Why Your Heart Breaks (and What To Do About It)
Back in 2015 I did a crazy thing: I locked myself up for a week in a high-end department store in New York City, spending my mornings meeting one-on-one with anyone who had a heartbreak story to share with me and in the afternoons writing my heart out in their storefront window while people gawked at me like a monkey at the zoo. It gave birth to a book I’m proud of though, entitled Love Hurts.
During my morning heartbreak appointments I learned a good many ways that one’s heart can be shattered. However, whether someone told me a scenario revolving around the death of a loved one, a messy break-up, becoming estranged from someone they cared about, or feeling let down by society overall, there was one thing each story held in common:
the heartbreak was based in feeling that things should be one way, and becoming disappointed to learn that they were another
Yes, that is the great discovery: things aren’t the way we like them to be and as a result our heart becomes broken. Another way to look at this is that we become really attached to our ideas and fixed expectations of how things should be, and when anything other than our specific notion of how things should work occurs, our elaborate fantasy explodes.
The unexpected death of a father — this particular storyline often revolves around the idea that one’s parents are supposed to be incredible super beings who don’t get sick and live a long life, walking us down the aisle and giving us parenting tips, dying of a ripe old age at home with us holding one hand and our kids, their grandkids, holding the other. A pre-mature death where you aren’t even with him and you find out while waiting in line for your prescription at CVS? That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
Reconnecting to a childhood friend, falling in love, and being left by them — this is hard, and is what I call rom-com syndrome. We have been inundated with the notion that when you discover (or re-discover) “the one” that everything in your life will fall into place and you will live happily-ever-after. You reconnect to someone you knew growing up, they turn out to be great, and you fall madly for them. They seem to fall madly for you two. Hilarious antics ensue but it’s supposed to all work out in the end. You could be planning the wedding in your mind when they realize that they aren’t ready for a major commitment and move out. Your happily-ever-after is no longer going to occur, and may have never existed in your partner’s mind in the first place.
The death of a great-grandmother a week before one’s wedding — the pain of this scenario was not that the great-grandmother died (we expect people to eventually die of old age) but that it was a week before this woman’s big day. She had a place reserved for her great-grandmother, had envisioned all the things that she would say and do, how her friends would find her so sassy, and what she would drink at the reception. The great-grandmother was supposed to see her off on her big day. Those things didn’t come to bear, due to her death.
I could go on. Each heartbreak appointment had a distinct arc:
- Things were normal or sometimes even really good
- Things were supposed to keep happening and/or only get better
- There was a moment of crisis/challenge/change
- One or more people acted in ways that the other person did not expect
- Heartbreak ensued
Some people, incidentally, ended their story by saying, “And now, after time and talking about it a lot, I’m okay. I am healing from that incredible heartbreak and disappointment.” Other issues for people, like long-standing racism in our society, were not expected to just stop tomorrow, but people still held out hope that the incidents that sparked their heartbreak might slow or stop over time.
Your heart breaks because life isn’t what you thought it would be. At least, that’s been the case with me. For example, I thought my father would meet the woman I would marry and my potential kids. That didn’t happen — he died when I was twenty-nine — and that was one of the hardest things about his death for me.
That example showed me how we let our minds spin our storylines with “What if” thinking and fixed expectations at all times. “What if I found someone to marry me right now…then my dad would have met her before he dies!” Or “This person claims they want to spend their life with me…so it’s definitely going to work out.”
If we’re on a good first date our mind leaps to the second date, third date, maybe even to moving in together down the road or meeting this person’s family. If we’re in a serious relationship we think about marriage or having children together. If we have a good friend and they are young we make assumptions that we will grow old together. If we have a family member and they are in good health we plot the next big holiday we can spend together.
But things change. Relationships and people change and expire, sometimes with no real cause.
We become attached to our storylines, including an attachment to being a hopeless romantic, to the way things were, to the fact that you are in love with someone who is not in love with you, to the way things could have been or still could be. Our minds constantly leap to the past or the future, and rarely do we rest with the way things are right now. Instead we perpetuate any sort of thought that involves the way they could be. Because we spend most of our mental energy in the land of What If we are startled and shocked when reality intervenes and shows us the land of The Way Things Are.
In this way, it’s not the heart that breaks, it’s the ego. Our respective egos are the conglomeration of set notions about who we are, how we respond to various aspects of our life, what we like, what we don’t like, and what we really couldn’t care less about. You may have started off pretty fluid when you were a kid, open to a world of possibility, but over time you likely have really solidified things.
For example, you may have had an aversion to brussels sprouts as a kid, but give that set notion a few decades of reification and you now have a life where you are set in the belief that you absolutely hate brussels sprouts. That’s your undeniable reality. But someday you may eat a brussels sprout and discover you love it, and that you’ve wasted decades of not enjoying this one thing because of your fixed idea about it. We do this with most of the things in our lives.
It’s not just brussels sprouts. We have set expectations and opinions about every aspect of our world from the types of movies we like, to the types of people we date, to the form of work we should do. A passing fancy becomes an idea which becomes a way we do things which becomes a part of who we are. We solidify our life in so many ways. That’s ego.
If that sounds yucky to you then I have good news: your set ego has an arch-enemy called Reality. Reality has a master attack plan with its whole The Way Things Are schtick, and constantly shakes our firmed up ego. Reality says, “Brussels sprouts are really tasty” or “Actually, this person would be really kind to you, despite your set notions of who you believe you should date” or “You thought this person would grow old with you? Too bad! He’s dead.” We feel discomfort and pain, and our response is to say that our heart is breaking, because our set notion of who we are and what our world is supposed to look like has been shattered.
Our heart is not physically altered, to the best of my knowledge. Sometimes when there is a particularly traumatic break up or sudden death that emotional pain can feel physical, which is known as broken heart syndrome. But really what we’re talking about is the fixed expectations of what we thought was going to happen have been changed. Our fantasies, our fairy tales, our stories that we tell ourselves that all seem so, so real — those are the things that break. And that is what causes us pain.
If I were you, I’d read this and think, “Well then maybe the best way to avoid my ego shattering is to just not let anyone into my heart.” Good luck to you! That’s not how our heart works. Our heart yearns to love. The head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism is right around my age and is somehow a million years wiser than most anyone I know. He once said, “The point I want to make is that love can be true and lasting, under the right conditions…Yet often, instead of giving love room to expand, we box it in with our expectations. Expectations make our love conditional on what the other person does or says…For love to last, it is best not to have too many expectations. It is better just to offer love.”
We need to give our love room to grow. If we box it in with our set notions of how things should be, we’re dooming ourselves to a death by a thousand heartbreaks. If we can relax into the way things are, as opposed to how we wish things would be, then we can engage our life whole-heartedly.
One of the women who came to the heartbreak appointments, Sarah, shared with me a beautiful way that she thought of her pain. “It’s like moving,” she said. “One thing has to end, so you go through this whole process that’s strenuous and sad, and you get sweaty and emotional, and go through all of the things you just assumed you would continue to keep with you, and some you keep and some go in the trash. Then you walk out, with those things you need to keep, and say goodbye. Then, you get to move into this new space, where you can do so much with what you brought with you.”
Heartbreak isn’t just pain and suffering. There’s also an opportunity to take what you learned with you, and apply it so you grow in all sorts of ways. You may end up learning that you are constantly changing, and your ego isn’t as tight as you think it is, and that you can actually relax some of that What If thinking and become comfortable with The Way Things Are. Those sorts of lessons strike me as incredibly valuable.
This piece is adapted from Love Hurts: Buddhist Advice for the Heartbroken (Shambhala Publications, 2016) by Lodro Rinzler
Lodro Rinzler is the award-winning author of 7 books including The Buddha Walks into a Bar and his latest, Take Back Your Mind, and the cofounder of MNDFL Meditation. He has taught meditation for 20 years in the Buddhist tradition and travels frequently for his books, having spoken across the world at conferences, universities, and businesses as diverse as Google, Harvard University and the White House. Named one of 50 Innovators Shaping the Future of Wellness by SONIMA, Rinzler’s work has been featured in The New York Times,The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, FOX, CBS, and NBC. He lives in upstate New York with his wife Adreanna and a menagerie of small animals.