Almost exactly two years ago, my conception of my life as a steady and reliable institution came crashing to the ground when my wife informed me that she was unhappy in our marriage and was ready to call it quits. As is generally the case, this did not come completely out of the blue. There were no extreme motivating factors; no cheating, traumatic events, abuse, or even any significant fights. If you asked either of us, we would say we loved each other and considered the other to be our best friend. We did, however, have some longstanding issues that had slowly operated as a death by a thousand cuts. To use an age-old cliche, we had grown apart. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been aware enough to see how much that was true.
After some anguished late night conversations, we decided not to take any immediate action. I told my wife that I loved her and was committed to doing whatever I could to fix our problems. I told her that this wasn’t something that I wanted, but that I would respect her wishes and follow her lead. Unfortunately, in the wake of our conversations, I found myself lost and without a clue as to how to fix anything. I quickly turned to various mechanisms for numbing the jumble of emotions that were hitting me in crashing waves. I work in the wine and beer industry, and already was a heavier than average drinker. My worst instincts took over and as I began to heavily self-medicate, a sense of creeping despair covered me like a blanket.
About a year after our initial conversation, we were still living together, albeit more as roommates than spouses. Simple economic considerations and inertia are probably the only reason that we maintained the status quo. It was during the summer of 2018 that I picked up the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris on the recommendation of an old friend. As I’ve written previously, this book launched me into a consistent meditation practice, and introduced me to a reading list of books that went on to have a huge impact on my life, the first of which was Dr. Mark Epstein’s book, The Trauma of Everyday Life.
Epstein’s book was eye opening in many ways, and really deepened my interest in Buddhism as a means of coming to understand the suffering that I had experienced my entire life, and was experiencing intensely during that particular stage of my life. There was one specific paragraph of the book that continues to have a huge impact on me today.
Epstein relates a story of a group of students meeting with the great Thai Forest teacher, Ajahn Chah, and asking him about what he could tell them about the Buddhist mindset that they could take home with them. His response was one of those classic Buddhist illustrations that take an easily relatable situation to show a larger truth about the true nature of reality.
Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”Mark Epstein – The Trauma of Everyday Life
This simple paragraph hit me like a thunderbolt, exposing so many things about my life and about the specific situation I was living through. I had been heedless in my approach to my entire life, not to mention my relationships. Not only that, but I recognized that in my married life, I had combined a lack of attention to my wife and her needs with a dependent clinging to my life with her. When this thing that I had latched onto as a stable and dependable part of my life had demonstrated it’s impermanence, I had crumbled under the shock of the realization.
In my 20s, I used to quote the oft-used interpretation of the Buddha’s words that states, “life is suffering.” This was literally all I knew about Buddhism, and this quotation had more to do with an angsty interest in Nietzsche and nihilism than any understanding of Buddhist philosophy. It was equivalent to saying, “life is hard, and then you die.” As I’ve undertaken my study into Buddhism, I have learned that this understanding of the Buddha’s words is misleading, to say the least. Many of the teachers that I hear discuss this concept offer the additional translation that life is unsatisfying. Suffering is an appropriate term in a way, but this suffering is due to the fact that we don’t experience the world as it really is, and as such life doesn’t meet our expectations. We futilely cling to things (all of which are impermanent) that we find pleasant and fight so hard to push away things we find unpleasant. In short, we desire for life to be other than it is.
Over the last year, I have spent a lot of time working on seeing the glass as already being broken. To me, this has meant being more present with both the good and the bad. It means truly being with life as it is, engaging fully and authentically in my relationships, and not seeking out distractions and numbing agents to avoid experiences that I find boring or unpleasant. It means being present to fully experience all the things that I love about the glass, and appreciate each sip that I take from it, knowing full well that the glass is impermanent. This makes each moment more precious.
In the end, this practice doesn’t guarantee that life circumstances will follow the trajectory we want. After trying for a couple of years to repair our relationship, my wife recently told me that she didn’t feel like she could see us ever getting back to where we need to be for her to stay in our marriage. Too much baggage had been accumulated by the time we started to work on things in a meaningful way. This has been a painful experience, but by being fully present for it, this time has been one of tremendous personal growth. I have found a peace in actually giving myself the space to be with my feelings, rather than trying to numb them out of existence. Dealing with difficult emotions isn’t easy but, in my experience, running away from them is impossible.