Relational Suffering and Buddhist Practice
Recently I experienced a deep, sudden, afflictive emotional experience. This sudden and profound sense of loss was due to temporary heartbreak; the temporary heartbreak dealt with rejection from a younger woman I found to be interesting and attractive (inside and outside). My “lost” person seemed to possess all the attachment cravings characteristics I desired, was a fellow “stream crosser,” and an intelligent person; she was also strongly engaged in nature, exercise, reading, Buddhism, and clinical practice. So many things in common! However, after spending what appeared to be quality time together hiking, reading, and enjoying a great dinner, she decided against continuation of our short-lived relationship. The “spark” she felt no longer glowed, and she ended our relationship before it had any full substance of being. My age was also a factor. Ah, impermanence! Oh, yes, I was quite aware – very mindful about my desire and craving. Such is samsara and the Four Noble Truths.
My immediate emotional experience was like what C. Darwin described in his book, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. A key theme for Darwin was that human emotion intensified after being expressed, and once expressed it became difficult to suppress or repress. Another theme clarified that human survival was based on the ability to passively accept emotion in the present moment. This should sound familiar to readers of this blog site. Darwin was so far ahead of his time! In Buddhism impermanence, dependent origination, and no-self all support one’s radical acceptance of emotional dissatisfaction in the moment, and the calm abiding of moving on from it. In fact, radical acceptance of afflictive emotions may be a flexible mental and bodily form of moving through the pain. I had experienced this in my life when I practiced vipassana, loving kindness, and other meditations on loss, grief and mourning due to the unexpected death of my loving wife, Ellie. In the end, we are all left with our experience of emptiness. Ultimately, we are all alone.
Susan Piver’s The Wisdom of a Broken Heart offers much about the devastating dissatisfaction one experiences when a significant relationship ends. At the same time, however, the experience may open up a pathway to greater spiritual and emotional transformation. This suffering may help us become emotionally stronger and resilient, may help us become more internally centered. In Buddhism emotional “feelings” may be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. In the end current or contemporary reality has little to do with ultimate reality. We may also experience abandonment anxiety, fearing or suspecting that we will be left alone; once the loss experience happens, we find ourselves in abandonment depression – we have in fact been left alone. For some people these are normal cycles of life. For most of us this is not true.
Becoming fully aware and not running from the raw emotional pain in our meditation, I think, is the WAY to go. Caution – DO NOT do this if you are not an experienced meditator. In my journey through emotional suffering I practiced tranquil samatha, insight clarity of vipassana, single-pointed concentration of samadhi, liberating zazen, and loving kindness (including the dead). Vipassana, loving kindness, and J. Kornfield’s guided meditations of painful emotional experience were the most helpful in my own transformation. In some strange and difficult way, it all came together in prajna wisdom about ultimate reality. Of course my recent disappointment was nothing like the painful depths of serious loss, grief and mourning. Nevertheless, it is still strong suffering. At one point for a brief period I found myself “feeling” strong dissatisfaction and deep-seated aloneness. It was pure sadness, and it was the purification that sadness can bring. L. Rinzler in Love Hurts: Buddhist Advice for the Heart Broken notes that mind training through regular meditation usually moderates our emotional reactivity. Yes, I did not get what I desired – simply another lesson about attachment and craving. Moving through such pain is all about calm abiding as you face it, experience it, and make space for it in you mind-body-heart system.
In the September, 2017, issue of Lion’s Roar there is a series of brief writings about love, its benefits, limitations, and consequences. The questions we need to ask are: Who am I? Why am I here? What is ultimate versus samsaric happiness – and dissatisfaction. The Buddha’s teaching in the Metta Sutra include the hope that we ALL will be peaceful and happy. And yes, may we all live free from enmity and danger. May we all learn how to deal with suffering (the first arrow) without sending the second arrow (our mental, emotional, behavioral responses) into our souls. We may suffer much in relational interactions because the level of love is high, thus the emotional reaction to loss is also high. In these short writings, much is offered to us. J. Kornfield calls us to practice loving kindness meditation. K. Neff recommends more self-compassion – always a good idea – and S. Salzberg calls for more generosity. J. Lief tells us to practice meditation with space, ultimately sharing that space with others. P. Chodron believes we need more tonglen practice. These experts all offer wisdom-based, wise-mind instructions on how to deal with love and its loss, human joy and human suffering. We are left with the realization that the most important thing is to “enjoy” happiness in the present moment when we experience it, and know that we cannot cling to it. Our ultimate reality is not the same as our contemporary reality.
So my many readers, rest yourselves in the deep ocean of inner peace and tranquil being. When you experience emotional suffering in relationships, contemplate and meditate – finding your true path to your inner Buddha-nature. Remain kind to yourself and to others. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you be free from suffering. May you be happy. May you find the “middle way” to live with ease.
For more information refer to The Dalai Lama and Goleman, D. (2003). Destructive Emotions: How We Can Overcome Them. New York: Bantam Books; Darwin, C. (1890, 1921 Edn.).The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. London, UK: Murray; Piver, S. (2009). The Wisdom of a Broken Heart. NY: Simon and Schuster; Rinzler, L. (2016). Love Hurts: Buddhist Advice for the Heart Broken. Bolder, CO: Shambhala Publications; and, Lion’s Roar (September, 2017). pp. 43-54.
Anthony R. Quintiliani, PhD., LADC
From the Eleanor R. Liebman Center for Secular Meditation in Monkton, Vermont
Author of Mindful Happiness
New Edition of Mindful Happiness in Production…Coming soon!