Loving Kindness: An Unexpected Way to Pacify Heartbreak

June 10, 2010   |   12 Comments  |   FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites

happy valentines day - pink gerbera with a heart of chocolate! by Vanessa Pike-Russell

(Photo: Vanessa Pike-Russell’s Flickr photostream)

When your heart is broken or you’re otherwise dealing with strong painful emotions, the idea of feeling genuine loving kindness for anyone can seem far-fetched, much less yourself or the one who broke your heart. Loving kindness is soft and gentle, but your heart feels cold and numb or enflamed with rage—not loving at all. You may feel so unlovable and needy and freaked out that if you could shut your heart down and turn off emotion altogether, it would be a blessing. Love is the enemy. Love stinks.

So if I tell you that you still possess the most profound, elegant, indestructible well of love imaginable, you might not believe me. If I tell you that the solution for your heartache is not to seal up your heart, but to open it further, that might sound dangerous. And if I further told you that your capacity for love has never been greater and the cure for your broken heart is to offer that love to your ex, you would definitely tell me I’m crazy.

It’s possible. But hear me out. I want to offer you the practice of loving kindness as the healing balm you need. You could try it yourself and see.

The Buddhist practice of Loving Kindness (metta in Pali and maitri in Sanskrit) has been in use for over 2500 years. The story is that some monks were sent by the Buddha to meditate in a particular forest. As soon as they got their meditation gear (I guess you could call it that) settled, certain tree spirits began to harass them by making scary noises, emitting an awful stench, and generally causing commotion. I sort of picture it like trying to meditate while fifty 10-year olds bang pots and pans while farting. One can only imagine.

The monks returned to the Buddha and said it’s not going to work, would you please reassign us? The Buddha said why don’t you go back and try this practice instead, and he gave them the practice of Loving Kindness that I’m about to teach you. This practice is a way of creating harmony in a difficult relationship by opening your heart to it, relating to the suffering of all involved, and wishing everyone (including yourself) well. So, although unsure, the monks did this practice and the tree spirits were pacified on the spot. Rather than trying to drive the monks out, they encircled and protected them.

Having a broken heart can feel as cacophonous and untenable as the poor monks’ forest scene. But here too, Loving Kindness can be applied as the royal antidote to your own suffering. I’m going to offer you two ways to do the practice: one is the traditional instruction and the second is that instruction tweaked a bit for use by the heartbroken.

First, here is the traditional instruction. You can find audio instruction for it here.

The practice of Loving Kindness begins with yourself. This is a very important step. Don’t gloss over it. If you can’t find a way to feel tenderness toward yourself, the rest of the practice won’t work.

(I bet that 2500 years ago, the idea of feeling kindly toward yourself wasn’t such a big deal. However, in our day, this might be the most difficult part of the practice. We are so incredibly hard on ourselves. Most of us offer kindness toward ourselves begrudgingly and then only after we’ve accomplished some super human task and feel we “deserve” it. But you can soften to yourself much more than this. In fact, extending the hand of friendship to yourself is crucial, not just for your healing process, but for the rest of your life. Loving kindness teaches you how.)

To begin the practice, sit or lie down somewhere comfortable. Close your eyes. Take a few minutes to settle down by focusing on your breath until you feel that you’re actually there. (Remember, you can stop reading this at any time and navigate to the audio instruction.)  Then bring to mind a sense of how hard you have worked in your life to find happiness. You really, really have. You even gave your heart away in the name of this effort. In this and other circumstances, you have done your best and sometimes this has resulted in happiness, sometimes in sorrow. Either way, your intention was to find happiness, joy, and contentment. You know this is true, deep down in your heart. Even though it may be uncomfortable, let your heartbreak wash over you. Feel, as fully as you can, what it feels like when you try really hard and then suffer a loss like this. You wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Even yourself. With this in mind, send yourself the following wishes:

May I be happy.

May I be healthy.

May I be peaceful.

May I live with ease.

 

These phrases are traditional, but you can alter them slightly to make them more natural for you, if you like. Spend awhile wishing these things for yourself, as ardently as you can. See what it feels like to like yourself.

Next, bring to mind a loved one. Someone who, when you just think of them even for a second, causes your heart to soften. It could be a relative, friend, child, or pet. Take in what you know of their efforts to find happiness and how they have had gains and losses. Recall your own feelings of sadness, rage, loneliness, and numbness, and know that this loved one has felt these exact same things. You would do anything to take some of their burden on. And you can, through this practice. Feeling their pain, send them the phrases for a while.

May you be happy.

May you be healthy.

May you be peaceful.

May you live with ease.

 

The next step is to think of someone called “the stranger.” This is someone you know, but don’t have any feelings about. Maybe a person you pass on the street all the time or the waitress who brought you lunch. You can assume beyond doubt that they are just like you and your loved one—trying hard, meeting with successes, meeting with failures. They have felt exactly what you and your loved one have, exactly. This is true for all beings, period. Without even knowing them, you can offer your loving kindness.

May you be happy.

May you be healthy.

May you be peaceful.

May you live with ease.

Next comes the really interesting part. The instruction is to choose someone called “the enemy.” This is someone who has harmed you. Someone you don’t like. Someone who you believe has done Wrong with a capital W. You don’t have to like them at all to know that, even though it may look insane to you, they too are actually trying to find happiness. Think that, regardless of how they got there, whether or not they “deserve” it, this enemy has felt the sharp, seemingly unendurable pain of loss. Whether they have allowed themselves to feel it as you would doesn’t matter. In their own way, they have felt what you have, exactly. Without excusing their behavior, you can still wish for them the following:

May you be happy.

May you be healthy.

May you be peaceful.

May you live with ease.

End the practice by sending your loving kindness to all beings. Open your heart to the knowledge that, at one time or another, or even right now, all beings have experienced sorrow, loss, egregious injustice, and so on. You can do it. Your heart is definitely that big. Holding this understanding of the shared community of beings who have been so incredibly sad, wish the following:

May all beings be happy.

May all beings be healthy.

May all beings be peaceful.

May all beings live with ease.

Then, when you’re ready, let the entire practice go and sit quietly for a few minutes.

Now for a variation on the practice. I’m going to make the radical suggestion that you do this practice for the one who broke your heart. You can find audio instruction for it here.

In no way do you have to forgive this person, like them, or let them off the hook for anything.

I suggest you begin the practice exactly as you did in the more general version, with yourself, but thereafter, place your ex in every single role: as your loved one, because you did or do love him or her; as a stranger, because goodness knows this person has his or her unknowable aspects; and as an enemy, as someone who has really hurt you.

When I teach this practice in workshops, I suggest changing the phrases up slightly to something like this:

May I/you be happy.

May I/you be healthy in body and mind

May I/you be peaceful.

May I/you know love.

As with the traditional practice, begin by connecting with your own deepest longing for love and the devastating pain of heartbreak. Feel what it feels like to have a broken heart and how much you would like to heal. Having a loss such as this results in an altered state of being, one that can feel like alternately like a nightmare, the end of your life, frozen numbness, or grasping, pleading neediness. You would never wish this for yourself. You would wish yourself the opposite and that is exactly what this practice is about. Send loving kindness toward yourself.

 

May I be happy.

May I be healthy in body and mind

May I be peaceful.

May I know love.

Then move on to your ex in his or her manifestations as a loved one, stranger, and enemy.

Wish him or her loving kindness as your loved one, who has also had his or her heart broken in some way, whether in the present or the past.

May you be happy.

May you be healthy in body and mind

May you be peaceful.

May you know love.

Wish him or her loving kindness as someone who is a stranger to you, utterly unknowable; a stranger with a broken heart. Repeat the phrases from above.

Next, wish him or her loving kindness as your enemy, one who has turned against you and whose actions, whether directly or indirectly, are the result of a broken heart and/or the longing for love. You can be certain this is true. From this certainty, repeat the phrases from above.

Finish by wishing these things for all beings who have suffered, are suffering, or will suffer from heartbreak.

Doing this practice may be quite difficult, or it may not. If it raises feelings of grief, rage, confusion, impatience, hang in there. Do not try to push these feelings away. Let them in. Try to feel them without—and this is the most important thing ever— judging yourself or the meaning of your feelings. Just feel. If you cry or fume, it’s OK. When you can, acknowledge to yourself that whatever awful thing you might be feeling is also being felt by others according to their own version, perhaps even the one who broke your heart. As you cycle through the stations of this practice—self—loved one—stranger—enemy—all beings, know deep in your heart that what you feel is also felt by each of these beings, no more, no less. They have suffered what you suffer, definitely. Wishing them loving kindness and wishing it for yourself become entwined.

If you try this practice, I would so love to know how it goes. It is my belief—and experience—that it is the key to healing your heart, keeping it whole, and finding a way through heartbreak to become more confident in the truth of love, not less.

Keep me posted.

And, as a reminder: here is a link to guided instruction for both the traditional practice of Loving Kindness and the practice of Loving Kindness for the One Who Broke Your Heart.

May you know love! Susan

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12 Comments

  • Posted by:  D

    I used the Loving Kindness Meditation for the One Who Broke Your Heart, and it was incredibly cathartic. I was taken aback at how much of my pain and anguish had been released and relieved from such a simple, brief meditation. Since a huge break up a month ago, I have been struggling to cope using meditation to address my feelings, but this was a wonderful exercise that really helped the process of letting go.

    Thanks so much!

    – D

  • Posted by:  Susan

    D, so glad you gave this a try. It is an incredibly powerful practice…
    Holding good wishes for you!
    Susan

  • Posted by:  denise

    Susan, I am still reeling and in pain from the heartbreak which happened in January. I am confused by my emotions and extreme neediness to figure out how to put this relationship back together, even though we both had to realize we are not meant to be. It hurts so much.
    Reading this post and your suggestion of using the loving kindness practice offers me hope that I will eventaully be able to make the pain bearable and let go of all the “whys” and “what ifs”.
    I can’t hate him and trying to force myself to feel that way felt as bad as the heartache.
    Thank you for wondeful post ~*~

  • Posted by:  Susan

    Denise, hi and thanks so much for connecting. I’m so glad you found this post helpful. It is so incredibly hard to regain balance amidst all this confusion and sorrow. But you will! The practice of loving kindness is a very, very gentle AND strong way to do so. I wish you the best. Please keep me posted. Love, Susan

  • Posted by:  Gargi

    This is really so cathartic. I have been doing this, having been reduced to a state of staggering loss and heartbreak. And it’s amazing how much lighter your own journey becomes while you feel whole again. It really, really helps. Not easy. But very effective.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      I’m so glad, Gargi. I truly wish you all the blessings of this staggering and cathartic (perfect words) journey. xo S

  • Posted by:  sue

    Its ironic because I am Buddhist and during practice on Sundays we hand this mantra out to newcomers in a form ofa bookmark, but I never thought of applying it to my ex. I guess even after four years of Buddhism I am still a slave to my anguish. Relationships are hard enough, I guess that’s why I stayed in mine longer than I should have because even though it was nothing but a roller coaster, it made me feel loved without knowing love already resonates within all of us and the people we meet along the way are just reminders…finally after three years of lather rinse repeat, I finally let her go because like a roller coaster, it was a fun ride until nausea sinks in…so now I am left with the inevitable loneliness and still have to learn to master the art of letting go…thank you for this post!

  • Posted by:  Anonymous

    This was pretty tough.

    Me and my girlfriend were together for like 3 years. We had the best relationship ever, full of honest (even if the truth hurt), care and love. Until she started working her butt off and sank into depression, as it wasn’t something she wanted to do. She ended up developing anhedonia and then stopped having compassion towards me and others.

    Pretty painful to see the person you love becoming someone completely different and not being able to do anything about it. It’s tough to wish her metta, but deep inside I do, even after all the hurt. I do wish myself those as well, I was the best boyfriend ever, I was always there with her, no matter what. And I do not regret it. Metta is in my heart, it’s just buried by negative thoughts sometimes, but I can always pick it up.

    Thanks for this post <3

  • Posted by:  Depleted

    Are you still running your columns, Susan? I’m in the throes of the most painful time of my life ever and at my wit’ s end trying to heal the pain.

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