In a world of stressful and often-turbulent divorces, there is an alternative path to consider. Drawing from Buddhist philosophy, this post invites divorcing spouses (and their professional assistants), to connect with their higher nature and see this transformative time as a chance for personal growth. The six steps outlined here, taken together, can result in subtle internal shifts and powerful behavioral changes. While we would prefer that both parties seek a peaceful divorce from the beginning, one party alone can transform the post-divorce relationship profoundly through their individual choice to embrace these practices. And one need not embrace Buddhism to benefit from taking these steps.
1. Accepting the Way Things Are.
Acceptance is at the core of Buddhism. This means accepting that you are out of control in certain aspects of your life and embracing the feelings that arise without judgment. It also means understanding that we cannot change what happened in our past but can only take ownership of our present and future actions. Whether you accept or resist change, change will continue to occur. Resisting the way things are brings nothing but suffering. On the other hand, accepting the inevitability of change brings peace and wisdom.
This is, of course, not easy. Every change, but especially divorce, is the death of an old identity and humans predictably experience death (and endings) with anger and depression. The famed psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described the five stages of grief as shock, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages apply to divorce every bit as much as they apply to death. A key task facing those who are going through a divorce is to experience each of these stages. Sometimes one must return to a stage not fully embraced.
A practice to consider:
Breathing deeply and inhaling the word “let” and exhaling the word “go.” Letting go of the old identity and the old way of life. Letting go of the old stories about what your life should be like. This letting go of the past makes room for the acceptance of the way things are.
2. Choosing the Road Less Traveled.
As you let go of the past, you are confronted with a choice – the choice of how you will accept what is happening. The most common choice is to accept what is happening with bitterness, anger, and a commitment to punishing your spouse. The road less traveled, however, is a commitment to putting the children’s needs first, cooperating, and maintaining a healthy post-divorce relationship with each other. The road less traveled also involves taking the high road when your spouse doesn’t mirror your commitment to creating a new, healthier relationship. This may require a great deal of patience and continuing commitment in the face of your spouse’s anger. But patience and commitment are required when on the road less traveled.
The road less traveled also involves pursuing mediation or collaborative practice when filing for divorce as these methods can help keep emotions from getting out of hand while still achieving desired outcomes. It also means putting your children first during this process no matter how difficult it may seem at times. But the road less traveled is the only road that will allow you to feel pride in how you showed up and what you did for yourself and your children when you look back at this time 5 or 10 years from now.
3. Seeing the Big Picture.
Imagining what things could look like in 5 or 10 years, rather than dwelling on current struggles, can be incredibly helpful during a divorce. Thinking about how much better off you might be after a successful divorce can help put things into perspective. It can offer hope for brighter days ahead. Although your divorce feels all-consuming now, when you pull back and see this event in the context of a whole lifetime (past, present, and future), you are now able to see this period of time, including your divorce, as only one piece of the overall picture of your life.
A practice to consider:
Make a list of 10 things that are better about your separate life than your married life. Is there less yelling and confrontation? Are you spending more one-on-one time with your children now? Are you able to watch that mindless TV show that you like, or a sporting event that was the cause of tension in your previous life?
Write a letter to your future self, describing your current difficulties and asking for guidance from your future and presumably wiser self.
4. Listening to Silence.
Sitting mindfully can help bring clarity when emotions are running high or when things feel overwhelming. Taking time alone to allow thoughts to come into focus or go away entirely gives us insight into our own wants and needs during this difficult period in life. Taking the time to regularly sit mindfully in silence, while being in the moment, without judging yourself or others, without trying to control anything, can have a truly calming effect on both the mind and the body. This can be challenging at first, especially when one’s mind is swirling with strong emotions. But allowing this effort to build on itself over time can be very helpful in staying true to your higher intention of integrity, strength, and cooperation in the face of everyday upheavals.
There are now many meditation apps available today that will provide you with guided meditations, offering an easier path to a regular mindfulness meditation practice. Anything that will support you in developing a daily meditation practice is worth giving a try.
A practice to consider:
ABC – starting with A for Awareness, spend up to ten minutes simply being aware of the moment, being aware of the sounds around you, the feel of the chair you are in, the sensations on your skin, and the thoughts that naturally jump from here to there (what is sometimes referred to as the “Monkey Mind). Let go of your judgments about what your mind should be doing and just notice what is. Move on to B for Breath, noticing your breath moving in and out and how your body pauses between breaths. Observe the process, or literally count your breaths. Finally, focus on C for Center, letting your attention drop to the center of your body and imagine a vertical core of light within yourself, connecting this centered, anchored place. Consider repeating a word, such as “peace” or “love” as a way of focusing the mind and staying in that core space.
5. Giving Generously.
This step can be the hardest when you are feeling hurt and angry. Why be generous to this jerk? The Buddhist law of Karma proposes that whatever you put out in the world will return to you tenfold. This isn’t just a Buddhist concept, it shows up in our culture in the phrase “what goes around comes around” and as taught by Jesus “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
A practice to consider:
Metta Bhavana is one of the principal meditative techniques for achieving a state of generosity. Direct loving-kindness:
- Toward yourself, then
- Toward a loved one, then
- Toward a stranger, then
- Toward an enemy or someone with whom you are having difficulty, then
- Toward your larger community, your world.
As you go through these 5 stages, say or think phrases. Phrases such as: “may you be happy,” “may you be safe,” “may you be healthy,” and “may you be peaceful.”
The fact that your spouse might never wish you well is not the point. Metta is about opening your own heart and the benefit is for you. This opening up of the heart can have a profound effect on your experience of the world. You may not see a reciprocal effect from your spouse or at least not for some time. It is surprising how often this practice can lead to greater loving kindness in your world from others.
And it should be noted that in my practice I have often seen a generosity of spirit that is exhibited in settlement negotiations reciprocated with a similar and often surprising generosity of spirit.
6. Strive for Enlightenment.
To be “enlightened” means to “awaken to the truth.” When the Buddha reached enlightenment, he realized that he was connected to all things and that any sense of separation between himself and others was an illusion. He concluded that there is no such thing as an enemy since everyone is truly connected. Realizing we are all connected helps in understanding everything we do affects one another, whether we see it or not. It’s hard to be hateful to someone when you know you are connected in profound ways. And it is hard to fight someone when he or she won’t fight back.
Striving for Enlightenment in the context of divorce means honoring and appreciating the good times you shared. Also, it means recognizing that your shared memories will connect you forever. Even if you struggle to remember the good times, you are nevertheless connected by all that you have learned (as hard as that may have been). And of course, if you have children your connection will live on through them for the rest of your lives.
Staying focused on understanding ourselves and others deeply will ultimately bring peace and contentment even amidst turbulent times like those associated with a divorce situation.
A Buddhist divorce is one that focuses on acceptance, peace, understanding, connection, and growth throughout each step taken along its path. For divorcing couples looking for an alternative approach that offers emotional healing then look no further than Buddhism’s teachings about finding balance through letting go, seeing possibilities beyond what is immediately visible before us, and embracing each new moment without judgment so that transformation may occur more naturally over time rather than through force alone. With these tools in hand, anyone can make their journey through divorce much smoother by allowing themselves to be guided by their higher nature which will lead them down paths they may never have considered before, but ones that ultimately benefit them far more than they ever knew possible!
This blog post has discussed the six steps of a Buddhist divorce which are: 1. accepting the way things are. 2. choosing the road less traveled. 3. seeing the big picture. 4. listening to silence. 5. giving generously. 6. striving for enlightenment. By following these guidelines and connecting with their higher nature, divorcing couples can make their journey through divorce much smoother and arrive at a place of peace, understanding, connection, and growth.
I am grateful for the inspiration and wisdom of Ashley Davis Prend and her description of the Buddhist Divorce in Psychotherapy Networker, May/June 2008.