I’ve got a wager for you.
Walk into any Buddhist dharma center across the country. Sidle up to a pleasant looking stranger. Compliment their eco-friendly aluminum water bottle to get a conversation started then ask them what started them practicing. I bet that at least half of the time a person will say, “I was having a hard time and the teachings of the Buddha helped me.” Glance sympathetically, breathe mindfully and then press them about the nature of the hard time. Nine times out of ten I bet they’ll respond: “I was really suffering because of a bad break up/divorce/inability to let go of a former love.”
At least I’ll cop to that plea.
Although initially Buddhist teachings appealed because of a desire to discover a greater, more transcendent approach to life, I signed my name on the dharmic dotted line when I realized it allowed me to release the torturous and tormented thought patterns I had regarding my ex-boyfriend. And I know I ain’t alone.
For all the ‘Single Ladies,’ and “Rambling Men” of the world, romantic love is perhaps one of the most cross demographic/geographically pervasive and shared ideals in the United States. It’s co-opted, manipulated, bought and sold via romantic comedies, manipulative pop songs and advertisements. We may think about it in more nuanced terms than it’s presented in a Reese Witherspoon vehicle, but I think I’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t flush, for at least a millisecond, during Michelle and President Obama’s inaugural dance to Beyonce’s cover of Etta James’ At Last.
When Buddhist ideas came into my life I watched as over 25 years of fixed concepts about romantic love became transparent. To let go of my ex-boyfriend I had to let go of the “Only he really knows me for who I truly am” and “I’ve lost my best friend” scripts. I had to see the stories and narratives that sounded uber-dramatic and romantic in my mind as merely manipulative mental dialogues I called upon to rile myself up. And about a month after I was finally able to stop that broken record of regret and remorse I felt incredible space. It felt like I was able to tap into a wellspring of energy and compassion now that I wasn’t so consumed with a self-obsessed narrative. All of a sudden I had all this time to write, volunteer, send letters to my grandma, visit my elderly neighbor, actually listen to my friend’s problems and call my mother. I was free.
Of course the inevitable cog in the proverbial wheel of this story is that two years later I have fallen utterly and irascibly in love. I apologize for how obnoxious that sounds. I’m actually a very practical, sensible, unsentimental person: this whole head over heels thing took me be surprise. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful: I feel absurdly lucky, fortunate, blessing-counting, etc. I mean after all, I am in the honey-est of moony-est love.
On the one hand: it’s awesome. On the other (Buddhist) hand: it is. so. weird. Romantic love toward a particular person is not a reactive and immediate emotion like anger. I mean, is it an emotion? It’s based on such a richly woven tapestry of memories, lust, compassion, projections, plans, shared experiences, hormones and fantasies. Yet it also feels like a solid, independent feeling – not supported by scripts, occurring almost despite myself. While love is going well I have zero desire to deconstruct its elements and render it powerless. Although to get over losing love I did exactly that. And while I believe in impermanence it seems neurotic to kill my buzz by reminding myself that all conditioned phenomena must come to an end.
I find that most Buddhist relationship experts tend to talk about a couple’s life after the falling in love period. They discuss what it means to be committed to a person, how to listen, accept and respect “after the honeymoon is over.” So do we not need Buddhism during the honeymoon? Is dharma irrelevant? While we’re at it: Does love exist?
I started thinking about this while reading our Intermediate Hardcore Dharma class text, Spectrum of Ecstasy by Ngakpa Chogyam and Khandro Dechen. My intuition is the following paragraph might provide some clue to unlocking the puzzle d’amour:
But with either extreme – controlling our emotions or abandoning ourselves to intensity – what we are avoiding is direct and naked confrontation with the real nature of our energy. With either extreme we never actually experience ourselves. We never taste the texture of our world. We never touch the qualities of our own being in their incredible fullness and variety. We never make real contact with the totality of our being or our sphere of perception. It is important to experience our emotional energies simply and directly. Our emotions are a spectrum of fluid and fluent energies, and experiences their energy fields is the purpose of our exploration. … One of the most enlivening, exciting and fulfilling discoveries we can make as human beings is finding that our emotions are actually reflections of our awakened enlightened potentialities. The complete unexpurgated range of what we feel is a spectrum of ecstasy.
Ooh – wait – but…hmmm. It’s like I’m in stuck in the driveway of understanding but my garage door clicker is broken. Let me inside, people. Is love a shifting energetic alchemy? Should it only be used as a verb? Is the above paragraph actually not applicable? Does it even matter?
Venerable practitioners I know you got thoughts on the L Word. So tell me, from a Buddhist perspective, what’s love got to do with it?