Much has been written attempting to define the experience of love. It’s a difficult task, putting a box around a word that we simultaneously use to describe the deep sensation of warmth and safety we feel in a romantic relationship and the fanaticism we feel for our favorite football team or rock band. We say we love our kids, our homes, our dogs, our jobs, our spouses, our favorite clothes, TV shows, fast cars, slow kisses, the paint color on our kitchen walls and even, perhaps especially, chocolate flavored Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Despite the many different ways we use the word, we all have one thing in common: we long to be loved. Deep inside us all is a tender voice whispering, calling out quietly through the noise of our cluttered lives, asking — begging — to be loved.
I recently bought a new home with a fresh water spring on it. Having lived my entire life in the city and only ever drinking water from a faucet or a bottle, I didn’t really know what a spring was. My wife described it to me as “an offering of love from Mother Nature in the form of water.” Having now drunk water that bubbled up unaided from the earth, I think that description fits. I think that’s also a good description of the love bubbling up from deep inside us all.
I used to spend a lot of time thinking about love, trying to define it in words, put a leash around it, and grasp it in hopes of harnessing love in my life. That’s what the mind does: it grabs and defines things; and that’s why the mind is the wrong organ to use in exploring love, because in the course of understanding we limit, restrict, and sometimes strangle what we set out to know. That doesn’t work with love. The moment we grasp or cling to it, it disappears. To know love we have to open our hearts and allow love to bloom. As John Lennon sang, “Love is the flower you’ve got to let grow.”
Another thing I’ve learned recently is that a spring provides water when the earth around it is moist, healthy, and unrestricted; and when it’s not, when the ground is parched, burdened, or obstructed, springs often go dry. So while we can’t make a spring, we can foster it by working with nature to allow the spring to be vibrant and flowing. This might look like capturing rainwater and allowing it to reenter the earth around the spring, removing impediments like asphalt and cement from the nearby ground and creating pathways for water to move freely back into the earth and not run off into the gutters. In the case of love we have a similar opportunity. Instead of trying to mentally wrangle love, we are invited to nurture the conditions that allow love to spring forth into our lives. In this way we allow ourselves to experience love by releasing the need to understand it.
In my life I’ve found three conditions especially helpful as I learn to open my heart and experience love:
Acceptance. Without acceptance there can’t be love. Attempts at love without acceptance are called manipulation: a quest to change what is, under the leverage of love. Most of us have experienced this kind of love at one time or another, perhaps with an overbearing parent, a manipulative spouse, or an addicted loved one. This love is marked by “I’ll love you if …” or “If you loved me you’d do this for me …” Lack of acceptance from others hurts, its confusing mix of emotions often leaves us lost in a maze of co-dependency and abandonment. There is another, more damaging form of non-acceptance though — the kind we inflict upon ourselves. Through our constant judging of our appearance, actions, and thoughts, we teach ourselves that we aren’t accepted … or loved. Learning to accept ourselves is really where love begins. The moment we look ourselves squarely in the heart and say, “I love you as you are,” like the spring and the earth, we slowly remove the impediments of denial, guilt, and self-loathing and allow love to come into our lives. At first it trickles as, bit by bit, we acknowledge, accept, and allow to come forward the parts of our being we have suppressed. As we become more skilled at this process (that is, as we learn to truly trust ourselves), the trickle becomes a steady flow and love floods into our hearts.
Trust. Trust has a chicken and egg relationship with acceptance. We don’t accept ourselves because we don’t trust in our ability to do so. And we don’t trust because we haven’t accepted ourselves as we are. Trust is the knowing that no matter what happens you’re there for yourself … you and the little voice inside are in this together. This isn’t easy in a society where we’re taught that our value comes from what we do. Cheers and hugs for taking our first steps, gold stars for good report cards, kisses for the right Valentine’s Day present, and promotions for good work, teach us that we’re appreciated when we succeed; equally powerful is what comes with the failures — disappointments, punishments, cold shoulders, arguments, and rejection cement the message that we are loved not for who we are, rather for what we do well; more precisely for what we do according to someone else’s rules. This societal conditioning forms the rules for our relationship with ourselves. We berate ourselves for our perceived shortcomings, we panic about errors, we push and prod and bully ourselves in the never-ending and futile pursuit of perfection. From the acceptance that we are human comes the trust to try again. That trust opens space for love to enter in.
Space. Space is the garden is which love grows. It’s the natural byproduct of acceptance and trust. When we don’t accept our lives as they are or trust ourselves enough to open our hearts, our solution is to constrict our lives to avoid pain. We eliminate any potential space in which we might feel the sting of abandonment and self-hatred. In our world this looks like working night and day, endless obsessive thoughts, binge viewing the Kardashians, bickering with friends and family over minutia, or scouring the internet looking for distraction in the form of videos of dancing cats. When we finally experience acceptance and trust, space begins to slowly open up, and the distractions we once clung to become unnecessary. We give ourselves permission to try, to fall down, and to begin again … and again. Our bodies open up within the newfound safety and we breathe. Sometimes these first breaths are painful and we cry. When this happens we can experience this as an invitation to use the tools of acceptance and trust to allow those feelings to be as they are and remind ourselves that we are no longer alone. We hold ourselves in this nurturing space and, perhaps for the first time, experience love. Like a captive animal restricted for its entire life to a small cage until finally allowed to roam, we are freed and allowed to move into the space of true love.
This week I invite you to explore the meaning of love in your life. Breathe deeply and ask yourself where you aren’t accepted. Share a message of love with that part of you as you begin to establish trust via your inner relationship with yourself. Breathe again and experience the sensation of space: the space to move, to grow, to begin again and again … as many times as necessary. And then, when the conditions for love are present, invite your heart to open to the love around you, the love that you naturally are. Rumi wrote: “We are born of love; Love is our mother.” Breathe that into your body. Allow that motherly love to hold you, to nurture your being, and to tenderly guide your way home.
Big hugs of love,