Love is the Essence
Dr. Stephen Fulder
“She loves me!” “She loves me not!” “She loves me!” “She loves me not!” So we used to say as children as we plucked petals off daisies. This love is entirely fickle and uncertain. It either happens or not. It is often never revealed. And it can go as it came. As adults, love can often seem just as perverse and unreliable. We can love someone close to us, but if they do something that we interpret is threatening to our ego, such as flirting with someone else, our love seems to vanish in an instance turning to anger and resentment. Or love seems to die with time as we get bored with our partner. Or love that we have for somebody or something becomes a source of suffering, not of joy, when it bears no fruit. All the love that we have for our children can evaporate into despair and friction as soon as they become rebellious teenagers. We may love a beautiful thing, but only if it is ours, not if it belongs to someone else. If this is how most of humanity experiences love, how can we talk about love as the essence of life, or love as an universal quality? If love makes the world go round, how can it come and go according to our moods and experiences?
We need to look a little closer at the picture and understand that ordinary love that comes and goes, is conditioned. That means it is dependent on conditions. One set of conditions opens our heart, another closes it. The conditions that open the heart are often the conditions that make us feel good, feel wanted, feel supported and feel important. We love when love is returned, we love somebody or something when it is ours. As things get further from us it is much more difficult to love them. We love ourselves and our things most, we love our family a bit less, love for friends even less, love for associates less, love for ‘our’ people less, love for another people much less, and love for all people more or less zero. What that means is that love is trapped by ego, bound up with the self process.
So how can it be undone? How can our love flow more freely, more consistently, and less subject to the whims and caprices of the ego? How can we open our hearts to a greater love? This is a rich question with many kinds and levels of answers. We can suggest a few directions here.
One thing immediately suggests itself. To be honest about what is really happening. To notice the way love comes and goes, is already a way to become intimate with the landscape of love. We can feel more in touch with the language of love. Instead of blaming ourselves when our love turns to anger, we can watch the process within us, and emerge somewhat chastened and humbled, and human. When anger bursts out of us at the impossible behaviour of a family member, it can open a wisdom eye within us, and we feel our own humility. If we feel exhausted, stressed and our heart is closed, it is natural. Just feel it as it is and know that too is the language of the heart telling us about our true condition at that moment. This is the beginning of a deeper love. Another kind of illusion, so often seen, is pretending to have more love than we actually have. Some people talk a lot about love, even universal love, and behave as if they loved everyone, until that person feels threatened when out comes loads of unconscious anger. Better indeed to see how we lose it. If there is less illusion, there is more love.
Love needs to be paid for, it is not a kind of ecstatic flavour that we can have when we want. We pay for it by constantly tilling the soil of our relationships so that love can grow. What do I mean by that? The respect that we feel and generate for the other person, the understanding of their needs and their life and their difficulties and pains, the ability to put ourselves in their shoes, is cultivation.
We may think that the heart acts spontaneously, that we have no control over it, that indeed it should not be played with by the concepts of the thinking mind, and that love cannot be constructed or improved. In fact that is not so. For much of the difficulties we have with conditioned love are the due to the blocks and barriers we place in the way of the free flow of the heart. For example our fears of not being accepted or appreciated can be a constant check on our love, constricting it all the time, throwing doubt on it, freezing it with our fears. We work psychologically or through meditation or other spiritual practices to let go of some of the fears, the old scars and wounds, the blocks and the self-importance. As we do this we are bound to see our love grow and become stronger.
But underneath it all is indeed universal love. This is a boundless heart that responds to all life with kindness and connection. It is too big to be squeezed into the container of the ego. It is love that is without measure and without boundaries. It doesn’t belong to us and cannot be destroyed if the objects of love change and go. Can this too be developed? The answer is yes. Or to be more precise, it cannot be developed because it is already there. But we can develop our ability to live, experience and join it. In two ways. One we have already mentioned, which is the reduction of the blocks and patterns that keep our love imprisoned. The second way is to learn to extend our love, to reach out with it. A classical Buddhist technique for this is called metta bhavana, the cultivation of loving kindness. This is a meditation practice in which we radiate love first to people who are close to us, which is quite easy, but then extending the circle and radiating love to those we do not know and even those we do not like, and eventually to all living beings.
Sometimes we don’t see boundless love because it is so near, because we don’t recognize it, and we have ideas about it. It is included in the way we know the world. Indeed our knowing is not dry and mechanical, as if we are computers. A wise understanding of the world as it reveals itself to us moment by moment, is always full of juice, full of love. As we notice that small bright flower by the side of the road, or the curious eyes of a child, who cannot feel that love? In this knowing there is connection. In this knowing there is love; in the Bible the same Hebrew word is used for knowing and for making love! Boundless love is embedded in our connection with the world. We just need to notice it. And give it space.