What beckons is the creative power of the unknown. ~Ralph Blum
In the midst of a divorce, when it feels like the ground under your feet has crumbled to rubble and the landscape is unrecognizable, the wisdom of Ralph Blum may feel a little precious—pie in the sky, unrealistic, maybe even dangerously irresponsible.
But consider this: when divorce rocks your world, the first order of business certainly is to get to safety, but what happens next?
Do you want to commit to a post-apocalyptic subsistence? Then don’t. This is a pivotal, sliding-door moment when you can be architect of a beautiful meaningful new life. You can design the master plan for an iconic structure that rises from the wreckage.
The earthquake shakes you awake. The spiritual question is: How do you stay awake? ~Rebecca Solnit
One of My Quakes Awake
In 2005, in love and engaged, my fiancé and I jumped in with both feet at the height of the real estate market and bought a $1.2 million fixer-upper in Mill Valley, California. I sold my Pacific Heights, San Francisco apartment, and used the equity to make improvements to the house. When our relationship ended in the spring of 2008 –months before the economic recession– my fiancé and I agreed I would keep the house and eventually refinance the mortgage. Initially, my decision made sense.
As a successful family law attorney in the Bay area earning multiple six figures, I could pay the mortgage and carrying costs plus my business and personal expenses. But as we all know, in September 2008 the economy tanked, and by 2010, even divorce lawyers suffered as couples chose to remain married because they couldn’t afford to separate and establish two households.
Ever the optimist and being the daughter of resourceful real estate investors, I knew the real estate market would rebound, so I remodeled the downstairs and rented it to a friend. But the economy sputtered along, and I grew weary. So in the winter of 2010, I made a choice to sell the property even though it meant my former fiancé and I would lose in spades.
I felt unprecedented pain, my inner critic fueled my suffering. “How could such a smart woman suffer such great loss?” You should have known better.” “If only you hadn’t sold your apartment in the city and mingled your money.” “Facts be damned.”
My world was quite bleak. I sold the house that had been my sanctuary. I ended an engagement, and said goodbye to “my person.” I took the biggest financial hit of my life. And, I did something I’d almost never done. I withdrew. I took to my bed and lay down to cry, to sleep, to lick my wounds. And in the darkness, I was afraid,;perhaps like you are now. I didn’t know what would become of me: a single 42 year old self employed woman starting over in the San Francisco Bay area. So what did I do?
What can you do to transform fear into faith? How do you move from sorrow to soul-soaring?
These are questions to ask yourself every day, as you put one foot in front of the other to end your marriage or partnership, and pursue a meaningful new life.
Here are Buddhist (nontheistic) philosophies I used on my journey through loss that may serve you, and pragmatic lessons I teach my clients on how to use separation and the dissolution of a marriage or domestic partner as a dream catalyst.
Metta – Maitri (Pali/Sanskrit for love or kindness)
When we feel lost, unsure, fearful, and powerless, it’s tempting to grasp at anything that will soothe, numb, and give us a semblance of security. Salves like alcohol, heart-pounding exercise, berating ourselves or repeatedly sharing our pain with anyone who’ll listen provide temporary relief, but won’t heal our hearts. To move through the pain of loss and feelings of failure, we must crack open and cultivate Metta, Maitri, loving kindness or, in Western terms, self-love. To find true solace and a sense of worthiness, we must practice self-acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion.
Like a caring mother
holding and guarding the life
of her only child,
so with a boundless heart
hold yourself and all beings
as your beloved children.
To gain a deeper understanding of Metta-Maitri-Lovingkindness, consider these, some of my favorite, teachers, books, and guides.
Jack Kornfield, former Buddhist monk, author, and Buddhist teacher, offers free meditations for discovering “a new way to meet life’s greatest challenges with acceptance, joy, and hope” in print on his website (Meditation on Lovingkindness) or books like, The Art of Forgiveness, Loving kindness, and Peace, via free audio on Dharmaseed, and in person at Spirit Rock, An Insight Meditation Center in Woodacre, California (one of my happy places).
Tara Brach, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, Buddhist teacher, and author, weaves psychological, Buddhist, and poetic teachings into her work that focuses in part on, healing trauma, including those caused by separation, divorce or ending a domestic partnership. Tara offers insight in her free weekly talks, which are available on her website and DharmaSeed, and in her books.
Sangha (Pali/Sanskrit for community)
Moving courageously through grief to forgiveness and loving oneself during difficult times is, for most, an uncomfortable process accompanied by desolation and depression, and is best done with the guidance of a trusted counselor, such as a therapist or minister, and with like-minded uplifting peers, which you may find in a sangha.
Research shows that when somebody is filled with fear and they hold hands with someone that they love or trust, you could watch their brain calm down on an MRI. And we know that hugs that last 20 seconds release oxytocin and that is incredibly soothing. And you can do the inner practices of loving-kindness and compassion that, in your mind, invoke a person you care about with you and loving you, and that can create the same biochemical shift—reducing the sympathetic nervous system and getting the parasympathetic nervous system going. ~Tara Brach
I was lucky to have a supportive family and turned to them for moral support. My mother is one of my biggest fans, has never given up on me, and certainly didn’t when I made costly financial changes. Uncertain about when I would sell my house, to lessen the financial pressure I moved in with my sister for what turned out to be 7 months. I understand you may not have supportive parents or siblings. Thankfully, you can, like I also did, connect with caring people in church, temples, retreats or on a therapist’s couch. You also can work with a compassionate ingenious mediator and/or lawyer who will help you lay the foundation for your dreams during the legal process. What might this look like? Here’s a page from my playbook.
Instead of simply telling my clients what they may receive in divorce based on family law, I ask my clients to describe their future dream lives. It can be a challenging question. Martha Beck assures us that we may not always have our purpose and mission worked out completely in our own hearts and minds, but that if we allow the dream to breathe a little, we can see where to start. Sometimes it starts with and is supported by, a single thought, mantra, to ground the dream in your waking life.
When consulting with a client who is trying to assess the damage and look toward the future, I start with some questions. If they’ll need to go back to work I ask, “What type of work would you love?” If you have to move, “Where would you love to live?” I then consult and coach them to do their best to reverse engineer their dreams during divorce. If it doesn’t seem like a perfectly smooth transition from marriage, separation, and divorce to dream life, I suggest aiming for a stepping-stone towards the futures they dream of. This is why I often return to the analogy of divorce-as-earthquake—life as you know it collapses around you. In the process, you have to get out from under the rubble and lay the foundation for a life you’ll love, including where to live, what to do, even how to parent.
Reverse Engineer Your Dream into Reality
Rick Hanson, Ph. D. devotes his working life to communicating how we can change our brains for the better—how we can learn to react productively and creatively to life’s developments. Apparently, though, we do have to learn it. While our brains are marvelously plastic, that is, able to change old patterns and reroute for better, more positive outcomes, we have to train them to do so. It’s a bit good-news/bad-news, according to Hanson:
[T]he brain is bad at learning from good experiences but good at learning from bad ones… the human brain has a “negativity bias.” We continually look for negative information, over-react to it, and then quickly store these reactions in brain structure. For example, we learn faster from pain than from pleasure, and negative interactions have more impact on a relationship than positive ones. In effect, our brain is like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good.
The good news is that the brain is plastic, as in changeable. You and I are learning beings, and if we are mindful and centered on our own growth, we can overcome the attendant suffering of divorce through awareness and intention. You can lay new paths in your thinking, move past survival mode to dream building, reverse engineer your dreams into your everyday life, get past the primal fear around food and shelter, past the reptile brain, and into your creator, crafter, CEO brain, into your vision of what’s worthwhile and good.
Author Your Own Hero’s Journey
A hero is said to overcome adversity through feats of ingenuity, bravery, or strength. Through such a lens, being the hero of your own story seems a tall order indeed. After the earthquake of your divorce, it’s not time to compare yourself to someone else’s idea of what makes a hero. This is the right time to rewrite the hero of your story in your own image, in service to your emergent and sustainable well-being.
You are your most important stakeholder. Even the airlines know this. You know how they instruct you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you attempt to help others? You have to breathe in order to get past the danger and bring your world back into the light. This is a strangely difficult action for many of us to take, this self-consideration, but critical to our peace, happiness, and utility. If even the airlines understand this, we can too. And we can go past our basic need for oxygen to consider the vital importance of investing our creativity and strength into making our dream of a richer life and a better world a reality.
What Did I Do to Change My Story and Build My Dream?
I took action. I continued working, and as my mind cleared and I became refocused. I moved out of my sister’s house and into a home in a neighborhood I loved. I also continued to pursue a business model I loved: instead of a traditional law practice, I created a luxurious and safe space (brick and mortar) where I held classes and began building a community of women to connect during a divorce, then transitioned to a virtual practice with one-on-one coaching, online workshops, and one-day retreats. This life was a dream, and then it was my life. Your dream can become reality too.
Anything I can imagine being, doing, or having– I can be, do, or have. ~Esther and Jerry Hicks