Buddhism and Relationships: Three Stages to Heal a Broken Heart

06/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Susan Piver Bestselling author and meditation teacher

Nothing feels worse than a broken heart, the kind you get when someone you love ends the relationship. Feelings of shame, remorse, grief, rage, and terror can overwhelm even the most stable human being.

Heartbreak has the power to reframe a workable life as a disaster.

Surprisingly, Buddhism has a tremendous amount of helpful advice for working with these terrible girl/boy-loses-boy/girl emotions. (For more on Buddhism and Relationships, see my blog. It takes an approach that is quite different than the usual advice books, which basically fall into one of two categories:

The first is called "You Go Girl!!" (Sorry guys, all the books are aimed at women.) This kind of book suggests that you need to up the cocktails:sobbing ratio, that if you go out with your friends who all tell you that you were just too awesome for him/her, get a cute outfit and a new 'do, and cry on as many shoulders as possible, you can dance your troubles away.

I don't think this is bad advice. Hey! You are awesome! You can look super hot! You do have great friends who remind you how to have fun! This is all cool. It won't, however, do much to alleviate the pain, beyond stuffing it for a few hours.

The second category is called "There is something very, very wrong with you and you made this happen." This is the kind of book that says you brought this heartbreak on yourself by carrying forward unhealed wounds from childhood or, god forbid, by thinking the wrong thoughts. I kind of hate this. It is a major hoax. Of course it's really, really important to heal your wounds and examine your thoughts to see if they might be sabotaging you--but when the intention for doing so is to avoid pain rather than increase your capacity to love, it is unlikely to heal you. This kind of advice is often out to convince you that you can create a safe world for yourself and that you can make loving safe.

Love can never be made safe. It is the opposite of safe. The moment you try to make it safe, it ceases to be love. I realize this is a bummer, but think about it. Love is predicated on receptivity, on opening up again and again and again to your beloved, each time afresh. To do this, you have to let go of insisting that he or she conform to your standards for what a lover should look like, do, be, or say, and instead allow him or her to simply be him or herself. Then you take it from there. To do otherwise, to continually choose who you wish this person was over who he or she actually is, is, well, it's not love. I don't know what it is. (Of course none of this stands to reason should any form of emotional or physical abuse be present. At this point you can forget everything I just said and protect yourself.)

Most often, the efforts to heal a broken heart center around putting it behind you and recreating the illusion of safety. Buddhism counsels something else, something best said by the American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron: "Feel the feelings. Drop the story." That is the pith advice. It means turning toward what you feel, not away. It means letting the feelings be just what they are without trying to explain them, shore your self up, or excuse or blame anyone. This is called being a warrior. The more you allow feelings to burn clean in this way, the less confusion you create for yourself and others.

I have three suggestions for figuring out how to accomplish this very mysterious feat of feeling without attaching a narrative as to what it might, could, should, or dare not mean.

1. Develop a non-judgmental relationship with your mind. This is best done through the practice of meditation, audio instruction on my website here. When you're under the sway of strong emotion, you come into contact with a state of being that I like to call Insane Obsessive Thinking. If only, I should have, what I really meant was, how dare she, I am a loser, you are a loser, I hate love... On and on and on. It's really quite painful.

Without addressing a mind run amuck, the chances of skillfully working with your feelings is kind of limited. So I suggest introducing a note of discipline and simplicity to your everyday life, beginning today. Spend some time everyday, not squashing your icky thoughts and promoting your good ones, but simply watching your mind in a relaxed way--no matter how wild it gets, you can remain steady. This is what meditation teaches you how to do.

The mind of heartbreak is like a wild horse. You can't just jump on and expect to ride. It will throw you again and again. So instead you hang around for a while until a sense of mutual trust develops. Meditation teaches you how to do this, too.

2. Stabilize your heart in the open state. When you regain some sense of dominion over your own mind, naturally your attention will turn toward that raging, screaming, 24/7 burning thing in the middle of your chest--your heart.

One way to look at heartbreak is as love unbound from an object. Freed, it careens and ricochets and bounces and crashes into walls. Your capacity and longing for love is enormous and when you lose it, this is what you discover. You had no idea you could feel this raw, vulnerable, open...and it's the openness that is so precious. You can feel everything.

Buddhism does not counsel closing back up, not at all. Instead, in recognition that this openness is the ground of loving kindness, compassion, and the ability to connect deeply with your world, it suggests you leave it broken and seek to stabilize it in the open state. Yes, leave it broken. The way to do this and not walk around sobbing all the time is through the practice of Loving Kindness meditation, which you can find here. In this way, you begin to shift your search for love a tiny bit, away from "I want to find someone to love me" and toward "I want to find a way to give love." With this slight transition, the whole world changes and you find yourself in the only seat of power there is when it comes to love--and that is as a lover.

When most people say they are looking for love, what they mean is they are looking for safety, for someone to love them whom they will then love back. But you can turn this equation on its head entirely and have love in your life every single day by choosing to give it. This, by the way--giving love to others--is the secret, guaranteed, no fail way to heal your broken heart. Try it.

3. View your whole life as path. With a sense of clarity in your mind and stability in your heart, the third stage becomes something altogether different. There is no practice associated with this one. With mental clarity and emotional stability comes the ability to see your entire life as path. You have torn down the wall between what you think you should feel and what you actually do feel. In this way, you create the foundation for a completely authentic life, one full of joy and sorrow, meeting and parting, giving and taking, and a completely intimate form of uniqueness. The dark power of heartbreak can lead you there.

With this openness, you see that your life is telling a story. I have no idea what it is and you may not either. But trust me, your life has a life of its own and the violence of heartbreak has the power to shatter all illusions about who you thought you were, who others tell you to be, and reintroduce you instead to who, deep down, you already know you are. This is an extremely powerful situation.

With a broken heart, you see how vast your longing for love is and, simultaneously, how impossible it is to make love safe. It's just not possible. So what do you do with these two truths? No one can tell you how to reconcile them. Figuring it out is your path.

A place to begin is by paying simply attention, by cultivating agenda-less, moment-to-moment awareness of yourself, others, and of the swirl of life. When you do, you notice that every day you are continuously cycling in and out of moments of falling in love and having your heart broken. Both are always present, shifting toward you and away, each one a tiny lesson on how to be fully alive.

Pass it on.