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What Is Love?

As much as we might like to, we can't force love to happen. But we can understand its many levels and connect more easily to its source.

By Sally Kempton

holding hands

"I know love is there," my old friend Elliot said. "My question is, Why is it that so many times, I can't feel it?"

We were in the middle of a workshop I teach called "Exploring the Heart." Elliot had recently lost his father, and so I asked him, "Are you talking about something specific?"

"Of course," he said. As he told me the story of his father's death, I felt a deep sense of recognition. The questions his experience raised are essential ones, questions we all deal with as we probe that most fundamental and yet elusive of all human feelings: love.

Elliot and his father had been polite strangers for nearly 20 years. Yet when the father became seriously ill, the only person he wanted around him was his son. "I knew we'd been given our big chance to open up to each other," Elliot said. "I kept thinking, 'Now he'll finally get who I really am! We'll bond, and I'll be able to feel love for him at last!'"

The problem was that Elliot couldn't dig out a single nugget of love for his father. He wanted to love him. He knew he should love him. But their history together had formed such a habit of disconnection that he felt nothing at all.

So Elliot did the only thing he could think of to close the gap. He asked himself, "How would I act if I did feel love for my father?" Then he acted on the intuition that arose for him.

Elliot realized that when we really love someone, we're attentive to even the smallest minutiae of that person's existence. So he practiced paying close attention to his father. He slowed himself down and tried to keep his awareness linked to his father's breath. He served his father. He fielded the emotional crises of the other family members. He did everything, in short, that a devoted son would do—and he did it, as best he could, as an austerity, a practice.

Elliot's father died three months later, and Elliot sat through the funeral dry-eyed, still waiting for his heart to open. During the last hymn, he finally gave up hope. He slumped down in his seat, deeply tired, with no more effort left in him.

At that moment, like a small trickle from a dammed-up stream, he felt a stir of tenderness in his heart. It came softly, yet it was almost shockingly sweet. It was the love he'd been trying to feel. "It felt as if I'd tapped into some kind of big, impersonal loving energy," he told me. "It didn't exclude my father, but it definitely wasn't about him. Instead, the feeling I had in that moment was that there was nothing but love. Everything was love. 'Oh, my God,' I thought, 'I'm having a spiritual experience, right here at my father's funeral!'" The thought struck him as so funny that he giggled—causing something of a commotion in the funeral chapel, as people turned to see what was making him laugh at such an inappropriate moment.

"I wondered where that love came from," he told me. "Was it a reward for taking care of my father? If so, why wasn't it there when I needed it, so to speak?"

I realized that behind Elliot's question was an even deeper set of questions, ones that plague us all. They go something like this: If love is real, why doesn't it feel the way I've always heard it was supposed to feel? Why can't I feel it all the time? And why does love so often feel lacking, or painful, or both?

Love Is a Many-Leveled Thing

Most of us have been confused about love all of our lives. In fact, we often begin the inner life as a search—conscious or unconscious—for a source of love that can't be taken away. We may have grown up feeling unloved or believing we had to perform heroic feats to deserve love. Our parents, the movies we see, our cultural and religious milieu give us ideas about love that go on influencing us long after we have forgotten their source. When we read spiritual books and encounter teachers, our understanding about love can get even more complicated, because depending on what we read or whom we study with, we get slightly different takes on what love means in spiritual life.

Some teachers tell us that our essence is love; others say love is a passion, an emotion that leads to addiction and clinging. If we're on a devotional path like bhakti yoga, Sufism, or mystical Christianity, we're often taught that the way to enlightenment is to fall in love with God and let that love grow until it engulfs us and we become one with the Beloved. If we're on a more knowledge-based yogic path, we may be taught to look askance at the feelings of bliss and love that arise in practice, because, we're told, the spaciousness that is our goal is beyond such feelings.

We are soon left to wonder where the truth lies in all of this. When spiritual teachers use the word love, what kind of love are they talking about? Is eros (romantic or sexual love) really different from agape, the so-called unconditional or spiritual love? Is devotional love the same as compassion, or love for humanity? Is love something we have to feel, or is it enough to offer kindness and direct positive thoughts toward ourselves and others? And how is it that some teachers tell us that love is both the path and the goal, while others seem to ignore the subject altogether?

In spiritual life alone, the word love is used in at least three ways, and our experience and understanding of love will differ according to which aspect of it we are thinking about. For the sake of discussion, let's refer to these three aspects of love as (1) Absolute Love, or the Great Love, which Ramakrishna, Rumi, and the teachers of the bhakti yoga and nondualist Tantra traditions tell us is ever- present, impersonal, and the very underpinning of the universe; (2) our individual experience of love, which is quirky, personal, and usually directed at something or someone; and (3) love as sadhana (practice).

Love as Absolute

Love with a capital L: That's the Great Love, love as the source of everything, love as radical unity. At this level, love is another name for Absolute Reality, Supreme Consciousness, Brahman, God, the Tao, the Source—that vast presence the Shaivite tradition sometimes calls the Heart. The yoga tradition often describes Absolute Reality as satchidananda—meaning that it is pure beingness, present everywhere and in everything (sat), that it is innately conscious (chit), and that it is the essence of joy and love (ananda).

As ananda, the Great Love is woven into the fabric of the universe, which of course also puts it at the center of our own being. Most of us get glimpses of the Great Love at some time in our lives—perhaps in nature, or with an intimate partner, or in the moment of bonding with our children. We remember these experiences for years afterward, often for the rest of our lives. We remember their numinosity, the feeling of deep connectedness they give us, and the fact that even when the love we feel seems inspired by someone or something in particular, it has a profoundly impersonal, universal quality. And sometimes, the Great Love hits us unveiled, as it were, and changes our lives.

It happened like that for me one November evening in 1970. I was sitting with a friend in my living room, listening to a Grateful Dead album, when without warning, an overwhelming experience of joy welled up in me. The state sprang up seemingly out of nowhere, a sensation of tenderness and ecstasy that seemed to ooze out of the walls and the air, carrying with it a sense that everything was a part of me.

This experience inspired a burning desire to get back to it and ultimately became the motive for my spiritual practice. At the time, however, I did what most of us do when we get a glimpse of unconditional tenderness: I projected my inner experience onto the person I happened to be with and decided (rather disastrously, as it turned out) that he was the love of my life and the mate of my soul.

Individual Love

All of us, throughout our lives, constantly do what I did—project onto other people and things the feelings of love that actually come from within. "It was the music," we say. "It was Ned (or Sarah, or Jeannie). It was the surf! It was my teacher's presence!" Yet the yogic view is that all of our experiences of human love are actually glimpses of the Great Love. ("God's joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box," Rumi wrote. "It hides within these, till one day it cracks them open.") It is only when love gets filtered through the prism of the human psyche that it begins to look specific and limited. It becomes veiled by our thoughts and feelings, and we start to think that love comes and goes, that we can feel it only for certain people, or that there's not enough love to go around. We can't help doing this.

Our senses, mind, and ego, hardwired to give us the experience of separateness and distinction, set us up to think that love is outside us, that some people and places and things are lovable and others are not, and furthermore that love has different flavors: mother love, romantic love, love of movies, love of nature, compassionate love, sexual love, love of the cozy feeling of being under the covers at the end of a long day.

In short, if the Great Love is naturally unifying, our individual, human experience of love is subject to change and loss, moods and tides, attachments and aversions. It doesn't matter who or what we love; at some point, the object of our love will disappear from our life or disappoint us or stop being lovable, simply because change is the nature of existence. So individual love is always touched with suffering, even when the love we feel is "spiritual."

I once heard someone ask a great spiritual teacher, "Will loving you cause me to suffer the way I've suffered from loving other people?" The teacher replied, "If you love me in the way you've loved other people, you'll suffer." He was saying that as long as we think that love comes from something outside ourselves—even from God or a spiritual master—we are going to experience pain. Think of the agonies of the Sufi poets! Think also of the pain we suffer when, like my friend Elliot, we don't feel loving enough, or when we can't force love to come in the form we want it to, or when we feel lonely or unappreciated or self-deprecating, or when, despite the fact that we know attachment leads to suffering, we can't help thinking that the love we were feeling came from Joe or Alice, and that love is gone because Joe or Alice is gone!

To say that our individual experience of love can be unsatisfying or changeable or incomplete is not to say it is less real than the Great Love. It is the Great Love, which has simply been subject to filtration. The practice of yoga is about removing the filter, closing the gap between our limited experience and the experience of greatness we all hold inside. That's the whole point of contemplative practice—especially the practice of loving.

Love as Sadhana

The third kind of love—love as a practice—is the medicine for the terrible discrepancy we sometimes feel between our sense of what love can be and the actuality of our ordinary experience of it. The practice of love—actions and attitudes that create an atmosphere of kindness, acceptance, and unity in ourselves and in those around us—is not only the basis of spiritual life, it is also the basis of civilization. We can't always feel gratitude, but we can remember to say thank you. We can't always like other people, but we can try to pay attention when they talk to us and help them out when they're in trouble. We may not feel good about ourselves all the time, but we can practice treating ourselves gently, slowing down and breathing when we want to rush, or talking back to our inner voices of self-criticism and judgment. When it comes to daily life, feeling love may actually be less important than acting loving.

This isn't meant as an argument for pasted-on smiles, or for the common game of hiding anger and judgment behind a mask of false sweetness. The practice of loving is never about presenting a false front. Instead, it's an active answer to one of life's greatest questions: How can I, in spite of what I may be feeling at a particular moment, offer my best to myself and other people?

If you pose this query to yourself—or, better yet, ask yourself (as Elliot did), How would I act if I were feeling love?—you will eventually discover the practice that helps melt your frozen heart, so the love that always hides behind our emotional barricades can show its face. One of my students, caught in an argument with her stepson, asked herself, "How would I be if I really felt love right now?" The answer that came up was "relaxed." So she practiced relaxing with the breath and was able to talk with her son without the clutch of fear and judgment that had been polarizing the two of them.

Connecting to the Source of Love

Over the years, two practices have helped me reconnect to the source of love. Both cultivate the feeling of unity. And both are based on the insight that the best way to bypass the ego, which cuts us off from love, is to learn how to undermine our feeling of separation.

The first is the practice of recognizing that the awareness in another person is the same awareness that is in me. Years ago, I had to work with a demanding, critical, narrow-minded boss. One day, when she was being particularly prickly, and I was especially aware of my discomfort in her presence, I gazed into her eyes, focused on the light reflected in her pupils, and reminded myself that the awareness, the life force, the presence that was looking out through her eyes was exactly the same as the awareness that was looking out through mine. Whatever differences there were in our personalities, our mental and emotional states, she and I were the same on the level of pure awareness. Not different but one.

It amazed me to see how quickly the feeling of alienation and irritation disappeared. The practice of recognition became the strategy that allowed me to work comfortably with this woman, and I fall back on it now whenever I feel the absence of love. More than any practice I've ever done, it helps clean away the germs of alienation, irritability, and jealousy that block my mind and form barriers to the Great Love.

The second practice I use goes right to the heart of our sense of lack, to the secret feeling of not having enough love to give. The great lie that the feeling of separation fosters in us is the delusion of being unloved, or cut off from love, of there not being enough to go around. Not feeling loved ourselves, we pass on our sense of lack to others, so that even when we try to give love, what comes through instead is anxiety or clinging. Yet, as Rumi says in another of his great poems, love is always there, always available, always ready to pour itself out to us. "For 60 years," Rumi writes, "I have been forgetful, / every moment, but not for a second / has this flowing towards me slowed or stopped."

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are sitting in the center of a vast flow of love. Imagine that love is flowing toward you like water or passing into you like a gentle wind. Whether you actually feel this love or not, keep imagining that it is flowing toward you and into you.

Another way to receive love is to imagine that just outside the window of your room sits a compassionate and loving being, someone wise and incredibly forgiving. This person is watching you through the window; her glance protects you and surrounds you with sweetness.

Allow yourself to receive the love that is flowing toward you from this being. If thoughts come up to block it—like "I don't deserve this" or "This is just an exercise; it's not real"—notice them and let them go as you might in meditation, saying, "Thinking," and then breathing the thought out. Your only task is to receive.

When you open your eyes, look around you with the thought that the love you have been contemplating is still flowing toward you from whatever you see and from the air itself.

In truth, it is. The Great Love, the love that is the kernel of everything, is present in everything, peeking out during every moment in which we feel a spark of tenderness, appreciation, or affection. Any glimmer of love is a spark from that fire and leads us back to it.

Sally Kempton, also known as Durgananda, is an author, a meditation teacher, and the founder of the Dharana Institute.
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Reader Comments

Patty

Beautiful...thank you!

Eugene

Truly a wise, reflective and deeply honest article. Thank you so much for the long path of writing such a comprehensive overview of Love.

Cata

Beautiful. Thank you for the reminder.

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