For the first time in thirty years I am falling in love again. Not infatuation. Not desire. Not lust. This is not something I am talking myself into. Neither am I capable of talking myself out of it. I am falling.
I am falling in love and I notice that it is as excruciating as falling out of love. I hadn’t noticed the first time. I was eighteen years old and everything was new, my body and my mind, a new school with academic pressure and mysterious social rules. There were psychedelic drugs, exotic music and a tall boy with fathomless turquoise blue eyes and scruffy blond curls. He stuttered in my presence except when reading Shakespearean sonnets or classical literature aloud to me on sunny campus lawns. During that brief school year I learned everything about love and most especially how it shatters the heart. I had no idea about impermanence then.
This feels so familiar. I see the same old patterns, unearthed after 30 years. My need to yield, to surrender so completely that I have nothing substantive left of my life. When I met that blond haired boy, I dropped every habit that was good for me so that I could unite with something so glorious that it opened me to my core. When he told me at the end of the school year that he did not want to be my boyfriend in the fall, I really didn’t see it coming. I did not know about attachment, the root of suffering, until that moment.
I think now about the silly girl I was then, so innocent, so fresh. I knew nothing about the world or myself. I had no idea my heart could be devastated. Neither had I any idea of the resiliency of my heart. I did not know that everything in this life is impermanent. Everything.
I ask myself, how is it possible that despite many liaisons since my college freshman year, my heart has not remembered, until now, that terrible moment of being left at the end of the school year, broken beyond mending? Why am I dwelling on the most painful experience of my life as I enter a new phase, so full of happiness, promise and lighthearted joy? The difference in me is my thinking, my experience, the Buddhist practice of contemplation. Like everyone, I have experienced loss. Unlike some, I have decided to study my habitual reaction to it.
We will all eventually face loss and death. Once awakened to the terrible specter of impermanence — death of a loved one, loss of relationship or material wealth, crushing blow to a cherished idea — we have two basic responses: aversion and acceptance. Even if it were possible to live the perfect life, have only loving relationships and material comfort, eventually we are going to die. Knowing this, we can carry on in our daily lives avoiding anything that might cause pain and loss.
Avoidance is easy. Our culture has built whole industries around preventing loss, including insurance policies, the Wonder Bra, plastic surgery, the Hair Club for Men, and a health care industry that prizes non-death over quality of life. Likewise we seem to be obsessed with avoiding pain, the companion of loss. No wonder we spend most of our days distracting ourselves with experiences and virtual experiences and popping pills for every symptom of physical or mental pain.
The alternative, acceptance, rarely comes up except on spiritual retreat, itself an escape! What about acceptance of everyday life on life’s terms with its bumps and bruises, with all the things I dislike intertwined in the things I want? I love my son and yet as a pre-teen he is such a boorish annoyance sometimes. I adore my cat, her sweet nature and the way she likes to sit on my lap and purr. And I get frustrated that I can’t get her off my lap to type this post. I want to find new love, to spend time in another’s arms and yet the demands of work and family beckon for many days at a time. These are all things I am learning to accept today. I have learned I can try to force a change in my child’s behavior, push the cat off my lap, demand a lover who can constantly reassure me, but my aversion to pain manipulates and kills the present moment, the only real place that love can bloom.
I’m glad that the pain of new love has reminded me of the suffering of the past. I’m grateful to be awake enough to feel the slow-motion entry of cupid’s arrow, the way it twists into my heart, reminding me to feel every moment the preciousness of what I have, the fact that love may come calling again, for however brief a stay. I realize that fear has kept me from this precipice for all these many years, fear of my own suffering. But I have tried avoidance and found loneliness. I have tried distraction and used up thirty good years too quickly. I have tried the medications of career and religion and relationship and the pain has shone through. Yes, I will move toward love, I will fall. Even knowing what I know, I accept love’s call.