On Dealing with Suffering From Past Relationships

Over the years, I’ve known many people who were once united in loving couples, but have since broken up and retained a great deal of suffering, aversion, frustration, and anger at the person they once loved.  I’ve been in this situation quite a few times myself.  Experience has taught me again and again that the more intensely we cling to another person, the more deeply we suffer when our attachment gets severed.

This is especially true when the loved one to which we have been so attached is the very one who breaks up, the one who swings the sword that cuts through our attachment.  After this severing takes place, many people find that their attachment quickly transforms into aversion.  They experience a reversal of their relation to another person from clinging to pushing away, and what was once pleasurable becomes deeply painful.  Anger, hurt, distrust, frustration, and other painful emotions all rise up from the newly formed aversion, like bubbles from a newly sunken ship.

A great deal of pain lingers after a broken off relationship, but the question we must ask ourselves is: how do we to relate to it? Lashing out at the person we see as the cause of our pain usually doesn’t make us feel any less hurt. Not only does it deepen our aversion and the suffering that this aversion causes us, but it also often triggers new chains of unpleasant consequences that end up making us suffer even more than we did before.

It helps me to know that those who hurt me in the past usually acted in the only way they knew how given their entire history of conditioning, knowledge, and prior experiences.  This does not justify their actions, but it does help me to understand them.  I may wish to lash out at them, but they are not separate from me; attacking them, I attack my own Self.  Even if I do so in ‘self-defense,’ I need to ask myself: against what am I trying to defend myself? And what is this ‘self’ I’m trying to defend? By inquiring to our suffering, we often are able to develop a richer awareness of the nature of reality as we experience it.

When we resist our pain, our resistance fortifies it. Experience teaches us that we make the first step towards healing and relief from our suffering the moment we stop pushing it away and decide to look it in the eye.  Looking suffering in the eye means facing it head-on, directly; it means sitting with our suffering and inquiring into its causes within us.   This is not an attitude of avoidance; it is an attitude that acknowledges the reality of this present moment.

Moreover, the more we find ourselves in these painful situations in the wake of difficult break-ups, the more we learn that blaming ‘others’ rarely does either us or anyone else any good. Other people may have shaped many of our problems, but it is our own aversions, cravings, clingings, and self-delusions that keep us suffering. We need to face those for ourselves; no one else can do it for us.  Indeed, simply witnessing our suffering in meditation without pointing fingers, either blaming others or blaming ourselves, can be a powerfully healing practice.  ‘Witnessing’ means recognizing our suffering without getting involved in it or swept away with it.  It is the difference between sitting on the shore watching the flow of the river and getting carried away by its rushing currents.

In meditation, we are like the person sitting on the shore, watching the river pursue its course; we sit with reality as it is in this present moment. Sometimes that reality is filled with suffering. If suffering is present, then we sit with it.  Since all beings are nonseparate, compassion is not only for other beings; it is for us too.  Self-compassion is as important as compassion for other beings because there is ultimately no separation between us, as human beings, and other living beings.  On a deeper level, ‘compassion for other beings’ and ‘compassion for our own suffering’ are both the One’s compassion for itself.  This is important; we are often very careful to develop compassion for other suffering beings, but we need to offer that care and consideration to soothe our own suffering as well.

Being ‘self-compassionate’ does not mean, however, mean that we should wallow in our suffering.  Wallowing is a form of clinging; it is suffering perpetuating suffering.  Our clinging makes us suffer; the more we wallow, the more we cling; the more we cling, the more we suffer.  Wallowing, therefore, pushes our suffering onward in a vicious circle.  However, the cycle can be broken.  Witnessing our clinging weakens it over time.  As it weakens, we learn to let go.  As we let go, we suffer less.  A sense of caring and patience nurtures and nourishes this process at every stage.

Experience teaches us the insight that our ‘inner life’ and ‘outer life’ are not separate; they are two sides of one continuous reality.  To authentically respond to our lived reality, we therefore need to be caring and compassionate not only for beings in our outer life, but also for the suffering in our inner life.  Deepening compassion means developing it on all levels, both within and without.

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