Things fall apart

She sat there with her face in her knees crying on the bench in the changing room. I saw her as I was washing my hands, and went over and gave her a hug.  We’ve all been there. Having a breakdown in the middle of the day, unable to keep it together despite our best efforts.  The moment that we feel life will never be the same. At the moment, I have three clients grieving the end of a relationship, and two troubled teenagers who are dealing with the end of the their family as they know it.  They all struggle with shades of a similar belief: that happiness is a thing of the past, and the end of the relationship marks the end of joy in their lives.  Be it a break up, a divorce, a death of a loved one, a parting of ways – they are often markers for change – life as you know it no longer exists.

The feeling of irreparable loss can be devastating and quite unbearable.  The “heartbreak” can feel quite literally like a stabbing or a shattering in the chest cavity, a painful or numbing throb beneath the breastplate.  The sensation of a hole that leaves a vacuum that can never be filled.  The temptation is to fill the gap or distract oneself from the loneliness so as to overcome the loss as fast as possible so the sadness is banished once and for all.

This ending can evoke feelings of hopelessness, anger, and a deep resentment towards life.   Or it may also trigger feelings of worthlessness, shame, or guilt.  Either way, these stances are resentful and blaming.  They breed fear and anger, misery and despair.

The fact of the matter is, nothing lasts forever.  Either by death or departure, all relationships come to an end.  It is the nature of things to fall apart.  And come together.  No matter how much we try to resist it. Do the trees try to hold on to their leaves?  Does the sky resist the setting of the sun?  Does the beach cling to the ebbing tide?  That is not to say that people should be more like trees and should carry on without experiencing the pain of separation. But it is easier to absorb and bear the pain of an ending if we make room for the grief by accepting it just as we do the monsoon rain or the falling leaves of autumn.

When in pain, there is tendency to narrate the self-story in a manner that highlights the tragedy and paints the trajectory to the point of the heart-breaking event.  Or it veers into the future and haplessly attaches a tragic conclusion to all upcoming prospects. When we suffer misery, we suddenly become bottom-feeders thriving on stories of misfortune or harbingers of doom.  Rather than making room for endings and sadness, there is a tendency to re-write our history to fit a tragic narrative.  Most all of us have done this at one point or another.  It is quite rare for someone to lose someone they love and suffer in passing moments, while carrying on with life with the same joy and spontaneity as before the loss.

It is almost like a child who cries and stomps his feet and runs in circles when the top of his ice cream cone falls off.  The adult knows, what is done is done, there is no point wailing and crying, but the child is protesting against the cruel Universe because the ice cream he wanted has now melted into pinkish brown algae in the cement.

As adults, we also rage against the Universe for propelling our ice cream towards the floor; except it’s not ice cream, it’s our sugary idea that love and relationships should be perfect and last forever. But like the ocean, love and relationships ebb and flow, swell and break, and can swallow entire ships in their vast open depth.

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun writes, “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy,” (in When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times)

In our efficiency-driven, technological mindset, we tend to believe that problems need fixes, and dilemmas need solutions. We demand that illnesses have cures and anything that is unfixable, unsolvable, or incurable is cursed. It is a rather revolutionary notion that healing emerges from making room for grief and misery.  Making room for pain entails actually sitting with and tolerating the discomfort in our bodies, rather than shifting positions or distracting our attention altogether. It means accepting pain as it is, rather than avoiding it or allowing it to take over the entire experience.

One of the most powerful means of allowing the sadness to flow and not be overcome by it is to maintain one’s attention on the here and now. That is, to keep our attention on how we want to be at this moment, without being caught in the riptide of emotion that sways our judgment and interferes with our perception.  Bringing attention to the breath and observing the rhythmic inhale and exhale can offer an anchor when faced with a tsunami of hot tears and gasping breaths.

Those of us who journal know that we have the ability to not only feel and perceive the world around us, but we also have the power to observe these feelings and perceptions as and when they happen.  Imagine yourself on a bridge and your thoughts and feelings are cars passing below. Notice the sensations in your body as you observe these thoughts, the subtle changes in breath and heart rate, the tensing or relaxing of muscles in the jaw, throat and neck, chest or fists – without trying to control them, just observe them as you would a parade of cars and motorbikes from a perch overhead.

Emotions are energy. They motivate us to burst into action or retreat and reflect.  Sometimes this energy emerges in response to conscious thoughts or awareness, but other times, we react unwittingly to triggers that lay below our consciousness.  That is why sometimes something seemingly insignificant will provoke a disproportionately intense reaction. The subtle changes in our bodies alert us to the triggers that evoke a palpable reaction, and help us make better choices in that intense emotionally-charged moment.

Rumi’s poem, the ‘Guest House’ urges us to attend to all the varying emotions, but understand that they are passers-by, and witness the lessons each one brings.

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

Some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.

 

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

Still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for a new delight.

 

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

Because each has been sent

As a guide from beyond.

(Translation by Coleman Barks)

Lastly, understand that there is nothing that you did to deserve this love in the first place, so why blame yourself for the loss?  There was nothing you or anyone else could have done to produce this relationship which you so treasured.  As Rumi suggests, let your sorrow empty you of your fixed notions and ideas of what ought to be.  It is only by being open, a witness and a welcoming host to life’s offerings, pleasant or painful, that we learn and grow. It is this clearing itself that makes room for joy.

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