Dear Sara: I spent fourteen years with a woman, and afterwards she said it was only out of convenience and that she had found somebody else. I wasn’t very affectionate—you know, two jobs, but I loved her very much, and I can’t get her out of my head. How do I go forward?—A
Dear A: First, wow. That is a really hard thing to hear. It’s no surprise that you’re struggling to get past this.
But I’m glad you’re focused on moving forward. You have wisely recognized that much of the problem stems from a lot of pesky thoughts about your ex, thoughts that won’t leave your brain no matter how much you want them to.
It’s amazing what our minds can do. You know rationally that thinking about the person who broke your heart is the worst possible thing you could do for your emotional well-being. But somehow, the more you try and push the thoughts away, the more persistent they become.
So I’m going to share a mindfulness meditation technique that has worked for me in the hopes that it—or a version of it—might be useful to you.
Sit upright in a chair with your hands on your thighs and your eyes closed. Notice how the soles of your feet feel on the floor and place your attention on your breath—the rise and fall of your chest, the air going in and out of your nose. (You can also sit yogi-style on a cushion if you’d prefer.)
The point here is to connect with your body, rather than your mind. Notice if you’re feeling any pain—a clench in your chest, a hollow pit in your stomach.
Whatever the sensation is, don’t resist it. Just allow yourself to feel it.
That’s probably an unappealing prospect, but I’ve found that when I allow myself to connect with the physical side of my emotional pain, things become more manageable. Feeling that knot in my chest (that’s how I experience it) makes me see that the pain won’t kill me or do me any bodily harm. It’s just a sensation that will pass.
Now place your attention on your breath. When you notice that you have drifted into thought, simply label it. Make a mental note to yourself—“thinking”—and go back to the breath.
Here’s what you’ll notice: This is hard. Those thoughts aren’t going to go away just because you’ve done a breathing exercise. They will come back—again and again and again. This does not mean you’re bad at meditating. This means you’re the same as everybody else at meditating.
The point of meditation is not to stop thinking entirely. Instead, it’s to change your relationship with your thoughts. The real action comes when you notice that you’re spinning off into some rumination or fantasy–when you say, “Oh, I’m thinking,” and then return to your breath. Then you drift off again, remembering something she said or did. Then you notice that and return to the breath. Repeat one zillion times.
The process is slow and boring, but the longer you practice, the longer the spaces between the thoughts—the time not thinking about her—will be. It’s like going to the gym. You won’t drop twenty pounds after one round on the treadmill. But if you put in a little time every day, you’ll see results.
I would recommend trying this for five minutes a day, and then gradually increasing the time—say ten minutes the next week, fifteen the week after. I would also highly recommend taking a meditation class. It’s pretty hard to do this on your own.
If there isn’t a meditation or yoga center near you, libraries and YMCAs frequently offer meditation classes. I practice with an organization called Shambhala, which has centers in many U.S. cities, as well as online classes. Another great online course: Susan Piver’s Open Heart Project. And while you’re at it, check out her wonderful book on heartbreak, The Wisdom of a Broken Heart. I have also found the books of Pema Chodron to be very helpful during difficult times. My favorites are The Wisdom of No Escape and When Things Fall Apart.