People have no respect for impermanence. We take no delight in it in fact, we despair of it. We regard it as pain.”Pema Chödrön
When Things Fall Apart
Every morning when I open my eyes the first thing I look to is the framed water painting of cherry blossoms I found in a thrift store last fall.
It is a reminder the new dawn guarantees nothing.
At night, just before I flip off the lights, I look to it as a reminder of the impermanence of the day’s highs and lows, sorrows and joys, losses and gains.
It is my basic understanding that in many respects the cherry blossom carries the message of impermenance and many Japanese “considered it a metaphor for the ephemerality, or brevity and mortality, of life, along with life’s beauty.”
During a few weeks every spring the cherry blossoms explode into pink and white curtains enveloping Japan. Eventually the pedals fall to the ground creating carpets of soft and fragrant flowers to then be washed away by springs rains, dispersed by mountain winds, or carried away by streams. The blossoming season holds such symbolic and spiritual significance in Japan, communities and families celebrate the arrival with festivals and community celebrations.
In this new life I too find myself adopting the cherry blossom as a reminder of the beautifully temporary experiences in my life. I look back now and I wonder how often in the moment of my day I thought what I was experiencing would go on and on only to only discover in the morning what was causing so much angst the day before has evaporated.
In other moments, how often have I gone to sleep in a joyful mindset only to awaken to a dark cloud hanging over my mood?
There have been many times I walked into a moment, and seeing only the dreary, turn a corner and discover unexpected laughter. Would I have appreciated the moment if I didn’t have something to compare it too?
In the moment those feelings, moods, and thoughts meant everything but in hour, a day, or a week discover they meant nothing. Their power to create my reality falling to the ground like petals off the cherry blossoms.
I recognize over the last several years I am a man, that at the end of the blossoming season, has been clutching the fallen cherry blossoms, trying to reattach them to the branches. I have on more than one occasion confused the beauty of the experience with the individual I spent time with.
There was a great deal of beautiful qualities in my relationship with my ex…but she is not the flower. She is not the reason it was beautiful. She is not the blossom or the tree. Our life was beautiful and it bloomed because that was the season and we both contributed to the season..
Our life together blossomed because it was our choice. Now it’s time for a different choice.
As I slowly read Chödrön’s book I find myself confronted over and over with my own attachment to both my love and my suffering. And throughout this experience I give more weight and meaning to suffering than to love, but to be honest I’ve learned far more about love through suffering than I ever learned about love through love.
Chödrön writes, “When you fall in love, recognize it as impermenance, and let that intensify the preciousness.” I certainly did not treat my relationships with my exes as precious.
More importantly, I did not treat the love as precious.
I make the distinction because althought I had my role in the relationships it was our relationship and not simply my relationship. Therefore, it was our responsibility to nurture it to grow. I never thought of it in those terms. I simply thought it was my responsibility as I played Hero to C’s Damsel.
From my vantage point, C could do no wrong. I laugh at my own naitivity now.
For example, C sent me a list of seven years of resentments after the fact. Although she had an equal responsibility to bring those to the table at the time. Instead she gunnysacked them and weaponized them when it was convienent to make them all my fault.
And as I look back on it, she told me who she was repeatedly: “I won’t tell you I’m angry and I’ll just blow up and then I’m done.”
She told me that at least a dozen times over six years and eight months. And at least a dozen times my thought was, “Well, I’m the Hero, it’s my responsibility to make sure you are always happy and safe!”
Why was it never our responsibility?
Sitting here typing these sentences after seventeen months of intensive counseling and work, I think, “Wow. That’s pretty fucked up.” Those are unskillful Pattern we engaged in. We. Us. Together. Patterns we engaged in during our relationship.
I know beyond any doubt my betrayal was the Way of My Thing but it is not the Thing. It is the sneeze to the allergy. It is how my Ugly manifests.
I’ve since learned there were plenty of other Things undermining the longevity of our relationship that had nothing to do with the way of My Thing. Our Patterns and Her Things she was never going to own, and may never own. Like so many partners that have been betrayed, someone else’s Thing will be treated as the Only Thing because it would be simpiler than dealing with Their Own Thing.
However, one of the Ways of My Thing was to repeatedly treat C’s love as something to be proven, won, and kept leaving me no place to go when I failed. I was prepared to die on my horse to avoid looking weak.
Instead, I treated intimacy as static and avoided the risk and uncertainty to let it grow beyond the most superficial of intentions: peace, happiness, and safety. As long as everyone was happy there was no problems and therefore I worked with an eye towards happiness instead of towards intimacy and growth.
A Pattern we both benefited from in our relationship.
What I’ve learned after seventeen months of intense counseling and hardwon lessons is my unskillful approach defining my pattern to intimacy is as true for C as it was for my former Wife, K.
It is also true the pattern predates them too. It was true with Red, Tex, and Harley. It was even true for Rose.
It was true for the first one, the one that will always be the Crazy One, who was never crazy but just wounded more than any 16 year old girl should be in a world that claims God exists.
I couldn’t save her either.
I realize trying to prove I am worthy of love goes back to the beginning of dating. It goes back to high school when I bought lunch for Joey nearly every day of 9th grade. It goes back to simply wanting to be accepted and cool when I was 7. It goes back as long as I remember.
And in every one of those relationships I was taught to deny my needs and wants only to have them resurface in other places and in other ways so I could be loved. And so what was unskillful burrowed like a tick still deeper and deeper until what was simply unskillful becomes Ugly.
This is the truth of the Pattern I am embracing so it will stop poisoning my life, the lives of people that love me, and I love. It was the Pattern and I didn’t even know it.
Healing starts by learning how to listen to lonliness and acting my own Hero.
It starts by changing my approach to my relationships and focusing more on building a relationship with a partner as committed to growth as I need to be.
It starts be treating our relationship the as worthy of nurturing and therefore precious instead of as a posession to be caretaken.
Today, this means when one person messes up, and we all mess up, it won’t be one person’s job to fix it while the other looks on contemptfully. Instead it becomes our job to treat our relationship as a third person looking for the path to help our relationship lovingly grow. We treat the relationship as a child being nurtured between us.
SIDEBAR: It reminds me of a recent post from Gottman Institute, entitled Seriously. What’s the Point of Marriage?, which states, “the point of marriage is not happiness. The point of marriage is growth.” By that measure our relationship made me hugely successful.
I always played the Hero because that was what I thought I was suppose to be. Over and over I tried to save my mother and my brother and then friends and then girls and then family businesses and then women.
I tried to be who I was expected to be.
I tried to be what I thought they needed…and sometimes what they told me what they wanted.
I realize now, I tried to be my former wife’s Hero too but there was just too many old and untreated wounds I was unprepared to deal with. She carried much unaddressed anger and hurt into our marriage…and I carried armor, anxiety, and romanticism.
Eventually, when my former wife messed up, I didn’t greet her with generosity, instead I just gave up. On more than one occasion I made her responsible and waited instead of helping her up, and doing it together.
By the end I gave K little compassion, I simply wanted out. When I left, I was so caught up in how I needed loved I never made room for how she needed loved or her pain. I simply thought in terms of mine instead of ours.
Honestly, I really wanted more with my former wife. I just lacked the skills and vulnerablity to be the person I want to be for myself, let alone her. Anxiety ran rampant.
And then out of anxiety I just ran.
However, these people I loved, and that loved me, usually lacked the skills to educate me on how they needed to be loved too. I thought love was about perpetual happiness and if I wasn’t happy it must not be love. I thought if I made them happy, and they were happy, than they would love me, and than I could be happy.
I reduced love down to being a overworked circus elephant: sexual performance, financial performance, emotional performance and perpetual happy face meant you might accept me and love me. It meant you’d keep me around instead of putting me back in the box and forgetting about me.
It’s a lonely life and an Ugly pattern, but as I read about both the men and women that have been betrayed, and the people that betrayed them, I realize it is far more common a motivator than we want to acknowledge.
C was probably the first partner in my life where I was who I wanted to be most moments except in the those moments when I wasn’t.
I think this is why the pain is so deep. I know what is possible now and instead of owning who I am and what I do, I thought I could only be those things with her because she made me those things. I thought C made me courageous and I never, ever, wanted to lose that.
In reality, all of this pain has taught me I am that person without her, and I simply made the decision to be vulnerable enough to let it show. I don’t need her to be that person…but for a time I wanted her to be the person I shared my best self with.
That time is quickly coming to an end. I am embracing the impermanence of that relationship. Mono no aware. Saudade.
I was telling a friend this and she made an excellent observation: “People don’t see themselves as they are, so they are blind to what they are capable of doing. Therefore, they settle at being less than who they are.”
Tiger is right, of course.
If relationships are mirrors I saw who I am reflected in C’s eyes – the good, bad, and Ugly. What I thought was her permissions and approval was really me. I gave her power and credit that was really mine.
My experiences when I was with my exes were full of great experiences but as I look back on them with some maturity, and without the haze of romanticism and shame, I see clearly those experiences existed because we invested in the experience.
As such, when my marriage was at its best it was because we treated our relationship as if it were precious. When things were at the best in my relationship with C it was because we treated our relationship as if it were precious.
However, it wasn’t simply them. I wasn’t a hobo going along for the ride. Always, when things were going well it was because I chose to be an active participant in our relationship.
This became evident when I made the choice to love C. I grabbed ahold of our relationship as a drowning man to a life preserver. I have brought that passion before and it terrified me as much as enchanted.
I realize in hindsight, I made a choice to love our relationship and I tried to treat it as precious even as I was finding new ways to undermine it…but I am more than one thing.
In reality, I never wanted my feeling of enthusiasm to waiver. I liked who I was when I was with C most of the time.
I forgot things change.
As C’s enthusiasms began to waver I tried harder even as I believed I was failing her in other places. It never occured to me our relationship was impermanent. It never occurred to me that she could be part of the problem too. Like the end of my marriage to K, I blamed myself for everything that wasn’t working. Shame told me over and over it was all my fault.
I realize now, shame can fuck off. It is built on lies, half truths, and my pride owning the things others project onto me.
“Impermanence is meeting and parting. It is failing in love and falling out of love.” I really believed my relationship with my ex was permanant. “When a relationship ends,” Chödrön reminds us, “recognize it as impermenance.”
When I recognize our relationship as impermenant than I will treat those experiences with others as precious. I didn’t behave this way with my former Wife, or with C.
As I finish unpacking this experience and loading up what is mine, I realize I won’t make that mistake again. However long the next relationship lasts, I will endeavour to treat our relationship as precious.
SIDEBAR: I shake my head as I write that. I still talk about myself as her Hero. Shit is subtle. Sigh…
5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Pema Chödrön’s Curious about Existence”
I would like to think that as we read, listen, reflect & learn we constantly become ‘the best versions of ourselves’. I agree that everything is impermanent: even in every relationship it changes: we cannot stay the same, life will change us, and we should let it.
When we renewed our vows someone hand stitched a saying: ‘a marriage is an achievement, a wedding is an event.’ So true. Rich & I are not the people who first met, we are not the people from ‘The War’ we are not the people who renewed our vows, we are not even the people who first moved to France: because we have learnt and evolved. I love listening to you evolve, and I read your posts to Rich. I have a post scheduled with a similar theme, including the cherry tree that used to be in my garden.
I”m focusing on tending my own garden. It makes it more difficult because of my actions people act entitled and emboldened to shit in mine. I’m going to plant a cherry tree.
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