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I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.
—Pablo Picasso

I spent a month weighing the pros and cons of getting married, figuring that at some point one would outweigh the other. One problem with my strategy: the more I thought it all over, the more I realized that I totally, completely loved this personDuncan and there was nothing I could do about it. No matter how heavy the con side of the list got with perfectly acceptable reasons not to marry (familiarity kills desire…all that my private time will disappear…I can’t poop when anyone else is in the house), they couldn’t trump the one solitary thing on the pro side: I loved him. (OK, and there would be tax advantages.) I didn’t even know why I loved him so much. I mean, he’s great and cute and funny and all that, but nothing could account for the pleasure I got from his breath on my shoulder as we fell asleep or how upsetting I found it when anyone was mean to him.

When we got back together after our month apart, I told him how much I loved him and gave him a carefully thought-out list of caveats: I’d never be a conventional wife. I’d require time and space to meditate every day. Please don’t talk to me when I’m in the bathroom. And so on. In the midst of my big presentation, he reached into his backpack and retrieved a small package. Oh no, I thought, does he think that giving me a ring will wash away all doubts and common sense?

But there was no ring. Instead, he handed me a little heart-shaped box. Inside was a backyard bird feather and a smooth white stone. “This is us,” he said. “I’m the rock and you’re the feather. Fly all you want. That’s just who you are. I’ll make our situation stable. That’s who I am.” I was flabbergasted. What? He saw me this clearly and still wanted to marry me? The gravity of my rules and conditions shifted as suddenly as a flock of birds in the sky. My heart simply meltedI burst into tears. I had no idea there could be a person as wonderful as him. At this point there was no choice. Yes, I said. Yes, yes, yes. Please marry me and I will marry you.

So we began to plan our wedding. I placed the sweet box with the rock and the feather by my bed so I could look at it anytime I wanted. Whenever we would have a fight or my doubts would return, I could lift the top and peek inside. Oh yes, I would remind myself, everything is OK. We love each other so much.

Some of the world’s greatest meditators have cried a lot.
—Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Also during this month, I was studying in preparation for the bodhisattva vow ceremony. I read about how great saints and scholars defined compassion and how they kept it going even under the most difficult circumstances. I learned that compassion is the sole basis for peace, and that personal happiness can only come from making the needs of others primary. I once read that the Dalai Lama spends three hours every morning rousing compassion. How did he then go out into the world without sobbing all the time? I had no idea. But just as with marrying Duncan, after thinking it over I realized that I had to do it. There was simply no choice. Do you say no when the one you love offers to love you back for the rest of his life? Do you say no when your meditation teacher asks if you want to try to become enlightened for the benefit of others? “Actually, I think I’d rather remain in a self-absorbed fantasy” didn’t seem like a good answer to either of them. So I said yes. OK, yes, yes, yes. I’ll try.

Within a few months, I took the bodhisattva vow with about ten other students. We had been told to bring something to place on the altar as an offering during the ceremony. It didn’t have to be the most meaningful thing in our life, but it should be something that mattered. I thought about offering a ring my mother had given me that I rarely wore, or books that had been very meaningful to me, or even my favorite dress. (Look, I really loved that dress.) None of them seemed right. There was only one thing that would cost me to be without: the box with the rock and the feather. I tried to talk myself out it. “He said it didn’t have to be our most valued possession.” “That would hurt Duncan.” “Surely I could hold on to this…”

I didn’t know if I was making a generous gesture or a martyr-y one when I offered the box during the vow ceremony. But I did it anyway.

The very next morning, I woke up in a panic. I was bereft. I wanted that box back. I had never possessed anything so precious. But it was gone and nothing, nothing, nothing could bring it back. Even if I could find it and return it to my bedside table, it would now only be a sad reminder of how selfish I was, not how beloved. I was stuck. I saw just how unlikely a candidate for bodhisattva-hood I was. I couldn’t even graciously give up a cardboard box for the benefit of others, to say nothing of my “personal space” for my boyfriend. Could I change my mind about these vows or was it too late?

Too late. I had already gotten my first lesson. You can’t give to get. Opening yourself to another isn’t as simple as acting nice or giving up what you value even though you really, really don’t want to. It’s actually heartbreaking. I started to cry for the zillionth time since I had been contemplating all these vows. I knew I had no idea how to be a bodhisattva—or a wife, for that matter. Nor could I pretend these were stupid ideas and go back to living the way I had before. Anything I gained for myself alone would be a reminder of my lack of loving-kindness. I couldn’t be bodhisattva Susan but I couldn’t be regular Susan either. Bastards! I was trapped. So, of course, I burst into tears.

Instead of making it safe, love—whether for all beings or for one—actually breaks your heart. Being loved is uncomfortable and the more I love, the more uncomfortable it is. In the end, I’m still not quite sure what I’ve vowed to do either as a wife or a bodhisattva, except to break my own heart, over and over And see what happens next.

Susan Piver is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Hard Questions as well as the books How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life and The Wisdom of a Broken Heart.

Originally published in the July 2008 Shambhala Sun magazine. Also available in Right Here With You: Bringing Mindful Awareness into Our Relationships, Edited by Andrea Miller and the editors of the Shambhala Sun. Click here for more information about the book.


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