Love As A Way Of Being
I believe in nothing so much as the importance, power, and curative of love.
This was a very long journey for me. People are often described as ‘head’ people or ‘heart’ people, and there was no absolutely no question as to which category claimed me for their own. I relied upon books as my source of truth, I distrusted my feelings, I was so tentative to offer and so afraid to receive love, and I had never met a heart problem I didn’t try to analyze with my head, a tactic which reminds me of the famous Mark Twain quote, that “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I used my hammering head to address any and all quandaries, protecting me from the soft, ambiguous, terrifying world of the heart for most of my life.
Then, one day, I had a spiritual/emotional/health/existential crisis that prompted me to reexamine everything that I "knew" about life. This crisis – or as I see it now, a cloaked opportunity – brought me to a place of complete openness and surrender, giving me the chance to reexamine my approach to the world and the way I chose to take my place within it. After many months of contemplation, meditation, writing, and terrifying myself through certain activities and adventures, I came to realize that I had had it all wrong: we need to strike a balance between our heads and our hearts, it is the naturally more dominant force that must be checked by the cultivation of the more submissive one, and ultimately, love is the more powerful and crucial one. Following this realization, I engaged in a careful, concerted effort over the past few years to grow my own heart, and to learn how to bring it into all of my experiences and relationships. (Eventually, a few years later, I wrote my Masters thesis on why love and wisdom are the two pillars of happiness – but more on that later.)
Love is perhaps the most important and also, the most imprecisely defined word that exists. Love is… love! What else can you say about it? The poets and the preachers and the average person have all tried, and yet, it is wildly difficult to capture the exultation, peace, and serenity of the positive state of the feeling within the confines of our language (it is far easier to categorize the ways in which it can bring us to our knees.)
When we try to bring love to life, we are presented with even greater challenges. We tend to want to control love by fencing it off with roles, rules, or beliefs about what is right and wrong; however, the truth is that we are endowed with the capacity to extend love to any living being at any time. Love is simply connection, and we are physiologically wired to connect with others, and the world is so beautifully filled with others, just waiting to be loved and to love us. Scientific research confirms this: within each of our bodies, there is a nerve that connects the brain to our body, and specifically to our heart, known as the vagus nerve. This nerve is part of our biology that helps to facilitate our experiences of love as connection, such as through stimulating our own facial muscles to better enable eye contact and synchronize your expressions with another. Some lucky individuals naturally have strong vagal nerves, and they are more likely to be prosocial, have more frequent positive emotions, better emotional and attentional regulation, and find it easier to connect with others.
But if you are like me, and less of a heart person and more of a head person? Research has found that it is actually possible to increase the strength of your vagal tone – basically, you can cultivate love within you, and it will impact your life in a hundred positive ways. As someone who was seeking to grow their heart, and was reverting to a rather heady pathway by researching academic journal articles in order to learn how to do so, this was a miracle to me.
However, I quickly learned that love is not something that can just be taught from a book. Cultivating love is a constant, active process of vulnerability, integrity, and humility. Who among us does not want more love in our lives? Who among us does not experience joy when they are embedded in a loving moment, be it an intimate one between partners, a convivial gathering between friends and colleagues, or even in one of those brief, positive interactions with a stranger? All of these forms of love are possible and available to us at all times - but it begins with a conscious choice to cultivate love in and through oneself, and then to offer it to others, and perhaps most importantly, to engage with it even while suffering.
I needed a shorthand for this, so I started referring to my new philosophy of life as ‘love as a way of being’, which I define as bringing love to all moments and all beings and all choices. Similar to the boddhisatva vow that the devout Buddhist makes, swearing that they will pursue their own enlightenment throughout all their future lifetimes so that they may reduce suffering in the world, I made a vow that I would attempt to live my life as guided by love and wisdom, seeking to deepen and broaden these infinitely extensible qualities.
When I share this piece of information with other people, I am often asked about the practicalities of such a vow. How does it work? What does it mean on a daily basis? What are you supposed to do to become more loving, which is such an enormous and ambitious goal?
Here’s the thing: I am deeply aware of how impractical it sounds, and even more aware of how insane it is to presuppose that it is possible to achieve. I know, every morning when I wake up, that I will fail to fully express and experience love at all times. We are too hardwired for negativity, too naturally prone to fear, too easily aggravated when our expectations are not met, for this to be something that is possible. However, I also know what I feel - the difference between a life that is focused on cultivating and giving love, and one that is determinedly not - and I would take all of the heartbreaks of failure for the moments of transcendent joy and peace that I regularly experience now.
Despite my limitations, I believe that I must still try, because for me, trying to be loving and wise is the only thing that matters in this life, both for my own well-being and for the well-being of our world as a whole. Perhaps it is the knowledge that I will fail that motivates me towards this ideal. If I had not made this vow, would I experience the same bliss that I do on a regular basis? Would I actively seek out the opportunities for me to connect with strangers, with friends, with other loved ones? Would I have an impetus to push myself to reach out when I want to close down, to share when I don't have any desire to, to ask for help when I feel deep shame, or to offer a helping hand to those who might need it? I am certain that the answer to these questions is a firm ‘no’. Sometimes, the only thing that pushes me to be loving is a reminder that I promised to do so. I will likely never be able to offer unconditional love to others (or the far more challenging one, to myself), but I can do the very best I can today and seek to be better tomorrow.
In reflecting upon these frequently-asked questions, I realized once again how I shy away from sharing myself, my practices, and my feelings with others, and saw this as an opportunity to express some of my deepest thoughts and beliefs around the topic. It seems fitting that it is Valentine’s Day, the day that is ~*officially*~ devoted to love, that I make the case for devoting every day into perpetuity to love. I hope to attempt to unpack the practice that has been most central to my development – loving-kindness meditation – and to share some of the others I have made up or picked up along the way.
“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.”
This might sound like trite nonsense or common sense knowledge, but it turns out to be critically important to both understand and practice. We cannot show up for others unless we are also showing up for ourselves. Our current state of being directly affects the way that we connect with those around us. Last week, I found myself lapsing into what could politely be called a "funk", aggravated by some minor denied wish; as I engaged with the world, I noticed myself treating people with less kindness and understanding, jumping to conclusions, and overall not being a very fun person to be around. Without cultivating love in our own hearts, we cannot ever hope to offer our presence to other people, which is one of the main pathways to loving another.
Despite the fact that yes, duh Stephanie, we all know we need to love ourselves, we're deeply afraid to do so: maybe it’s a fear of becoming egotistical maniacs, or we were not taught how to love ourselves, or believe we are not worthy because of something we did in our past. The psychologist John Welwood wrote:
All the most intractable problems in human relationships can be traced back to what I call the mood of unlove—a deep-seated suspicion most of us harbor within ourselves that we cannot be loved, or that we are not truly lovable, just for who we are.
The mood of unlove can cloud our self-awareness, making it impossible to truly be there for others, to express our needs, to articulate what we want, to build walls around our hearts; in short, it limits our ability to embody love as a way of being.
I addressed my own deeply entrenched mood of unlove first through the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness meditation. This meditation is designed to help us to cultivate a more loving and kind self, by teaching us that loving rightly is something that needs to be developed as a skill, strengthened through practice. A meditation generally involves an individual placing his attention first on himself, then on a loved one, then on someone who challenges them, and ending with the whole world, offering these wishes from a place of sincere love: “May you feel safe and protected. May you feel happy and peaceful. May you feel healthy and strong. May you live with ease.”
I will never forget the first time that I did this practice. It was so challenging for me to offer love to myself that I had to ease into it by imagining someone I loved, then slowly bringing those feelings to the general vicinity of me. As soon as I got close, I began to sob, realizing that I had never said these types of things to myself, that I had never allowed a helping hand to come from within to say these things that we are constantly searching for from other people or from a line on a resume or a possession on a shelf. Instead of that script, I had been telling myself for years and years that I was not enough, that I did not yet deserve to be happy, that I was not worthy of peace or love or ease. To realize that I could give myself what I had so desperately attempted to win through being smart, accomplished, funny, skinny, pretty, or perfect was so radical that it shook me for days to come.
Recent scientific studies have looked at what actually goes on inside of you while you are completing this meditation, as well as the outcomes that occur from practicing it over an extended period of time. An eight week program found that practicing loving-kindness meditation led to an increase of positive emotions, not only during the time of the intervention, but also for two weeks afterwards. In addition, the research team was able to measure increases in a variety of personal resources such as self-acceptance, positive relations, and physical health, which resulted in greater satisfaction in life and fewer depressive symptoms.
The mood of unlove is not addressed in one meditation, nor, I suspect, in hundreds of meditations. Humans are too complicated for that, possessing as we do these long histories and their corresponding open wounds. We are a mixture of positive and negative, self-interested and other-interested, constantly balancing between the satisfaction of our immediate desires and the gratification of long-held goals: in short, an utterly rambunctious mixture of a bunch of traits that are paradoxical and difficult to manage, frequently capsized by our environments, and easily swayed by biases or others in one direction or another. For a pretty wonderful visualization, see Inside Out:
The world's religions have recognized this reality, and have all endeavored to help us to train ourselves through various pathways, such as service, attentional practices like meditations, or storytelling and myths. In order to cultivate love within, we must repeatedly choose to discipline our consciousness to approach situations in a new way, which requires us to drag our attention back to a place of love, over and over again, until it becomes more of a habit. Then, just as we think we have mastered it, we're faced with life's next wave or challenge, invited to choose once again to undergo the same process, as our abilities continue to grow alongside of what we are asked to handle.
But the decision to direct one’s consciousness towards this expression of love has enormous personal benefits to you as the one who loves. We must begin with ourselves, clearing the natural self-absorption that we all possess, helping to refocus our attention on what matters most. The practice of loving-kindness meditation is inherently about training our minds, clearing out our old habits and rewiring our neural pathways, making love more of a default state than it is today. You cannot feel love and hatred at the same time, in the same instant; by practicing what it feels like to embody a state of loving others, you slowly learn how good it feels to love, how much the state benefits you and others, and even notice the reduction of mental ills, such as frustration, sadness, and hatred.
Bringing That Loving Self To Your World
When we begin transforming our own state of happiness, we expand our capacity to care about other people’s well-being, and we also help to create the very conditions that allow others to thrive.
By cultivating our capacity to love, we offer other human beings the great gift of connection and the feeling of belonging. We can also personally avail ourselves of the incredible impact of positive relationships, which is arguably the single most important feature of well-being. These connections open you up to the common humanity that we all share, which further transforms you in positive ways. Studies have found that when you are happy, it is likelier that not only your friends and family members will be happy, but also that their friends and family members will be happy.
It was the practice of loving-kindness meditation that helped me to raise my head from my default state - navel-gazing contemplation of everything I wanted in life and had infuriatingly yet to receive, achieve or procure - and realize that every single person out there in the world is someone who wants to be happy, just like me. Each of us are desperately scrambling for happiness and away from suffering every day. I used to think about this when I lived in New York City, and could look out at the millions of windows, lighting up the city in Tetris patterns; I was overwhelmed to recognize that each window represented a person or two or more, each of whom felt the same way about their life as I did my own. When we realize that just as we aspire to happiness, so does everyone else, it becomes far easier to offer love to others - we are all just attempting to find our way, and doing so imperfectly but still, trying as best we can.
And there are so many chances to offer this love to others, every single day: from the barista serving you coffee, to the cleaning lady at work, to your aggravating boss, to your beloved child or soulmate, all of us have the opportunity to connect with those people who inhabit our lives. The world of relationships is one that is so integrated into our lives that it is almost a bit redundant to isolate it as a separate thing. Social interactions are embedded within all of our lives, and having positive relationships is the single most important contributor to well-being. Research has found that the probability of dying early is 20% higher for obese people, 30% higher for excessive drinkers, 50% higher for smokers, but 70% higher for people with poor social relationships.
And let's face it: the world doesn't often give us what we ask for.
We tend to believe that when things go our way, we will be happy; and therefore we devote an extraordinary amount of mental, physical, spiritual and emotional energy towards making sure that things go our way, that we back away from things that we perceive will bring us pain and towards things that we think will bring us pleasure, and separate ourselves from what we are intricately bound to.
No matter how carefully we craft the circumstances of our external lives to be as pleasing as possible to our particular preferences, it is inevitable that we will know suffering. Pain runs the gamut, from the tiny pinpricks of a denied wish to the life-altering tragedies of illness, death, or trauma, it is a part of our experience as human beings. Nothing truly good comes without taking a risk or being vulnerable.
Strive for the perfect job, the beautiful partner, or the nice apartment and you will quickly realize that those things will inevitably bring about new different challenges. The perfect job keeps you up at night, the beautiful partner always needs to be reassured about where you stand, and the nice apartment just won't stay clean! It also puts us on a hedonic treadmill, chasing our desires, forever in pursuit of 'something else' and blind to the happy moments that we are allowing to pass us by.
One strategy that I return to, again and again, is the practice of gratitude. I view this as a way to express love for circumstances or opportunities or growth. Gratitude is a process of recognizing that something good has happened to you, and that it came from an external source. To embody gratitude as a way of looking at the world around you, such as seeing your life as a blessing, gift or something to cherish, is a process that requires harnessing one’s psychic energy; it has been argued that it is core to achieving optimal psychological functioning. When we can be grateful for our challenges or for our setbacks, when we can stop looking around for what is missing and start focusing on what is present, and when we can express gratitude for the love we already have in abundance - then, we are certain to know greater well-being.
Expanding Our Love
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” - Albert Einstein
If you poke around the biographies of our most revered members of the human race, you will come to notice a trend. The majority of our heroes - Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, Lincoln, Mother Theresa, Jesus, and other average folks like that - all shared a common message: We must love all beings, everywhere, without exception.
This is the tricky part.
Martin Luther King Jr. defined love as "creative, understanding goodwill for all men" - a definition I appreciate for its active approach to the concept. Love, when we are applying it to all beings, is not easy, nor is it stagnant, familiar, or instant. This is love as sweat equity, the kind of activity that requires deep self-awareness and purposeful work.
Loving-kindness meditation is based upon the Buddhist idea that all human beings are inextricably connected due to the endless cycles of reincarnation, that the person who is your enemy in this lifetime could very well have been your own beloved mother in a prior lifetime, and how could you deny your mother love? (This clever mental trick makes it a bit more palatable to begin to offer love to those who most inflame you.) The practice is intended to orient us towards altruistic love, which is the wish that all beings find happiness and the causes of happiness. While a personal side effect of altruistic love might be your own well-being, that does not mean that it is an egoistic act - because you are included in all beings everywhere, this is also a wish for your own happiness as well. We have a tendency to see the world as rotating around us, and the process of altruistic love helps us to see that the other person is a fully developed ‘other’.
I hesitate to be prescriptive in my writing, however, I feel very strongly about this: those of us who are equipped with the ability to love others safely, the awareness to want to do so, and the desire to serve the world, must take up the mantle of responsibility of love in our own lives. We can attempt to cultivate love in our individual lives and extend it to ever-increasing swaths of humanity, because it seems to me that this is the only way for us to address the rising tides of hatred in the world today.
Loving our enemies or loving all of humanity begins with recognizing that this person is a flawed human being, just like me, who yearns to be happy and reduce their suffering. We can love people without liking them. We can love that person as a brother or sister of humanity, and refuse to condone their actions as right or moral. I believe that we can hold the space for those contradictions.
The more individuals who take personal responsibility for the state of our broader world, the more who might be inspired to find their own pathways and make their own contributions. It has to begin, though, with recognizing that we are all inextricably connected, that our determined pursuit of self-interest is not going to work for much longer, and that there must be a better way forward.
Learning to love the whole world is about recognizing that we are so interconnected that the pain that I experience will soon become your pain, if I do not address it appropriately; I will take out on you what I have not learned to love in myself, at great cost. Loving others means recognizing that their needs and desires are just as valid as our own. Loving the world means not needing to be loved back, because we know in our hearts that we are the lucky ones who are given the chance to love, to serve, and to grow as people.
I am reminded here of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous quote, that "darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Everybody loves this quote. But it would behoove us to stop and consider how unbelievably hard it must have been for him to choose to live this every single day of his life, maintaining this standard for himself in the midst of the political and social climate. How easy would it be for him to slip into hate, to divide the world up into people who are good and people who are evil, and to say that hatred is okay under these terrible circumstances? So, so easy.
The ability to offer love to others is not a privilege, but it is instead a choice. Many of humanity's heroes were ones who were actively dismissed by those in power, had nothing to offer in the way of resources, or were hunted for their beliefs and actions, and yet, they still chose to rise every single day with a goal of love in their hearts. They recognized that love has an almost alchemical-like ability to transform what it casts light upon: when we choose to see someone at their best, they rise to the occasion; sadly, the opposite is also true. (A simple way to prove this to yourself is to go express kindness or compassion to someone, and watch the way that they respond.)
As we seek to love the world, we are humbled. The vast majority of our lives is spent inside of our own heads, running the console of the great S.S. Self. Loving at such scale reminds us that we are not, in fact, the center of the universe; but also, that when we are imbued with love, we are more powerful than we could have possibly previously imagined.
Love in the Time of Chaos
Over the past few weeks, I have struggled to understand how my philosophy might need to change or is challenged in the face of this apparent new world, one that is seemingly characterized by such explicit hatred.
It is quite easy to feel, right now, as though the world is falling apart. There is quite an accumulating amount of evidence that can support that belief – as the chaos of the last few weeks has unfolded at an alarming pace, I too have felt unbelievably helpless, stressed, and afraid, clocking my worries on my fingertips before bed nearly every night, waking up with dread wondering what fresh hell might await. There are extreme societal, ecological, political, and economic challenges, which often manifest within our own individual lives as personal challenges, eliciting stress, fear and pain. There is so much suffering out there.
In reflecting on this suffering, I am reminded that our own internal selves – what is in here – mirror that external chaos. Our consciousness is just like the world: it exists in a state of constant chaos, one that at its default is controlled by external stimuli. A pinprick of pain or a denied wish can send us into a spiral of discouragement, apathy, or anger; not to mention the ways in which devastation of loss, heartbreak or illness can maim our souls. There is so much suffering in here, too.
But we have learned that we can change our consciousness, that we can choose to reorient towards love and other first-order values like freedom. Collectives can drive change, and collectives are comprised of individuals: therefore, why can't we start pursuing this change at an individual level?
The people who did change the world were those that reminded us that there is a far more moral or courageous or compassionate way to live, and this reminder inspired us to follow in their footsteps, using their way of being as an example to follow. Once again, I turn to the ever-wise Dr. King, who told us:
That hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tragedy of hate, that it doesn’t cut it off. It only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.
Love is not passive. It is a force. It transforms everything it touches. And at the end of the day, it is one of the very few things that we can control in life, even in the most desperate of circumstances. In striving to make the world peaceful, we can begin with our own lives, and work outwards, coming together in community with others who are walking the same path. Those who have lived through the most dire of circumstances beseech us to remember this; Etty Hillseum, a Jewish woman who was murdered at Auschwitz, wrote in her diary:
“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”
There is something incredibly beautiful about the fact that we have to work at cultivating love, because it is that very effort that makes it worthwhile and that incites us to move towards action. The more that we invest in something, the more that we tend to value it. This process might be what transforms love from a passive thing to a force that is the most powerful in the world, that drives true and meaningful change. Those people who are striving to love all beings will not sit idly by as the rights of some of those beings are threatened. They will take action, seizing the opportunity to translate what is within them to the world. They will remind us that this is not the way that their best self acts or believes, and they will fight to remain a beacon of love in the way that they resist. They will choose to serve those who need their love most.
We are always equipped with a choice of how we react to situations in life. We know what it looks like to rise in hatred. But what about rising in love? What about choosing, from this moment forward, that you will love boldly, bravely, and without reservation? What about choosing to do this, even though you know that you will fail a hundred times before the week is done, and committing to getting back up again each and every time? What might your heart look like, feel like, speak like? What might your life be? Who might you serve, save, inspire? What changes might occur that serve the collective humanity?
Personally, I see no more compelling purpose for living than to live in love, as often as I can, for as long as I can, in order to serve my fellow human beings.