanimity to accept what is presented by them with a friendly, appreciative attitude is the very stuff of love.

Why would Buddhists have anything particularly special to say about love and relationship? At a basic level, the buddhadharma is about being taught by reality. As long as you can love reality, it will teach you. You will learn that loving is training for a broken heart. How could it be otherwise?

When you feel an enormous connection with someone, when you get to really know someone, which is the first requirement for love, then you know that they’re going to get ill, you know that they’re going to grow old, and you know that they’re going to die. You know that everything is going to change. Of course you don’t really like that, but love requires that you continue to cherish them even while those things are taking place. That’s the equanimity part.

Broken hearts happen because of impermanence, which in Buddhist teaching is one of the three marks of existence. When we idealize, as we so often do in love, we try to overlook the ups and downs of life, but that means we’re avoiding the training that’s offered, the training of the broken heart.

My current teacher, Shinzen Young, first trained in Rinzai Zen but then decided that Vipassana was the best way to teach Americans. Vipassana teaches us the awareness of ever-present expansion and contraction, and having no preference between them. There are good feelings and bad feelings, good days and bad days, expansion and contraction. This is the way it is for all of us. Nobody gets anything better than that.

But we so often make a steady state our ideal, especially in relationships. When you pick someone, you think you’re going to escape suffering, get out of the expansion and contraction. Your ideals for relationship might be so high that you never get into one, because every time you put your toe in, you say, “Ahh! This doesn’t work. This is falling short.” You never even get on the path of love, because you’re holding on to your ideal.

Or perhaps you get on the path of love, and then you are looking for those highs within the ups and downs of life. You put great store in them. Occasionally you have a really good day, or even a peak experience, and there is this wonderful opening. You recognize that you and the other person are absolutely in tune, totally accepting of each other. You think to yourself, “OK, now I’ve got it. In the future I will do exactly this, and I’ll get these results again.” But of course, it doesn’t work, because the waves go up and down, up and down.

Here’s the secret: get a surfboard. As the waves go up and down, the surfboard allows you to maintain your balance. When things are going well, you maintain your balance and don’t go whole hog into it. And when things are going badly, you can see that painful as it is, it’s interesting and even fascinating to observe. By surfing the waves and maintaining your balance, it starts to feel less like bouncing up and down all the time.

Meditation practice, mindfulness, psychotherapy, clear observation of your experience—all these will give you this capacity to surf. However, everybody falls off the surfboard at some point, so you need one of those little ankle bracelets that keeps you and the surfboard together. Whether it’s psychotherapy or meditation, you need to stay with it long enough to get the bracelet that connects you. If you don’t, then one day you will fall off hard and you might say, “I worked hard on that surfboard and it didn’t work, so screw it. I won’t work on one of those again.” That is the worst outcome. The things that could help you have been tossed away.

When the shit hits the fan in your life―and it will―you will need your surfboard and the bracelet that ties you to it. You will need your training and you will need a bigger view of love, one that encompasses and accepts a broken heart. You will need something that reminds you of your vow to “take the training” to love.

Polly Young-Eisendrath

Polly Young-Eisendrath

Polly Young-Eisendrath is a Jungian psychologist and psychoanalyst and co-editor of Awakening and Insight: Zen Buddhism and Psychotherapy (Routledge).