What I Learned about Real Love from this Teacher…
I’d been thinking a lot about love lately and how it means different things to different people. Personally, I feel love when I look into the big brown eyes of my 13-year-old dog, Oliver. I also feel it when I see the sad face of a 4-year-old Syrian refugee child in the news. My tender heart can explode with what feels like love at the most random moments too. The other day, I saw an older man that had the same wavy silver hair that my father had, and I was flooded with love for just that one moment.
When most of us think about love, we tend to think of romantic love but that just sets us up to feel ‘loveless’ when we don’t have that particular brand of love.
I recently interviewed Sharon Salzberg, leading meditation teacher and author of Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection. In our conversation, she shared these 4 insights about what real love means, and how mindfulness practices can help us cultivate it.
1) Real love is a state of profound connection, where you connect to yourself and others in a very different way.
Sharon shares her insight from a Retreat.
“I had always thought of love in some ways like a commodity. It was like a thing that could be packaged and delivered by someone else, but that also meant it could be taken away. If somebody chose to take away the love, then I would be left with no love in my life. I would be bereft. Through some very strong introspection, I came to see that love isn’t outside of me. It’s within me. It’s both a capacity and ability inside of me. Other people may enliven it or enrich it or even threaten it, but it’s mine. To realize that we give away so much power by imagining love as if it’s in the hands of the UPS person who might stand on the doorstep with it, and then decide to turn away, leaving us bereft; this just isn’t real love.”
2) Mindfulness practices can help you train your attention and cultivate connections that lead to real love.
When you practice mindfulness, you train yourself to stay present with whatever is happening ‘right now,’ without judgment and with your full attention. Sharon gave this example of how you can connect more deeply with someone when you’re engaging this full attention.
“If you’re meeting somebody for the first time and you’re not really listening to them and you’re not really looking at them, because you’re thinking about an email you need to send or your next meeting, there’s not going to be the ground for a real connection. In meditation, you learn to gather your attention and experience the moment more fully. When you lose focus (and you will), then you can let go gently, and start over. You practice being fully present to what is right in front of you. Off the cushion, it’s in this process of really listening, really looking at somebody, really being there, that the possibility of genuine connection can grow.”
3) Meditation can help you untangle the negative stories you tell yourself leading to more compassion for yourself and others.
If you have an inner critic that shows up time and time again to tell you about your lack of worth, then one fun technique Sharon uses is to give that voice a name. Sharon calls her own inner critic “Lucy” and says that her goal is to develop a healthy relationship with “Lucy” instead of resisting or burying her.
“The critical ingredient is learning to hear that voice, so that you’re not under its sway, but you really can see, oh yeah…that’s an old thought or habit; that’s old conditioning and not really who I am.”
The bottom line is, it’s okay to have negative thoughts and thorny feelings; the question is how you relate to them. Mindfulness will help you come to better terms with your inner critic, so that you’re not unconsciously under its sway. This compassion for yourself has a ripple effect and bonus (!) you’ll begin to feel more compassion for others as well.
4) Real love teaches you that no one else can complete you and this actually enhances your capacity to love and receive the love of others.
If you’re like most of us, there are probably times when you think you are experiencing love, but really it’s more of a craving or clinging. You may feel love and try to hold on to it tightly, and then soon learn that trying to control it is completely futile. But real love doesn’t come from this clinging or craving; it comes from your capacity to connect with yourself and others.
“Relationships are often built on the hope that another person’s unconditional love will magically heal our wounds and restore us to wholeness. In our culture, the prevalent notion is that we are broken, and that we need love from outside of us in order to feel whole. But in the Asian tradition, there is this idea that we all have a Buddha nature. That is, if you go underneath your habits, underneath your negative thoughts and even underneath your immediate experience, you will find capacity for growth, change, wisdom, and love that’s never destroyed. It may be buried (it usually is), it may be hard to find, and it certainly may be hard to trust, but it’s there. That’s a very different sense of who we are.”
Sharon suggests three ways to “lean with love” in our everyday lives:
- Consciously pay attention to what you are grateful for. Lean into what’s good in your life and consider this daily.
- Remember that everybody wants to be happy. We all have different conditioning about where happiness is found, but we all want to be happy and experience a sense of belonging in life.
- Remember that we’re all vulnerable. Although we don’t all share the same measure of pain, everybody is vulnerable to change and to loss. These are the things that should bring us together rather than keep us apart.
Real Love explores love in three areas of life: love for yourself, love for another, and love for all of life. I’m always in awe of Sharon’s ability to redefine words like love that have become diluted in our culture. After interviewing her, my heart cracked open a little wider. I’m pretty darn sure that’s a good thing. You can listen to my full conversation with Sharon Salzberg here. And don’t forget to download Meditation Studio to kickstart your meditation practice.