The philosophy of Taoism revolves around letting go, accepting, yielding, and going with the flow. All Taoist sages seem to agree that it’s better to be detached and indifferent, allow change to happen, and move along with life’s constant transformations than to resist change and cling to what’s already in the past. When we are romantically involved with someone, we often see the opposite happening of what the Taoists teach. We attach, we cling, we control, and we’re usually very fearful of being abandoned by the person who generates immense bliss within ourselves. At the peak of the so-called honeymoon phase,’ when everything seems carefree, joyful, and happy, we wish it would never end. But as we all know: this period of mutual infatuation never lasts.
No feeling is final. The changing nature of our emotional world causes us to fall out of love, sometimes as quickly as we fall in love. When feelings change, the relationship changes. Frequently, the consequence of declined feelings of attraction, for whatever reason, is a breakup. Such a drastic change is challenging to handle, especially when the decline in attraction isn’t mutual. For some, it takes years (or even a lifetime) to get over someone. Others never truly accept the breakup and move Heaven and Earth to win back their old flame, to no avail. When we cannot change outside circumstances, the only way to move forward is to change ourselves, including how we look at the situation at hand. The Taoist ideas in this piece could help us see the breakup (and heartbreak in general) in another light.
Holding on, letting go
The art of letting go is a recurring theme in Taoist texts. In the book of Zhuangzi, we’ll find a short story about Pei Kung She, the tax collector. In order to make a set of new bells for the king, he had to collect sufficient taxes. What seemed an impossible task, Pei finished without effort, and within three months, the bells were completed. The king asked: “Master Pei, what is this art you wield?” Then, Pei explained that he didn’t wield anything.
Mysteriously, wonderfully, I bid farewell to what goes, I greet what comes; for what comes cannot be denied, and what goes cannot be detained. I follow the rude and violent, trail after the meek and bending, letting each come to its own end. So I can collect taxes from morning to night and meet not the slightest rebuff.Zhuangzi, The Mountain Tree
Master Pei didn’t force anything and got great results. He didn’t get into arguments and simply bent with the situations he encountered. This story has nothing to do so far with breakups. But it displays the Taoist attitude toward life in general, one of going with the flow and letting go of what goes. This attitude is the opposite of how people generally approach romantic love. Instead of letting go, we tend to grasp. And when a breakup occurs, instead of accepting it, we deny what comes and try to detain what goes. But by doing so, we’re opposing the way of the universe, so to speak. Not only do we act in opposition to the outside world, but also to ourselves. If we let go, we are soft and supple. If we refuse to let go, we are dry and brittle. From a Taoist point of view, life is soft and supple; death is brittle and dry.
Imagine the hurt caused by the unwillingness to let go of what’s already passed. When we keep living in the past, we’ll eventually become bitter and unable to allow the present in our lives. Like a river flowing past someone tightly clinging to a rock, life passes by someone refusing to let go of a past relationship. What a waste, as life contains so many opportunities that we cannot see because we’ve turned our backs to them. When we don’t bid farewell to what goes, we seem to less likely greet what comes. Because as long as we don’t let go of one thing, it’s impossible to embrace another fully.
A blessing in disguise
Once upon a time, the Taoist sage Zhuangzi wandered in the mountains and encountered a vast tree. Its branches were thick and crooked. A lumberjack passed by but refused to cut down the crooked tree. When Zhuangzi asked him why he replied: “There’s nothing this tree could be used for! It’s worthless!” But Zhuangzi said: “Well, because of its worthlessness, this tree can live out the years Heaven gave it.” Again, the story itself may have nothing to do with heartbreak, but there’s a lesson to be learned about the blessing of rejection. The woodcutter rejected the tree because it wasn’t good enough in his eyes. But this rejection allowed the tree to grow old and beautiful, and over the years, people came to admire it and even declared it a holy place.
Someone rejecting us is just another change that comes with loss but also with gain. Take, for example, the many benefits of being single regarding personal growth, finding meaning in life, and tranquility. And the calmness that’s available to us after an emotionally draining relationship ends can be recuperative. We may also come to see that we’re not compatible with the person we struggle to let go of, and, perhaps, we’re designed for another path that better suits our nature. The crooked tree shows us that not all trees are fit to be turned into wooden planks. Likewise, not all people are suitable for each other. And for some, it may even be better to remain single in certain situations. The crooked tree simply followed its nature; it became what it naturally would become: useless from one perspective but still valuable in the eyes of others.
In accepting the end of a relationship and letting go of someone, we also follow the way nature (or fate) intends, which is that the person we were once romantically involved with goes another way. As we’ve learned from the crooked tree: everything has a part to play in this universe. And the roles we’ve played in the lives of the people we’ve lost (how unfortunate this may seem) are over.
After letting ourselves become attached to another person, there’s often no way to eradicate this attachment overnight. What resists, persists, and the more we fight the pain caused by separation, the more painful it becomes. The attachments that develop between people that are romantically involved are often deep and stubborn. Such a bond either dissolves slowly over time, or it’s ripped apart by sudden separation. The latter is painful: the more we attach, the more we grow into each other, the more drastic the breakup is. When this separation happens, there’s a wound that needs time to heal. Many people try to accelerate this process by seeking distractions and repressing thoughts and emotions, but to no avail as the wound heals at a natural pace.
We can choose to keep running from our pain, but we’ll have to face it someday, often when we don’t expect it. We can choose to fight our pain, but by doing so, it only increases because we put an extra layer of pain on top of the pain that already exists. The more we want to be free of pain, the more pain we experience. So instead of trying to get rid of the pain that comes with letting someone go, we can accept it as an inevitable part of a breakup until it naturally subsides, like cloudiness naturally transforms into a clear sky.
Mastery of the world is achieved by letting things take their natural course. You can not master the world by changing the natural way.Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 48
The beauty is that we can trust the universe in solving the problems that we cannot solve ourselves. Even though change seems to work against us when we lose someone we love, it also works to our advantage as it will eventually rid us of our grief and sorrow. And this process itself has valuable things to offer, like becoming familiar with pain which is a root for compassion and empathy. Moreover, the pain of heartbreak has been a source of inspiration for many artists. Impermanence can be a friend or foe, depending on how we treat it. If we continually move in opposition to it, our suffering will be endless. But if we allow it to be, we will enable it to dissolve naturally and we won’t suffer the additional pain that comes with resisting what is.
Letting someone go can be a never-ending, painful process if we refuse to move along with the changing nature of the universe. Nothing is permanent. Everything comes and goes, including the people in our lives. Life isn’t supposed to play out the way we want, but the way it happens. From a Taoist perspective, nothing that happens is fundamentally wrong or right; it’s simply the universe changing. But it’s the mind that adds problematic elements to some of these changes, making them undesirable in our eyes. So, we don’t suffer change itself, but the way we look at it.
A Taoist sage greets what comes and says farewell to what goes. Change is the natural state of the universe; it moves like the sea’s tides, between opposites like ebb and flow, high and low, front and back. If we are supple and flexible towards change, we may start to enjoy the way things are, at the moment, and accept their impermanent nature. A breakup, then, isn’t right or wrong, but just another change that we can ride like an ocean’s wave.
Thank you for watching.