I said goodbye to my best friend this week. Two days ago, my partner flew to the US without me. I haven’t felt emotional pain like this for a very long time.
Rewind: we both got rejected for US visas in September. He re-applied for a different kind of visa and his application was approved, so he’s gone to continue pursuing his dream of creating a business that helps change the world.
From the moment we first got rejected in August, I knew he would leave – the only question was the timing. And I knew that at least for now, I had to stay in Australia in the house on the rock. We both have work to do for ourselves and for the world and right now, we have to do that work independently.
Importantly, we decided that we had to let go of any assumptions about what might happen in the future. I have very strong feelings about long distance relationships (they don’t work for me) and insisted we had to completely let each other go. No expectations, no hopes for the future and no waiting for each other. He agreed.
A wave of grief hit me with that initial realisation… and then it subsided for a few weeks. After he confirmed his departure date, the grief returned and started demanding my attention. I ignored it for a week or so. And then about a week ago I noticed I was feeling especially stuck around my heart, so I decided to start digging.
Firstly I saw that I was keeping the grief at bay through distraction (lots of mindless trawling through Facebook) and by reframing what was happening (“it’s not like he’s dying, so it’s not really so tragic”). And then I saw my desire to shut down the grief to protect him and me from exposure to my strong emotions… a form of self-censorship that is an old, familiar pattern. At its root is a fear of being overwhelmed and a strong instinct to seek safety.
And then I got to the very simple desire to avoid feeling pain. As we walked through our last 24 hours together and I just could not avoid the pain any more, I noticed a distinct difference between being sad and feeling sad. It’s simply this: to be sad is to be stuck, while to feel sadness allows the possibility of movement and change.
I finally understood – not just intellectually but in my body – the Buddhist distinction between pain and suffering. Emotional pain comes in waves and passes. This pain feels like a wave of heat in the core of my chest, followed by intense grief and the desire to cry out like an animal.
But suffering feels like a whole-body contraction around that pain, followed by anguish and despair and generally a lot of sobbing. I noticed that suffering is always attached to a story about how I’m experiencing the emotional pain. Around 80% of the stories are either past or future and they all involve fear-driven narration of the pain (“I will be a mess tomorrow when the house is empty/we’ll never drive Highway 1 together again”).
Here’s the thing – when I can stay out of the stories, I don’t suffer. Pain comes, pain goes and it doesn’t last very long… generally only 1-2 minutes. If I let it, suffering can last for hours or days or years or lifetimes. Pain hurts, but suffering feels intolerable.
For a little while, I became completely fascinated by my mind’s insistence on torturing itself by returning over and over and over again to suffering the pain. And then I realised it was hurting more than I’d expected – the ‘suffering reflex’ was kicking in way more often than I’d anticipated. So on the table yesterday morning, I asked why.
As I lay there, I felt the pain of abandonment and separation and loss of connection. And then I heard the story that was creating the suffering: “don’t leave me”. Before I could pursue it, I heard/felt Her respond: “What do you mean “don’t leave me”? How about YOU don’t leave ME!”
And I got it. The pain I was experiencing wasn’t all about my partner leaving… it had triggered a much deeper, much older pain. What I was feeling was the pain of separation from Her. The pain of losing the connection with Her.
Except She never abandoned me. She never separated from me. She did not once sever our connection. I did it. Over and over again. For lifetimes.
Every time I chose to get stuck in a story of abandonment, I chose to abandon Her. When I chose to collapse into a story of separation, I chose to separate from Her. Every time I chose to feed a story about loss of connection, I disconnected from Her. Different choices were always available. And they are still available, right now.
When I was able to see clearly how I’d created much of BOTH the suffering AND the pain I’d been feeling, it felt different. Instantly, the suffering reflex slowed down and a day later, it’s almost completely stopped. The pain is less, too. Because now I know it’s not all about my partner. It’s actually mostly about Her… and She is always here.
So I haven’t really discovered anything new. I’m simply catching up, especially with the Buddhist teachings about pain vs suffering. But this opportunity to experience emotional pain with an enhanced capacity to pay attention and see/sense what and how I’m feeling has been a great gift. It’s brought me closer to him and to Her. And for that, I am eternally grateful.
I love you, Cam. Go well.