It’s true, there just isn’t a yardstick for certain things. The blueness of the sky, the spectacular clarity of the snow-capped mountains on a very clear day, and the brilliant clearness of the water that reflects those mountains, for example. There is just a quality about those experiences that can be somewhat inscrutable.
I had some experiences today that were similarly hard to characterize, both in their timing and in their content. First, my wife decided to turn up around noon today. This was not an unannounced arrival, as she had texted me last night to tell me she’d be coming by. I had gone out earlier that morning to run some errands (all my clients were afternoon/early evening today) and, among other things, had picked up some flowers to replace some that were kind of flagging. I was in the midst of cooking lunch when she arrived.
I invited her to join me, and she assented. We chatted a bit, but she seemed somewhat preoccupied. After lunch, she went out into the backyard to look at our garden. She hasn’t done this in ages, months, maybe. The garden is really her baby: she did a tremendous amount of work on it during the first two years we lived in this house, and took enormous pride in its design and spent hours toiling in the soil, rain or shine, to make it happen. I went out to join her, and we looked at some of the plants that had unexpectedly over-wintered, as well as some of the bulbs that were beginning to push up through the soil. This was all the more poignant to see, in a way, since we had a light dusting of snow this morning that had only just melted away. I got the feeling from watching her that she really misses this house, this garden, and this life. I’m not sure why, and I can’t exactly put my finger on it. It was more of a matter of tone: the way she looked, her deportment in walking out into the yard, and so forth. She has on numerous occasions in the past said that she really likes this house, and thinks it’s the most cozy one we’ve ever lived in, so it wouldn’t surprise me if she indeed was missing it right now.
We came back inside, and I began to make some coffee. She asked if she could “spend some time” with the dog for two days, and I said that would be fine. This phrase, “spend some time,” to me is code for her going on another adulterous jaunt; I began to realize that I had even very recently had selfish impulses when she’d make these requests, and would only assent begrudgingly. This time was different. I just let go.
She then went into her office and played the piano. I nearly teared up, as I began to realize how much I missed hearing her play. The sound of her playing has been a constant fixture in my life for years, and since her departure it’s been largely gone. I was going to put her coffee into an insulated travel cup, but she then told me that she had some time and would drink it here. I brought the coffee into her office, and we sat and chatted a bit. She asked me if I was doing okay financially, and I gave her a very sudden and confident “yes,” along with a big smile. She seemed a bit shocked. Business has picked up for me over the past two months, and I find myself doing pretty well without her financial contribution. She told me that she was concerned, and that I could ask her for help if I needed it. Not that I’m going to do that right now, as I’m far better off financially than she is, but it was a sign to me that she feels both guilt and some responsibility for her actions.
After a few minutes, she came out to the living room with me. I had prepared a little travel bag for the dog, with a bowl and treats and all that, and was ready to give it to her. She sat down on the couch and asked me if I had anything I wanted to talk about. In the past, this would mean that she was feeling conflicted and wanted to talk, and perhaps it still did. I just confidently and truthfully said “no” once again, and she again seemed taken aback. I just told her that I felt like I was in a pretty good place emotionally, very stable, and not really needing to talk through things. She, however, was clearly uneasy. I asked her about her dissertation, not to nag, but rather because there was an opening and I just wanted her to know that I am still willing to help. She admitted that she hadn’t done any work at all, and was finding it pretty much impossible to focus. She said that she was probably going to ask for an extension, but I cautioned her that she might not get one, and she needed to take care of any such requests right away if that was what she wanted to do. I also told her that I was always there to help. She confessed that she had been having panic attacks, and that the most recent one was about two weeks ago, being triggered by thoughts of her dissertation. The woman in whose house she is staying is an individual who has many repressed emotional traumas, and who has suffered plenty of panic attacks of her own over the years. She told my wife that the symptoms she had were exactly those of a panic attack, and my wife told her that these were precisely the same symptoms she’d had nearly 10 years ago, before we were married, while she was still involved in a very unbalanced relationship that ended badly. It’s interesting that those panic attacks should return now. Not that I haven’t seen a few over the years with her, but pretty much all of these had been due to some sort of external stimuli, e.g. impending deadlines and such. I don’t think it’s odd that the panic attacks have recurred, but I do think it’s a bit odd that she hasn’t figured out that they are returning because of the choices she has made and continues to make. We chatted a bit longer, and then she left.
After work, I headed over to the center where I do my spiritual practice. They have a new class that just started on the Four Immeasurables, and this hardly could have been more timely. The entire topic of the class is 100% relevant to my life as it is right now. One of the investigations we did involved bringing to mind someone to whom we have aversion. That was easy: the adulterer came right up. We were instructed to watch the emotions that arose in thinking about that person, and I was rather astonished to see that, right beneath the aversion was a sense of tenderness and sorrow. Then, we were invited to bring to mind someone to whom we feel attachment, and for this my wife came to mind instantly. The underlying emotions there were also those of tenderness and sorrow. The basic reason for this sorrow came from the understanding that both of these people were doing what they have been doing for nearly five months now out of the desire to be happy, even though the things they are doing are truly unskillful, unproductive, hurtful, and will have no positive outcome. It’s a pretty major realization to find that you can have compassion for someone who has been trying to destroy your marriage because, deep down inside, that person just wants the same thing as do you: happiness.
But, we cannot have happiness by trying to destroy someone else’s happiness, and that is where the power of the Four Immeasurables comes into play: the first immeasurable is loving-kindness, and is often expressed through the slogan, “may all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.” This is a very powerful aspiration. Rather than trying to achieve happiness at someone else’s expense, you are wishing for them to attain happiness in their lives somehow, and making that a greater priority than your own happiness. This might sound like one would then be condoning things like adultery, but that is not at all the case. The aspiration is that the other person find true happiness, and that cannot occur in situations plagued by destructive behaviors. Or, in other words, one hopes that those who are unhappy relinquish the causes of their unhappiness and turn to virtuous actions through which they may find happiness.
Today was kind of a shifting point for me. Somehow I feel as though my outlook has changed and that I truly can persevere. I have the strength, the resolve, and the stability to make it. And I know that, some day in the very near future, my wife will look at me and see that, and decide that that is a much better place to be happy than where she has been looking these past five months.