Breaking up as a Mindfulness Practice

By Octavia Baker mb56-Breaking1


For months, I was clinging to my relationship with my partner, thinking we could somehow stay together without my becoming a parent, although he wanted to have children. I thought my partner could adopt my best friend’s children. He could become a mentor, a big brother. He could co-parent with a yet-to-be identified lesbian couple. I was obsessed with finding a solution. On the cushion, yet another idea would pop into my head. I scoured the library, read Rebecca Walker’s book on alternative families, One Big Happy Family, and searched online for examples of co-parenting that could apply to a straight couple.

Finally, I decided to consider the possibility of motherhood and joined a twelve-week support group with six other women trying to make the same decision. We explored the sources of fear, craving, and delusion within ourselves. At the end, it only confirmed what I already deeply knew to be true—I do not want to be a mother. Mentoring two young women for seven years has satisfied my need to nurture. And although we live in the San Francisco Bay Area, the capital of non-traditional relationships, Arthur really just wants an old-fashioned nuclear family.

Growing up taking care of his dad, who suffered from a mental illness, Arthur has always yearned to experience the traditional roles of a father/child relationship. Although we discussed our differences when we first met, he was not ready to become a father then, so we decided to go ahead and explore a relationship with one another. And being with the most charming and attentive man I’ve ever met (and someone that my friends really admired), it was easy to continue year after year, with the parenting question hanging in the air.

Our relationship is hard for some people to understand, so we are often asked if we are wasting our time staying together. On the contrary, I think we have learned to savor our time together because we know it will not last. For the most part, we cultivate the four elements of true love—loving kindness, compassion, joy, and inclusiveness—and try not to take each other for granted. I have taught him to speak more truthfully in difficult situations and he has inspired me with his compassionate listening. At the same time, we have been able to avoid the landmines that might have broken up other relationships, like arguing over finances or an overbearing mother, because they didn’t really matter in the present moment. If we were not going to get married, we did not have to go to financial counseling, and I did not have to learn to live with his mom.

A Tender Crossroads

Our whole relationship has been based on not knowing, a six-year practice in being present and not planning for the future. We’ve attended ten weddings together, all the while trying not to imagine our own. But at age thirty-four, Arthur decided that he wanted to find a partner who also wanted to be a parent. At first, in some ways, the decision to break up was a relief. I could rest my busy mind and try to fully experience the teaching of nonattachment, to let go of someone I truly loved. But soon I started getting anxious. Should we break up before our seventh anniversary? Were we going to break up, then get back together again? Would I ever find someone else who would treat me nearly as well as he did? Could we still be friends? There was also my ego to contend with, the hope that he would change his mind and choose me over fatherhood. But his decision remained firm, so we agreed to see a therapist to figure things out and to craft a break-up plan.


We scheduled an appointment with Ann Davidman, the therapist who ran the support group I attended to help people decide whether to become a parent. Arthur and I had both been dreading the end of our relationship, not knowing how or when to break up. With Ann, we talked about planning a goodbye period, weeks or months when we will say goodbye to each other and tell each other everything we’re going to miss. This will be the time to fall apart, to hold each other’s pain. Pema Chodron describes this “inbetween state” as a crossroads marked by anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness. “This open-ended tender place is called bodhicitta. Staying with it is what heals.”

Talking to Ann gave us some hope about remaining in each other’s lives. If we give ourselves enough time to say goodbye, we hope to transition to a friendship that a future partner may be comfortable with. Of course, our intention is to remain friends, but there are no guarantees. So on our seventh anniversary, January 2, 2011, we plan to celebrate the day we met, and begin our journey toward a new friendship. At thirty-two, the age when a lot of my friends are getting married and having kids, it is hard to be starting over again. I have to trust that the voice deep inside me is right, as I step into the world—single again, but not alone.

I hold you close to me I release you to be so free Because I am in you and you are in me Because I am in you and you are in me. --Thich Nhat Hanh

mb56-Breaking4Octavia Baker is passionate about building community among people of color, creating healthy environments for youth, and eating well. She practices with The Hella Just and Compassionate Sangha in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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