On the first day of art school, I met the man who would become my husband. I was 18 and recently arrived in New York City from a very small town in New England. For that whole first year, it seemed like I had a brand new experience every single day. Looking back, I wonder at my ignorant courage (if that isn’t an oxymoron). I dove into adventures that my older self now knows might not have been all that safe. Among those firsts was a clear knowing that this guy – an Elvis Costello look-alike who had the quickest wit that I had ever encountered – would be my husband. I wasn’t particularly attracted to him other than having this unmistakable sense that We Shall Be Together. It took another year and a half before it happened but it did happen, just as I knew it would.
We stayed together for 26 years and created two children. When the end came, it felt like it was a painfully long, slow deterioration where we did that thing that you hear about – we grew apart. Our relationship became more like a business arrangement. Finally it ended. I give him credit for having an affair – it was the push we both needed.
The split-up began, for me, a long process of trying to understand how I had come to that place. What was my responsibility in creating such a soured relationship? Who was I, now, 26 years later? In the course of the crying and clearing out of things, I came across a journal from 24 years previous – just two years into our relationship when we had finished art school and were living in a little town about 2.5 hours from New York.
I look back at that particular time and see it as, perhaps, the lowest point in my life. I had an eating disorder that was on full-tilt coupled with an exercise addiction that took the form of running or biking for hours everyday. So it was with trepidation that I opened that journal and began to read my barely-out-of-adolescence handwriting. What I found inside gutted me. There, among the pages, I chronicled my relationship with my now ex-husband as it was unfolding in that little town. Every single problem that I thought had developed in the final years just before separating was there. The details had changed but the major themes were the same: my concern about his drinking. His belief that I was responsible for his happiness. My belief that I was responsible for his happiness. My failure to produce happiness in him. Somehow, it took me 24 more years to realise that this situation was not tenable. Twenty-four more years.
The pain of this knowledge – that it took 24 YEARS to let go of the fantasy and see the reality – was excruciating. When I was ready to consider dating again, I vowed that I would be alert to the who the person was, especially any red flags, and not get lost in fantasies or ideas of changing or “fixing” them. As Madonna famously said, “Don’t fall in love with potential.” I vowed to notice and then believe what I saw. If it wasn’t ok in the first month, then I should trust that it wasn’t going to get better.
I also went briefly to a therapist after this revelation and one thing that she said that really stopped me short was, “I wonder how you will find a way to date <my ex>?” She didn’t mean that I would date my ex per se but rather it was her way of asking which behaviours I would be attracted to, what patterns would I replicate? Of course I was all, “What??! No!” until I realised that I had, indeed, been dating many versions of my ex. The writer with a drinking problem. The emotionally unavailable television executive. The hilarious but passive aggressive doctor.
In yoga, we talk about samskara or habitual patterns a lot. These might be something as simple as how we move or stand or our expressions, our daily routines or the things we do to relieve stress. Samskara, in and of themselves, are not good or bad, rather our job as yoga students is to notice whether these patterns are helping to bring us into balance or taking us out of balance. A key part of kriya yoga is the work of noticing these patterns – the practice of svādyaya or self-reflection or self study – so that we can make the wisest choice about how to act in any given situation.
So, after a zillion first dates, a million second dates and many fewer third and fourth dates, I found a guy who was vastly different from my ex. Until he wasn’t. I sit here today, again licking my wounds, and I see that, although he came in a very different size and flavour, the overall package was not so different. It hurts to see this – to know that, despite my efforts to be conscious and awake, I recreated something not so helpful.
Yoga also tells us that there are deeper patterns alive within us – vāsana. Intergenerational trauma – the term we might use today – would be considered a vāsana. Vāsana might also be patterns established early on in childhood that impact how our lives play out over the long term. I often think that samskara can be changed with some effort in a matter of months. Vāsana, on the other hand, are the work of a lifetime. Or maybe several lifetimes.
My Zen teacher has told me that we shouldn’t understand karma to be fixed or predetermined. We have the ability to change it. So, as I painfully see how I, yet again, replicated a deep pattern (albeit in a new and special way!), I have faith that this noticing means that I am also shifting it. Not noticing would be worse – much worse. And, I have my refuge in practice, sangha, the reality of my own true nature. Truly those are treasures and never so much as when there are wounds to be licked.