Monday, July 28, 2014

Ways To Get Through Heartbreak

Here's something I wrote today for my cousin Ivy. If you know someone else who is going through heart ache, especially the break-up kind, then feel free to pass this along.

Ways To Get Through Heartbreak

1. Sad Songs

You should drown yourself in sad songs. After all they were written for you. Songs will never again mean quite as much to you as they do right now. If you turn on the radio it will seem as if the first slow song you hear was written especially for you. And perhaps it was.

Here is the magical thing that good artists can do so well; they can transmute pain into beauty. That is why sad songs are so beautiful. My favorite songs, even when I’m happy, are sad songs. Essentially what a great sad song does is take the energy churned up from the gut in the anguish of heartbreak and turn it into something beautiful akin to joy. As one of the greatest of the sad song singers, Leonard Cohen, wrote, “It's written on the walls of this hotel/ You go to heaven once you've been to hell.” He also wrote, “The cracks are where the light gets in.”

Once I was having a panic attack in a hospital after an operation. I had been at death’s door because of a burst appendix I had ignored for too long. After the operation I was very weak. They had me on morphine for three days. The morphine began to mess with my head and consequently I had terrible and vivid nightmares. I woke from one of these dreams and couldn't move because I was full of tubes. It was too much to bear and I wanted to start tearing the tubes out of myself to be free of it. Instead I took a breath and rang for a nurse. A nurse named Cory came into the room to check on me. He get me out my bed into a chair and told me to keep breathing and he would be right back. When he came back into the room, an eternal minute or two later, he was carrying a CD case in his hands. He pulled out a CD and inserted into a player. The first notes to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” came on and instantly, INSTANTLY, I felt like new. The terror rushed away from me and was filled with the music and Bob’s voice singing, “Don’t worry about a thing. Every little thing is gonna be alright.”

Bob Marley wrote, “One good thing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain.” The music absorbs the pain and translates it into something beautiful.

There are many artists who are genius at transmuting pain into beauty. Some of my favorites are Bonnie Prince Billy, Neutral Milk Hotel, Elliot Smith, Neil Young, Bob Dylan etc. They all can make me cry when I need to.

Music is the best place to find solace in my experience. It has an uncanny way of empathizing with you and what you are going through… and then gently lifting you up and out.

2. Other Stories

The first love of my life chose an odd time to tell me she was seeing another guy. It was in a movie theater just before a movie began. I felt like immediately leaving the theater, finding the nearest bathroom and puking my sorry love sick guts out. But I was so stunned by the news that I just sat there paralyzed by grief. Then the movie started. It was the Abyss, a film by James Cameron. It is an awesome movie, so awesome that I completely forgot the terrible and upsetting news that had completely torn me apart just minutes before.

You see what happened there? A more interesting story took over.

We think in narrative terms. Everything is a story to us. Your view of yourself is a story and your ill-fated romance is like an epic novel. You probably even still harbor hopes of a miraculous happy ending don’t you?

You are so caught up in the story right now that every nuance of every word spoken during your last conversation is being turned in your mind over and over again in search of every possible meaning. The problem is that the meaning you are generating is almost entirely driven by fear; fear of being alone, fear of losing yourself, fear of being unlovable.

So, after you have cried your eyes out to a sad song or two, you have to get out of your own story for awhile, at least until the pain subsides. Really engaging movies are good for that. Try a thrilling redemption story. Stay away from the romantic comedies. A good mini-series can be great too, something like Breaking Bad or Homeland, something so consuming you can’t stop watching for a several days.

Maybe the best thing is to get lost in a great book. Books last for a long time and right now you need to be out of your own story for awhile. You need to be free from your story until you can begin to get perspective on your own thoughts and feelings.

Getting a real handle on your own story takes years to do properly. It requires reading a thousand and one stories at least. But for now you just need a good one to get started. If all else fails I guarantee you James Cameron’s The Abyss will pull you clean out of your own.

3. The Force

Every one has their own idea of God, so this gets personal. But even those who don’t believe in God still know how to breathe, still have some innate sense of an inner life drive. I do think there is a kind of fluid transcendental intelligence to the universe, but even if I didn’t, the belief in my body’s own involuntary will to live would be anchor enough.

Use your imagination to turn this thing into an actual rock. Your rock might be called The Life Force, the Breath, Buddha, Jesus, Mary, Allah, Kali, your grandmother or maybe even just an actual rock. Imagine holding onto this rock to keep from drowning in a raging river. This is a metaphor of course, but the more real you can imagine the rock, the more it will help you. The rock itself is immovable and solid, but we are not, which is why we must exhaust all of our muscle strength just holding on. Our thoughts in times of heartbreak are wild like the rushing river. We need some stability, something to hold onto, so we cling hard to our metaphor, to our rock, sometimes all night long. “Please don’t let me drown,” you cry, your fingernails digging into stone.

Breath is an especially good anchor because it is RIGHT THERE. You can cling to it like a life raft if you need to and it will never fail you (until it does, but then you won’t be around to know any better anyway.)

So figure out what your rock is, whatever it is you feel is most stable in your life. Then imagine the rock, a real rock in real water, and then hold on for dear life.

And hopefully in the process you will find a deeper understanding of your own inner strength and where it comes from. You might get stripped down far enough to understand what you believe is true.

4. Poetry

You may find that once the serious pain has been dealt with you will prefer wallowing in the misery of your own story over watching good movies and good books. It is your story after all. And there is something really compelling about pain.

But check it out, “Misery is wasted on the miserable.” That’s a line from the fourth season of the sitcom Louie. Louie has just had his heart broken and he talks to his doctor about it. Here’s the whole conversation.

"Dr.: So you took a chance on being happy, even though you knew that later on you would be sad.

Louie: Yeah.

Dr: And now... you're sad.

L: Yeah.

Dr: So... what's the problem?

L: I'm too sad.... Look, I liked the feeling of being in love with her. I liked it. But now she's gone and I miss her and it sucks. And I didn't think it was going to be this bad, and I feel like, why even be happy if it's just going to lead to this, you know? It wasn't worth it.

Dr: You know, misery is wasted on the miserable.

L: What?

Dr: You know, I'm not entirely sure what your name is, but you are a classic idiot. You think spending time with her, kissing her, having fun with her, you think that's what it was all about? That was love?

L: Yeah.

Dr: THIS is love. Missing her, because she's gone. Wanting to die.... You're so lucky. You're like a walking poem. Would you rather be some kind of a fantasy? Some kind of a Disney ride? Is that what you want? Don't you see? This is the good part. This is what you've been digging for all this time. Now you finally have it in your hand, this sweet nugget of love, sweet, sad love, and you want to throw it away. You've got it all wrong.

L: I thought this was the bad part.

Dr: No! The bad part is when you forget her, when you don't care about her, when you don't care about anything. The bad part is coming, so enjoy the heartbreak while you can, for God's sakes. Lucky sonofabitch. I haven't had my heart broken since Marilyn walked out on me, since I was 35 years old. What I would give to have that feeling again."

So there you go, you’re a walking poem. Use the energy that is generating from the pain. Bleed yourself out onto a piece paper and make a poem. Marianne Moore said a poem is an imaginary garden with real toads. The realness of the toad should be apparent enough right now so just start working on the garden.

Make some kind of art with all that anguish. Instead of sinking down into the mire get fired up enough to make something worth keeping. Either that or sink so far down that you can’t stand yourself anymore. But the latter way takes up a lot of unnecessary time and energy. Life is short and precious so you want to get where you need to go sooner than later.

One of the best examples I know of great loss translating into great art is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art.”

After you read that, then read Brett Millier’s enlightening essay about the poem to see further why;

5. Preventative Medicine

So to sum up...start with sad songs as your palliative for the worst times. Get deep into the pain and let the beauty of the music transform you. Then, instead of wallowing, read an engrossing novel, preferably a deep one. Get out of your own head for awhile. Meanwhile grab onto your tenacious Life Force and hold tight. When you finally begin to get some perspective, work on a poem. That’s a pretty solid formula to help get you through the worst of it.

If you can get through all that, and you will one way or another, then it helps to have some kind of disciplined practice so you don’t fall into the same traps again. This practice could take on many forms; writing, yoga, swimming, biking, hiking, knitting, drawing, shooting a bow and arrow, playing tennis, etc etc.

But one practice that I highly recommend is focusing your attention on your breath for at least 5 minutes every day. If you can do that for few years or so, then you will be well on your way to learning to master yourself. And you will be far happier than most people who are still, even in old age, ravaged by the rushing river of fears, emotions and thoughts.

What you do for that five minutes is just focus on your breathing, trying to quiet your thoughts. You won’t be able to stop your thoughts. If you could still them entirely and be with your breath for even five minutes, you would be an enlightened master. It is next to impossible. So what you do is just try to become aware of your own thoughts as much as possible. If you do this long enough you eventually will come to see that your thoughts aren’t really you, that your story isn't you, that you don't have to be controlled by it. Meditation is yet another way of learning to get out of your own story so that you can get more objective perspective.

It isn’t easy, but once you finally get it you will begin to feel blissed-out waves of ecstasy just by the feeling of breathing in and out, the way the breath in needs to happen, the way the breath out needs to happen, the nurturing caress of the good oxygen coming in and the relief of the toxins going out.

But first thing's first; find a good rock to hold onto.

Then, last thing, let it go!

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