The other day on almsround I was stepping up in front of the local country store and was greeted by a friend. He’d just suffered a blow – a breakup with his girlfriend of some months. “It’s happened before but this time feels more final.” he said. Still, he was curiously upbeat. “I’m feeling a weight lifted off me! It was so chaotic. I feel good! I woke up and said, hey, I’m single!”
A week earlier he had been introducing himself as a man in love, so, sensing this circumstance might also change, I thought to soften the blow by pointing out he would probably feel differently in a day or two. It would be then, when he’d had time to process, that the lack of his girlfriend and the space she had filled in his life would become apparent. Whatever underlying condition or lack had drawn him into the relationship despite its ups and downs would again resurface. The old hunger for affection, which had been seemingly removed, would return again. Just as sure as that no matter what great meal we eat today, we’ll wake tomorrow thinking of breakfast, so the hungry heart will never be eternally sated by the love of another.
So it was that when Anagarika Drew and I came by on almsround the next day our friend sat down beside us with a huff. “I’m hurting,” he said, and the cause didn’t need to be spoken. We were three men familiar with love and loss.
How quickly we can go from the joy of freedom back into bondage, or at least a yearning for some engagement? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that I think all relationships are born from neediness and dependency. An image comes to mind of the comic spy of the early 2000’s cinema, Austin Powers, after he found out his new wife was actually just a cyborg. The movie has him break into a tap-dancing Broadway musical, frolicking down the street with the joy of being single. Yet not half an hour of screen time later, buoyant with joy and a sense of invincibility, he’s already neck deep in wooing the next Mrs. Powers.
But outside those occasions when we connect with someone through a meeting of joy and mutual interest, for many of us the seed of romantic relationship is the attempt to fill some sort of lack, and it was this lack that our friend was feeling mostly acutely now after the breakup. What made it agony was not just the feeling but the grim knowledge that any moment of weakness might find him plunging back into the same or another chaotic relationship to try to resolve this feeling. He could tell it wouldn’t work. We all know it won’t work. But, in a moment of weakness, down we all go.
“I’m just hungry for love.” he reflected. “Well, I love you.” I responded. He held a hand to his chest, but his wry smile signaled what we both knew – if that were enough he would have never gotten in this situation in the first place. A spoonful of sugar doesn’t do much for hunger pains.
“I just want a refuge,” he said, without a trace of knowledge of the customs and rituals of the two Buddhist monks beside him. For he was saying aloud what we all feel, what we are all really seeking – a refuge, a safe space, a true love. We’re not greedy, we say, we just want one person to love us, unconditionally, forever. Is that so much to ask?
Thousands of years ago, the Buddha pointed to this same tendency. People have always yearned for refuges. The places they look tend to change with the times, but the pattern does not.
Nevertheless, my offer to him stood. I will love you unconditionally. Not forever, but at least a minute or two. Can you make that enough? And it’s not just me – how many sources of love you have! Love of family, of friends, of teachers and students and peers. Any one person might not be able to fulfill all your needs for love, but that’s too much to ask of a temporary, mortal, changing person anyway.
We don’t get to eat one meal and be full forever. Likewise our need for appreciation and recognition can be sated for a bit but will arise again if our expectations are unrealistic. We can accept this, accept the changing nature of it, accept the hunger too. We can learn to be okay with less-than-perfect love from all the many sources. How much love we feel is only limited by our capacity to see it.
Our yearning for something permanent and happy, a perfect refuge, is burning our heart and forcing us into one disaster after another. Why not abandon it? Why not take refuge in the knowledge that the hunger, too, is impermanent?