Love is a spider’s web: delicate and complex. It requires intimacy with ourselves and others, which takes trial, error, risks, humility and time. I’m 35 and just now starting to feel a stable awareness of how to practice love. Of course, that awareness doesn’t always translate into my ability to act in a loving way. In fact, it’s usually right after I’ve congratulated myself for being great at compassion that I slam into a wall of reactive displays of insecurity or anger. The wall could be in my parents’ home, on a dinner date, in the classroom and my relationships with teenagers as a middle school teacher, or in my interactions with black Americans since I am white. How love does or does not show up in our individual paths is inextricably tied to how it manifests collectively. The places where love is absent collectively - social inequalities, war, the destruction of animal and plant life - tell us that something is off and there is room to grow for millions of us at the individual level.
So how can we more consistently offer kindness to ourselves and all life? Deep attention and curiosity are among the tools needed. Quietly consider these questions: Do I feel a deep, daily sense of peace and relaxation? How many of my relationships with family members, friends, co-workers, romantic partners/spouses are filled with mutual understanding, intimate sharing, trust, excitement, joy, playfulness, and peace? Do I feel a persistent sense of anxiety, boredom, wrongness, or insecurity in myself that I sometimes try to escape through gossip, overworking, drinking, excessive television or social media, pornography and other compulsive actions? Is my life segregated by race, income, religion, age and sexual orientation?
To bring love more fully and consistently into our lives, we must learn how to give ourselves the love we desire from others in a way that is not narcissistic. When we wake up each morning, instead of looking for spouses, children, or co-workers to validate us, we can speak affirming words we wish to hear from them to ourselves. This is especially powerful if combined with some form of morning meditation or prayer - a few moments of silence that allows us to touch in to powers beyond our control (however we define those) and whatever emotions we’re feeling. This is a space to ask ourselves how we can navigate our day such that our words and actions bring maximum joy and healing, and, as Buddhists say “do no harm” to ourselves and others. This is not easy, but with practice, we will improve. Author bell hooks urges us to "give ourselves the love we are often dreaming about receiving from others…" She adds, "Do not expect to receive from someone else the love that you do not give yourself."
How well we love ourselves is reflected most clearly in how loving we are towards all we encounter. Being able to see the links between our experiences and that of all living beings is at the core of expanding our love experience. When we are aware of and working to break down harmful social walls like those cemented by materialism or racism, we are also simultaneously breaking down barriers that block love’s flow within ourselves and our families. To continue the example regarding racism - if I as a white woman in America am indifferent or deadened to the psychological and physical violence historically experienced by black Americans, and present today via mass incarceration or police brutality, then I am numb to core parts of my own heart, soul, and consciousness. The same is true if I am numb or judgmental towards my cousin or neighbor’s struggles with depression, alcoholism, local and global hunger, homelessness, or environmental destruction.
The path to love will never be found in exclusive displays of affection or in shopping carts filled with chocolates and diamond necklaces. In order to love we must understand the unbreakable connections between all humans. We must recognize how some of those bonds were violated in the past and how they are violated today. We must understand how we participate in the violations before we can start repairing the bonds. Reconnecting severed bonds means repeatedly asking ourselves difficult yet honest, life-giving questions. We must all ask how we feel inside about ourselves. If the core feelings are negative - are our outer actions running away from them, hiding them, or projecting them onto others? After pondering this, we must keep walking.
Men must ask how they fuel or quell violence or discrimination towards women. White Americans must ask if they are participating in white supremacy or acting to end it. Citizens in wealthy nations must ask if our lifestyles are sustainable or causing environmental destruction. As we gain clarity through this type of seeking, we must work daily to repair the places where lovelessness thrives. This work is not easy or quick, but if done with caution and humility - it is liberating. In fact, I believe this is the only path to true freedom - a life guided by the heart and filled with uplifting actions and feelings based in the knowledge that we are reflections of each other, and that our violent thoughts and actions can be replaced by those that give and receive life.