Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On Love, Breakups, and the Serenity Prayer

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
- Reinhold Niebuhr

The Serenity Prayer.  Widely adopted by all forms of twelve step programs for good reason – these are powerful words.

I emailed my ex today to share with him that in the end although I broke up with him initially to get out of the bad situation that our relationship had caused for me, I have come to realize that just don’t love him enough to be his life partner; that I was not fundamentally ready to make a choice about who to love him (or anyone) when I met him because I was not (and am not) yet fully comfortable with being by myself.  

I did this in part to apologize and make amends for causing him so much pain by not coming to this conclusion earlier and breaking up with him before our relationship went as far as it did.  I did this because I see him making efforts to change and seeming like he’s trying to win me back, and I wanted to clear my conscience – to clear up any misconception, let him know that I encourage his efforts to heal himself but that ultimately he should not be doing them with the expectation of us getting back together. 

I wanted (and still do want) to help him begin the process of moving on as soon as possible so that he can someday be with someone who will love him back fully in the way that he deserves.   And – if I were to admit it deep down – I did it to try and free both of us – to clear the air and say my peace so we could both go our separate ways without any entanglements still holding us together.

After sharing all of this with him, I reiterated that I do not think we should have contact with one another – that I won’t ask him to stop emailing me or coming to meditation if he finds those things helpful, but that I won’t respond to his messages out of the care and concern to try and give him (and us both) space to heal.

Of course, nothing is as easy as it seems.

In his response back to me, he challenged my message to him on several key grounds:

1.    I can’t “make up my mind” that he is not the right partner for me because we each only exist in the present and he is changing moment by moment – i.e. he is not the same person who I was in a relationship with and will continue to be different each time that we interact.

2.    He believes that my commitment to “unloving” him and avoiding him is just as reactionary as my original efforts to make myself love him were while we were together.

3.    He makes no promises to avoid me or not say hello to me at events where we both happen to be in attendance although he commits to not to be disrespectful or abusive.  He plans to continue using groups that I frequent and practices that I follow in his healing path. 


Now what?  Luckily I was already on the way to a meditation group when I read his email, and I had an opportunity to reflect on the whole mess during our sitting and even our dharma talk – which as it turned out was on the fact that we cannot control (many of) our experiences – only our attitude and reaction to them.   How appropriate – and wonderfully beneficial that I was able to be there for that talk.  

I can’t overemphasize the value of turning yourself over to helpful practices when you are in distress – get yourself to the gym or sit down to meditate or listen to music – whatever it is that works for you.  Whatever hint of wisdom is in your body – follow it and get yourself there.


Anyway, when you break up with someone, you receive lots of advice from friends, therapists, family, loved ones – to maintain your resolve, give you and your partner space to heal, stay out of contact, be consistent in your messaging, etc..  

Obviously if you are in a physically abusive situation and you are being stalked or assaulted, you need to do everything that you can to get out of that situation – get a restraining order, pack up and move to Nova Scotia, join the Witness Protection Program, etc.  

But what do you do if things aren’t quite that simple?  What do you do if it’s just awkward and harder to heal around your ex – not downright abusive or confrontational?  What do you do if you are each trying to heal yourselves and keep bumping into one another on that path?


I have to admit – in many ways, my ex is right. 

None of us can predict the future – and we only live in the present – so I really can’t say with absolute certainty what role he and I will play in each other’s lives going forward – I can only observe what exists moment to moment. 

I believe in my heart that we are not meant to be romantic partners, but I need to let go of the need to control my experience and trust God’s will – or in dharma talk – trust what will unfold in each moment.  I know that right now I don’t love him as I believe one should love someone they are going to spend the rest of their life with.   For now, I am doing my best to be vocal and upfront about what is in my heart.

But, I also believe that I need to do more personal growth work before I will be ready to make a conscious choice about a life partner.  So - I would be negating the power of the teachings that I am choosing to follow if I didn’t admit that I have no idea what will be in my heart and my gut when that time comes.  Given that, anything is possible – who knows? - maybe I will end up partnered up with Arnold Schwarzenegger in a year now that he seems to be available.

Finally – I don’t really have grounds for a restraining order, so barring moving to Nova Scotia or going out of my way to avoid my ex – taking me away from activities that I love – I can’t really stop him from coming to Meditation or Biodanza or coming up and saying hello to me when our paths cross.  Nor would I really want to stop him from continuing to grow and discover activities that I believe are very worthwhile.


Which returns me to the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
- Reinhold Niebuhr

So, I’ve pretty much summed up what I can’t control in this situation – so given the above prayer, what can I control?

1.    I can control whether or not I initiate contact with him or personally invite him to any activities.

2.    I can control whether or not I respond to any contact and whether I accept or gracefully decline any invitations or requests that he makes.  I can also take as much time as I would like to respond back with an answer – I do not have to immediately respond to a request if I am not ready to do so.

3.    I can control (or at least do my best to control) my reaction towards him when we happen to come into contact with one another – to try and avoid letting hindrances cloud my thoughts.  I can maintain the spirit of loving-kindness that I have towards him and focus on being mindful and open to whatever comes up for me moment by moment when he is there – to notice what I am experiencing in my body and mind.

4.    I can continue to support his efforts to heal and bring more peace into his life – I can accept and see the changes that he is making and continue to cheer him on in his efforts from wherever I am – I can see him as he truly is in each moment.

5.    I can continue to strengthen my solar plexus chakra and clear seeing chakra (third eye) so as to know my truth and speak my truth when we are together – that will help to neutralize any attempts to control or manipulate me.

6.    I can involve my intuition and my gut in all decisions from here on.  I can ensure that I not enter a relationship with anyone (him included) unless both of those two things are fully on board.   When I truly listen to my intuition and my gut, they never lead me astray.

7.    I can continue to develop my independence and grow more comfortable each day with being alone so that I will never again make a decision about a relationship based on dependency or a desire to be rescued.

8.    I can continue to prioritize having healing, wholesome positive events and people in my life – whether or not he happens to also be there when I am at those events and around those people.

9.    I can consistently prioritize getting a sufficient amount of sleep, eating healthily, and exercising regularly so that I will be at my very best in every interaction in my life.

10. Finally – as was mentioned in the dharma talk tonight – I can control my attitude towards whatever life throws at me – I can make a conscious effort to be fully present in each moment and not get off track with thoughts about the past or the future – after all, all we have is the present.   I can see every person as a teacher and every experience as a clue and do my best to learn from each moment as they come.

In the end, ultimately, we cannot fully control the environment in which we do our healing any more than we can control anything else in our life.  

A speaker at our SF Insight Sangha a few weeks told a story of a Buddhist who went on retreat in Asia thinking that he was going to this peaceful site up in the mountains to get away from the Western world where it was going to be beautiful and serene and he was going to sit in silence and meditate.  Much to his chagrin, the whole retreat center was under construction – so every day there were hammers clanging and bulldozers going and lots of real love chaos to contend with.   So much for meditating in peace and quiet, right?

When life happens and things don’t go the way that you planned or want to arrange them to be, what do you do? 


All we can do is fall back on these very powerful words…

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
- Reinhold Niebuhr

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