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The New York Times bestselling author of The Hard Questions and relationship columnist for Body & Soul looks at the hardest part of a relationship—heartbreak—and provides a practical, steadying, compassionate plan for emerging a stronger, braver, spiritually transformed person.
The heart that is broken has been broken open," writes Susan Piver. "When my heart was broken, it changed my life.…From this most painful experience came the ability to find and appreciate lasting ...
The New York Times bestselling author of The Hard Questions and relationship columnist for Body & Soul looks at the hardest part of a relationship—heartbreak—and provides a practical, steadying, compassionate plan for emerging a stronger, braver, spiritually transformed person.
The heart that is broken has been broken open," writes Susan Piver. "When my heart was broken, it changed my life.…From this most painful experience came the ability to find and appreciate lasting love." The anguish and disappointment of a broken heart is devastating and overwhelming, but as Susan Piver reveals in The Wisdom of a Broken Heart, it can also create an opportunity for genuine spiritual transformation, paradoxically leaving one both stronger and softer—and capable of loving even more deeply than before.
Filled with on-the-spot practices, exercises, funny stories (often drawn from her own experience), poems, meditations, exercises, and down-to-earth, practical advice on how to cope with day-to-day miseries, The Wisdom of a Broken Heart offers a priceless prescription of solace and encouragement, wisdom and humor. Like an infinitely patient, trusted friend, it tells its readers in a thousand different ways the most important thing to remember and the easiest to forget: "You’re going to be okay."
THIS BOOK IS about how to deal with the trauma of a broken heart, the kind you experience when a romantic relationship ends. There is no other experience quite like this one. For many people, the devastating, obsessive nature of a broken heart is a complete surprise. You have a sense of having been physically shattered, right in the middle of your chest. Discomfort takes over your body, making it feel heavy and dull or oddly light, like something that has been burned to a crisp and now floats in the air like ash. Most noticeably, heartbreak puts your own mind outside of your control. You fixate on certain thoughts or events, torment yourself with unanswerable questions such as “What if?” and “How come?” and are susceptible to shocking waves of grief that flood you without any warning whatsoever, even while asleep. You can no longer count on yourself to make it through a business meeting or the checkout line at the supermarket without having to stifle tears.
Everyone and everything you encounter becomes a part of your heartbreak by reminding you of your loss, sadness, and shame. A colleague’s casual morning greeting feels like a snooty taunt; missing the bus is testimony to your having been born under a bad sign; and every single couple in every single song, movie, and television show points out either the impossible beauty of love (if they’re happy) or the inevitability of it blowing up in your face (if they’re not). The whole planet mirrors your sorrow, and there is nowhere to hide. You once thought of daily events as sometimes having to do with you and sometimes not, but now that the wall between your inner life and the outer world has come down, everything becomes extremely personal and intimate. It feels like the world has turned upside down. It has.
As it turns out, you will see that this is all excellent news.
I’m speaking from firsthand knowledge. Although I’ve had my share of relationships and varying degrees of sadness when they ended, I’ve had my heart truly broken only once, and it abides in memory as one of the pivotal events of my life. Although I have now happily moved on, I still breathe in the consequences of this incredibly difficult event every day—but with gratitude, not despair.
When this particular relationship ended, I realized that the aches and pains I’d experienced in the past had been like a summer rain compared to a tsunami. They were not the same thing at all. When other relationships ended, sure, I had cried, hated him, hated myself, and lost ten pounds—the usual. But when this one ended, I didn’t just cry, mope, and lose my appetite—my entire world also fell apart. I didn’t know who I was anymore or what my life meant, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever recover.
When it happened, I lived in Austin, Texas, and worked as a bartender in a fabulous nightclub that featured world-class live blues music seven nights a week. All the legends of the genre played there, backed by a stellar house band. I was in my midtwen-ties, had not gone to college, and had zero prospects beyond the bar, but I was incredibly happy for the first time ever. Previously, my life was full of icky things like dreadful depression, major academic failures, and painful relationships. When I left home at age sixteen, I moved about in a cloud of confusion and went from job to job waiting tables, driving a cab, and working as a delivery person. Throughout, I indulged a lifelong interest in spirituality by reading countless books but despaired of ever finding a way to integrate my interests and discoveries into daily life. There seemed to be such an enormous divide between who I was on the inside and how my life looked on the outside. But now, coincidentally (and I’m not kidding about the coincidental part—I had been traveling crosscountry on a lark and my car broke down in Austin), I found myself living in a town I loved, listening to music I loved, and working with people I came to love. (Shout-out to Antone’s: Austin’s Home of the Blues.)
Best of all, I fell madly in love with a guitar player in the house band, and he fell in love with me. I had had boyfriends before, but this was different. I had never known anyone like him. He was gentle and smart and funny and also cool and deep. He made me laugh and taught me so much about music. He was a musician’s musician, all soul, no hype, hung out in bars but was superliterary with a special love for Isaac Bashevis Singer. He was a Texan with a taste for Jewish girls, and in Texas, I was like ten Jews put together. Perfect. I adored him. He adored me.
The first time we kissed, I had an experience that was unforgettable, not just for how powerful it was in that moment, but for how perfectly it christened the nature of our relationship. Held in the circle of his arms, I drew back to look into his eyes and lay my hand on his chest directly over his heart. At that exact moment an inexpressible rush of well-being streamed from his chest into my palm and imparted an otherworldly sense of safety. I had never known such a feeling. We were bound together as lovers in that very moment. With him, finally, I gave myself over to love. Throughout the course of our five-year relationship, every time I placed my palm on his chest, this feeling returned. Even sitting here right now, a gazillion years later, all I have to do is think of him and the feeling returns. This was the kind of love that you can never excise, because you were born with this person already in your heart.
Over the course of our relationship, several big things happened that made us grateful for the circle of safety created through our embrace. I was almost killed in a truly dreadful car accident, and he took care of me throughout my lengthy hospital stay, sleeping in my hospital room every night and caring for me during the months of recovery. A few years later he was busted for being part of a marijuana-selling operation (of which I had had no knowledge) and ended up going to prison for fourteen months. Out of desperation, he had been trying to make enough money to provide for us, something not likely to happen on a guitar player’s income. Death, drugs, lovers’ sacrifices, and prison: a very bluesy story indeed, with many opportunities to take shelter in each other’s arms.
Even before the prison months, however, we had slipped into an on-again, off-again kind of relationship. Although we were bound together by an undeniable soul-connection and the ability to truly be there for each other in an emergency, everyday life was another story. We could not make a regular life together and would break up and get back together, break up and get back together. During one of these breakups, he started going out with someone else and my heart shattered. Into. One. Million. Pieces. To this day, I can’t explain why.
I was inconsolable. I lost my mind. I was racked with the worst case of jealousy, which I had had no idea I was even capable of; I had not been a jealous person before this event and have never been so again. My sleep was absolutely destroyed—every night I had horrible nightmares about him being beyond my reach. My appetite disappeared and I shrank to a skeletal size zero. My friends set up a system to check on me, including a feeding schedule as if I were a baby. (Once, three people came over and wouldn’t leave until I drank a fruit smoothie, coaxing me to take sips through a straw.) I filled dozens of journals trying to make sense of this pain.
Ultimately, after months and months of struggle, I simply could not get over it and moved more than a thousand miles away from the place I loved so dearly, just to get away from this situation. It helped, but only a little. I am not exaggerating when I say that I did not draw breath for two years without also feeling the pain of this breakup.
Spurred by this utter confusion, my interest in spirituality reached an unprecedented peak. I think I was reading two or three books per week, searching for answers. Why did this hurt so much? How could I make it go away? What was it about me that made this happen? How can you stop loving someone just because they have ceased to love you? All the pain particular to my childhood—thinking I was unlovable, overly emotional, and probably stupid—resurfaced with a vengeance. The pain of today’s broken heart brings back the pain of all broken hearts, beginning from the beginning. My mind rang round the clock with self-recrimination and shame, and I was terrified I would never be able to put my life back together. I was so afraid. I was so sad.
Then in my readings, I happened to pick up a book that said this:
Here was a path that led you, not away from strong emotion but directly toward it; one that applauded the ability to feel deeply—not for its dramatic qualities but for its vividness and intelligence. And if the leading qualities of being powerful and courageous—of spiritual warriorship—were sadness and loneliness, I could imagine quickly advancing through the ranks. For the first time, I read something that made sense. This sadness meant something. It could lead to something good. It was extremely encouraging to think that what I considered most problematic about my situation—the overwhelming sorrow and life-wrecking sensitivity—might actually be solutions. Heartbreak could be a source of power.
What I learned from this book, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by a Buddhist teacher called ChÖgyam Trungpa, and from other books and teachers I found, was that a brilliant life is not about being untouched by sorrow but has more to do with relaxing and allowing the world to touch you. It’s way braver to open yourself to the world than to wall yourself off from it. I had never before heard such a definition of courage. And I had never heard of a spiritual path that celebrated and invited strong emotion and actually explained how to work with it, not by arguing against it, but by liberating it.
Instead of trying to toughen up, I could appreciate my softness. Instead of trying to stem the tears, I could dive into them and let the current carry me. In fact, the more I was able to own and proclaim my tenderness, the more of a badass I would be. After some thought, I realized it made perfect sense. After all, if you try to prevent strong emotion, you’re always on the defensive. If you never put up your guard in the first place, you have nothing to defend and therefore nothing to worry about.
For more than a decade I’ve explored in my own life this notion of the tenderhearted warrior, of being open to all emotions and becoming strong in the broken places. I’ve had many opportunities to test and apply the teachings on warriorship. I’m always astonished at how wise, accurate, and practical they are, even for dealing with the most grievously broken heart, and I want to share them with you.
Through my personal exploration of what it means to apply this wisdom to a very normal life of work, family, and boyfriends; of trying to look cute and fearing getting old; of wishing to find home and discover lasting love, I’ve made a lot of mistakes and also discovered great joy. It turned out that my saddest and most uncomfortable emotions were actually the source of this joy. By discovering that sadness is a form of gentleness, loneliness is a form of fearlessness, and heartbreak is a form of intelligence, I’ve learned that what I thought were the worst things about me were actually the best.
In this book, I want to teach you how to view yourself in this way. When you embrace what you now call sorrow, you will actually find an immeasurable authenticity and personal power, the kind you’ve been searching for all your life. Ultimately, I hope you will learn what I have: that by tasting your own heartbreak fully, you experience the joy of owning the fierce depths of your own heart.
Making Friends with Heartbreak
AS YOU BEGIN this courageous journey of confronting heartbreak and discovering your inner strength, the age-old advice to “start where you are” applies. You can’t get anywhere without first knowing where you are. It would be like saying, “I want to go to San Francisco” without knowing whether you’re starting out from Baltimore or Seattle.
So the journey begins by identifying your current state of mind. I suggest you use your answers to the following questions to start a Heartbreak Wisdom Journal, a diary of your progress as you try to find balance and learn from these turbulent emotions. Choose a notebook or diary that you can easily carry with you. It helps if it’s also beautiful or elegant in some way—something that feels good to write in. It should honor the deeply passionate, loving, and lovable person that you are. You’ll want to use this notebook to capture the random insights that are sure to arise with increasing frequency as you use the suggestions in this book and face your situation head-on. In addition to insights and ideas about how and why you feel the way you do, use it to jot down the titles of books you’ve read and what you learned from them, the names of songs that move you, and notes of encouragement to yourself. And, if you choose to do the seven-day program I lay out at the end of the book (and I hope you will), your journal will help you keep on track and capture all of the potent information that you’ll want to remember and refer to regularly.
So, when you’re ready, begin with these questions below. Write each one in your notebook and try to answer it. Make your responses as long or short as you like. Don’t worry about coming up with some kind of definitive statement—answer each one with the truth as you are experiencing it today. Your responses to the questions right now may be different from your answers tomorrow, in a week, or in a year. (You can return to this journaling exercise anytime to notice how or if your answers change over time. You may be surprised at how they do.)
As you review these questions, write down the first thing that comes to mind. If you find that a particular story comes to mind (a moment shared with your ex, an experience from the past, a hope or fear about the future), write it down. Don’t be too concerned about grammar or reason, just start moving your pen across the page and see what happens. And don’t worry about trying to be all positive. In this book, you’ll find no admonishments about avoiding bad thoughts, thinking only happy thoughts, or replacing bad thoughts with good ones. When I was researching existing literature on heartbreak, I found what I named the Cult of Positivity, a dogmatic insistence on turning away from what is painful. This is counterproductive. Without wallowing in pain, we’re going to turn toward what is painful, not away from it. These questions will help you get started.
If you don’t know how to answer a particular question, just skip it for now. You’ll have a chance to revisit it later.
If your heart is broken and you are searching for strength, I want you to prepare to go beyond hating yourself or him or her in order to find the message contained in this terrible situation. Together, we will ride the waves of grief, anger, and despair. You will come to see that during this whole time your worries ebb and flow—but your heart is indestructible.
When I was going through my heartbreak, I did a lot of reading and studying of various ancient wisdom traditions that helped me. The most helpful were specific Buddhist teachings on how to make your heart strong and sure. I want to share them with you, in plain language, in this book. I’ve worked with them for years now and taught them in workshops, so I’ve been able to refine my understanding of how they work and how best to communicate them. It is amazing to me how modern and applicable these 2,500-year-old principles are—they are more like an advanced form of common sense than any kind of dogma.
Basically, you are going to cultivate peace, compassion, and equanimity—qualities that are important to help you heal your heart. To do this, you certainly don’t need to be a Buddhist (or any other denomination, for that matter). Nor do you need to change or adopt any religious beliefs. Buddhism has no particular deity to “believe in” and follow. You don’t have to accept any particular values or ideals, chant OM, wear funny outfits, or love everyone all the time (unless you want to). And you don’t have to become a Buddhist to practice the very healing technique of meditation, in which you simply sit quietly and pay attention to your breathing.
This healing work begins with taming your mind. Without knowing how to work with your heartbroken thoughts—and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this—your own mind will squish you like a bug on a windshield. You’re at its mercy completely, and if it wants to take you on a stroll down memory lane or a visit to future sorrow, it will. If it wants to make you believe you’re better off without him, damn it, or, no, wait, you’re doomed without him, it will. It bounces you around without mercy. To help you learn from your pain and move on emotionally, I’ll teach you how to work with your own mind so that you can refocus the dreadful, unending flow of painful thoughts into mind states such as peace, joy, and loving-kindness. The time-honored practice of sitting meditation will be our working basis.
Taming the mind of heartbreak is just like taming a wild animal. First you have to just hang around it in order to demonstrate your lack of fear and aggression. Only then will this wild creature begin to trust you, and you can approach it to initiate a relationship. Meditation is precisely like this. First, by sitting down with no distractions, you enter the ring and do nothing. Then, once you trust yourself and allow yourself to be as you are—without criticism or judgment—you can begin to have a relationship with this wild beast and, eventually, some say over its actions. At this point your situation changes completely and you will have learned to create peace—not just find it—and to create a state of loving-kindness within yourself and around you. We’ll explore all this in depth in chapter 8, called “How to Meditate.” In it, I’ll teach you a meditation practice called the “Practice of Tranquility” that you can do every day.
Later, I’ll introduce you to a second meditation practice meant to increase the amount of loving-kindness you give and receive. Interestingly, the way to heal a broken heart is not just to get more or better love, but to give more. This practice explains exactly how to do that.
In addition to looking at what helps your broken heart, I’ll also review what definitely does not help, and give you tips and exercises that you can do on the spot, to help yourself right now and keep you from habits of mind that don’t help. When your heart is broken, no matter how fabulous an explanation you get for why pain hurts, what you really need are things to do immediately when the waves of grief, anger, or fear hit you out of nowhere. You’ll find these techniques throughout the book.
At the end is a seven-day program of daily practices and exercises that brings what you’ve learned about your situation into your everyday life and allows you to change your life into an experience of gentleness and sanity. At the end of this program, you will be in a better, stronger, and more cheerful place. You will no longer define your life as an experience of heartbreak.
This book is arranged in four sections. “Relax,” part 1, is about developing some tenderness toward yourself and your situation, which basically sounds impossible when you’re completely agitated twenty-four hours a day, even when you’re asleep. But by “relax,” I don’t mean not feeling what you feel. To do that would require a Herculean act of will, which is pretty much the opposite of relaxing. I also don’t mean “space out,” which is what people often mistake for relaxing. Here, relaxing doesn’t mean to stop feeling or divert yourself from feeling; it means that you allow whatever feelings are there simply to be there. You will be amazed at how relaxing this actually is, much more so than wishing you felt some other way.
In part 2, “See Where You Are,” with relaxation (remember, it means allowing) as your foundation, you will be able to begin to understand where you are, what brings more pain and what brings less, and how you can directly address your feelings. With this information, your situation will begin to cool down and you will discover some dispassion and natural resilience in your relationship with heartbreak. These qualities are there right now, but when you’re agitated, you don’t remember this. This section contains a number of longer exercises that you can do to help in the healing process. It also covers some very unhelpful behaviors and untrue thoughts, all of which should be avoided like the plague.
“Be Where You Are,” part 3, helps you be where you are, fearlessly. You can cultivate the courage to meet your life exactly as it is, no matter what, including how you feel right now. Our definition of fearlessness is the ability to open up to, accept, and even take delight in your world, in all the fabulous and insane things that happen within and around you, and even in your own broken heart.
At this point, having opened yourself to the truth of your feelings and begun to take action to view them properly, the wisdom from your broken and unbroken heart will spontaneously arise. This is just how human beings are built. You will feel previously unthinkable levels of compassion and kindness toward yourself and others that you would not have thought possible. You will simply begin to feel happier. You will not need to work at it in order to manifest these qualities—they are simply there anyway. But now you will be able to see them as you pacify and clarify your situation. Since you have worked with your heartbreak so honestly, you become aware of an enormous sense of personal power and magnetism that stems from your being authentic at all times. This becomes evident to others, and you will draw to yourself important synchronicities and auspicious coincidences. You completely reverse the terrible consequences of a broken heart—which include a sense of being horribly unattractive and disempowered—and find confidence, ease, and self-acceptance.
part 4, “From Brokenhearted to Wholehearted, Learning to Breathe Again,” is a seven-day program that sets out a daily schedule for working with the ideas in this book to turn pain into wisdom. It includes the things we’ll explore together in the first parts of the book: meditation, writing exercises, and other kinds of contemplation. It is meant to take place from Friday to Friday, but you can do it over any seven-day period.
I include this program because it’s not enough to gain interesting insights into your situation—we’ve all read powerful books whose power evaporated once we put them back on the shelf—you have to apply these insights to your life. It’s not always easy to figure out exactly how to do this, so I created these very specific steps to help you.
I explain how you can make gentleness your foundation and a commitment to clear-seeing as your path. In this way you establish the conditions for fearlessly owning your own experience. When you encounter sadness, you are fully sad. When you encounter joy, you are fully joyful. When you hit obstacles, you see them as they are; when obstacles dissolve, they leave no trace, and you can appreciate this properly. If they don’t dissolve, you can appreciate that, too.
Only by plunging into the depths of your heart can you achieve the self-knowledge and genuine presence that are associated with wisdom and personal power. And when your heart is broken, you really have no choice. Your insides have been turned upside down and your deepest fears and concerns are no longer manageable. You can’t run and you can’t hide, so it is time to meet them. I’ll introduce you to practices that explain how to do this. Even though it hurts like hell, it is a precious opportunity, a clear crossroads. One path leads to a hard heart and the tacit agreement to love more judiciously, to risk less. The other leads to a heart that opens like a lotus flower and, in doing so, connects with an unlimited source of endless, unshakeable love and the skillful means to employ it intelligently. These are the choices. I don’t think there are any others.
As we progress, you will discover that the dark power of heartbreak can introduce you to gentleness, fearlessness, and wisdom. If you stay with your broken heart, it will surely lead you down the path to wisdom.
BEFORE WE BEGIN, I want to mention a couple of caveats.
I’ve chosen to write this book from the perspective of women having relationships with men. So I say such things as “She really wanted him back” or “She was discovering her own strength.” This is purely for the sake of simplicity so that I don’t have to write, “He or she really wanted him or her back” or “She or he was discovering her or his own strength.” This is not meant to exclude anyone suffering from a broken heart resulting from any kind of relationship.
What I’m about to tell you is based on what I’ve learned and put into practice in my own life. It’s very important that you not take my word for anything. Please test out these ideas and practices for yourself. Make up your own mind. What you find valuable and true, keep and use as you wish. Whatever you find that is not true for you, please discard without a second thought. We’re about to discuss some of the most intimate things you will ever experience, and only those that resonate on this level will be of use. It’s all up to you, so please take this information and make it your own.
I may have made mistakes. I’ve had the privilege of studying with extraordinary spiritual teachers who have shared their wisdom with stunning clarity and generosity. If any part of my interpretation is flawed, it is purely due to my own lack of understanding, not any error in their teachings.
© 2010 Susan Piver