When I was in college many years ago, I had the misfortune–or so it seemed at the time–of falling in love with one of my professors, a man who was older than me and was also married. In addition, of course, there was an uneven power balance, since I was his student and dependent on his good opinion of me, although I realized later that this didn’t matter as much as I’d thought; his feelings for me were strong also, and caring makes all of us vulnerable. However, to become involved with someone under these circumstances was not an option for me, nor for him, and we struggled with defining and living our relationship according to our ideals for all the years I was in school. He had his own problems to deal with (a failing marriage, as I learned later), and our struggles were separate ones. For me, it was simple: I simply could not manage to fall out of love with him. I’m sure it’s a common human experience, and I’m also sure that we all have reasons for our attachments. Sometimes, I learned, they can be very good reasons, and I suspect it’s even harder to let go when the soul has a purpose in what it presents itself with.
I read a book, during that time, by a behavioral psychologist, called How to Fall Out of Love: it provided instructions in classic behavioral learning techniques, and suggested methods of “thought-stopping” to bring about the release of obsessive thinking about the other person. One of these, for instance, was to fasten a rubber band around one’s wrist, and whenever thoughts of the love object arose, to snap the rubber band, causing pain and interrupting the thought process. Another technique involved fantasizing about the loved person, but imagining him, say, covered with excrement or mucous; something like that. All this made sense to me, but none of it worked, and I asked myself why.
As the time drew near for me to graduate and move on, I was still enmeshed in my obsessive love for this man, and I grew desperate. I had no reason whatsoever to think this relationship would ever succeed or could in any way be good for me or for him. But eventually, it began to dawn on me that perhaps I might want to consider the meaning of the relationship, and rather than running from my feelings, perhaps I should work with them, open to them, accept them. So I decided to make suffering my semester’s project: whenever the pain of loving arose, that tense obsession with this person I loved, I would suffer: I made a practice of going to the department where he taught and sitting somewhere in the vicinity of his office, and then I would suffer. I would think intensely about him, feel the pain of loving, and draw it in and out of my heart on my breath for as long as it took to resolve itself. From that time, it took me about six weeks to fall out of love: I began to understand what this love had meant to me. I began to see our connection for what it was, and in this case, it was and is a profound connection. I stayed with my feelings, my pain, the glory of such love, and I opened myself intensely to this profound attachment. Rather than fighting it, I eventually was able to be curious about it, open to it: and eventually, like a sore place that is massaged kindly and gently, it became, rather than a painful obsession, just another part of me. I lightened up. I moved on.
This person and I continue to be very close to this day. Our lives have moved in very different directions, and I am very glad indeed that the relationship never became “a” relationship: we were not meant to be together in this place and time, and I would eventually meet someone who was and is the love of my life. Behavioral theories tend to make such emotions ridiculous, but the “theory” I developed allowed this feeling to be all it wanted to be to me. I learned a profound lesson about loving and letting go in the name of love. I have noticed, over my life, that once I have loved someone, that love never entirely goes away; it becomes assimilated, but it continues to exist, and that is a blessing.
It is only all these years later than I am reminded of this experience as I work with various attachments and painful emotions, learning to stay with them, inquire into them and open to them, rather than running away from them. I feel myself lightening up, again: my energy increases, and life is more interesting and less problematical. This reminds me of another book I liked years back: Guilt is the Teacher: Love is the Lesson. Perhaps love is every lesson, if it is well-learned, and perhaps the core of learning that lesson is to love oneself kindly and with acceptance.