When my husband and I separated, I agreed to move from our spacious home to a small apartment with our three daughters. My youngest, two years old, took this as a cue to pull into my bed lock, stash, and barrel. She is a wild kid and has an impressive array of acrobatics who can be performed on their backs. Her external hyperactivity was only matched by internal reflections on my impending divorce, and it was difficult to get sleep between the two of us. After spending most of a decade earning my title as a “half empty” glass partner, I had to save myself from the negative tendency on my own head.
Admittedly late for the party and skeptical, I decided to see if the practice of post-divorce mindfulness could calm these intrusive thoughts. And so our sound machine, which was set to “rain”, was replaced by Spotify’s extensive library of meditations and guided visualizations. One podcast led to another and I eventually came across a western psychologist who became an eastern mindfulness trainer, Tara Brach. My two-year-old, fascinated by the velvety inflections of Tara’s voice, would surrender to sleep as, despite myself, I was increasingly fascinated by her philosophy of consciousness, emotional healing and loss.
How mindfulness helped me heal after divorce
One night, when I was teetering on the verge of sleep, she said something so profound and yet so simple that my eyes were opened wide. In Brach’s talk “Awakening from Virtual Reality” she suggests that although our thoughts are real, we should view them as our virtual reality rather than our actual reality. By viewing it as our virtual reality, we create space for alternatives and discover who we are, beyond the stories we tell ourselves in our minds. In the course of my marriage, I was told to just “choose happiness” which, thanks to the rigid thought patterns in my head, never really worked for me. How can you choose happiness when your situation and relationship are barely above water? But this was something to wrap my head around because it powerfully validates our thoughts as real and yet challenges us to contemplate more favorable options and outcomes.
Gradually my virtual reality morphed from loss, fear, betrayal and grief into something that resembled “glass half full” thinking. Here are some examples of my altered thought patterns.
In my virtual reality, I spend a lifetime mourning, dissecting, and analyzing a relationship that was very peachy in color. Complacency and finger pointing would rob me of precious years as I watch my three amazing and uniquely vibrant daughters reach their full potential. In my actual reality, I see the relationship for what it was – unfulfilled at best, destructive and toxic at worst. Instead of blaming myself, I am grateful for the lessons I learned mostly about myself because now I can open my eyes to life with my girls in all its beauty.
In my virtual reality, my children carry the luggage and the scars that enable them to automatically become a member of the Broken Home club. Addiction, depression and anxiety, to name just a few, are in the fine print of their membership contract. Unknown, when they chose me to be their mother, they bought this membership and I live with that debt. In my reality, my children are raised by a single mother who automatically qualifies them for the “Lemonade” club. Strength, resilience, and graininess are the benefits of this valued membership that turns lemons into lemonade.
In my virtual reality, he’s moving on at lightning speed (ok, that part is actual reality) with someone who is constantly “choosing happiness” like I never could. Another woman steps into my role as I watch from the sidelines, speechless with grief. In my actual reality, aside from how it affects our children, his new relationship will not play a role in the development of my next chapter. I quietly wish both of them all the best as I live the life I deserve and maybe find a new love for myself when I am whole again.
In my virtual reality, I am struggling to reinvent myself to raise children after a ten year career break. After pursuing a few passions in hopes of turning them into a career, I sell my soul to a role that I don’t enjoy and that offers minimal financial security. In my actual reality, I invest and improve myself to make the most of my time when my daughters are with their dad. The doors open as I actively pursue leads and amaze myself time and again by uncovering skills and talents that I would otherwise never have. Skilled, I build a rewarding career and show my daughters independence.
In my virtual reality, my social circle is shrinking as friends who are not sure how to deal with this delicate and somewhat uncomfortable situation and withdraw into the comfort of the familiar. There is no place for single mothers in married circles. In my actual reality, the support and pouring of love has been humble as friends and family cannot do enough to hold my hand while life tests me. If anything, that experience showed me that there are many others who will stop choosing me.
These are a splash of the fears that come with separating a life, family, and home with someone. A true listing of them would require a novel.
Every night my tyrant child crawls into the crook of my arm, tries to hijack my cell phone and asks to listen to “the Tara lady”. It’s not a perfect science. I still have problems with days when my “half empty glass” thinking is stuck in a loop and I indulge in my virtual reality. But over time, I choose my new and improved reality more easily and responsibly. When I close my eyes at night, my wish is that this valuable cognitive tool sinks into parts of my daughter’s developing psyche and that I wake up from my virtual reality the next morning.