Love in Romantic Relationships: Cultivating Self and Other through Friendship

Change is a dynamic engagement – a process of unfolding. I spoke about this in a recent post. Some of the best “life philosophies” offer insights into self-cultivation to live a more fulfilled life. Cultivation is growth, and self-cultivation is forming one’s own growth into the best version of yourself that you can be. I don’t mean this in the ways of modern self-help books of the business/marketing variety, although not to completely dismiss those either; rather, I’m trying to focus on how does one live a wise life? A compassionate life? A connected life?

This question may seem at odds with the abstract ideas of philosophy ranging from Plato’s forms to ideas of différance from Derrida. However, philosophy hasn’t always been abstract conceptual play. The best of it for the average reader has had a grounded concern about how to take care of yourself and your life. As Socrates famously said in Plato’s Apology: “For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul.”

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This issue of taking care of self-cultivation comes up perhaps most strongly in our relationships with others. In grad school, we discussed Sartre’s famous line “Hell is other people” from No Exit, and the instructor countered with the idea that Heaven is other people. I think that this is simplistic to some extent, but there is a complete facet of our being that is revealed, enhanced, and informed by our interactions with others. In other words, if others are the set of forces that restrict and objectify us (“Hell is other people” — the point that Sartre is really making), then they are also the opposite — an interaction that opens possibilities and propels us beyond our limits (we might compare seeking advice from others in Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism). We are born into a world with other people and are the result of millions of years of evolution as well as a long development of human cultural groups. We are born into a long history and are part of it. Our possibilities as well as the horizons of our comprehension (what I can and cannot see, understand, and think) are shaped by this historicity — for example, no matter how much I read about the ancient Greeks and how well I might understand the norms of ancient Athens, I cannot live or see the world as one of them as a modern-day, American, heterosexual male. My “prejudices” (as Gadamer would call it) give me another understanding, another interpretation of life that I cannot simply fully replace by reading up on an alternative one. In any case, all of this and more are the set of extended corollaries to Heidegger’s lines in Being and Time: On the basis of this with-bound being-in-the-world, the world is always already the one that I share with others. The world of Dasein is a with-world. Being-in is being-with others” (trans. Stambaugh, p. 115-116).

Our modern ideals of romantic partnership are the most intensive of these possibilities. This is because modern romantic partnership has come to be conceptually formulated as a complimentary partner, a “soulmate”, who is meant to act in more or less all the standard ideas of friendship and more. Even if you laugh at my usage of “soulmate”, you probably have some view of romantic partnership as an idealized friendship and communal exchange of energy, support, and resources for achieving life goals and projects, and it’s important here to point out that this modern paradigm was not always the case — this concept has changed over time due to various pressures — and that again, the muddy concept of “love” comes into play here, a point I will touch on below but feel it worth linking another post I’ve written previously now.

With this in mind it’s worth looking at these things from a slightly different perspective — taking some old ideas and seeing what they can reveal for us about the difficulties and opportunities of romantic partnership — how it can be a restrictive hell or an opportunity for self-cultivation, heaven.

Aristotle discusses philia — friendship but also a particular kind of love, and isn’t friendship an instructive thing for us to consider regarding love? — near the end of his Nicomachean Ethics. His discussion is too nuanced for me to go over in-depth, but there are some key points I’d like to point to:

  1. Aristotle argues that there are 3 different forms of friendship, and furthermore, 2 of the 3 are only pale cousins of the form that is true friendship. True friendship is between good, excellent people (people who have developed excellent qualities through effort and deliberation — what the rest of the book is about), and it is based upon their recognition of each other’s excellence and their attempt to support that excellence. In other words, it’s friendship based on good in itself. The other 2 forms are: friendship based on usefulness and friendship based on pleasure.
  2. Friendship is an engagement, an economy of giving and receiving, and friendship is in the act of loving, not in the act of being loved.
  3. Friendship is akin to justice, which Aristotle discusses at greater length earlier in the book. As such, equality is an issue in friendship’s stability. Inequality only belongs in certain friendship dynamics (such as between a parent and a child), but that’s due to the specific roles at play, and these are arguably not the standard of friendship in general.

Here are a couple of quotes that strengthen these points:

Affection seems like a feeling, but friendship seems like an active condition, for affection is no less present for inanimate things, but loving in return involves choice, and choice comes from an active condition. And people wish for good things for those they love for those others’ own sake, not as a result of feeling but as an active condition. And by loving the friend, they love what is good for themselves, for when a good person becomes a friend, he becomes good for the one to whom he is a friend. So each of them loves what is good for himself, and also gives back an equal amount in return in wishing as well as what is pleasant; for it is said that “friendship is equal relationship,” and this belongs most of all to the friendship of the good. (trans. Sachs, p. 150)

So the friendship of people of low character becomes corrupt (for they share in base activities, not even being constant in these, and become corrupt in becoming like one another); but the friendship of decent people is decent, and grows along with their association, and they seem to become even better people by putting the friendship to work and by straightening one another out, fore they have their rough edges knocked off by the things they like in one another. Hence the saying “[you will learn] from what is good in the good.” (trans. Sachs, p. 180)

All of these points are crucial to what I’d like to say about long-term romantic relationships. These relationships, in our modern version of them (please watch the video I posted above), have grown to be a particular life venture that is both for our personal happiness and the success of personal home-life (the word “economics” is actually derived from ancient Greek as welloikonomia meaning “household management” and is discussed in other ancient philosophical texts), not to mention the usually monogamous relationship focused on sexual pleasure. In that sense, this relationship is meant to be a one-stop-shop for all three different kinds of Aristotelian friendship.

However, there’s a problem with this. Aristotle’s delineation of the excellent person describes a difficult life. Even if we aren’t purists and allow that other sociological formations could engender more or other key virtues, the problem remains that it requires a very practically engaged and examined life to be aware of these, value them, and develop them over time. In a sense, the likely mistranslated/mistaken Aristotelian quote of “Oh, friends! There are no friends!” is accurate: it seems impossible to be a “good” person up to the standards of the text, nevertheless to come across another such impossible being. As such, let’s take Aristotle’s ethical engagement that leads to excellence as an ongoing work in progress that cannot be said to have been successful until others look back on your life after death. It’s an aspiration for how to live a good life with others and how to become the best person you can be within that world with others (this is another possible reading that I take of Aristotle, personally). In this regard, a romantic partner should be interested in you in recognition of this project for happiness in this life: enhancing one’s personal excellence and becoming the best you can become. This would be loving the good as good in another person, and it would be recognizing that people change in relationship to the challenges and periods in life that they face — a process of engagement rather than a static entity. There’s a couple of popular misconceptions on romantic relationships and identity that I’d like to address before returning to the other two types of friendship.

You’ll often see memes on social media, or hear others speaking, about finding someone who accepts you for who you are, who deals with your insanity, or who loves your flaws, etc. There is some amount of truth to this. There should be compatible interests and styles in a romantic relationship, including patient support and acceptance, but the wording of many of these positions indicates that people think that a partner should give the speaker a blank check so to speak, allowing them to dig into these flaws as much as they want and just accept them as is. Furthermore, it assumes that these are core, permanent aspects of who we “are” that cannot be changed or should not be changed. There’s no talk in these of becoming a better person, working to treat the accepting partner better over time, or anything of the like. One could say that this emphasizes being loved over loving, almost to the extent of complete exclusion of the work entailed in a relationship to love the other back. That’s where these sayings become maladaptive and toxic, rather than good, and that’s not even real friendship based on my points above from Aristotle — failing to emulate true friendship (i.e. no interest in one’s excellent qualities or those of the partner), to emphasize loving as the key of relationship rather than being loved, and to engender equality in a relationship’s dynamic. While these sayings might sound nice in a sense of self-acceptance, Aristotle would tell us that we should focus on selfishness in relationships insofar as we choose our self-enhancement through relating with people who push us into our best, boosting up our excellencies, rather than passively looking for identity stasis in being loved without any need to change.

There are a couple associated problems with this that are also common misperceptions. Love isn’t just a passive feeling, and everything is not solidified and completed once it’s there. I’ve read recently a couples therapist’s advice that love is a verb, and Aristotle would concur. It’s an ongoing effort. That’s part of the exchange in the dynamic: the effort of showing up to the relationship and doing one’s part to honor and continue it. As Buddhism would tell us, all composite things are impermanent, and this especially holds for relationships that have no effort going into them. If love is a verb, then there’s action involved, and if friendship is in the loving rather than being loved and is about exchange, then one must do the action of love in order to maintain friendship/relationship.

This brings me back to speaking about the other types of friendship. They are both considered unstable because as we and our situations change in our lives, what brings us pleasure or is of use changes. Aristotle even relates these to lovers as examples, so it’s clear that it fits. There can be no stability of friendship in these types, and as such, a romantic relationship built predominantly on one or the other will struggle more to endure over the years. The only stability in friendship to be found is in the engagement with the good in another person as such. Ironically, seeing another person for who they are and accepting them is stable in them doing the same for you to both enhance your strengths and mitigate your flaws, not to simply “accept” them. Think on it: the most powerful and enduring friendships have a dose of tough love to push you beyond your faults, not those that endlessly enable them.

It seems, then, that for a relationship to succeed and for happiness to be found within it, love must be based in seeing the best that the person has in them — both already developed and as potential — and helping them to fully become that person; however, it must also balance this with the give and take of the other key aspects of this particular kind of relationship — going through the give and take and negotiation of what’s fair in terms of usefulness and pleasure. In this case, these will gravitate around income, spending, chores, pastimes, shared endeavors, and of course, sex (even whether sex and other particulars of these aspects of usefulness and pleasure will be completely exclusive between the couple or not). If over time, one partner feels neglected, taken for granted, or overlooked for usefulness and pleasure, the exchanges of these aspects of the relationship need revisited, discussed, and addressed, or growing resentment and feelings of inequality will doom the relationship: friendships cannot endure inequality unless its a specific dynamic that has been discussed and agreed to, for only then is it just and equal. These agreements could even be cultural in some cases: some cultures see the roles of man and woman in a relationship to be quite different, and it can even vary from region to region within parts of a supposedly hegemonic “Western” culture. For instance, some cultures would see it as the man’s role in such a relationship as to provide with the woman to look pretty, do chores, and offer emotional and sexual support. Those gender roles within a relationship are hardly so clear in more progressive cultures/regions, requiring a lot more discussion around how partners should support one another regarding the stresses of money, work, health, and sex. We could note here that these cultural differences of roles are where Aristotle’s evaluations of friendship in marriage differ from these, as he has dramatically different historical and cultural understandings of these roles, but even then, these analyses that draw from him fit his position that what is expected in a relationship of friendship depends on what is just for the roles in that relationship.

Love in long-term relationships is an elaborate balancing act of all the aspects of friendship with the deepest aspiration to change together with another person over time to the best potentials that each has within them. This is a tall order and yet a beautiful aspiration. One of the problems in relationships is that we don’t clearly perceive it as just that project, treating others merely as one or both of the two inferior forms of friendship (aiming to just pass time together as companions with someone else is not enough. That’s also a form of usefulness and pleasure without necessarily reaching the act of symbiotic self/other-development). If one is not able or willing to approach a relationship with these practical engagements with change, work, activity, exchange, and equality, a relationship will likely not last long and may not end well. If there’s any hope of inverting Sartre’s gloomy maxim that Hell is other people, it requires this emphatic activity of a friendship that manages life together and improves the excellence of each partner together.

On Communication: Affirmation and Clarity

Two very different conversations recently have made me ponder the importance of being clear with your expression about your intentions, beliefs, feelings, or values. There are many reasons for this, so let’s build up some clarity around this issue.

First of all, from the aspect of discussing complicated political issues, I’ve seen some convoluted rhetorical stances that ultimately can only be called disingenuous. If you rely on questioning other people’s positions as being too partisan while hiding the fact that you have no problem with a highly controversial position, do not be surprised that your subterfuge will only result in complete disavowal. Any good points you may have had were used merely as a rhetorical ploy, so the discussion is moot. If you’re going to be provocative, be forthright about it — affirm it. Then, you can create real dialogue. That dialogue must be based on the truth of admission of what your beliefs are and what your intentions are: i.e. it must be based on a hermeneutics of trust to be productive, otherwise it always risks doubt and dispersal. In fact, that’s the problem with a large swath of our news narratives today regarding politics; they’re based on a hermeneutics of suspicion, looking for hidden agendas, secret agents, and conspiracies. There may be truth to such critical analyses, but the problem happens when this style of meaning-finding reaches successively meta-levels of suspicion: the people behind the people behind the people are the real instigators of some ultimate evil plot! Unfortunately, this is necessary to a certain extent (political scientists and myself do find plenty of evidence for seeing oligarchy at play behind many machinations in current events), but it can get to conspiracy theory levels sometimes — thinking of some of the crazy stories of the “deep state” I’ve heard in the last year or so.

TLDR: if you want to have a meaningful discussion with others about a political issue, make clear your values, beliefs, and intentions. If you try to hide them while you merely attack and mock, you will be ridiculed all the more when your ulterior motives shine through, and even if you had some critically amazing points, they will mean nothing. Affirmation and clarity are needed in a conversation among equals.


Secondly, I heard a podcast recently that told the story of an odd relationship between a distant, disciplinarian mother and a stranger to the family in a traditional culture (seen as odd by her sons). The story ended with sadness amongst surviving family members of two generations regarding the reticence of expression — the mother never told her son she loved him, and the son only told his daughter once or twice. Having recently undergone the loss of my father, it made me stop and ponder the things I wish I asked him or told him. There are simply things I will never know but meant to ask for a long time, now mysteries washed away by the tides of time.

This has made me realize that mindful, clear expression needs to affirm the fact that we all die and could at any time. This authenticity, resoluteness in the face of death, if you want to be Heideggerean, should animate our language and interaction with those for whom we care. You never know if you will have another chance to say, “I love you!”, to tell someone to take care of themselves, to ask questions you may have held for years, or to resolve any nagging doubts from childhood. The chance to express, to question, to profess, to pacify, to let out, to let go in all the verbal ways possible, could disappear in a breath now, in the next moment. You never know. So please, make sure to reach out with your thoughts and feelings. Timing may be important, but life shouldn’t be lived as “Some day,” or “Maybe next time,” if you can say it now. Affirmation of ourselves, our values, and our purpose as well as expressive clarity are key to fulfilling intimacy in our connections with others.

With that, I’m adding three songs which have been pulling at many of the various feelings I have about my dad in the gamut of emotions that play through. Post-rock will always be the most expressive music to me for feelings, especially with no words to conceptually narrow the rawness. May it touch others’ hearts out there as some sort of clear expression of the depth of human experience.


A View on Life and Death

A while back, I saw that it was a friend’s birthday on Facebook. I had not talked with this friend in years, having lost touch after moving to a different city. I warmly jumped at the occasion to say “Hello,” and reconnect. Flipping to the birthday notification, I typed out a heartfelt message, wishing him well.

A few hours later, I got a message notification from a person I didn’t know. He kindly and regretfully informed me that my friend had been dead for almost a year now. I was shocked. I had no idea. All I could do was thank this informative stranger and think back on my time with my friend, hoping that my message hadn’t caused any undue stress for anyone.

Honestly, I’ve encountered little death in my time. I’ve had pets die and a couple great grandparents, but I’ve had few instances of losing another person. This sudden awareness of the death of a friend I’d fallen out of contact with gave me pause.

Part of me wishes I could picture him in some serene afterlife, but honestly, this thought confuses me. I struggle greatly with the concept of a soul because it seems to be an attempt to assert an unchanging thing behind the ebb and flow of this impermanent universe. Every experience I’ve had, every thing I’ve studied, every fact and figure — all of it, everything points to transience. Suggesting a metaphysical permanence behind it all seems like an existential coping mechanism. Perhaps, there really is some great metaphysical Origin — Mind, Tao, Source, Idea (Eidos). If there is though, I maintain that it is a vastly different thing than is standardly posited with the term “soul” and its rather pastoral associations.

I’m left, instead, with some succor in knowing that whatever happens to us when we die, at least my friend is no longer the body he was here. He had longstanding chronic illness which made his life difficult and painful, leading (I presume) to a young death.

Ironically, isn’t this precisely our fear with death — not knowing who or what we will be when this body dies? As Heidegger puts it, it’s the possibility of one’s impossibility (or rather, of Dasein’s impossibility). Why must we posit an eternal ego to give this life and its experiences worth? As in the case of my friend — meeting with him for a few months in an intense period of my life makes his presence in my life all the more valuable for its rarity. Perhaps, I appreciate him all the more because relationships and the people who participate in them are impermanent — flashes of brilliance, fireworks on a summer’s evening.

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Rather than reach for life affirmation in the hereafter or for a Nietzschean, definingly transcendent moment for Eternal Return (a sublime life experience that grants you the fervor to say yes to this life, even if it were to be repeated infinitely), I think instead of life as something passing and therefore undefinably beautiful, rare, and unique. Much like seeing falling stars in the Perseid meteor shower – they all are similar in a way, but each burns differently, and each is beautiful and is to be savored in its passing, not a tragedy when it ends, rather one flashing, beautiful emergence, which is followed by others. I see no tragedy in living your life as something that will end and in so doing, making it shine while you flicker in the history of the Universe.


I plan to expand further on ideas about how to make one’s lifetime shine in my next post.

May this bring you peace and inspiration in being a timely being.

Gassho!

Relating Outward

This weekend, I had an interesting experience of compassion. After finding out that a co-worker could not care for her cat any longer and was thinking of sending the gato to a shelter, my partner and I decided to adopt the cat . Much strategizing and many unforeseen hurdles followed, but I finally met up with the co-worker this weekend and met the little cat in person. Her owner thanked me so many times for taking the cat. She and her two young boys were going to miss their furry friend, but she was most relieved that the cat was going on to a loving home.

I took the cage from the co-worker, young kitty inside. As I looked at her through the bars, I was struck by her singular face–a dividing line of light and dark tabby right down the center of her nose. She peered back at me gently yet inquisitively. She kept that simple, calm enthusiasm throughout the ride home–not meowing or mewling about the cage, the car, or being alone with a stranger. I spoke to her as I drove, telling her it would be OK and that we would love her and care for her.

Somewhere in the middle of this, I realized that these words were mostly comforting me. I flashed on the sadness of the two boys who had given up this sweet animal, and I felt my heart break a little at the painful changes of loss and death that arrive from time to time in life. It overwhelmed me; I felt as though I were kidnapping their loved one, and I could only imagine the change for this little cat who had known no other home.

Then, I looked at her again and saw her curious eyes with that line down her face right between them. I realized in that moment that relationships of all kinds come and go in our lives. We’re always in flux. The only proper way to be in them is to sit calmly in them and compassionately care for the other person/animal/plant/thing–all sentient beings, all of creation. In other words, you have to relate outward. It’s not about you and what you get from the relationship. It’s about your energy moving outward to compassionately embrace your partner.

I realized then that all I can do is show up and love this kleine Katze. That’s what she needs, and I can sit with that for as long as she’s in my life and I’m in hers. That’s what relationship is, and that’s what makes the change of loss and death a new beginning with new possibilities.

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Love, Rebounds, & Relationships: Part 4–“The Love of My Life”

“The Love of my life” is a familiar term–the person who stands as the greatest inspiration of (romantic?) love in a lifetime. It is the superlative relationship, partner, or desired. The Beloved. Perhaps, we cannot help but think in such comparative of superlative terms, yet in this post, I hope to call this label and evaluation into question to some extent.

In one of my last face to face conversations with my ex, I told her that I was afraid that she was the Love of my life and that I would spend the rest of my life looking back at her and our time together. She batted away such concerns and said that I would find someone else who would be amazing–with such certainty as though it were verified as a scientific constant. Writing this now, both stances seem so black and white, and this is precisely why we were both wrong.

I was wrong because it’s silly to worry so intensely about something that is totally uncertain. There’s absolutely no way for me to say whether she’s the love of my life or whether I’ll die tomorrow–what lies in the future is unknown to me. I’ll be able to say for sure who the greatest Love in my life was with my dying breath, but before that, life can and will unfold as it will. It’s not something to feel such fear about.

She was wrong precisely because she also can’t say what will happen with such certainty. There are simply some things that will never happen again in life. For instance, I ran a 4:34 mile in high school. Even if I trained really hard every day for a year, I doubt that I’m physically capable of doing this again. I’m a bit too old now–that time has passed. Likewise, I might search the rest of my life and never find another person who sparks feelings of romantic Love like she did, or maybe, I will have a chain of lackluster relationships despite trying my best in each, or… There’s simply no way to say what will happen, but it’s a definite possibility that some high point in my life is over. Again, who’s really to say until it’s all over? Until then, life can and will unfold as it will.

Worrying about whether someone is the Love of your life or continually thinking that that person is out there somewhere to be found is living in a hypothetical realm, a fantasy world in which you can compare and evaluate your whole life, yet underneath this lie those simple samsaric elements that drive so much of our activity: desire and aversion. In one version, we’re afraid of losing what we have now–aversion–so we cling to it. In another, we’re tired of what we have and want something else. We hope that it’s out there and run toward this hope–desire. Of course, the second can be a bit more of a mixture of desire for something else and aversion regarding the familiar. Pop advice says that “hope” is better, but they both drive the same game and keep us locked in fear of/hope for the life we don’t have.

That is the ultimate silliness of this entire thing. You are always who you are in this moment–not in the past or the future. We may yearn for or fear the changes that come, as nothing (not even atoms, according to science) lasts forever. However, we fear change or run towards new changes in order to have something that we want to hold onto–something that if we try just hard enough will defy this one absolute law of flux. Basically, at the heart of all this is a yearning for or fear of death, yet each moment is born and dies, passing by without our notice much of the time. We would do better to welcome life as it comes and be open to it no matter what arises, rather than getting lost in comparisons of “my ideal life”.

So, is the person you’re with the “Love of your Life”? Don’t worry about it, one way or the other. The one thing that is certain is that your relationship with him/her will end–no matter what; even if it’s just the ending of death due to old age 70 years from now. That end could come at any time, so treat them with love, kindness, intimacy, and appreciation now. Don’t get trapped in comparisons with the future that might be or the past that was. Those are dreams of whimsy or nostalgia. Be here now. Be with your partner. Treat him/her with love and work towards a future of growth, wisdom, compassion, and truth together, and at the end of it all, that person may just be the Love of your Life. You can’t say till then. You never know, one way or the other…

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May this bring you the courage to be present in your romantic relationships and light them up with wisdom and compassion. May this ground you, rather than allowing you to float in the samsara of fantastic or nostalgic comparison.

Gassho!

Love, Rebounds, and Relationships: Part 1–Moving On?

Disclaimer: This is something I actually started writing quite some time ago (the date in my journal is a month ago to the day). This topic grew and unfolded in many different directions from the original inspiration as I started putting it on the page. Due to this prodigious growth, I’m going to break this up into pieces, trying to focus each post on different aspects of this topic that I want to discuss. The first piece is about rebounds, primarily, having recently gone through a breakup and seeing people’s ideas and reactions about moving on. Sometimes they are geared toward grabbing the next person who comes along. This will be discussed alongside a discussion of our conceptualizations of romantic love and all the hidden issues that lie in those unanalyzed concepts. I aim to present a more mindful approach to yourself and Love in these posts.


A common maxim proclaims that there is no better way to get over the last than by getting under the next. Yet, what is the draw of a rebound? Why is it both a sought remedy and a denigrated followup to a broken heart?

Heartbreak challenges our ideas of ourselves and our world. Suddenly, a shared companion in the adventures of life, in your perspective, and in your memories is gone. There’s a hole. This absence is almost palpable, like an aching scar after a piece of oneself has been removed. Everything–and I mean almost every moment–makes it ache. You yearn for the ache to subside, and the easiest way is to cover up that hole–that lack, that ache–with something else, or in this case, someone else.

Furthermore, this pain is the loss of an entire way of life, a path into a now lost future. Where there once was a “we”, there is now just an “I”. Now, you are left alone with a broken idea of partnership, with that of a feeling incomplete, again as though a part of your identity had been removed, as though part of your story had been cut off. Is this identity crisis and this idea of love/partnership so painful that we must rush to find that completion elsewhere, even if only temporarily, until the edge has worn off?

I think that there is something to be said for being present to the pain of this loss–facing it head on. Covering it over with someone else is a band-aid, a denial of the pain of this moment. Psychological research speaks of the five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. Moving on to someone else right away may seem like acceptance, a quickening of the grieving process, but it’s really a refusal to look back and feel. It’s a denial of the old loss through the replacement of a new gain. Perhaps, it’s no surprise that from my experience, rebounders act either as though their previous relationship never existed, or they are still tied up in knots about it and can’t stop talking about it if they start.

Under all of this discussed so far is the problem of identity (as I’ve previously pointed at our personal story in the experience). If you observe the way people talk about romantic love and how they seek it, it’s primarily about ego identity. A narrative of completion of one’s self in the Other lies at the core of so much talk about “Love” (here capitalized to emphasize our concept of it: Love as an idea, a placeholder of sorts while we investigate, and of course, we mean romantic love). We look for salvation, completion, rescue, and an ultimate, intimate connection–a holy communion– with the Other in Love. As such, Aristophanes’ depiction of Love as finding your other half to realize an original but now lost wholeness is so familiar. It’s human, all too human. From this familiar notion, Love is approached often as a communal “I” (We as one) or as another person who completes “me”, who fulfills many aspects of who “I am” and makes me whole. The continuation of the search and the desire for completion in the other is a bolstering of the story of “me”, the drama of ego. There’s a search here for certainty when life shows its uncertain, dynamic, unfolding nature–a sacred chaos of emergence. We seek an “I am” here in the arms of another, and this is completely understandable given the expression of the experience of loss that I have shared here. However, the confusion in this is that these experiences of pain and loss reflect on an underlying truth about my “self”: the dynamics of change are taken as a threat to my “self” as some set entity, when they are in fact, an expression of it–an unfolding, a time-being. The confusion is precisely around this idea of lacking something, no matter how much pain and desire for things to be otherwise may make it feel that way. The search for love as completion of myself with my “other half” is often denigrated, with the response: “I am already a whole person”. However, this duality of whole vs. incomplete merely continues the problem of ego. “I” am neither “whole” nor “incomplete” in their standard senses of needing or not needing more to be something. I already am sacred and luminous, neither “whole” in the sense of “perfect” or “incomplete” in the sense of “lacking something”. I am whole and perfect in the sense that I am precisely what I am in this moment, a particular configuration of conditions with the possibility of awareness and present, active compassion, yet this is always going to be pulled and covered over to some extent by my desire to not feel pain, to not suffer, to cover over that which I don’t want to face. As such, there is great value in standing present for the pain of losing a partner; it could be a moment for us to experience being awake to our lives as they are and acting from that open, tender place: a love which is not about my story, my self-bolstering, or my gratification–an active feeling and giving rather than the receptive filling of a lack. There’s no need for a rebound if you can be present to your own life as it is: not as you think it should be in your idealized concepts of yourself, Love, and what you “want”. Ultimately, this is about your relationship with yourself. Are you ready to look at that and question everything you take for granted? Are you ready to mindfully show up to your feelings and bring that into your next partnership, with whomever that may be? This is an invitation to actively embracing as I-You rather than the separation of I-It. You have the chance to gratefully feel the ebb and flow of your “self” with the beating of an open heart, but this requires the courage of staying present to those feelings and not running from them into an idea of completion and gratification: running into desire for pleasure rather than the love of your life, your fate, your world.

“We want to be perfect, but we just keep seeing our imperfections, and there is no room to get away from that, no exit, nowhere to run. That is when this sword turns into a flower. We stick with what we see, we feel what we feel, and from that we begin to connect with our own wisdom mind.

Without the maras, would the Buddha have awakened? Would he have attained enlightenment without them? Weren’t they his best friends ,since they showed him who he was and what was true? All the maras point the way to being completely awake and alive by letting go, by letting ourselves die moment after moment, at the end of each out-breath. When we wake up, we can live fully without seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, without re-creating ourselves when we fall apart. We can let ourselves feel our emotions as hot or cold, vibrating or smooth, instead of using our emotions to keep ourselves ignorant and dumb. We can give up on being perfect and experience each moment to its fullest. Trying to run away is never the answer to being a fully human being. Running away from the immediacy of our experience is like preferring death to life.

Looking at the arrows and swords, and how we react to them, we can always return to basic wisdom mind. Rather than trying to get rid of something or buying into a dualistic sense of being attacked, we take the opportunity to see how we close down when we’re squeezed. This is how we open our hearts. It is how we awaken our intelligence and connect with fundamental buddha nature.” – Pema Chödrön, “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times”, p. 72.

It doesn’t need to be this way unless you keep playing a game that you are constantly trying to win.

Change and Continuity

A journey back, a return,
To a former home and old friends.
So much change in a place
Once familiar, and yet…
An underlying aspect
Remains the same.
Friends too! Different lives,
But something about them
Still beats the same rhythm.

Awash in a sea of discontinuity
With a few undulating waves
Of continuity. I look back
Over the years.
“I” have changed—another person.
Yet again, somehow the same.

What changes? What grows?
Or withers away?
Our thoughts? Our souls?
Our bare nature—
Merely biological shifts?
Yet something abides…

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Everything changes, but our choices
And actions
Are ours.
We continue on as time-beings,
For the time being,
By committing to what we value,
What we want to continue
Into the future.
Sometimes, experience leads us
To new values—new projects,
Commitments, and masterpieces,
But we also have the power
To make the future
Through our commitment and choice,
Through our love.