Bodhidharma Breakups

Bodhidharma, who cut off his eyelids to stay awake and keep meditating

I heard a Buddhist sermon once, a dharma talk, in which the teacher described the night he came to know sleepiness.

He was at a residential meditation retreat, and though the students had been released back to their dormitories for the night, he decided to stay in the main hall, sitting.

This was no lark because, as you know, at meditation retreat centers they do not mess around when it comes to mornings. 4am, your ass is up. No caffeine, either, or hardly none. Accordingly, come 9 or 10pm, you are tired. Eleven, sleep-heavy chin sinks to your chest, bounces back up like a car on hydraulics. And this is Theravada tradition, eyes closed. By midnight even the insomniac practitioners are bobble-headed with drowsiness.

But this teacher, on this night, was fighting the nods, battling the bobble-head, determined not to succumb to sleepiness, but rather to observe it. To remain awake, taking note of experience.

Finally, dizzy with darkness but stubborn and still curious, he decided to open his eyes. Not just open, but saucer and bulge them, two peeled grapes in his sockets, letting the light steep them and the cold air gently bite.


Like this, he stayed awake, sitting.

Ten minutes.




Until eventually he felt the first wave. An enormous wave, engulfing him from the bottom up, his folded legs, his butt, hips, flowing warm and heavy and sweet up his torso, shivering his shoulders and face, and wicking up and off the crown of his head, into the air above him.

He withstood it, but minutes later, another wave came. Again he fought, saucered his eyes wider, prying the lids open with his fingers. Again it traveled up his body and through the crown of his head.

A first wave; a second; a third.

And then it stopped. He was awake. Three waves, that was it. Over. For another couple hours, he stayed and sat peacefully, gently electrified, without effort.  From then on, he recognized sleepiness in a totally new way.

I think about this story as I drive home from a talk in the park with my ex.  A year and a half after the breakup, we are still moderately allergic to each other, leaning back on our hands in the grass, heads far apart, though each of us wants to be friends in some way.  Problem is, he’s long over me, but I still love him, and he can tell.  Hell, I’ve told him to his face, straight-up.  Not to try to change his mind, not to try to get back together, not because I like seeing him feel guilty — I don’t.  But in a society that often prescribes an emotional scorched-earth policy for managing heartbreak, I want to try this on my own terms. I want to watch this love of mine and see what it does.

I’ve felt the waves, shedding — incinerating — evaporating — hope after hope.

Hope of reuniting.

Hope that he still loves me.

Hope that he’s bluffing when he says he’s over it.  (So soon? For real?)

Hope for some sort of approval, friendliness, camaraderie, ease.


Waves and waves and waves.  Many more than three, I’m afraid.  Through months of silence between us; through nights of studious mutual avoidance at parties; through tentative outings and gingerly re-evaluations.  The waves arise and roil and dissipate.  I may be crushed and choked, temporarily, but I come back.   And I want to watch these love pangs pass; I want to see what’s on the other side — I’ll cut off my damn eyelids if I have to, like Bodhidharma did when he got sick of falling asleep and interrupting his own wall-gazing.  I won’t be rushed.

Am I wrong?  Maybe.  Foolish?  Could be.  Stubborn?  Definitely.

We’ll see.

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