Shambhala Sun | March 2014
Awash in the pain
of betrayal and a failed marriage, LAURA MUNSON practices Pema Chödrön’s
teachings on loving-kindness. It’s hard but it helps.
I did not get
married to get divorced. I did not have children to subject them to the
confusion of split parents. I did not hold them in my arms on their day of
birth and say, “I am going to raise you to be resilient.”
No. I went into
marriage as deliberately as I went into motherhood. As deliberately as I went
into creating the house that has held us for almost fifteen years—a farmhouse
in northwestern Montana surrounded by a haven of meadows, ponds, marshes, rocky
cliffs, and thick conifer forests.
Yet now I find
myself in something called mediation. Mediation is where a professional
conflict-sherpa guides two people through—in our case—the dissolution of a
marriage. Two people who have been together for their entire adult lives. Who
know each other like old shoes. Who together have made every important decision
for the past twenty-five years.
sitting across from one another with legal forms and a middleman at the head of
a long table and a box of Kleenex, and we’re talking about things like who gets
Christmas morning, who pays for our kids’ soccer cleats, and where our children
will lay their heads at night—what pillow in what room in what house. And what
about the possibility of them losing their childhood house altogether?
To comply with
federal law we’re also going through a list of extreme parenting sins, as if we
would ever be those sinners. We’re setting rules—legal rules—about safety,
third-party interactions, and drug and alcohol consumption, all with the threat
of sheriffs arriving at the front door in the middle of the night. These aren’t
conversations that we’ve had to have before. Our focus has been along the lines
of organic baby food and whether we should go to Belize or Costa Rica for
spring break and whether or not we concur with the teaching styles of the
Suzuki method and Montessori preschool.
wonder: Is there heart language in such a trajectory? Is there a way to bring
in loving-kindness, forgiveness, surrender, and gentleness when we’re
discussing such pointed, laden subjects?
I was in London
when this all started. It was the night before I was going on the most-watched
talk show in the United Kingdom. I was going to discuss a memoir I’d written on
loving your partner through crisis without taking their crisis personally. I
was going on to talk about emotional freedom.
That night, I got
It said something
to the tune of: “I love you, but I’m not in love with you. When you get home, I
will be living elsewhere. I finally know what love feels like. I feel it
springing from me like I’ve never felt before. Our marriage is a sham.” I tried
not to memorize those words, though each one felt like a hot branding iron on
my most tender skin.
I went out into the
rainy streets of London and stood in the cold, breathing deeply. For years, I
had been listening to Pema Chödrön’s teachings on maitri practice. I had been
practicing maitri on rejection—rejection from the publishing world, primarily,
but also from family and friends and the general ways of the world. Now I had a
chance to practice it on betrayal.
My understanding of
maitri practice, thanks to Pema Chödrön, is that by sending loving-kindness
into the world we can help increase love altogether. The meditation works like
this: First we send loving-kindness to someone we love dearly, someone who is
easy to love. Next we send loving-kindness to someone we are fond of, followed
by someone who is neutral in our lives. Then we send out loving-kindness to
someone who bugs us, and then to someone we really can’t bear.
Finally—and this is
the clincher—we send loving-kindness to ourselves. That’s the hardest one for a
lot of us. In fact, I’m not sure it’s really possible to send loving-kindness
to ourselves until we’ve first practiced on someone we really loathe. Because
most of us treat our worst enemies much better than we do ourselves. That
stings, doesn’t it? But I’ve been paying attention to that in my life and have
found it to be true.
So whether it
ultimately was to change the world, or to change my relationship with myself,
or to attempt the high calling of Being Love, I stood in those rainy London
streets that night and I practiced maitri. I sent out loving-kindness to my
children. Then to a new friend. Then to my son’s homeroom teacher. And then to
someone who once stole something from me and denied it. And finally, with deep,
sodden, city-stained breaths, I sent loving-kindness to my husband and his
At first I thought
it. But something deep inside me said that wasn’t enough. I had to go further.
So I mouthed it. But that wasn’t enough. I had to speak it. So I did. But that
wasn’t enough either. I had to scream it. I didn’t want to—I’m not a screamer.
Yet that’s why I knew I had to. So with all my best intention, and maybe all my
anger and sadness too, I hauled off and spewed those words across the slick
streets and into the lamp-lit night air. Against every nerve ending in my body,
I sent them loving-kindness.
Now it is a year
later. After months and months of couple’s therapy and wicked vacillation
between reconciliation and split, we are in mediation. The funny thing is that
every time I write the word “mediation,” it comes out “meditation.” Something
deep inside me I contacted that night in London dearly wants me to practice
sending out loving-kindness—even and especially now. So I am. I sit here across
the table from my husband and, inhaling and exhaling, I privately send him
loving-kindness. “Be Love, Laura” is what I think. “Be Love.”
Does it work? Does
it need to work? Do I need evidence that it’s worth the slog on up to the high
road? Does it matter? Because here’s the thing: I suffer less when I am living
in the light of that love. And maybe the world does too.
Laura Munson is the author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness.
Illustration by Katherine Streeter.