The Shapes We Mae

The Halfhearted Buddhist Guide to Breaking Up

Friends & LoversKate Weiner1 Comment

I wrote this essay at the end of last year. I was proud of it and so submitted it to a couple different publications. When I didn't get the response that I wanted, I hesitated to publish it on my own, thinking (if I am being really honest) that that was some kind of defeat. Then I talked to Lily about it. She just said "Free it! Put it up on SWM. You will write other wonderful stories."

Man, was that what I needed to hear. For A LOT of reasons. Because it's true—I will write other stories I'm proud of! And I will fall in crazy love with someone new in the same way that I fell in crazy love with my ex—maybe not today or tomorrow, but it will happen.

I have gone through tremendous growth since I wrote this story. And I'll keep growing long after. How lucky am I—how lucky are we, really—that we always evolve?

On my own, I can't sit still for more than a minute. My monkey mind likes to swing through my subconscious, ousting dormant thoughts from dark corners and shaking up today’s to-do list.

It was only with Will that I could focus. We’d meditate together in the mornings, pretzeled legs pressed together. I had thought that the newness of him, of his touch, would make concentrating nearly impossible. It wasn’t. His hands holding mine calmed something deep within me. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. I would hold that refrain in my heart throughout the day, as I sat in class and studied in the library and stretched during dance practice with friends.

Our relationship shared the same spirit of immediate gratification and feel-good fun as a Polaroid camera. We had been together from the first day we met. He told me he loved me two weeks into our relationship and when I said I love you it didn’t feel too soon. It felt like breathing in and out, in and out.

College came to a close. I graduated and moved to Portland; Will, still a sophomore when we met, moved to Boulder for the summer. We went to see the Colorado Symphony at Red Rocks and camped for a weekend in Moab. We filled our bellies with blueberries at his family’s cabin in the Adirondacks and spent a rainy evening hiking through the Colombia Gorge, the sky pearl-grey and perfect. Once, in bed, I turned to Will and said—without irony—“isn’t it beautiful to be young and in love?”

And it is beautiful. And it is hard. Distance dug deep. As I sat in his dorm’s common room at the start of his junior year—the floor slick with spilled beer, the walls papered in alt. rock posters—I realized that I didn’t belong. Not because I had outgrown cheap alcohol and loud music, but because what had been my home for four years wasn’t mine anymore. And the mobile home that Will and I had created—in my college bedroom, in Colorado, in Oregon, in upstate NY—was tired from so much travel.

When we broke up, I wanted to remind myself that the things I had loved to do with Will were things I could do on my own. This wasn’t my first intention: what I had really wanted was to talk with him, to stay friends, to work together to keep alive the open-heartedness that had defined our six-month relationship. Will, however, “needed space.” It hurt me to no end that our special something could be boiled down to the cliché to trump clichés. And so I breathed in and out, in and out, hungry to find a way to focus on the present. 

Meditation was strained. What should’ve pacified my pain gave me ample space to dive headfirst into my hurt. I knew that Will’s distance was a form of self-care. I knew that our relationship wasn’t working. I knew that things weren’t as easy for him as he said. It didn’t matter. My heart, maybe more so than my monkey mind, was an animal of its own. I loved Will in the kind of way that no lofty application of logic could tame.

Several days after Will and I last spoke, I took the Metro North home from the city. My father had given me Lodro Rinzler’s Walk Like A Buddha the Christmas before and although I had carried it with me to college—had even lent the tome on mindful living to friends—I’d only gone so far as to skim the first few pages. The promise of a long train ride felt like a ripe opportunity to delve into something new. I was ready for new: new loves, new stories, new haircut. I read Walk Like A Buddha as Harlem hurtled past and the autumn light, gold and blazing, hugged the train tracks.

Most of my breakups cleaved to the RRR route: regret (I shouldn’t have ended things!), repression (I’m not going to talk about it), and rage (I hate him). Walk Like A Buddha invited me to see breaking up as an act of reinvigoration—a way of breathing in and out that hadn’t yet found its way into my not-so finely honed break-up practice.

Inspired by Rinzler’s words on healing, I kept a couple Polaroids of Will at my bedside. It was a practice, Rinzler noted, that Shambhala teacher Pema Chödrön had suggested for those working their way through heartbreak. I’d flip through the photos, and repeat Rinzler’s suggested words: “I wish for your deepest wellbeing.” And in those moments, I meant it. How could I not? Snapshots of our time together made my heart happy. But then I’d go out into the world—to work, or to grab dinner with friends—and would feel wracked with anger at Will. Why didn’t he want to see me? Why did I have to respect his needs (to not talk) when he wasn’t respecting my needs (to talk)? Although I'd done heartbreak before, I'd never loved anyone quite like I loved Will, had never felt as loved by anyone quite like Will loved me. My heartbreak felt like shooting up to the surface from the blue heart of the ocean: the sharp exhalation of air, the headiness from having breathed in too deep. 

A core principle of Walk Like A Buddha is learning how to cultivate a practice of acceptance and awareness. I found myself not so consciously using the little blue book as a way to affirm why I didn’t have to accept what was. Rinzler advises “When someone enters your life, you should not shut the person out of your heart. When someone leaves, don’t shut the person out of your heart.” Maybe this “needing space” thing of Will’s wasn’t so enlightened, after all. Maybe Will wasn’t being so accepting and aware. I emailed him to see if we could talk, excited to share this epiphany.

It wasn’t seeing Will’s face on Skype that made me cry. It was reading those words to him. I suddenly realized how badly I wanted him to believe it, how not okay I was with the distance growing between us. “That’s just something I’ve been thinking about it,” I mumbled, closing the book shut. We talked—about our hurts and thoughts and baby bird hearts— for more than two hours. Before signing off, he said he agreed that not shutting each other out was a good thing. After a week and a half of aborted conversations and ghosting, however, he texted me to let me know he needed to do things his way. And that meant no contact.

Meditation is a slow build. Its effects aren’t always perceptible. To experience the deepest changes meditation can bring—in your mind, in your body, in your soul— you have to do it every damn day. You have to sit down and breathe in and out. You have to breathe through the boredom, through whatever sorrows bubble to the surface. This much Rinzler makes clear. Embracing ephemerality, Rinzler suggests, requires discipline and daily determination.

Much as I had wanted Walk Like a Buddha to be the portal into my spiritual life, I couldn’t hack it to an easier break-up. Healing takes time—not that I hadn’t tried to bypass the inevitable with several “emotionally detoxifying” baths that left me sweaty, smellier, and sadder than when I’d dipped my toes into the warm water. I understood as well that the most meaningful meditation practice that I could bring into my life was in service of my life. Yet in spite of this, I focused on Will—on how I could heal our friendship, on how I could treat his coldness with compassion—because admitting he wasn’t part of the equation meant admitting that this beautiful relationship was over.

I wanted only the Buddhist philosophy that gave me permission to pore through old Polaroids, and shied from the deeper tenets of learning to let go of attachments and accepting what is. I refused to concede the belief that keeping your heart open to someone was, at its core, a fundamentally one-sided equation.

Letting go hasn’t been linear. Some days, I feel excited for what’s to come. I imagine fresh starts, travels abroad. Some days, I feel steeped in melancholy, as if it’s been the last week of fall for a long time inside my heart. I am most healed, most at home in my self, when I am in the present. When I’m not wondering if Will will reach out. When I’m not wondering if I’ll feel 100% better tomorrow. I re-read Walk Like A Buddha like it’s my job. When my monkey mind gets up to mischief, I sit on my bed, hands interlaced, close my eyes, and focus on how beautiful it is to just be. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in.