A friend recently asked me how I was doing. Without thinking too much, I said:
“I'm a little bit more brokenhearted, and a little bit more whole.”
She needed an explanation, and I didn’t follow up with the conversation. I’ve been feeling that answer for the last few days, giving it space, letting it sink in, exploring the apparent contradiction of wholeness emerging from the loss of something important, of a painful absence that somehow brings certain completion. How can heartbreak be medicine? In my head, playing on repeat, the immortal lines from Leonard Cohen, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
On a “The Future Radio Special” recording from the early 90's, he explains: “There is a crack in everything that you can put together: Physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.” That confrontation, I am learning, is also the path of least resistance. “The path of least resistance” is a heuristic that is used in physics to refer to the physical or metaphorical pathway that provides the least resistance to forward motion, among a set of alternative paths.
Dealing with heartbreak and all the intense difficult emotions that go along with that process is hard because we are primed to protect ourselves from pain for survival. Basic rules of biology: organisms move towards that which feels good and away from that which causes pain. Yet, I am learning the obvious: the only way out of emotional discomfort is through that “confrontation with the brokenness of things.” Pain is a given in the universal human experience; suffering, to some extent, is a choice.
As comfort and pleasure seeking creatures, most of us will do everything in our power to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings and emotions. We all have our ways to avoid that confrontation. My own pattern is a reliance in a myriad distractions that take my awareness off the present moment. They change over time, but they all serve a similar soothing function. Entertainment of all sorts, social media, the sweet numbness gifted by alcohol. And thank Life for distractions every once in a while. In Mexico we say, “Para todo mal, mezcal. Y para todo bien, también.” In the long run, however, that is not how we grow and become.
In the depths of heartbreak, I exhausted myself fighting, trying to superimpose alternate realities, wishing I could turn back time, draining my mind empty until the only option left was to surrender to what is.
By choice or by force, sometimes the grace of life brings us to a moment when our usual distractions are rendered utterly ineffective, a moment when the necessity for growth pulls us into a black hole, an inescapable turmoil of sensation and emotion. An intensity of feeling that renders any kind of resistance not only useless, but counterproductive. “Resistance is suffering,” flash the neon signs in the galactic skyline. The more we struggle to escape the gravitational pull of the reality of our bodies, the stronger it becomes. The more that we resist, the more intense the pain grows, clamoring for our conscious attention, “Feel me, see me, listen carefully because there’s something essential that you need to learn and I’m not letting go until you’re fully present with me here and now.”
The struggle to surrender to life and immediate experience is too real. In the depths of heartbreak, I exhausted myself fighting, trying to superimpose alternate realities, wishing I could turn back time, draining my mind empty until the only option left was to surrender to what is. And with the surrender, a great release. An exhalation. A flash of insight: “I am only my breath and everything shall pass.” Giving myself fully to my pain, moment after moment, breathing into it, allowing it to flood every single fiber of my body with its transformative power, saying “Yes!” to it and observing how swiftly my breath moves through my body, starting to dissolve the pain in the burning furnace of my belly and my chest. My arms become lighter.
Suddenly, something remarkable happens: from amidst the seemingly impenetrable depths of pain, a spark of joy. An encounter that tastes like coming home, a reconnection that unleashes a wave of warm, tingly gratitude reverberating through my Being. Who would have known that working through emotional pain could be a joyful experience? It is the joy of recognition, of remembrance, of giving our full conscious attention to those parts of ourselves which we have pushed away, tucked into a forgotten drawer embellished by a sticker that reads “do not open!”
There’s unimaginable magic in allowing ourselves to get back in touch with those fragments of who we are that have been neglected or rejected. It allows for the opportunity of a new kind of relationship with ourselves, one that will be able to hold with more depth and care the intensity of a fully engaged human life.
It permits us to take responsibility for and ownership of our own pain so it can teach us what we need to learn in order to grow. Emanating from the infinite well of life, from opportunity springs out a choice: Am I ready to fully embrace life, to own my pain and welcome the light that seeps through the cracks, allow it to illuminate the path ahead of me, or do I choose to stay in the familiar comfort of my own stories, my own egos, my own projections?
As often can be, the loss of external love has been a powerful opportunity to turn back inwards and reconnect with my own love. Step by step. Of acknowledging the reality of my own patterns of avoidance, constantly seeking myself through somebody else’s projections. And how beautiful those projections can be when they come from a lover still enchanted under the spell of oxytocin and the evolutionary drive to bond. But once the external validation is gone, the one that I often draw from that distorted image of “me”” as reflected through somebody else’s pupils, all is left is a shattering absence. A longing for the Other, and emptiness inside. But also, an opportunity for a different kind of courage: what if I could re-source all of that orphaned love back home where it belongs?
The other day I asked my friend and teacher Juliana for specific practices that I can do to work on self-love. She said, “You are already doing that. Accepting and loving those parts of yourself that are uncomfortable, that are hurting, giving them your full conscious attention and staying present with your pain.” So simple. And yet so difficult sometimes. Distraction and avoidance are ever so tempting. This is my trap: seeking a new pair of infatuated pupils that will mirror that distorted image that I so desperately need as validation that I am worthy of love and of being loved. But life has a way to force us to repeat the lessons that we choose not to learn, or that perhaps we weren’t ready to embrace yet.
There’s of course a silver lining of humor inherent in all of this, as there always is. Once I take responsibility for and ownership of my own pain, once I realize that I am the architect of my own suffering, I just cant help but laugh at how funny and ridiculous I am, constantly circumambulating away from an intimate encounter with myself. How transparent my patterns and fixations are, self-evident to everyone around me yet veiled (by choice) from my own conscious awareness. Why the resistance to grow and change? Why the attachment to maintain outdated versions of who we are? Fear. The fear of who we might find waiting underneath the comfort of that which we know, even if it’s not serving us or the people we love anymore. Meeting ourselves anew. Nothing terrifies a human more than true intimacy with one self.
Once I realize that I am the architect of my own suffering, I just cant help but laugh at how funny and ridiculous I am, constantly circumambulating away from an intimate encounter with myself.
There’s a beautiful saying springing forth from Hassidic Judaism, spoken by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk two centuries ago. He says, “Only a broken heart is a whole heart,” or perhaps, “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart.” The Japanese have an art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with gold or silver. They call it “Kintsugi” and it is the art of embracing damage, making something that has been broken even more beautiful and valuable. From the brokenness emerges a more powerful form of wholeness. It is a choice.
Learning love, becoming whole and knowing who we are are all life-long journeys. They are demanding and immensely rewarding. As I walk this path, I feel more and more that there may not be an “other side,” a promised land that can forever be reached, for the human heart knows no bounds. One of my favorite writers, Eduardo Galeano, writes about utopias. He writes, “Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this - to keep walking.”
Self-love, self-knowledge, wholeness, they are all good horizons to walk towards. In my experience, these are worthy of that life long commitment that will shape my life. They guide my steps in this arduous and beautiful experience of being and becoming, they help me endure, they provide comfort in the dark nights and they keep me on my toes as I learn, painfully and joyfully, what it means to be human.