This past month, after a long progression of breakups and makeups, I finally parted ways with my longtime love.
And when I say “longtime,” I don’t just mean a few years. I mean a good third of my life to date.
It is not like things were just rosy, rosy, rosy, then sucked. While I’ve never managed to climb a mountain (or even a really big hill), I have to imagine our connection has been somewhat like that process. In other words, all the planning in the world can’t equip you for that one great obstacle: the daily and ever-changing unknown.
You can study the guide books, bring along all the right gear, set a lofty goal, wear the right clothing….and then get to the trailhead and discover you have a mortal fear of heights.
This actually happened to me, by the way. It was two years ago, and we were all set to hike straight up the tallest mountain in Texas. Ten minutes up the trail I was doubled over, heaving, sweating, hyperventilating. And that was that.
That was a really painful failure. But it wasn’t nearly so painful as this.
I’m very lucky, though. I have parents and friends who really love me and are willing to put down what they are doing and pick up the phone and listen. My sweet flock mates, Pearl and Malti, have snuggled with me day and night. I have awesome writing clients who distract me with rent-earning work assignments.
And I have amazing mentors who remind me that, at one level, this pain is simply a phase of the moon, an aspect of the role I am playing in this lifetime, and as such a point of interest to examine with curiosity rather than a terrifying abyss to flee from.
So I have chosen to trust their wisdom and guidance and try to welcome the pain when it comes, invite it to sit down, have a chat, take a good look at one other, consider each other’s perspective and insight, just really see if that horrid shadowy monster I keep seeing under my bed is really out to get me or just wants to get to know me a bit better.
Something else I’ve been doing is to notice when something unfolds, like a lovely sunny day I would have typically shared with my ex-partner by going walking or hiking or to the beach, and I can sense the pain tiptoeing up behind me and positioning itself to whack me over the head.
So I go out and share it with myself, whatever it is, and on the inside I share it with him too. I talk to him sometimes, mentioning how lovely it is – saying the exact same thing I would have said if he was standing there beside me.
In a way it feels like there has been a death in the family, when I do this – but I actually learned it from a mentor who lost their partner (by death not breakup) and did this and it made them feel better, closer, less alone.
Thankfully, it works for me too. I have to remind myself I can still have those experiences I treasure. I can still do the activities I love. I bring Pearl or Malti outside with me and we enjoy the sunny day side by side. I go out on my porch at night to moon-gaze and wonder at slivers and half-moons and full moons and all the in-between phases, and I imagine he is doing the same.
I’ve noticed the pain particularly likes to surprise me first thing in the morning, when I am just struggling awake and trying my hardest to recall some continuity from yesterday to give me some context for today. And then I recall….and I have to take a breath and let the pain roll in and over me and then I do my utmost to just sit in the center of it watching it crash around me and then calming down, and then we sit together in stillness for a time.
There are other moments when I remember the reasons we broke up, and how valid those reasons are and how respectful and loving they are towards both of us, and how it was just as painful to stay in our holding pattern hoping for improvements. Here, it’s truly not like I traded no-pain for pain. Who in their right mind would do that?
I traded one form of pain for another form of pain. One form of pain – the form I let go of – was a stuck pain, a limited pain, a weak pain, a pain I couldn’t control. It was a pain of waiting, of hoping for change, of wishing things could be different, of looking backwards towards our past.
The other form of pain – the pain that I have now – is an un-stuck pain. It is a pain born of letting go of a dream, of the familiar, in favor of waking up to the reality of now, of where we each are today, of what feels right, respectful, loving, freeing for us both. This pain in a sense I can control, because I invited it in. I chose it. I opened the door and said to the pain, “Come inside.”
So I am learning to do what Pema Chodron, Don Miguel Ruiz, Frank Ostaseki, and so many other treasured mentors have spoken and written about in the books and talks I have fallen in love with over these last many years. I am learning to feel my fearfulness about the pain and how bad it will be and whether it will flatten me or end me and then make the choice to walk over, open up the door and say to that same pain, “Come inside.”
As Byron Katie once said in one of her talks (and I paraphrase): “If I fall off a cliff and I know today is my last day on Earth, I definitely will want to keep my eyes open all the way down because I won’t want to miss it.”
I’m not quite that stoked about this fall I’m taking and I am definitely not delighted about how bumpy the ride is thus far. But I don’t want to miss it either. To my surprise, when I simply allow the pain to come closer, to surround me, to swirl around and within me, I find it isn’t destroying me. I find it is teaching me I am stronger, wiser, braver, deeper, than any temporary role, however cherished and, at times, missed, could define.
Today’s Takeaway: I wish I could take this blog post further because I feel it has further to go. But this is as far as I’ve gotten to date. For those of you reading who are farther up the road, who have wisdom to share, who have learned how to keep company with deep pain from a place of friendship and interest and curiosity, I would love to hear your insights!