Emily Avilés | March/April 2012 Issue
Susan Piver, a meditation teacher and practicing Buddhist, explores questions about how to live an authentic life. Her most recent book, The Wisdom of a Broken Heart, examines heartbreak—romantic and otherwise—from the perspective of the surprising opportunity that accompanies it: the opportunity for spiritual transformation and deep love.
Why did you write this book?
“The Wisdom of a Broken Heart came from two sources. One was my own broken heart. Even though it was a long time ago, I’ll never forget. It was shocking how much that heartbreak stopped my life. I remember thinking, ‘How can people go through this every day? This is devastating.’ I always thought about that and struggled to get over it. The second was when I began to study Buddhism several years later. Then I found that there was an emphasis on the broken heart as an attribute of a spiritual warrior, not as a problem or token of personal shame, but as a state of power, spiritual progress, openness and tenderness. All of this is required to be a compassionate being.”
How would you describe the wisdom of a broken heart?
“When your heart is broken, you can feel everything: your own sorrow, everyone else’s sorrow, but also their joy. Everything that happens touches you directly. When your heart is broken, the only thing that matters is love. You also know when love is present or absent: in someone’s eyes or voice, in every interaction. Looked at one way, a broken heart is a sign that you’re in terrible pain. But looked at another way, these qualities are the hallmarks of compassion. And so the Buddhist practices are about not closing your heart once it’s broken, but stabilizing it in the state of openness so you can maintain these deep qualities of wisdom—but without crying all the time.”
How do you reach that state?
“My suggestions run counter to the conventional wisdom about heartbreak. If you look at the self-help shelves, there are a lot of books about how to get over it. No one wants to wallow in sorrow, so all of these books are about how to get away from it. That’s great, but it’s not going to help.
“What I suggest instead is that you make room for these feelings exactly as they are—without trying to manipulate them or abstract some kind of rational essence. Don’t distract yourself. Try to cut down on all your obligations; do only what is necessary. Make room for your heartbreak; develop a meditation practice or reinvest in a meditation practice if you already have one. Spend time with your feelings as they are. Also, I recommend the traditional Buddhist practice of loving kindness meditation. It’s 2,500 years old and yet modern at the same time. This is the practice of stabilizing your heart in the open state and of beginning to make this shift from ‘I want love in my life; I need someone to love me’ to ‘I want love in my life; I am going to give love in every opportunity.’”
Giving can be a powerful experience, but a lot of people are looking to receive love from others.
“Being a lover is the only seat of power when it comes to love. Most of us think of ourselves as powerless when it comes to love. ‘If it happens, it does; if it goes away, you don’t know why.’ On the one hand, that is true, but there is one seat of true power. That is as a lover, someone who chooses to give love and not wait for love. This is what we really aspire to.”
Does it become easier to deal with heartbreak once you adopt the practices you are describing?
“I think for a while it gets harder because you stop fighting it. My book has a seven-day program as a way of introducing this perspective into your life. And yes, for a little while it might feel worse, but eventually it does get easier. Not because the feelings start to lessen in degree, but because you stop believing them as you might have believed them before developing a spiritual practice. If you see all thoughts and feelings come and go, that lessens your fear of the pain. The suffering of suffering is actually what hurts the most and we can have control over that.”
What was it like to revisit your own pain while writing the book?
“It was long enough ago that I could take a dispassionate view, but it was also one of the most powerful occurrences in my life. I actually benefited and was fascinated by looking at it again as a practitioner now. I want to address these things from the point of view of a practitioner, without apology and without ‘self help.’
“Relax. That is the entire instruction. There is also an interesting, complicated and powerful piece of advice from Pema Chödrön, the American Buddhist nun and teacher. She said that in dealing with strong emotions, ‘The instruction is to feel the feeling and drop the story.’”