Heartbreak | Music | Songs for the Deep

I hadn’t planned to write more heartbreak posts, but ultimately, the journey through the abyss to safety (recent I Ching reading but also reminiscent of the Moon card) is a fraught one with new challenges and rapids along the way. For me, this is much more true than I’d like to admit. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve cried about her, thinking about how I’ll never see her skin and smile again, or reliving a moment I wish I could change to maybe make things end up differently. It hurts so bad some days, and I couldn’t tell you why those days are worse. Every day, I wish my heart would stop beating. It just hurts too damn much, and some days, like today, something breaks you into full on panicky hyperventilation and crying, and you can’t even really say what triggered that exact moment. However, even then, there are events that make you feel understood and seen.

I went to a concert last night – Garbage and Alanis Morissette. These two artists really brought this to mind because they both have songs about some difficult emotional experiences. Listening to them and seeing how popular they both are, even 20+ years later, made me think of previous heartbreak and the sense at that time that so many songs are about love lost and pain around it. There are certainly more songs about this experience than the opposite (not that there are none of those), and it made me realize that the experience of loss, grief, pain, and frustrated hopes is more common, impactful, and lasting than that of some deep joy realized, which is generally more fleeting and less deep.

If we think of this in spiritual terms, we’ll quickly arrive at the Buddha’s fundamental truth that upholds all of the Four Noble Truths – the first one: there is dukkha. There is a suffering in existing. It occurs on both great and mundane levels, and those great levels speak to our greatest desires (see the second noble truth) and the difficulties involved in them ending or not being fulfilled.

Our relationships with others are a fundamental. They are part of being in the world (riffing on Heidegger here but pulling in a Buddhist direction). We become entangled in the desire of being with, regularly. There is both some of the greatest beauty and the greatest suffering in this, as other humans reveal the depths of who we can be, what we can feel, and how we can flourish.

In any case, I wanted to pick a few songs from this experience alongside a couple others to really pull at the heartstrings regarding heartbreak and the pain in it. Music can give voice to the human experience in profound ways that make us feel seen. Perhaps this is cathartic in itself. I know that even in just driving to the concert, “You Oughta Know”, spoke to my more fiery feelings of being overlooked, unvalued, and cheated. I’ll just leave it as a reference here without linking it for better options that don’t delve into such anger, but even that can be valuable and worth expressing in its own way.

First, let’s go with Garbage’s “It’s All Over but the Crying”, which speaks to ending, loss, and the grief afterwards as well as the poor treatment and misperceptions of someone else. They didn’t play this at the concert, but I was really wishing they would have played something from “Bleed Like Me”.

Beyond that, Garbage played a newer song, “Even Though Our Love is Doomed”, at the concert that really spoke to me. The main refrain kept asking why we kill the things we love the most. I kept wondering the same, as my feeling time and again is that extraordinary was traded for ordinary in my situation. I can’t help but feel like I was told I was superlative repeatedly but then was not chosen because of more or less bullshit reasons that never really made sense and seemed historically revised and over-hyped over time. In the end, I have to wonder why we kill the things we love the most, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one who feels a resonance with that question. Furthermore, the song has a “even though” this killing is doomed, you still want the person anyway because you see the beauty of that love. I couldn’t understand that any deeper than I already do. As a friend pointed out today, that’s why I hurt so much now and feel dead – I loved that deeply that its passing is a grief to my core.

Between sets, songs played over the speakers, and an old fave came forth and reminded me precisely of the strength of crying out against not having been chosen, of the feeling of what it is to roll in the deep of the abyss. Adele’s song is a classic for a reason in this genre.

In a note more fitting with my usual musical journeys of late, I was walking home today, listening to my newest post-rock album release of focus, the fantastic Transmission Zero’s “Bridges”. Their song, “Still No Sign”, has this haunting feeling of floating through space, waiting for some signal and it never coming. That’s the feeling of waiting and not hearing anything, of feeling on edge with the hope that continues to cut rather than soothe, as every moment is that Buddhist play of dukkha and tanha arising together. I felt so haunted by this song that I stopped in opening my building’s door and just rested my head on it for a second to catch my breath and resolve. It’s simple but feels like a deep journey of waiting and yearning.

Finally, most importantly, I wanted to share a positive note. Alanis ended her set with “Thank U”, and it struck me hard, even though it was a song I never really liked before. The journey through pain, through the heartbreak, even in its angriest moments like some of her more memorable moments from “Jagged Little Pill”, is ultimately soothed in gratitude, in moments like telling the audience that she certainly recommends getting your heart trampled on to anyone. These are part of living with others and vulnerably putting our hearts out there. In the end, that’s how we become strong and how we give back grateful compassion. Every day, I feel like dying right now. I really wish my heart would stop sometimes, but ultimately, I also always paddle on past that abyss of deep waters, keeping my resolve to continue, do well, and give my kindness to others. It’s incredibly hard, but every time, I’m thankful for continuing, despite feeling unworthy and unfit for the challenge. I love the closing lines. I’m thankful for my own disillusionment, my facing nothingness, my sitting in silence, and the clarity of strength I find in myself every time I do that with vulnerable surrender and resolve rather than anger or self-involvement:

Thank you India

Thank you providence

Thank you disillusionment

Thank you nothingness

Thank you clarity

Thank you, thank you silence

Alanis Morissette – “Thank You”

May this help others feel both expression and some gratitude for continuing forward in heartbreak.

Gassho!

Consistency Through Change

Over the last year, I’ve had a few discussions about the phrase “It is what it is”. My friend took offense at this phrase because she felt that it’s a shirking of one’s agency to produce change, to drive, to control.

However, we don’t control nearly as much as we think, and ultimately, saying “It is what it is” isn’t passive. That’s because active vs. passive is a false dichotomy. Our actions in life and the situations we are involved in are far more complicated than wrestling things to one’s will or being wrestled into submission.

This is one of my favorite aspects of Taoism and Eastern philosophy more generally. In fact, the strategy of The Art of War fits with this in a lot of ways. The successful general on the battlefield isn’t he who forces his will onto a situation at all costs. That’s simply stubborn and out of touch with reality. That’s a way to get oneself and one’s forces slaughtered. No. It’s about reading the landscape, the opposing forces, the weather, the resources, etc. for what they are and adapting to make the most of the situation. It is what it is. The situation you are in is the one you have to work with. Honestly, this applies very well to my experience in project management as well: to get things done requires adaptation, flexibility, and a kind of poise that works with new problems.

I was recently thrilled to come across a book about Bruce Lee’s philosophy by his daughter, as I was immediately taken with the title: Be Water, My Friend. It reminded me of one of my favorite passages in the Tao Te Ching:

The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing
choosing what others avoid
they thus approach the Tao
dwelling with earth
thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with honesty
governing with peace
working with skill
and moving with time
and because they don’t compete
they aren’t maligned

Lao Tzu’s Taoteching, Verse 8, Trans. Red Pine

There are several aspects here I could point to in regards to what I’ve said about the poise of adaptation. Water flows; it finds the empty space, follows the path of least resistance, and it can even wash things away through erosion or the great weight of a wave. It nurtures, but it doesn’t press an agenda of it’s own over and against others (“without competing”). Water lacks a particular form but it always reaches its destination. We can see clear affinities here even with some of my favorite parts of Mahayana Buddhism in the “governing with peace, working with skill, and moving with time”. Skillful means and flowing with impermanence are precisely what we should aim for in moving with the ebb and flow of life.

Let’s compare this to the Bruce Lee quote that inspired the title of the book:

Empty your mind.
Be formless, shapeless, like water.
You put water into a cup; it becomes the cup.
You put water into a teapot; it becomes the teapot.
You put it into a bottle; it becomes the bottle.
Now water can flow, or it can crash!
Be water, my friend.

Bruce Lee, in preface to Be Water, My Friend

The emptiness within a form is reminiscent of the importance of emptiness in rooms, bowls, etc. in the Tao Te Ching as well. The emptiness makes the form what it is. The empty space is what informs the use, shape, and function of these objects/spaces. Being able to flow around through emptiness, through the openings in situations, is where formlessness adapts to the surroundings and governs with peace, works with skill, and moves with time, without competing. However, yes, maybe sometimes a situation calls for a crashing wave. Even the stories of the past lives of the Buddha has an adventure where he killed a band of pirates to save the lives and suffering of others. The problem is that so much of what we are taught is to always be the crashing wave – crashing against rocks without much forward motion, rather than flowing around them, even if that flow is a slow trickle. It is what it is.

I was truly inspired to write about this topic tonight as I read some of the Bruce Lee book, but I also did a reading of the I Ching for myself last night to help find guidance with heartbreak. One of the two hexagrams I drew was #32 Enduring. The book I have spoke to ancient Chinese perspectives on how one endures. It wasn’t the remaining steadfast and refusing to give ground that we might immediately call to mind. Instead, they held another facet of the skillful means and responsiveness in being like water that I’ve been trying to elucidate here:

In the Western tradition things endure because they are unchanging. The Book of Changes [i.e the I Ching] takes a different view. Things endure not because they do not change but because they do change: They grow, they evolve, they respond, and in this way they continue. The symbol of the eternal is not in the unchanging but the cycle, which a process of constant movement and alteration governed by principles of order. In a cycle every beginning results from a previous ending, and every end point is followed by a new beginning. What endures are not the momentary manifestations of physical reality but the basic principles that shape change and give it order and continuity. Analogous principles apply to the world of humanity. Change is inevitable: The secret to endurance is to make the changes in one’s life intelligible through principles that endure; it is to learn to grow continuously with integrity.

To endure means to keep going despite obstacles. Endurance is neither stagnation nor a state of rest. It progresses forward, unlike stagnation, and it keeps moving and growing, unlike rest. What endures renews itself and its effects through continuous activity. What endures does so through change, not in spite of change. Its effects are understood against the experience of change. We see this in the cycle of the seasons that continually renew themselves as the earth moves around the sun. The cycle of the seasons repeats perpetually because its underlying causes continue. Plants and animals grow and change as they endure over time. When they cease to grow, they die, and then they cease to endure.

The Laws of Change: I Ching and the Philosophy of Life, Jack Balkin, p. 351-552.

While this doesn’t speak to the metaphor of water, it follows the same ideas of emptiness and flow that is the adaptation and change to situations. We flow around obstacles; we don’t stop and give up or flail against them to try to break through in the dichotomy of active/passive that we started with at the beginning of this post. No, the skillful way is to flow past them like water, maybe sometimes to crush them through force… Sometimes.

To return to Bruce Lee – his practice was one of being pliable yet ready to respond to the scenario. That’s precisely how one is pliable: responsive to the world, rather than reacting out of one’s egoic position. That’s the key point in all of this. There’s a balance of being soft and pliable yet having the right tension to move forward with the moment. Such is the way of working with skill, moving with time. Such is the way of endurance that progresses forward, moving and growing through change. Bruce Lee is another great example because he endured as a great warrior by training intensely all the time. This is how one harnesses change to continue forward: our bodies break down, so we must maintain them through the change of effort and nurturing. This is both the emptiness of form (Heart Sutra: “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.”) and the response needed to live concretely in a world of that principle of emptiness. Ultimately, this pliable tension in a responsive dance with emptiness is wu wei, and such doing without doing is being water, my friend.

If you’re interested in these ideas and want to further consider skillful responsiveness rather than the egoic dichotomy of active/passive, I recommend starting with my post on Verse 63 from the Tao Te Ching and the posts that are linked within.


May this make you think about change, enduring, and skillful responsiveness to the challenges of life.

Gassho!