Bonding, breaking up, and processing emotions

This is about what it feels like to separate from someone you love.


When you bond with another person, you twist your nerves around them, you integrate them into you. Their thoughts and feelings become reflected in yours. And when you're in a relationship you do a lot to speed this process up. You share feelings, make memories, and create projects and challenges. You give each other chances to build up your trust. And so on.

After a lot of bonding your body reacts to their pain likes it's your pain. Your decisions are never made alone, but including them. When it's stormy, you lean on them.

So what does it feel like to suddenly un-bond?

One falls in love a lot like headphones get tangled in your pocket -- under the right conditions it's just inevitable. And like the headphones love does not come untangled so easily. I don't know if the knots are ever undone in any real sense. That would be like rewinding time back to a point before you met. You can't erase the memories, feelings, or attachments.

Instead, it feels more like a process of destruction -- like the knot is so strong that there's not even the possibility of undoing it, and they only way to get rid of it is to cut the tangle out. Or set it ablaze.

I stepped outside our dinner party to call her. It was the only time she gave me. On that phone call she told me that she had started seeing someone else. I asked her if she still wanted to see me, or if she was worried that I might get the wrong idea. She told me that she didn't really see a future with us in that way.

I didn't try to deny the reality. Instead I just listened with an open mind and an open heart, even though it hurt, because I knew in the end that was the quickest way forward. I wanted to argue with her and try to change her mind, but I didn't because I could tell that wouldn't work. Instead I figured it would be best to just begin to accept that things had changed for now and that this relationship did not have any obvious future for either of us. And the keyword here is "begin" -- even as I write this I doubt that I've fully accepted it.

Once we hung up ("Do you have anything else to say?" Her: "No..." "Okay, bye." Her: "Bye.") a cool, unpleasant feeling appeared in my chest. It was connected to a feeling of urgency, like a heart attack. Other than that feeling I had pretty much disconnected from the rest of my body. I don't even know if I was really seeing with my eyes. I would just clumsily fall into the cabinets, onto the floor, and lie still for a while while my entire spirit burned.

I stumbled back into our dinner party drunk on sadness and collapsed onto Brian, one of the guests. (He and his friend left right after that.)

I didn't know what to say except that I was sad. I rambled a lot. I kept telling Matt that there was nothing I could do. I was incapacitated. Simply incapacitated. On autopilot. Like I had no will left to do anything, anything at all, except sit in fetal position with my forehead on the ground.

A hurricane of emotions had consumed me. I felt all sorts of things, was swept through all sorts of memories in no particular order. Some feelings didn't seem to relate to anything at all. They were coming up so quickly, overlapping, competing, shifting. Some of it was pleasant -- I passed through fleeting little oases of happiness, but those feelings were always promptly consumed by Jealousy, images, tightness, once I realized that those special moments were all that were left of that relationship.

My whole body was in a state of effervescent suffering. Trying to bring mindfulness to the process I began to get a little bit of a grip. I remembered Shinzen Young's "divide and conquer" credo and I started to separate the feelings one by one. There were things I was seeing (like her being in the kitchen, us making love, vacation, jokes, her voice). Then I there were the physical feelings, like the discomfort in my chest and tummy, the muscular tension, the shortness of breath. And the discursive thoughts like "this is over. This is never again. Someone else is better than me. I hurt her." So I began to label what I could. Anything that came into my attention lost a little bit of its punch when I was able to label it. "Feeling. Seeing. Hearing."

Despite being practically overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings I noticed one more meta-process that was occurring in my body. Accepting this change in affairs had set into motion a dormant but giant machine that was overwriting the old attachments. I watched as certain emotions that I had connected to thoughts with Nico, like, "Oh, this was a lovely trip together," and "I wonder what nice thing she's doing right now," were being systematically incinerated by my body. All the bonding I had done towards her was just being plain destroyed. Overwritten. The knots were being burned, one by one. The more I resisted the more painful it was.

Nico, or at least the Nico that I hold in my heart, started to be replaced by a different one, one that was more of a stranger to me. I realized that we didn't have that ironclad trust like we used to have, or that open communication. I once thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world, but that sparkle faded too. It was the process of turning her from "someone special," in my life into "someone." This is what loss feels like.

I knew we had our problems, and I knew we might split up. But I never imagined it would feel like this.


When my dad died my mind pretty much just switched off. When my dog died I cried all day. Now, having summoned all my available mindfulness I at least got to appreciate the complexity and beauty of the process of saying goodbye to something that I really loved without being overwhelmed by the details.

Now, with that said, I wasn't keen on continuing to be in that level of distress for long. So I whipped out a tool that I had been sharpening for a while, my pranayama, which I had been hoping might pull me through a situation just like this one.

The first step I took was to just sit up onto the cushion, which took some effort.

Slow pranayama being out of the question, I took a crack at breath of fire for a few minutes with some intensity. It's a fast pranayama which involves a lot of pulses of air and abdominal contractions. I spent three or four minutes doing it. A few tears emerged. The soreness in my chest dissipated. That it happened so fast was a surprise.

With a clearer mind I flipped through my pranayama book until I found "Pranayama for Controlling Emotions."

The instructions were said to rid one of the unwholesome emotions such as "greed, jealousy, hate, etc." The idea was to direct an intention ("Get out!") down to your solar plexus -- if you don't mean it, the book cautions, it won't work.

First, we did the rhythmic breathing together, and then Matt and I did the "controlling emotions" exercise for about ten minutes.

When it was over I realized that when I opened my eyes that I felt different. Like I could see again. I asked Matt if he wanted to go out to the bookstore with me, and by the time I stepped out the door I was almost entirely beyond the grip of that storm that had pulled me in earlier.

I don't know how it happened. It was like all the emotions got funneled away somehow. They're not gone, but they're not quite there either. Like transparent versions of themselves.

Maybe among the yogis and cliques of seasoned meditators this event wouldn't seem very important at all. It's possible that with enough mindfulness the mind reaches a kind of equilibrium where it's not easily perturbed by the winds of change.

But I'm not there yet, and this tool to manage my emotions has carried me a long way forward in these few days. It's more important than my meditation practice for now.

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