I remember so vividly a day in early spring when my whole reality gave out on me. Although it was before I had heard any Buddhist teachings, it was what some would call a genuine spiritual experience. It happened when my husband told me he was having an affair.
We lived in northern New Mexico. I was standing in front of our adobe house drinking a cup of tea. I heard the car drive up and the door bang shut. Then he walked around the corner, and without warning he told me that he was having an affair and he wanted a divorce.
I remember the sky and how huge it was. I remember the sound of the river and the steam rising up from my tea. There was no time, no thought, there was nothing - just the light and a profound, limitless stillness. Then I regrouped and picked up a stone and threw it at him.
When anyone asks how I got involved in Buddhism, I always say it was because I was so angry with my husband. The truth is that he saved my life. When that marriage fell apart, I tried hard - very, very hard - to go back to some kind of comfort, some kind of security, some kind of familiar resting place. Fortunately for me, I could never pull it off.
Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. . . . To stay with that shakiness - to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge - that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic - this is the spiritual path.
~Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart
~Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart
It begs disbelief that the moment of our deepest pain can become the moment of our deepest transformation. How in the world can something that makes it hard to breathe, that makes it hard to see, that slams into our consciousness obliterating everything else possibly lead us to a greater joy, a greater compassion, a greater understanding?
Call me a cynic but though I desperately wanted to believe that, I thought it was a bunch of woo-woo nonsense. Maybe other people, those who burned incense and danced under a full moon, might fall for that "out of suffering comes transformation" hokey, but not me. Pain was pain. Suffering sucked. And people who inflicted it deserved to die in the most excruciating way possible. Besides, I had a book due, three young children who required me to feed them and tuck them into bed, and a mother on her deathbed. I hardly had time for transformation. I barely had time to make breakfast.
I wasn't successful in holding myself together, though I tried mightily. I fell apart routinely. Being a total control freak, I sorta managed to schedule my falling apart. It happened at night after kids were asleep. Or it happened on the weekends when my husband (the rat-bastard responsible for my falling apart) was around to ensure my children weren't juggling knives while I sobbed on my bathroom floor into the warm body of my devoted dog. But it happened. Often. Sometimes it happened in the grocery store.
I can't pinpoint the exact moment when, into those cracks in my heart, compassion crept in. I know I felt it when my husband fully confessed (D-Day #2), curling into a fetal ball on the floor, expecting nothing from me beyond a swift kick in his ass and the promise that he'd hear from my lawyer. But then compassion took a back seat to rage for a few months at least.
Still...it would surface. After a few months of taking my rage on the road, pounding the pavement with my sneakers and fantasizing of the ways in which I'd humiliate and destroy the OW, I began to feel something different for her. Pity. Sadness. A recognition that she was injured and unable to heal herself. My disgust with her likely paled in comparison to her disgust with herself, though she hid it behind bravado and armour.
And then I noticed that I was able to feel compassion even for myself, something I'd never allowed. If I'd messed up in the past, I beat myself up. I stewed in shame, though I'd never realized it. I knew no other way but to hide the "real" me behind a polished-to-perfection exterior.
Stripped of all that – it's hard to feel perfect wearing a filthy bathrobe and convinced that my husband cheated because there was something wrong with ME – I saw myself differently. Not as flawed but as injured. A wounded warrior in a terrycloth robe and slippers. Someone who'd always hid her pain. Whose desire to be seen was only outstripped by her fear of it.
I tried something new. Compassion toward myself. I gave myself kudos for getting up each day. I patted myself on the back for not murdering my husband. I congratulated myself for having kept my children alive when I didn't even want to be alive.
Where before I kept a running critique of all the ways in which I was "less": not a good enough cook, kids don't behave well enough (bad mother!), not thin enough, house messy...the list was endless.
Transformation, I've discovered, isn't a bolt of lightning from the sky. It wasn't magic.
For me, transformation was showing up each day, slowly opening my heart to the possibility that I could handle this. That I was worth fighting for. Not someone else fighting for me but ME fighting for me. That I was enough, just as I was. That I had always been.
And within that transformation, there were many many gifts. Much suffering too. But that, it seems, is where transformation takes root.
I still don't burn incense and though I won't dance under the moon I always admire it. It reminds me that we're each so small. Small but enough, guided toward a deeper understanding that none of us escapes this life without pain. And that pain itself can transform.