How to Get Through Heartbreak, OR Tonglen is not a Sex Thing

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
— Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

We’ve all been there--the seemingly-impossible-to-sit-with floods of emotion that come with the loss and grief of heartbreak. It feels like a chaotic whirlwind of crippling fear, anxiety, sadness, confusion, and anger where each moment could hold any and all of those emotions, sometimes all at once. It feels like Life stabbed you in the stomach, put you on a roller-coaster without the safety bar, patted you on the back and said, “Don’t worry! You’ll be fine!” Everything within you is screaming, “No, I won’t be fine, you idiot! Can’t you see I’m bleeding out?!?”

It is tempting and easy to react to heartbreak by letting our hearts get hard. Cynicism, bitterness, and fear creep in. It’s safer to not feel—to put on armor and hide our vulnerability behind a tough exterior. If we are self-sufficient, no one else can hurt us. It’s a logical strategy. We think we are doing ourselves a favor. We aren’t.  

Hardening your heart robs you of one of the greatest gifts of grief and loss: Connection

When you are experiencing a loss, sometimes it can feel like your senses are vacillating between complete numbness and paralyzing over-stimulation. Everything can seem like it is in Technicolor after living your whole life in black and white. One of the primary characteristics of grief and loss is that you feel alone—like no one in the world could ever understand what you are going through. It’s easy to push others away in an effort to protect our already wounded heart.

The truth is--you are not alone. The world is full of people who have experienced suffering and heartbreak. You are not the only one on the roller-coaster. It's a sold out ride.

The raw tenderness of a broken heart connects you to each one of those people in a unique and beautiful way.

A broken heart is a relational wound. There is a disruption in a deep and meaningful connection with a significant other. Therefore, it makes sense that a relational wound is healed through relationship and connection. This doesn’t mean that you should run out and find a new partner in order to get over your pain. Instead, it is asking to find relationship and connection in a larger sense- both in an existential and a practical way. 

Tonglen--Nope. It’s not dirty.

Pema Chödrön talks about a Buddhist practice called “tonglen” as a response to suffering and pain. Tonglen is a simple breathing practice that can either be done as a formal meditation or just a mindful part of your everyday life. Essentially, the principle of tonglen is to not run away from pain but to use it as a way to connect with others who have experienced pain and allow that connection to make us more compassionate, kind, and warm individuals.

This is how is goes:

As we breathe in, we breathe in all of our pain. We let ourselves feel all the feelings. At the pause at the top of the breath, we let our minds choose a person or group of people who have experienced similar pain. This could be as broad as “everyone who has experienced heartache in the past” or as narrow as “great aunt Mildred who just got a divorce.” Then, as you breathe out, let your intention be to send out the wish that this person or group of people would be free from pain and experience peace and joy.

Sound hokey? That’s ok. I dare you to give it a try anyway. Because a funny thing happens when you allow yourself to create this kind of space for connection with other’s suffering—the way you view the people you encounter on a day-to-day basis starts to change. Slowly, that annoying coworker might be going through some stuff at home. You find yourself actually saying hello to the Starbucks barista with the chronic scowl (RBF?) and wondering about their life. You find yourself asking your friends real questions about their lives and sharing about your own in a vulnerable way.

Try it now:

Breath in and bring your pain to mind.

Pause. Set your intended person or group of people.

Breathe out out and intentionally focus on wishing the person or group of people you focused on will be free of pain and suffering and full of joy and peace.

Beautiful People do not just happen.

Kübler-Ross, a pioneer in grief and loss work, states, “Beautiful People do not just happen.” This is true. However, the answer is not to try harder, but to relax. Take off the armor and let yourself feel the beauty of a tender heart along with the pain. And through that, allow yourself to find compassion and meaning in your intrinsic connection with others who have also experienced loss.

What has been your experience of finding connection with others after heartbreak? I want to hear from you!