Why a Buddhist Therapist Made My Girlfriend Break Up With Me
The moon fell fast towards the western horizon like it had been shot dead. There was a smattering of stars left in its wake that decorated the mostly empty night sky. We sat below a giant eucalyptus tree, close together, sipping on wine, relaxing on a wooden bench that wrapped around a stone fire pit that held no fire. The raccoon came out of the bush like some ancient reminder of Nature. She trundled out, not expecting us to be there. Startled, she reared up in a defensive pose. The raccoon was three feet from me. I was surprised I didn’t spill my wine all over myself when I saw it. I was already a bit out of my head since my girlfriend had just broken up with me.
I grew a bit more concerned when a baby raccoon followed its mother out of the dark. A scared mother will do dangerous things to protect her young. Seated on the other side of me, my girlfriend shifted her weight fast against my hip. A few breaths after breaking up and fear had thrust us back together. This pattern would repeat itself. For months. But this was the only time that involved a frightened raccoon.
When we first started dating I told her I would never marry her. In fact, I told her this so many times it became a running joke between us. Secretly, though, she thought one day I’d change my mind — or more accurately, my heart. How this would happen I don’t think she ever properly worked out in her head; she just blindly trusted that it would. She thought somehow, she would change my heart for me. Prove me wrong. She often warned me that her mother wore down her father. I countered with the fact that I was far more stubborn than her father. It’s easier to turn lead into gold than to change a person’s heart with logic.
When anyone asks what happened, and I sense they want a real and nuanced answer, I always say, “our troubles started when her Buddhist therapist said I wasn’t earnest.” Whatever that means. He warned her my lack of earnestness would doom our relationship. He and I agreed on the doom part. We just had a difference of opinion about the particulars.
I knew I didn’t want her to be my life partner, and I told her that. Which, I would say, was pretty earnest. He was still of the opinion I lacked this quality altogether. Whatever. As I used to say, fuck him. This is not the best thing to say about your girlfriend’s therapist. Especially if he’s also her Buddhist guru. It tends to come off as combative. But it’s how I felt.
Was he a board-certified licensed counselor? I don’t know. He may have just been a white Buddhist guru dude from Long Beach using the most dignified phrases of the day to pass himself off as far more qualified than your run-of-the-mill life coach. The important part was that she called him her therapist. That’s all that mattered. Well, that and the fact that he had the extra benefit of being her Buddhist guru, so she listened to him with the unwavering faith of a true believer. Not all therapists hold such powerful sway with their clients. To her way of seeing the world, if he said it, then, well, it must be true.
He was mindful. He was present. He saw those things we all habitually ignore. He bravely spoke the truth as clearly as we could hear it. Or something like that. Like I said, fuck him. If I were to have to place the onus on one person, like this was a murder trial, I’d say her Buddhist therapist killed our relationship.
Play brought us together. The sound of my girlfriend’s laughter was my introduction to her. I heard her sounds of pure joy expressed above the din of a college party. I had to know: who was this woman? I made my way through the crowd toward her. After many months, she finally took me seriously. You could say my earnest pursuit brought us together. Yet, if you asked me, I would’ve said it was her laugh. Guess it’s all a matter of perspective.
My girlfriend came back from her latest therapy session and her counselor had determined, from what she’d told him over the last few months, that her troubles stemmed from the gloom looming over our future. That darkness was my doing.
That night, as we lay there in bed, she confided that she agreed with him. She could never put her finger on it. Not before. But now, hearing him put it so eloquently, that’s what the problem was: I was not earnest.
How do you prove your earnestness lying naked in bed next to your girlfriend? It’s a fucked moment. If you argue, your defensiveness will lose the debate for you. Why would you argue… if it’s obviously untrue? If someone tells you the moon is made of cheese, you don’t spend the night arguing about it. If you laugh, like it’s a ridiculous accusation, you sound flippant, dismissive. Definitely not earnest. Go ahead, try lying in bed naked, laughing at your girlfriend’s Buddhist therapist. Trust me, I tried it, that’s no way to prove your earnestness.
After she got mad at me for laughing at her therapist, I did what any Zen-koan loving master would do in that situation. I agreed with her. I said “You know what? You’re right. I could see how someone could say that I’m not very earnest.” (Which is the most earnest thing anyone could say in that moment.) But my confession won no points with her. If anything, it was the beginning of the end. Or maybe not.
Maybe nothing has a beginning, just the point when you pick up the story.
The next morning, over breakfast, my girlfriend told me the reason her Buddhist therapist felt I wasn’t earnest. He said I was playing at life. I knew that to laugh this off was another losing gambit. So, I did the same thing I’d done the night before, while lying naked in bed with her. I agreed. It worked better this time. Part of me truly agreed, I was playing at life. It’s an apt description of my approach to being alive. Was that a bad thing?
No one has ever successfully convinced me that life is not best lived as if it were a game. Not like a sport where there are clear cut winners and losers and you keep score, but rather like a game where the goal is for everyone to have fun.
I know I risk sounding like a child but, for me, life begins anew each morning. When I split open my eyelids and first catch sight of the morning light there is a gossamer thread that ties me to yesterday, there are memories and plans that stretch from way back then to right now, and, possibly, will connect me to who I will be tomorrow. But, for right now, all I have is… right now.
Each morning, I start the day with this sense that life feels very fragmented. Like, we each live thousands of lifetimes. All lived one after another, day after day, always you, yet, always slightly different, until one day, you look back and you feel impossibly different, like you can’t imagine ever having been that person, the one you remember, but it was you, and one day you might feel that way about today.
Which one is you?
They’re all you.
All of this starts to get a bit muddy. Apologies. Please forgive my crude attempts at metaphysics. Let’s just say every day you wake up, it feels fresh and new, yet, you also feel bound and defined by yesterday as you wait for the surprises of tomorrow. That fragmentary feeling makes it hard for me not to inhabit this moment. It’s all I really have. So, I make the most of whatever there is right now. I like to have a laugh, as the Brits say. So, yes, I play at life.
But not like a sport, I live like it’s a game, like a child who’s awoken from a nap, and, suddenly reminded how awesome the world is, eagerly wants to go make some fun of what he or she finds left of the afternoon. I always found it odd that a dude who said he was a Buddhist would be against such a view of life.
Since I play at life I’m typically very much in the moment. Not worrying about tomorrow, or dwelling on yesterday. Really, what’s the point? And, thanks to that simple reasoning, I’ve always found Zen a concept easy to understand. To me, it’s a lot like the feeling that occurs when engaged in the middle of a game — without thinking about it, you can feel the sunshine on your skin, you feel the breeze tickle the tiny hairs on your ears, you hear the distant sound of a train whistle announcing itself to the world, and all at once, all of this mixes together, into a meaningful moment that has no real meaning — for a briefest bite of time you peek a glimpse of what it would be like to live your life as poetry. That feeling that feels like total consciousness. I like it. Thus, I play at life.
After my girlfriend and I broke up, we still saw each other, and slept together. It happens. Most times, I would drive the hour in traffic down to Long Beach to see her. I still wanted to see her. I still loved her. I was being honest that I didn’t want to make a life with her, I just wanted right now with her. I guess she didn’t believe that’s what I meant. No matter what her Buddhist therapist said about my earnestness, we still loved the smell of each other. That made it difficult to be too close. That made it confusing.
After we broke up, all it took was one weak moment. One person contacts the other. Then, you get back together. For the night. For the weekend. For a long lingering moment with someone you trust. Someone you know will ease your loneliness, even if they’re also the cause. We needed each other, earnestly.
It all finally melted one morning, when we were deciding what to have for breakfast. Really, the discussion was about where to go. We brunched with her friends the weekend before. They were older, married, and buying their first home. With memories of our weekend with them shading our breakfast decision, she mentioned the next time we saw the home buying-couple, we could tell them that we were now in a book. The way she said “the next time we” let me know, in her mind, we weren’t really broken up. She was still wearing me down.
I asked about the book. She said her Buddhist therapist had written one. I said I didn’t particularly care. She knew how I felt about him. I mentioned that I still hadn’t read any of his old books, even though she had copies on her shelf. She said in his new one, he’d written a whole chapter about us, well, really about me. I coughed on my chai latte. Excuse me? How the fuck do you write a chapter about a guy you’ve never met?
She explained that based on what she told him about me and our relationship, he’d conceived a whole chapter that used me as an example of how and why women should avoid men who lack earnestness. Now he’d turned me into a book chapter? She told me she was kind of flattered he’d written about her. I said nothing more about it. She told me it wasn’t a big deal. Don’t be upset. I knew I had to earnestly stop seeing her. I was confusing her, I was confusing me, and that wasn’t fair to anyone. People were getting hurt, and that’s not supposed to happen in a game.
Thanks to my ex-girlfriend’s Buddhist therapist, who I never met, I learned to trust more deeply in my belief that you’re winning at life anytime you’re playing. And you’re losing whenever you let someone else convince you not to play. And you can earnestly play. Like, it was no longer cool for me to play with my ex-girlfriend. To continue would be cruel, even if she said she wanted to go on the way we were.
If I ever ran into my ex-girlfriend’s Buddhist therapist — let’s say I was wandering around Long Beach and bumped into him — I might not say it to him, but I would think it: Fuck. that. guy. Then I would laugh and keep on gliding along like my feet are rollerskates. Why? Because I prefer to play at life than be earnestly upset by bullshit.
It took me a while to realize I was playing with my ex-girlfriend’s heart. I earnestly didn’t intend to do that. She was lying to herself, while she still hoped my heart would change. And frankly, I had to agree with her Buddhist therapist. I should be earnest. So I finished breaking her heart and said we shouldn’t see each other anymore. At all. She broke up with me first, I broke up with her last. And it didn’t feel good, but it did feel earnest.
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