There is a wonderful book that I read years ago, a wonderful surprise because I didn’t think I would like the book much less remember it so well for years. The book is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I know nothing of motorcycle maintenance, little of motorcycles, and had no idea how zen would anything to do with motorcycle maintenance or a long distance trip on a motorcycle with frequent need of repair. Here’s why I remember the book many years later. As the main character made a long distance journey, there were many obstacles along the way that delayed him, made him angry at the situation, angry at the universe, were expensive and caused the journey to take a different route that what he expected. Where does zen come into that? The hero took the time along his journey to reflect on what each obstacle was bringing into his life, that reacting emotionally did not advance his journey, and how each obstacle, with reflection, becomes a learning opportunity.
Going through a divorce is a lot like that. It’s a journey with a lot of obstacles, a journey you didn’t really want to take, and the road through your life is definitely a different route than what you wanted to take. It is a time of uncertainty, where everything that you thought you knew about yourself, your spouse, the parent of your children, your relationships, dissolve like a sandcastle when the ocean flows around it. Like that sand, when the tide is rushing out, the ground under your feet shifts, and you feel as if you are losing your balance. When we feel out of balance is when we tend to act and react in ways that are often out of character. We get angry, and stay angry. That anger seems to control us, and we say things that are hurtful to other people. When other people say hurtful things to us, we feel as if we have been knocked over by a hard wave. We shove our anger and our bitterness onto everyone who comes across our path.
If you are going through a divorce, or the aftermath of a divorce, or know someone who would benefit from some advice, here are some zen thoughts that are good to meditate on, to make part of our daily routine, and to help focus on finding a path through the insanity called divorce to get to a road of your own choosing.
- YOU ARE NOT IN CONTROL OF OTHER PEOPLE. As an attorney, I tell people on a very regular basis that in many ways, I am powerless. I don’t have power over what other people do. I can’t make the judge do what I want the outcome to be. I can’t make your spouse be reasonable and do what you want. I can’t make the other attorney take a different approach. All I can control is deciding what actions I think would be best in the situation, and work to persuade and convince someone else that what I have to say is worthwhile listening to. Similarly, when you are going through a divorce, you are not in control of your spouse, or the judge, or the family court system. What you are in control of is your game plan, what your action and reaction is. You decide if you want to file a motion. You decide what proposal you want to make. You decide what you are going to ask a judge to do. You decide how you are going to respond to someone else being out of control, and striking out at you.
“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from here.” - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
- DON’T ASSUME THAT IF YOU COULD ONLY CONVINCE THE OTHER PERSON, EVERYTHING WOULD BE FINE. Your spouse, or whoever it is that you are giving information to, trying to argue with, trying to persuade, may not be in an emotional state of mind to hear what you are saying. If that person is angry, they may not be able to hear anything other than their own anger, no matter what is said, or how reasonable it is. You also need to examine where you are coming from. Your belief, your ideas as to a parenting schedule, or the division of personal property, may not be the only way to looking at a problem. Someone can be reasonable but still disagree with you as to what should be done. If you are able to let go of the idea that your result must be what is the ultimate outcome, then you can be open to problem solving, looking for solutions that might not have occurred to you because your reasoning path closed different paths, different possibilities.
“The truth knocks on the door and you say, “go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.” - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
- ACT DON’T REACT. Even if you are responding to something that someone else has said, by creating a certain emotional distance from the outcome, when you respond, you are still able to act rather than react. When you have a game plan, when you have thought about the issue, the facts, and potential solutions, you are able to act when you are responding, rather than reacting emotionally, which ultimately is not productive to coming to resolution. If you do not manage your own emotions, you will never truly be divorced, but stuck on the detour of your life, forever tied emotionally to your ex-spouse.
“If someone’s ungrateful and you tell him he’s ungrateful, okay, you’ve called him a name. You haven’t solved anything.” - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
- ACKNOWLEDGE THAT YOU DIDN’T WANT THE DETOUR OF DIVORCE IN YOUR LIFE AND YOU DIDN’T WANT TO END UP TAKING THE LONG WAY. Even if you are the one that decided it was time to divorce, that isn’t where you thought your life would take you. If you are looking for fairness, recognize that fairness isn’t a concept that applies in family law. Fairness is subjective. It means different things to different people. Family law, and family court, isn’t about necessarily about justice, it is about coming to a resolution, about getting you through the detour of your life known as divorce to get you to a place where you can make your own road, your own path. Fairness doesn’t always work well as a concept outside of the court system. Children sometimes align with a toxic spouse for reasons that do not relate necessarily to you. Friends that you thought were your friends decide that the divorce makes them feel uncomfortable, they choose who they are going to remain friends with, and it isn’t you. You have to acknowledge the hurt you feel, and make a choice to move past it. When you can figure out what you have control over, and what you don’t, you are able to make choices for yourself, rather than feeling beaten down with choices taken away from you.
“But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced the government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.” - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
- REALLY BELIEVE THAT YOUR DIVORCE SHOULD NOT BE YOUR CHILDREN’S DIVORCE. Your adult relationship with your spouse is changing from an intimate relationship to a more emotionally distant relationship. That doesn’t mean that your children’s relationship with that person changes from an intimate relationship to an emotionally distant relationship. Your children aligning with you in hating the other person because you hate the other person, only hurts your children. What hurts your children should hurt you as well. It may be that your children have their own negative relationship with your spouse, for reasons that relate to their experiences, not to your experiences. Even though you want to take satisfaction in knowing that your children have similar reactions as you do towards your spouse, resist the short lived satisfaction in have a shared enemy. Your children need to process through their own feelings, and need you to encourage them to make their own choices about what kind of relationship they want to have going forward, and come to their own place of acceptance. They may not end up in the same emotional place that you end up, and you need to encourage your children to have the relationship with their other parent that is good for them.
“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.” - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
- LIVING WELL IS THE ULTIMATE REVENGE. When you are able to emotionally detach from your ex as a spouse, then it really doesn’t matter to you what your ex does, or thinks about you or says about you. That is their issue, not your issue. Unless it has a direct impact on you, or your children, let that other person go down the path of bitterness and anger. There are also times when you want so badly to let your children know what a jerk the other parent is, how mean they are, that they lack moral character. If those things are true, and they are true also for your children, your children will take those into account in determining their own relationship with the other spouse. You don’t have to say or do a thing. You may find that your kids ultimately come to the conclusion that your ex really is a jerk, or is mean, but they came to those conclusions based on their own experiences, not your experiences. In the meantime, what you have to offer your children, your friends, and your family, is a person who looks for the positive change they can bring about in themselves, which brings a positive relationships with other people.
“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until the machine or your mind is changed.” - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceZen and the art of divorce really is about looking at where you are at in your life, at this moment, and deciding that you are going to take this opportunity to view it as a journey that is going to change who you are in a positive way, despite it not being the road that you thought you were going to take. You can choose to feel helpless, that things are happening to you, or you can get to a place in your life, where you decide what you can control, what changes you can make, and let go emotionally of what you can’t change.