Everything changes; nothing lasts. In matters of the heart this can be a hard truth to wake up to. KAREN MAEZEN MILLER on what to do after the love story ends.
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.