Heartbreak for Self and the World, Holding our Broken Hearts with Compassion – February 2012
Once, when I was young, during a brief period of slender beauty, when people would turn to watch me pass when I walked by them on the street, I fell in love. In part, it was because the man sent me Che Guevara and Henri Breton postcards. In part it was because, at unpredictable intervals, he would appear from among the alcohol fumes with a yearning, clarity and resonance that made the world open before me. We went to art openings in Hamburg, met at train stations in Leningrad, and drove a 1959 Buick without brakes in DC. In the beginning he was in love, too, and wrote me letters describing our future. Then there was the year I waited for him to choose me, going to the empty mail box day after day until I would call and beg him to say we were over. But he would only refuse. I stayed strangely frozen in my confusion and longing, unable to break away from the relationship. Finally, in a bar in Georgetown, he said, “When I’m married, I’ll make love to my wife every morning,” and even though my heart broke, there was finally clarity, and I could move again, because I did not exist in that sentence. We drove home in the Buick listening to Billie Holliday, and I was as lonely as I have ever been.
For decades these moments lived within me as my broken heart. I was only partially present to new partners, always running the loop of memories, the desire for revenge, for completion, to be truly, finally seen and loved and chosen. As time went on, this habit of thought became less consuming, but it never fully disappeared. The first real shift came during a moment in a workshop in British Columbia when I was explaining that the amygdala holds emotional memories without a sense of time, and illustrated it by asking if anyone else still remembered the lover who left them decades ago. A wave of warm laughter moved through the room, carrying recognition and understanding. And in that moment, an old roughness in my heart eased. I stood there for a moment in surprise, and then dove back into the teaching.
I continued to learn, and I continued to wonder: could heartbreak be considered trauma? And could it be healed the way we can heal other moments of trauma, by stepping into the important moments with resonance and deep understanding? In preparation for this month’s teleseminar, I asked an empathy buddy to do a healing process with me for the remaining bits of broken-heartedness. We went back for the young Sarah in the bar and in the Buick, and gave her empathy for the complexity of her feelings and her dreams and her knowing, for her frozenness and her exhaustion and her rage, for her longing to be seen and to be loved, for her fierce joy and her beauty. I reclaimed her and chose her, and as with other healing of trauma I have experienced, the painful moments lost their charge and became part of the whole tapestry of my life, important but no longer able to hijack me into the eternal re-run.
This is the surprise and joy of being human: we are soothed and changed by resonant understanding. When we put one foot into the ever-present past, into the memories kept eternally alive by the amygdala, while keeping one foot in the resonant present with warmth, tenderness and self-compassion, our brain is able to heal. The very structure of the neural connections holding the memories shifts within us, letting the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex reach out to make meaning and reclaim these memories for the natural stream of time within our autobiography.
Since doing this heartbreak work several weeks ago, I have been in a state of pleasant surprise, touching the memories with my attention the way one touches a newly repaired tooth with the tongue, searching for the old roughness, the old wound, but not finding it.