The Limits to Our Love
January 5, 2012 § Leave a comment
A Buddhist teacher whom I admire, Pema Chodron, recounted in an audio book I recently listened to, a painful scenario that unfolded in her life some years ago. While at a 10-day meditation retreat, her long-time friend, angered by something she had done or said, stopped speaking to her. The friend was so furious that she wouldn’t even tell Chodron, after numerous pleas, what had happened.
With no communication from her friend after various attempts at connection over many days, Pema awoke one night with an awful sense of dread, fear, and emptiness. “This moment,” she thought to herself, “is what I have been trying to avoid my entire life.”
She rose from bed and walked to the meditation hall where she closed her eyes and began to meditate. What she saw was that everything she had ever done or tried to be was a strategy to avoid this feeling. She saw that she had lived life through a social mask that constantly negotiated the limits of what she could say or do, be or feel. What she dreaded more than anything, though she was not conscious of it before this moment, was to be abandoned, disliked, rejected, and isolated; perhaps worse than this, was that beneath these fears lurked an even deeper fear that perhaps there was some part of herself that was ultimately bad or unlovable.
Psychologists have written that these are primal fears that start in infancy when we are so utterly attached to our caregivers’ love for our survival. One of the biological reasons for why babies laugh and smile so freely is that the “cuteness” factor is one of nature’s tricks that keeps caregivers constantly attentive and loving, and coming back for more.
However, as we grow up and become adults, these responses are no longer adaptive, and can even be harmful to the flourishing of our true selves in the long run. For example, we may laugh when really we feel hurt, stay when we want to go, or say yes when what we really want is to say no. We might allow many of our thoughts, feelings and needs to remain unspoken for years, due to fear. We might try hard not to reveal our true thoughts and feelings to the people in our lives for fear of losing their love. All of these can get us into tricky, and sometimes tragic situations as adults, because we’re still acting as children for whom a loss of love is too big of a threat to endure.
And so, this is what Pema Chodron saw happening in her own life. Her best friend’s rejection felt to her so terrifying and confusing that it cut to the core of her existence. Through her meditation and sudden insights in the meditation hall that night, however, she broke through this fear and touched on a new kind of freedom that never left her again. From that moment on, she had found a new kind of authenticity and feeling of safety in life. When she gave up this fear, she was able to be fully present, weigh her options, experience what was actually happening.
And that her friend was unwilling to talk about what was going on begs the question: Can it be that some arguments have no resolution but require at their core an evolution of the heart? I can be mad at you for not paying back the $20 you borrowed, and a resolution can be easily proposed: i.e. Would you give me my 20 bucks back please! But what about this: I’m jealous of you because, as the song says, “your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good lookin'”? What’s the solution to such a quandary? Nothing less than an evolution of the heart: Self-acceptance, self-love, love of another and of self for who each really is. Often, growing this way translates into years of spiritual practice or, if we’re lucky, a stroke of insight that can be attributed to nothing less than a moment of grace.
Pema Chodron’s story struck a chord with me, because I lived through something very similar when a friend also stopped speaking to me one day. Like in Chodron’s story, I never knew exactly what I had “done wrong” or how I could fix the “problem,” and she wouldn’t talk to me about the details. I realised some time later, after my numerous anxiety-ridden attempts to make things right again — I felt like I was swimming in an ocean of confusion, and feelings which, because they had not been verbalised, hovered in a thick expectant intensity that to this day I can still feel — that she and I were engaged in a problem that actually had no name and had no solution. The problem was the problem itself, if that makes any sense. It was, I think now looking back on it, a spiritual crisis, a crisis of the heart, a crisis of fear. Maybe we had reached the limits of where our friendship would be able to go – to authentic sharing, honesty, mutual acknowledgement and consideration, and fearless openheartedness. These are all spiritual skills, infinitely more complicated than the “hey, you owe me 20 bucks!” scenario.
For years I believed, as Pema Chodron had, that I must be some kind of awful person to have such a fracture take place in one of my oldest friendships, even though I could only conjecture on what it was I had actually done. No grand event had taken place, no outright argument, and few words had been exchanged. I carried with me a burden of guilt and anxiety and played over the scenario many times in my head. Worst of all, I always thought that one day we would “make up”– a day that never came.
Today I feel mostly grief for what happened and for how this experience impacted my life. Healing from and moving beyond it has been an ongoing spiritual practice in and of itself, as its meaning in my life has been deep and painful. Yet, perhaps, as it was for Pema Chodron, if looked at and approached in the right way, there is within this long-since-lost and end of a friendship a chance for ultimate freedom: an opportunity to awaken from fear.
In the words of author Brenda Shoshanna, “Who we are had never been lost; the love in ourselves is stronger than all the confusion it must confront. We only imagine we are deprived. If we are willing to open our hearts to the love inside and let it come out, it can heal our lives and the lives of others. The mystery is why we will not.”
A friend of mine in her 60s told me about a similar situation that happened to her when she was only 12 years old. Her best friend in the world stopped speaking to her one day, and had allied with another girl in the school to form a secret kind of club, from which my friend was excluded. The situation caused her much pain over many years, as she tried many times to understand what had happened, begging her friend to talk it over and work it out. Her friend refused to talk to her or even explain it; she simply stated that the friendship was over.
Then one day, 28 years later, when my friend was a 40-year-old woman, married with a child, she got a mysterious letter in the mail.
It was an apology.
“In this moment of serene compassion, I lay to rest any complaint, blame or regret. I say yes unconditionally to all the conditions under which I live. I appreciate them as providing just the lessons I need to learn. I feel affection for myself and for all those who walked the path with me. I allow myself to go on as of now, without fear or clinging to the past or to any of its seductions or distractions. I line up all that has happened and simply say ‘Oh, that happened. Now what?’ […] May I and all those I have known become enlightened because of all that we went through together.”