The Zen of an Aching Heart
Like a sandcastle, all is temporary. Build it, tend it, enjoy it. And when the time comes, let it go.
When our heart breaks—in love, in friendship, in partnership—it is always a very difficult experience. Modern neuroscience has even discovered that the emotional suffering we experience registers in the same areas of the brain as physical pain. So when we’re feeling abandoned and rejected, we don’t want to eat, we can’t sleep, we have difficulty breathing, our bodies feel as if we have the flu or we’ve been run over by a truck.
So, what can we do when we have to accept the loss of a friend, a lover, or a loved one? What truth can we find beyond the stories we tell ourselves about how they’re wrong and we’re right, or that we’re wrong and they’re right? What can we do besides spending fruitless hours trying decipher everything they said or did? Can we do something more useful than justifying to ourselves what we said or did, or wishing that we had said or done something else? And what can we do when the story spreads to nearly drown us in despair over feelings that there’s something wrong with us, that we’re unlovable, that we’re the reason things didn’t work out?
The first thing you need to do when you’ve suffered loss or betrayal is to find a way to regain your wise heart so that you can let it hold the aching of your heart. The Zen teacher Karlfried Graf Dürckheim speaks of the importance of the need to go through our difficulties in a conscious and clear way: “The person who, being really on the Way, falls upon hard times in the world will not, as a consequence, turn to that friend who offers them refuge and comfort and encourages their old self to survive. Rather, they will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help them to risk themself, so they may endure the suffering and pass courageously through it. Only to the extent that a person exposes themself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within them. In this lies the dignity of daring.”
Sometimes suffering the losses and the unexpected betrayals and breakups that befall each of us becomes where we grow deepest in our capacity to lead an authentic and free life. Here is where the heart grows in dignity and care. By grieving honorably and tenderly, and working our way through our difficulties, our ability to love and feel compassion for ourselves and others deepens, along with the trust that will help us through similar problems in the future.
Breathe. Remember, there are countless others who have suffered in this way and gotten through it. We are not alone. Learning how to survive our present difficulties is one of the few things that will help us to know the right things to say and do when others whom we love suffer as well.
This excerpt is taken from the book A Lamp in the Darkness: Illuminating the Path Through Difficult Times