I have lived on the lip of insanity,
wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door.

It opens.

I’ve been knocking from the inside!

-Rumi

The break down of any relationship is rough. It entails the removal of a loved one from our world. This person would have once been envisaged as a permanent fixture, so not only do we lose our present happiness but also the happiness expected from the future. Even the language we use to describe this event is reflective of its destructive nature. The phrase ‘a breakup’ implies the segmentation of a previous life, and to that degree it is accurate. One must begin to rebuild a new world from the pieces of the old. If we are wise, and learn from our errors then the new life we eventually create will be better than before. Though arduous, this process is necessary and avoiding it will lead only to perpetual heartache. The main issue at hand is that we are never taught about how to deal with a breakup and thus can only do so ad hoc. In other words, we stumble whimsically from one error to another until time heals our sorrow. However, as I have found out, the most effective way of dealing with heartache is not growing a beard and spending lonely evenings with my laptop. The answers we all seek lie in the serene transparency of suffering.

Valuable Uncertainty

The suffering experienced during a breakup is a necessary one, one which we must endure, a price if you like, for the luxury of being afforded something beautiful. Inevitably, We cannot experience deep love without opening ourselves to an equivalent, opposing emotion – such is the binary nature of our universe. In order to have one experience there must exist a contrasting experience of equal measure. It is therefore, absurd to believe that one can feel love, or suffering, in isolation.

The incorrect response to such an absurdity, which is becoming evermore prevalent,  is the widespread aversion to meaningful relationships by the young. Under the guise of ‘casual sex’ people are veiling their feelings of inadequacy whilst running from their fears of commitment, vulnerability and ultimately, suffering. Although, this is hardly surprising. As a culture we have come to value certainty and consistency as a prime commodity. A steady job, an orderly commute, consistently good food and reliable tech – all great things. However, the issue arises when we become so accustomed to these regularities that we expect them in all facets of our lives. The ‘real world’, that is, the world outside of our rigid, time based structures, is not consistent nor is it reliable. The philosopher, Alan Watts, believes in the value of this uncertainty and articulates the worthwhile risk involved in loving:

“We don’t say ‘rising into love’, we say ‘falling into love’. The whole of life is based on faith, an act of gambling… The most powerful thing we can do is surrender and love is an act of surrendering to another person. This losing of control is opposite to most sensible actions”

An Arduous Journey

Very quickly after a relationship we decide that we must ‘get over’ them. But what do we even mean by this? Linguistically it is nothing more than an analogy which conjures up images of traversing a hill or mountain, we are not literally clambering over our ex-lover.  So when we say that we are trying to ‘get over someone’ what we are really saying is that we are faced with a difficult task, as the rock climber is with a steep wall. We understand that once we do in fact ‘get over it’ we will be free from the burden of remembering. This then, tells us that the struggle which follows a breakup is necessary. It is, after all, impossible to conquer a mountain without extraordinary suffering. We cannot ignore the mountain trail or find a smaller hill to help us forget – as many people attempt.

Through the drudgery, weighed down by our loss, we must plod on. The path is dark and akin to Dali’s  ‘The Persistence of Memory’, the days melt into one another and our memories fight to cling onto what once was. These dreary days of hopelessness may seem like they will never end but they will, and they do. Time heals all but first you must suffer and indeed, you truly will suffer deeply. But only when you approach the summit and the sun finally kisses your face, will you realise the value of your suffering.

“Out of such abysses, a man returns as though born again, he has a new skin, he is more susceptible, more full of wickedness; he has a finer taste for joyfulness.”

-Friedrich Neitzsche

Embracing Suffering

As mentioned in my previous post, Concussion as Teacher,  it is not meaningful to make a judgement between suffering and joy. Although they reside on opposite ends of what we desire, that which we desire should be viewed as circular in form, meaning those sensations that are furthest apart are also touching. There is utility in pain and utility in suffering, arguably far more than in joy. Anyone involved in sport will understand this on a micro level. Hardship is far more effective at creating growth than comfort, hence one must not recoil, but embrace it. The words of Rumi express this most concisely:

“If you are irritated by every rub, how can your mirror be polished?”

More intimately, Kahlil Gibran shares in this idea as he writes that our capacity for happiness is enhanced in direct proportion to the sorrow we feel:

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?”

Recent Psychological studies are reaffirming the timeless wisdom that there is opportunity for growth in suffering. Judith Neal studied something known as ‘post-traumatic growth’, publishing results which showed that people who experienced dark times, like near-death, divorce or serious illness,  often found new meaning and purpose as a result. A fundamental reason for this, is that suffering presents us with an unfaltering presence. When neutral or even joyful, the mind can often wander to memories of the past or thoughts for the future. However, the brutality of suffering forces us to be firmly grounded in the present, where it is no longer possible to avoid ourselves through constant busywork.

Frequently taking cold showers, I have realised that there is no wandering of the mind throughout the ordeal, there is something beautiful in that. The suffering experienced in a cold shower is intensified by ourselves, by our own resistance to be precise. The water is only as cold as you believe it to be and the hardest moment is facing the relentless stream of water before entering. Once under, you relinquish yourself and become consumed by the bitter cold in order to withstand it. This is a great metaphor for suffering, in resisting it we only extend its boundless powers. In trying to run from it we never escape it. If, like Alan Watts suggests, we do not separate ourselves as a victim of the pain but see ourselves as the actual source of it, it will indeed flow straight through us.

“The cold is my teacher, hard but righteous”

-Wim Hof

There is tremendous value in suffering, so long as we are equipped to deal with it. Avoiding relationships, or anything for that matter,  out of timidity of pain leaves us in a constant state of limbo. If suffering is seen to be desirable and joy as undesirable, between these experiences lies a void, an emptiness if you will, which is far more deplorable than the former or the latter.

Ultimately, suffering, whether from the breakdown of a relationship, loss of a loved one or ill health, must be embraced. Its unforgiving nature presents us with an altered state of consciousness, a new way of seeing, which forces us to reflect on ourselves with a new-found clarity. If we look at the theological archetypes of Jesus or Muhammad, and even Buddha, all experienced hardship before reaching their profound insights. Though it may seem hopeless at first, the answers we seek during such difficult periods lie within, we must realise that we are all knocking from the inside.