I went through my first breakup last November, around the time of Thanksgiving, and anyone who has been through a breakup knows what that feels like. For those that don’t, I felt like my mind split into two halves: one side able to understand the situation and why it was the best for both of us to end the relationship mutually while the other side cringed in misery over missing him and wondering if things could have turned out differently “if only I had ____”. I couldn’t sort out the thoughts driven by emotional angst from those formed from reason and logic. I felt like I had no control over my thoughts or emotions, which as a practicing Buddhist can be a frightening experience. As with many problems and frustrations that arise in my life, I sought to try and find an approach to deal with this through Buddhism.
And yet, the mere thought of turning to Buddhism for relationship advice seemed laughable. Getting caught up in a relationship seemed to break the golden rule in Buddhism: that attachment leads to suffering. And I knew what Buddhism would say: (1) true happiness starts with non-attachment , (2) attachment causes suffering, (3) I became attached to him, therefore, (4) I would suffer. Everything seemed to play out just like the concepts in Buddhism claimed they would. Without really even trying, I turned away from Buddhism as a source of advice, expecting the dreaded feeling of “I told you so”.
Just a few weeks ago at the library, I came upon a new book from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh called Fidelity. The brief synopsis on the back cover of the book asks questions like “How can we get a new relationship off to a strong and stable start?” and “How do we take care of our jealousy, restlessness, and loneliness?”. For many Buddhist-themed self-help books, I find the information esoteric and difficult to actually apply to my own personal life. Buddhism itself is very complicated and can even upon understanding the teachings, application can require whole other stage of fluency. What I found pleasant about this book is that for a subject that seems so distant from what Buddhists “should” be thinking about, there is actually a lot Buddhists have to say about how not to think about it.
Fidelity is Thich Nhat Hanh’s explanation and interpretation of the Sutra on the Net of Sensual Love in the context of how we can improve our intimate relationships. One of my favorite parts of the book talks about “complexes”, such as pride. Oftentimes, in a relationship with a significant other, we compare ourselves with the other, either as someone better or worse than the other and therefore working to be equal to that person. Because of this, we feel inferior, jealous, or “too good for someone”, and other emotional complexes that are more than often harmful to a relationship. But according to Thich Nhat Hanh, “our dualistic thinking is the basis of our attachmennt and craving” ; he uses our hands as a metaphor:
“We have two hands and we have names for them, right hand and left hand. Have you ever seen the two hands fighting each other? I have never seen this. Every time my left hand gets hurt, I notice that my right hand comes naturally to help. So there must be something like love in the body. Sometimes my hands help each other, sometimes they each act separately, but they have never fought.
My right hand invites the bell, writes books, does calligrapyh, and pours tea. But my right hand doesn’t look down on the left hand and say, ‘Oh left hand, you are good for nothing. All the poems, I wrote them. A’ll that calligraphy in German, French, and English — I’ve done it all. You are useless. You are good for nothing.’ The right hand has never suffered from the complex of pride. The left hand has never suffered from the complex of unworthiness. It’s wonderful. When the right hand has a problem, the left hand comes right away. The right hand never says, ‘You have to pay me back. I always come to help you. You owe me.’ ” – Thich Nhat Hahn, Fidelity
The entire process of getting over a breakup indeed is a process, of moving forward, falling back, self reflection and external sources of distraction. I’ve come to the point where my mind is no longer preoccupied with the past and busier taking care of the present. Graduate school has begun again and my teaching duties will begin soon. For now, I can peacefully return the book to the library until it finds a new reader. But it’s good to know that if ever in need, Buddhism has plenty of good relationship advice to offer, that I won’t always have to rely on the wisdom of late night radio show talk hosts or friends who have all too many relationship problems themselves to deal with.