“Well, this will just make room in your life for someone better to come along.” Those words closed around my heart like a fist. Better? Better than the woman I love? Better than my wife? Yes, I felt deeply hurt, and, yes, I felt more incredibly betrayed than I think I could possibly feel, but a love that’s real is not blown away by such winds of circumstance, is it? What did “better” even mean, anyway? Do we have some mental checklist of criteria, both conscious and unconscious, the satisfactory completion of which signifies love – with more checked boxes corresponding to a “better” love, and “best” corresponding to some theoretically perfect love in which all possible criteria are checked? If that were so then love would merely reside in the mundane realm of convenient transactions: I love you as long as your actions please me. I love you as long as you give me what I desire. I love you as long as you continue to fulfill my needs. If that is the true nature of love, I pondered, then it hardly seemed worthy of honoring above all other human potentials. And what was to be made, then, of the oft-repeated aphorism, “God is love”?
“What do you think you’d do if something ever happened to me?” my wife once asked me. “Oh…,” I paused for a moment to reflect on how difficult it had been to find someone to really love as I really loved her, and how it seemed very nearly impossible to accomplish such a feat more than once in a lifetime, “I suppose I’d probably wind up in a monastery somewhere.” Yes, and that was the “destiny” that hovered in the back of my mind for a good two years after she'd left.
A Brief Clinical Examination of Grief
J. William Worden’s Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy outlines a grief process encompassing what he refers to as “tasks of mourning” (2002, p. 27). Though some might take issue with the implied universality of these tasks, and while my own description of grief as a bardo realm that must be navigated on the way to some future rebirth resonates with me more completely (see The Bardo Realm of Grief), I do find merit in considering the four tasks that Worden (2002) describes:
1. To accept the reality of the loss.
2. To work through the pain of grief.
3. To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing.
4. To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life. (pp. 26-27)
Now, the four tasks that Worden enumerates are largely rooted in attachment theory, i.e. accepting the brokenness of the attachment, working through the pain related to that brokenness, withdrawing emotional energy from the attachment figure, and becoming capable again of forming new attachments. It should be noted that Worden sees these tasks as comprising a “fluid process” rather than a “fixed progression.” Furthermore, he notes that “tasks can be revisited and reworked over time” and “various tasks can also be worked on at the same time” (2002, p. 37).
When I described the Bardo Realm of Grief I was describing a reaction to all variety of losses – not only the loss of a loved one – profound enough to constitute a “loss of self.” Thus, I would generalize Worden’s tasks in the following way, combining tasks two, three, and four into just two:
1. To understand that the self that was no longer exists.
2. To adequately explore (even if only on an unconscious level) the myriad potential selves that the individual could become.
3. To begin living the new life chosen during the process of exploration – without preoccupation with a self that is no more.
I would also echo Worden’s thoughts about the fluidity of the process. Though the Bardo Realm of Grief might have been navigated and a new life chosen, that doesn’t mean that past lives are forgotten or that no karmic traces remain. Memories and aspects of past selves can reemerge and prompt new turnings of the “wheel of becoming” (see Dependent Origination - The Wheel of Becoming).
Becoming a Self That Can Love Again
I wondered for a long time whether I would ever again be able to love. Would the sense of betrayal that I had felt forever hang over my relationships and prevent me from ever trusting in a way necessary for the nurturing of true intimacy? Would my “broken heart” scar over and become insensitive to the subtle possibility of love in its vicinity? I knew very well that this might be the karma that I would take into my future life. I wouldn’t know, of course, whether (or how) an inability to trust might affect me in the future, but I did know that I needed to hold in my awareness the possibility of it being so. It is when we proceed without awareness that karma propels us along a path not of “our” choosing.
In the aftermath of traumatic physical abuse it might be the case that extreme physical and emotional reactions are triggered in an individual by them being touched in certain ways that prompt the re-experiencing of the abusive event(s). It is when such triggers remain on the unconscious level that they hold the greatest potential to sabotage a future relationship. A loving caress, for example, rather than being experienced as such, might instead prompt anxious withdrawal as the body/mind is flooded with recalled sensations and perceptions of abuse. Such triggers are extreme examples of how past karma, if not brought into awareness where it can be dealt with openly, remains buried in the depths of our being waiting to become our “puppet master.”
But let’s not assume that we are free of such triggers simply because of our good fortune not to have been the victim of traumatic abuse. Our karma, our habit energy, exists in myriad forms from the subtle to the extreme. For me the question was whether I would ever be able to really trust again or whether my karma would prompt me instead to maintain protective emotional distance in order to forever keep such feelings of betrayal at bay. Sure, I might be forever insulated from such pain, but at what cost?
The fear of losing ourselves, losing control, being known, being hurt, relinquishing options, making mistakes, becoming trapped, complicating life, stepping out of our comfort zones – all of these and many more potentially lurk within us, ever at the ready to sound the alarms and buzzers that send us scurrying back into our protective cocoons, there to remain acceptably safe, but without love. When I wrote of absolute freedom in my blog post of that name, I was primarily focusing on those most profound of existential questions that, without being addressed (if not actually answered), keep us from really experiencing our true nature. The fear that I speak of here, while perhaps not of a truly existential nature, can nonetheless keep us from knowing the freedom to truly love again.
So, if you are wrestling with such fears, I wish for you the strength to embrace them, and in that embrace transcend them, and in that transcendence know the freedom to love again. And if that transcendence of fear has been complete then perhaps you’ll be able to love again as if you’ve never been hurt before – in this life or any other. Perhaps you’ll be able to love again as if for the very first time.
Worden, J. W. (2002). Grief counseling and grief therapy, 3rd ed. – A handbook for the mental health practitioner. Springer Publishing Company.
Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank