How can I break a pattern of abandonment?
Question: In my lifetime, I have seen what I perceive as an inordinate amount of abandonment. Starting at about 3 years old with my own father and continuing in a pattern throughout my lifetime, I’ve been purposely abandoned by the people closest to me. The ones who didn’t physically walk out of my life were unable to be present for a child, and it’s been said that’s another form of abandonment. I can provide more details but I don’t think that’s important.
I’d like to know what might be going on with my karma and how and why abandonment has become a major theme in my life. I can’t help but wonder if I’m bringing it on myself, though I don’t really think that could be true for my childhood self.
Is there a lesson I’m failing to learn? What can I do to prevent this theme from continuing on in other lifetimes?
Whitney, Massage Therapist
This is a subject close to my heart. An adopted friend of mine also shared this sense of abandonment, and it was serious enough to propel him to become a monk. I will never forget one of the last things he said before leaping into the folds of the monastery, “Until I face this karma, the same thing is going to happen to me over and over again.”
So it’s wonderful that you’re asking the question. In my experience, he was right. Different relationships and situations through the years seemed to play out the same pattern. Between the ages of 4 and 34, more often than not, my friendships and relationships followed the same routine: I’d be alone, I’d meet someone and be close to them for a while, then for a myriad different reasons out of nowhere, they would turn away. Over and again.
Finally after ordaining in Buddhism I learned that whatever the cause is, and whatever my current situation is, I’m going to have to completely accept it. And stop telling myself stories about what the situation is and why. You may be familiar with the oft quoted parable of the arrow:
“The Buddha always told his disciples not to waste their time and energy in metaphysical speculation. Whenever he was asked a metaphysical question, he remained silent. Instead, he directed his disciples toward practical efforts. Questioned one day about the problem of the infinity of the world, the Buddha said, “Whether the world is finite or infinite, limited or unlimited, the problem of your liberation remains the same.” Another time he said, “Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.” Life is so short. It must not be spent in endless metaphysical speculation that does not bring us any closer to the truth.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys
There are insights to be had, and there is something we can do about it. But as you’ve probably already figured out, speculation has a limited effect and if used in the wrong way, it can even be destructive.
I learned that to some extent, I was actively carrying this situation with me. Thinking of solitude made me feel lonely, and the feeling of loneliness perpetuated more loneliness. Thinking negatively of my past made me feel like a victim, and needless to say, victims don’t make a lot of friends!
In other words – was I abandoning myself?
I resolved to come to each situation and each morning afresh, not expecting anything from any particular day. Maybe this day I will meet lots of people, maybe I won’t; who knows? Maybe this new friend will stay, maybe she won’t. My only job is to give myself to the current situation, whatever it is. If I’m alone and feeling lonely, okay, so be it. If over a long period of time I’m with someone and feeling lonely, and experience shows that it isn’t possible to reconnect with that person, I may have to move on.
Running from any feeling will perpetuate it, so I allowed all feelings to stay for as long as they wanted. I didn’t perpetuate them or expect anything in particular; I just observed and accepted as they came and went, without trying to manipulate anything.
This may sound like a passive approach to life, but it turned out not to be. When I stopped trying to make things happen one way or another, I learned that they happened by themselves. In fact, it’s the “stopping trying” that allowed them to unfold for the better. For example, if you’ve deeply accepted solitude, that gives you a genuine confidence which attracts people. If you’ve trained yourself to not desire a specific outcome to an event, then from your point of view, every situation is ok.
What is abandonment really? Is it someone leaving, whom we think shouldn’t have? The “rights and wrongs” of this are clear when it comes to parents and children; most of us agree that parents have a responsibility to do everything in their power to be there for their children. But when you’ve grown up, your responsibility is to yourself. Whether you were abandoned in the past or not, dealing with your feelings and caring for yourself is now your responsibility.
That’s not to say that Buddhism is about forgetting your past completely. It can help to reflect on how an abandoning parent was a victim to the pattern too. Even when we create destruction in our wake, each of us is doing our best. This doesn’t remove accountability, but it does help to release your death-grip on “how things should have been” and “what people should have done”. We have to accept that it is not an ideal world with ideal people. As in the parable of the arrow, what we think about how things should have been is completely irrelevant. The life-saving question is, what can realistically be done now?
In terms of adult relationships, many make and break commitments. Few people have supreme willpower, we only have limited knowledge of ourselves at any given time, and to top it all, things happen to everyone beyond their control. I can promise to do my best, but ultimately I can’t guarantee anything. Even among married spiritual masters, the divorce rate is as high as anywhere else.
There are things we can do to limit the chances that we’ll break commitments. For example, get to know yourself as well as you possibly can, and be upfront about your limits; and get clued up about codependency so you don’t find yourself making promises for all the wrong reasons.
What can we do to limit the chances that we’ll be abandoned, though? Getting clued up about codependency helped me here, too, and supplemented what I was learning in Buddhist practice. I had thought that someone (or several people) left me who shouldn’t have left me. This idea of “what should have happened” was however my judgment, and the judgment created the idea of abandonment. Once I’d learned how to be ok on my own, it was no longer possible to abandon me. Abandonment ceased to exist. Without the story, when we stop playing roles and stop thinking about what we want and don’t want, all that’s really happening is that people come and go.
I might decide to trust someone, and I could be wrong. The worst that can happen is that I would have liked someone to stick around, and they don’t. Because I’ve learned that I’m ok on my own, there is ultimately nothing to lose. The simple knowledge that I’m ok, takes the pressure off people to have to be a certain way around me; which makes them more likely to be happy to stick around.
So it’s radical acceptance and self-nurturing which break the pattern. Be patient and play the long game; most of us have spent a lifetime establishing a pattern of thinking about the past, so it won’t go away immediately. This is one of the problems with many modern self-help directives: they give the impression that we can simply will our way out of our past. But the fact is that after you stop engaging with it, it hangs around for a while. Expect the pattern to re-emerge several times, even while you’re doing the right thing. Keep the faith that you will come out the other side.
I hope this helps; please add comments below if you’d like to question or ask anything more. All best wishes and please keep in touch.