I am continuing my study of Jack Kornfield’s book “No time like the present”.
1. Love is a necessity
Neuroscience says current research points to this truth; its absence damages not only individuals, but also whole societies. Our brains require bonding and nurturing and it is affected by those closest to us. For example, infants have an instinctual attraction to faces and a seemingly pre-programmed understanding of facial expressions. Human children are programmed for attachment and need it for biological and practical survival. Love brings with it respect. A radio show host in LA who is devoted to the blues, get lots of mail even from listeners in Southern California’s prisons. One letter from an older man, called Walter Jones, requested some of the early blues greats, naming several. The following sunday he devoted part of the afternoon show to the blues icons announcing they had been requested by Mr Walter Jones, a man who clearly had rich knowledge of the history of the blues. Several weeks later he received a letter from Mr Jones, thanking him for the show and the acknowledgement, adding : “that’s the first time I ever remember hearing my name spoken with respect”.
2. Love is a developable habit
As novelist Ursula Le Guin puts it:
“Love must be remade each day, baked fresh like bread.”
Neuroscience reinforces that while love is natural to us, it is a quality that can be developed. Like gratitude and forgiveness, love can be invited and nourished. Practices of love and compassion can change our nervous system and greatly increase access to those capabilities. Practices of lovingkindness and compassion, drawn from Eastern philosophy, are being adapted for medicine, education and conflict resolution.
3 It makes you a happier person
Thupten Jinpa, HH the Dalai Lama’s translator, tells a story of a middled-aged doctor who came to their Stanford program on lovingkindness and mindful compassion. The disheartened doctor had lost his spark at work and felt weary and pressured by the speed of care required by the insurance-driven medical system. After two months of compassion and kindness classes, he changed the way he greeted his patients and listened to and interacted with them. Meditating on lovingkindness and compassion renewed his sense of connection to himself and those he treated. One of his older patients asked him, “Doctor you seem different, what has happened to you? Are you in love or something?”.
4 Love is communicable
It is common wisdom that love feels good. Any form of love – in being alive – when we are open to any form of love, others feel it, neuroscience calls this limbic resonance. Within intimate relationships, our limbic systems synchronize with one another. The mirror neurons are attuned to those around us and we catch feelings from one another.
Indian sage, Neem Karoli Baba (whose teachings turned Harvard Professor Richard Alpert into a world-renowned spiritual leader of our times, Ram Das) was asked how to get enlightened, “Love people – love them and feed them” – was his answer.
5 Challenges to love
Life is filled with rejections, disagreements, break-ups, etc. These experiences produce emotional pain, which in some ways is indistinguishable from physical pain. I grew up without a mother and no-one else to replace her love. In my teens I used to cut my skin, as a way of coping with the pain. Now I understand that in response to the pain signals received by my brain, pain’s counterweight is released: opioids. In effect, a physical pain tricked my nervous system into numbing both my physical and emotional pain. If a child is not given a steady limbic resonance, they will have difficulty empathizing with others. Whereas if a child experiences a steady limbic connection, they will.
When people are hurting and out of balance, they turn to others for support. Dr Thomas Lewis writes in the General Theory of Love in important ways, people cannot be stable on their own.
American individualism, materialism and capitalism can affect our emotional and physical health. We disparage “needy” people, but we glorify self-made individuals. Since our culture promotes self-sufficiency, which leads to isolation, we suffer needlessly from modern maladies such as anxiety, depression and narcissism.
How can we foster more love in the world? Are we getting enough love in our lives? Could we give more love to others?
The practice of loving kindness, as practiced by the doctor, is to picture someone you love a lot, where love is uncomplicated – perhaps a child or a pet. Breathe gently and recite inwardly the following traditional good wishes, directed toward their well-being:
May you be filled with lovingkindness
May you be safe
May you be well
May you be at ease and happy.
Repeat these kind intentions over and over again, letting the feelings permeate your body and mind.
This meditation may at time, feel mechanical or awkward. It can also bring up feelings of irritation or anger. If this happens, be patient and kind toward yourself, allowing whatever arises to be held in a spirit of kind affection.
After a few minutes picture a second loved one and extend the same wishes toward them.
After a time, imagine these two loved ones gazing back at you with the same well-wishing. They want you also to be held in kindness, to be safe and well, to be happy. Picture them saying the same words kindly to you.
Over time you can begin to send these wishes to a wider circle of friends, community, animals, all beings and eventually the whole earth.
This is an activity you can do anywhere – in traffic jams, in metros and airplanes. It will calm your mind, open your heart and keep you connected to all beings.