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Unchain my heart

Picture of rock wrapped in tree roots
As I passed this on my morning walk, having just finished this blog post, the image of a heart held tight by the roots jumped out at me

Ray Charles made that line familiar to millions in 1961 when he recorded the tune by that name, written by Bobby Sharp. It’s resonance with our psyche is evident in the recurring popularity of subsequent recordings (Hugh Laurie nails it here). The lyrics brilliantly demonstrate our desperation to avoid heartbreak. The protagonist pleads with his lover to set him free, making the case that it is her cruelty and selfishness that keeps him in bondage.

Further evidence that we loathe heartbreak (as if more evidence is needed) comes from the January 13, 2020 edition of the New Yorker, in an article titled, World without Pain. The author, Ariel Levy, subtitles the article, Does hurting make us human? Unfortunately, she doesn’t really pursue that question. Nonetheless, she builds a very interesting article around a woman named Joanne Cameron, who, due to a genetic oddity, does not feel negative emotions intensely enough to be distressed by them (nor does she feel physical pain). It is a great read! Levy does flirt with the question of whether or not we’d still be human if we were free of pain like Joanne; however, there is more of a foregone conclusion of, duh - who wouldn’t want this; and a dismissive tone to the notion that the ability to feel emotional pain is essential to our humanity.

While the notion of living “pain-free” is certainly intriguing, and I have no doubt that it is something that science will be able to offer us through genetic engineering some day in the distant future, it’s not an option now and perhaps we need to be thinking very deeply before we entertain such fantasies (be careful what you ask for).

David Whyte takes a very different approach towards heartache in Consolations - The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. Whyte describes heartbreak thusly,

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life.

The Buddhist are obsessed with the concept of attachment, because, in part, it leads to heartache, which in turn leads to harmful behaviors via rage, resentment, jealousy, etc. It is so central to Buddhist philosophy that it is considered one of three related psychological aspects that prevent us from reaching enlightenment.

The Pali word often translated to attachment is upadana, and it is much more complex than the ordinary English meaning of attachment. Sometimes upadana is translated as clinging, which more closely links to Whyte’s characterization, the inability to let go of that which we love. The Buddhist suggest the underlying problem is delusion are belief that we will not have to experience heartbreak when we “fall in love” with a person, thing, place, or aspect of our identity, and thus we are setting ourselves up for future pain when we do so.

Buddhist monasticism is a practice of taking this approach to an extreme, an experiment in what happens if one can let go of material possession, romantic relationship, and socially valued identities. The rest of us are left to grapple with opportunities for opening our hearts and letting love in, for identifying who we want to become in our own minds, and in the minds of those who love us back. When we make the decision to open our hearts, without fail, sooner or later, we are confronted with dissolution. Often the dissolution is beyond our control (e.g. death, war, the unilateral choice of another); while so many times we will face dissolution on our own terms.

Regardless of how it comes, the loss warrants some degree of grief. I have no doubt that the experience of deep, painful grief has enriched my life. Grief bears witness to what and whom we have loved, and allows us to experience that love in an eruption so intense that it threatens to overwhelm our ability to remain present. Although the instinctive reaction to grief is to focus on the loss, and perhaps attempt to fill that deep and dark absence; opening to it leads to the opposite, a feeling of gratitude and wholeness created the relationship that is now passed on.

Grief moves through us in waves and one way to ride those waves is with mindfulness and acceptance. Sitting meditation, stillness in the presence of waves of thoughts, emotions, and impulses is a way into open-hearted grieving.

Each of us accepts the consequence of heartbreak the moment we choose to live open hearted; whether we do so consciously or not. Heartbreak then is a precipice, a point of no return where we pause and struggle with the choice to let go of that which is already gone. There is no judgment in how long we linger in heartbreak, no need to heap pain onto pain. Just remember, that when you are ready, when you feel the courage, when you feel the compassion, the way through is to open and accept.

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