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 goes 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 often taught that the way to enlightenment is to fall in love with God and let that 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 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:-
- Absolute Love, or the Great Love,
- Individual Love;
- Love As Sadhana.
Love with a capital L: That’s that Great Love, love as the source of everything, love as radical unity. At this level, love is another name for Absolute Reality, Supreme Consciousness, God, the Tao, the Source- that vast presence thee Shaivite tradition sometimes calls the Heart. The yoga tradition often describes Absolute Reality – meaning that it is pure begins, present everywhere and everything, that it is innately conscious and that is the essence of joy and love.
The Great Love is woven into the fabric of the universe, which of course also puts it at the centre 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 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, one evening, 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 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 when we get a glimpse of unconditional tenderness: I projected my inner experience onto the person I happened to be with and decide(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, 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. 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 flavours: 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 experiences 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 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 a Great Love, which has simply been subject to filtration. The practice 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 contemplative practice-especially the practice of loving.
”Love and practice (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 judgement. 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 judgement behind a mask of false sweetness. The practice of love is never about presenting a false front. Instead, it’s an active answer to one of the 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, 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, asked herself, ” How would I be if I really felt love right now?” The answer that came up was ”relaxed”. So she practised relaxing with the breath and was able to talk without the clutch of fear and judgement that had been polarizing the two of them.
”Reconnecting With The Source Of Love”
Over the years, two practices have helped me reconnect with 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 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 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 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’s 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 women, 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.
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are sitting in the centre of a vast flow of love. Imagine that love is flowing towards you like water or passing into you like a gentle wind. Whether you actually feel this love or not, keep imaging that it is flowing towards 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 projects you and surrounds you with sweetness.
Allow yourself to receive the love that is flowing towards you from this being. It 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 towards 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.