Waking Up Alone

Everything changes; nothing lasts. In matters of the heart, this can be hard. Karen Maezen Miller on what to do after the love story ends.

Karen Maezen Miller
22 November 2018

It was the toothbrush that told me. Alone and overlooked in the emptied medicine chest, it was one of the few things my departed lover had left behind. When I found it, I knew with certainty something I’d been denying for some time.

It was over.

In truth, our relationship had been over for longer than I’d wanted to believe, but in beginnings and endings, one party can lag behind the other on the uptake. If the toothbrush was my messenger, what was his? Perhaps the time I kicked his suitcase to the curb? For years after the breakup, I would forget that part in the telling of the story. Everyone, after all, tells stories their own way, from their own perspective.

Whether by choice or circumstance, by the fleet seasons of romance or the final curtain of death, love ends. At least the love that is a story ends. And when that happens, what are we left with? A passage we might otherwise never have dared to take—a passage through denial, disbelief, and despair, through rage and madness. A portal, beyond delusive fairytales and melodrama, into a state of wakeful grace that is true love.

True love is what is left behind when the story of love ends. But it only looks like the end. Make it through one ending, and you might change your mind about all endings. That is the miracle cure, the ultimate healing, which is left behind on an empty shelf.

When Form Empties

Form is exactly emptiness. Emptiness exactly form. — Heart Sutra

Practicing Buddhists may regularly read these crucial lines from the Heart Sutra, said to be the most concise and complete statement of the true nature of reality. As we study the words, we may think we understand them. Leaving aside any spiritual insight and reasoning solely on the basis of scientific fact, we can easily see the truth of impermanence. Everything changes. Nothing lasts, not even feelings. It’s obvious, and yet in matters of the heart, it can be a hard thing to wake up to.

I must have been about thirteen years old when my mother hung up the phone one evening, turned, and told me that my uncle had come home from work at lunch that day, walked into the kitchen and told my aunt that he didn’t love her, had never loved her, and was leaving right that minute. Since then, I’ve heard of many parting scenes with a similar script, and even uttered a variation of it myself. But, at such a young age, to hear the words that shattered a family and dissolved its story made the ground give way.

Whether we notice it or not, the ground is always giving way, disappearing into the vast chasm of impermanence and inconceivability, where our understanding of a line or two of ancient text doesn’t begin to reach. To suffer a loss or heartbreak is to live the irrevocable truth through which one’s own wisdom awakens. It’s the hard way to wisdom, but it’s the only way, and the path is well worn. When the love story ends, take the path that lies before you, and it will always lead you out of suffering.

Not What You Think

The thought of enlightenment is the mind that sees into impermanence. — Dogen Zenji

A broken heart can seem like an undignified or even trivial way to start a spiritual transformation, but it’s a powerful one, as the life of the great Dogen Zenji attests. His mother died when he was but a boy of seven, and some scholars trace his prodigiousness as the revitalizer of thirteenth-century Zen to that early event, when his mind was seized by unanswerable questions.

We experience a subtle spiritual awakening the moment we see that life goes on, even after our life has been ripped apart by loss. However unimaginable, life goes on even when we don’t recognize it as our life. It’s absent of the familiar people, places, or things we previously used to navigate it, and it’s without the tenuous threads we used to bind it together. When a relationship so central to our life proves unreliable, we might wonder what is real.

If we look deeper into our discursive mind we see how we create memory, sentiment, and meaning. Suddenly nothing means what we once thought it did. Ordinary things take on the weight of our rage and the freight of our pain, and a toothbrush is no longer just a toothbrush. Indeed, your home may be your new hell; your bed, a torture chamber; a sleepless night, an eternity.

Perhaps nothing is what we conceive or perceive it to be. When this thought occurs to you, take heart. Doubt is the dawn of faith, and faith will see you through darkness.

The Stride of No-Stride

This is the greatest illusion of all. —Marpa, weeping over the death of his child

It would be nice if we could keep from falling apart when our lives collapse around us. It would be handy if by our spiritual learning alone we could pull ourselves together, keep up appearances, and maintain our stride. We might be saved embarrassment and shame. We might look like we’re coping. We might even stay positive. But that is not the way reality works. We can’t outsmart it. Impermanence always knocks us off our stride. It is a pothole, a landmine, and a head-on collision. We tumble and fall, and that can be useful. Falling is the fastest way to drop our arrogance, cynicism, pretense, and indifference. Pain brings us fully to life.

Such is the lesson in the story of Marpa, the eleventh-century Tibetan teacher, who wept copiously over the dead body of his young son. Finding him in the throes of inconsolable grief, Marpa’s disciples were taken aback. Hadn’t the master taught them repeatedly that life was an illusion? Why was he carrying on like this? Was he a liar or fake? Marpa responded, wYes, everything is an illusion, but the death of a child is the greatest illusion of all.”

Your pain is the most piercing illusion of all. Facing it, feeling it, you will awaken your sympathy and kindness. You will feel compassion for yourself, and soon, for all. You will find your footing by losing it.

Your Angry Child

You are the mother for your anger, your baby. — Thich Nhat Hanh

Face it, you’re angry.

Anger is so unpleasant, so altogether ugly, that we usually attribute it to someone else. Someone else made you angry, that certain someone who tore out your heart and ruined your life. It’s easy to blame others for our injuries, but if we persist in seeing our own anger as the unavoidable outcome of someone else’s actions, we are going to be angry for a very long time. Anger is power, and blame is powerlessness. When we take responsibility for our anger, we take back our power to change. That power has never belonged to anyone else.

This is what Thich Nhat Hanh teaches when he suggests we view our anger as a howling baby. No one wants to be around it, but it cannot be ignored. Someone needs to do something about that baby! The baby is yours, and the only one who can do anything is you. However disagreeable the infant is, you pick the baby up and place it in your lap. Then you rock and comfort her, and wait. You attend to yourself without judgment or blame. In this way, anger wears itself out. The baby goes to sleep.

In the wake of anger, you may find the strength and determination to live differently. If you don’t, you haven’t yet seen fully to the needs of your own screaming child. You are rejecting it still.

There’s time. You’ll have many opportunities to quiet the rage. You’ll have many chances to apply the alchemy of your own gentle attention to whatever is disturbing you. Screaming babies go to sleep, eventually, and every wise parent learns to let a sleeping baby be.

Be Completely Sad

When you re sad, be sad. —Maezumi Roshi

Anger, we despise, but sadness, we might cherish. At least I did. Sorrow can seem such a rich and complex place to dwell; we might forget that it, too, is impermanent.

One time I went to see Maezumi Roshi after a meditation session in which the tears streamed in rivulets down my cheeks. “I’m sitting in a field of sadness,” I said to him. I was a tiny bit pleased by my poetic expression. I thought we might talk about it, rooting out the cause, and apply a treatment. “When you’re sad, be sad,” he said. And that was all he said. I confess I found it abrupt, considering my experience with other counselors. He didn’t criticize or correct me, he just didn’t dwell. I was unaccustomed to making so little of what felt like so much.

We usually have an impulse to do something with what we judge to be a ‘negative” emotion. Perhaps we should explore, explain, or fix it. Surely it’s not “right” or “normal.” Is it possible to be sad and then be done with it?

Sadness is a good guide and even a good sign. Sadness may initiate your spiritual practice. Because most of us suffer when we are sad, it can lead us to seek solace and resolution. You might notice, for instance, that when you begin a meditation or yoga practice, you cry for no good reason at all. This can indicate that you are releasing long- held emotions and fears.

To be sure, grief is its own teacher and takes its own time. It feels good to cry. And it feels good to stop. By itself, crying always ends. Sadness changes to something else, because all things, even thoughts and emotions, change when we let them.
Soon enough you’ll see that a heartbreak doesn’t break anything for long. Take care that you do not turn back and take up permanent residence in the ruin, or you will condemn your life to the shadows of the past. Keep going straight on.

Sit Down for a While

Through the process of sitting still and following your breath, you are connecting with your heart. — Chögyam Trungpa

I copied this quotation in a personal journal I kept during my breakup eighteen years ago. Now I can see how clearly the dharma always leads us back to ourselves.

The surest way to keep going through any difficulty is to sit down and stay put—specifically by practicing meditation. It’s what all the teachers tell us, and you can prove it to yourself.

Meditating while you are angry, sad, disappointed, or afraid is the most direct way to resolve the difficulty. Why? Because you’re facing it. Meditation is the practice of facing yourself completely, cultivating intimacy with your breath and awareness. It is an intimacy that goes far beyond the companionship and gratification we seek from another. Keeping company with yourself can change the expectations you place on a relationship. Through a mindfulness practice, you see firsthand what it means to take responsibility for your own happiness and fulfillment, and you experience love of a different kind—unconditional love, which arises spontaneously as your true nature.

When you practice formally with a group, you’ll have the opportunity to sit in silence for a day or more alongside someone you’ve never met. Eventually, your mind will grow quiet and your concentration will deepen. You will share proximity without the judgments and expectations we usually impose on those around us, and be in relationships that are not conditioned by what another person is doing for you or how they are serving you. This is what happens in a silent meditation retreat. At the end of the time together, you might be inclined to do what I do: turn to the stranger sitting nearby, smile, and spontaneously say, “I love you.” The thing is, I really mean it. Is it possible to love in this way? Yes, from the very bottom of your heart and mind, when everything else drops away, it is possible and it is effortless.

Now, can you live that way with people you actually know?

The Romance of No Romance

Where there is no romance is the most romantic. —Hongzhi

As surely as trees bud in spring and leaves fall in autumn, couples in a long relationship encounter all the same stages as those who don’t make it. Yet their union endures. They survive anger and resentments, disappointments and reversals. They watch
their interests diverge and their devotions ebb. Their responsibilities grow; their families expand; their houses fill and then empty again. What is it that favors one partnership over another? Some say it is magic, the machinations of fate, the movement of stars, the right choice, or sheer luck. I think it is something we have the power to realize and actualize for ourselves.

Love that lasts allows the love story to end. It isn’t laden with romantic fantasies or regret; it’s not defined or limited, not stingy or selfish. Without form or name, this love allows all things to be as they are. It sees all of life in every season as a process of perpetual change, growth, maturation, and renewal. This love is our inherent treasure, and when we practice, it shines. It is true love because it is truth.

Several years after my lover left me peering into the emptied medicine chest, I got married to another man, and he and I have been together now for a long time. I make no claims for our future, nor do I sentimentalize the past. Our toothbrushes sit in silence side by side on the bathroom counter. They stand sentry over a life shared through mutual courage, acceptance, forgiveness, and very small kindnesses.

Every morning I reach for my toothbrush in a transcendent act that will spread boundless love wherever I go. I brush my teeth, brighten my smile, and begin again.

Karen Maezen Miller

Karen Maezen Miller

Karen Maezen Miller is a priest in the Soto Zen lineage of Taizan Maezumi Roshi and a student of Nyogen Yeo Roshi. In daily life, as mother to daughter Georgia and as a writer, she aims to resolve the enigmatic truth of Maezumi’s teaching, “Your life is your practice.” Miller is the author of Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, and most recently, Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden.