We need love. Our quest for it shapes our lives. Psychotherapy tells us that much of our unexamined behaviour comes from unconscious strategies we formed to secure love as young children. We want to be loved without conditions, for who we are. If we had love, even with little else, we would be happy.
The feeling I enjoy when I receive love from another is a blissful one. It radiates safety, validation and understanding. These components sum to what strikes me as happiness. But the buzz of this received love is erratic, even in a stable, loving relationship. Feelings of pain, misunderstanding, rejection and betrayal interrupt it. I can’t guarantee others will give me the love I need.
The soap operas package this troubling truth and serve it back to us. The search for unconditional love is rich in drama. Sometimes the villain wears the face of another, one who sometimes but not always gives us what we need. How could they be so unreliable? We cast ourselves as the baddie in other scenes, undeserving of the very love we crave.
Might there be another take on this, a way out of this neediness, this dependence?
Consider the moments when you receive the love of another. What if it is not the love of the other that you feel? Could it be that in those moments of being loved, you stop asking reality to be different; you accept what life, in the guise of this loving person before you, sends your way? Perhaps in those magic scenes, bathed in the light of the love you’ve craved, you stop fighting life; you stop withholding your unconditional acceptance. In other words, in those instants, you love.
What if that amazing cocktail of positive feelings that we wrap up and call happiness is what arises when we love, when love flows from us? Consider the possibility that happiness is what loving – giving love – feels like. Well, that puts real power in our hands (or rather, in our hearts)! When we are loved, we give love in return, and this brings happiness. But are we confined to loving only in response to being loved by another? No! We can love when others do not grant us the love we crave. If so, would this act of unilateral love yield happiness too? Seems worth a try.
Taking this further, can we love only other people? Is it only in another person that we can recognise this deep connection, this reflection of something that resonates in us? Can only another person receive the blessing of our attention and the unconditional acceptance of exactly what they are, right now? This recognition of ourselves in the other can happen not only with lovers, family and friends, not only with strangers and even enemies. This love can arise with animals, plants, with any event that life brings. In fact, love doesn't ever arise, because it is always there, even when overlooked - ignored - by us. Love, this resonance, this recognition of oneness, is the human experience of wholeness and unity. It is always there and always available.
So none of us needs the love of another. The love we need is ours to give. We can grant it to all of life, and life includes (in fact life is) ourselves. The love each person needs can only come from one place - within. The same unreserved acceptance and embrace we can bestow on all external experience is available to grant to our own thoughts and feelings. Our love can welcome even the feelings outlawed in those childhood strategies that we adopted to win the love of others from when we first experienced the sense of separateness.
This is the human journey. The Fall is the innocent child’s passage from the undifferentiated immediate experience of being to the sense of separation from life's flow. It is not a sin nor a fuck up. It is humanity. The child's self-division ensues as she looks for the love she needs outside herself and casts into darkness any bits of herself that lead others to deny her. Every human story is unique, but all are at heart the search for love and the re-integration of our disowned selves. The climax is the chance to recognise the truth so close as to be invisible - that the love we seek is within us and is the key to re-integrating what the Fall and our immature response to it severed.
What Vedantins call Ananda, what to Buddhists is Nirvana, what Christians see as Heaven is always within reach. In fact, we needn’t reach it, because we hold it already, although we prioritise security and comfort over it, too often keeping it locked away. We get glimpses of it when we love another, when we bless a moment with unconditional acceptance, when we recognise our essence in another. These moments of happiness are fleeting sights of the peace and ease that rest within us. The more we truly love, the more frequent and lengthy our views of its radiance.
The heart can show us the way from the intellectual enlightenment trap
I have spent most of my life in my head – thinking and thinking. This is not a boast. Much of my mental busy-ness serves no purpose; it is reactive and habitual.
That said, I tend to be handy with juggling concepts, with figuring things out. When I tired of solving (or attempting to solve) problems associated with earning lots of money, gaining power and the normal achievement agenda, I found a whole new realm to explore and... think upon: spirituality. In my case, this was the path through advaita vedanta, a philosophy of yoga, into the various schools of non-dualism.
I ponder and discuss Buddhism, Taoism, Tantra, Dzogchen and myriad western adaptations of these wisdom traditions from the east. Concepts in this realm trip off my tongue as easily as discussing good business communication or personal effectiveness. I even handle the concept of Truth as essentially non-conceptual!
There’s no need to repeat a synthesis of my intellectual understanding of reality and myself here. The point of this post is that I find this clarity, as proud and thankful as I am to see it, a bit of a false summit. Climbing from concept to concept, I often sense the spiritual mountaintop within reach, just one final 'aha' away. And perhaps it is.
But increasingly I've found myself circling the full awakening I know I mustn't strive for but still do. My steps only take me around the mountain, a short distance from the peak. I suspect the clarity of intellectual understanding can be a refuge for personalities like mine, a final bunker in which the sense of separateness shelters from what it most fears - melting into the flow and direct experience of life.
If you'll allow me to switch metaphors, please picture me, a representative intellectually awakened dude, as a moth circling a flame. But this moth circles the flickering light in a steady orbit, not in the decaying spiral normal moths tend to follow until they perish in a dusty flash. This moth observes, appreciates, describes and understands the concept of the flame, but it does so from a stable distance. It reaches its safe limit and can go no nearer. Might something in it not want to move closer?
Among the things Jesus showed us was that the person in Him had to die before he could re-join his Father (the Father and the Son, two aspects of the same whole). Likewise, the separate person in us, the sense of being independent of and partially isolated from the flow of Life, needs to dissolve for full awakening to occur. But would any self-respecting sense of separateness want that? Of course not! So this strange moth orbits beyond reach of the flame of freedom, knowing that surrender is necessary but unable to offer itself.
Poor me! Help! My clever mind has me in an appreciative but remote orbit around an unfiltered, direct experience of Life. What can be done? What can Life do to shake me loose, pull me to its centre?
Life can invite me to open my heart to its wholeness. It can ask me to unhook from my mental narrative, to attend to the sensations populating my body. Here is the home of the powerful feelings that accompany and often trump thought. Life can teach me to welcome and stay with even the most uncomfortable feelings I (my sense of separateness) have sought to distance myself from. These sensations, along with the pleasurable ones I've come to believe I do not deserve, are my unlived life, the components of Life that act as the background against which my sense of isolation is cast. Life can allow me to love them, and in doing so, I shake myself from the unwanted, stable orbit.
No matter how nimble we are in our dance with mental images of spirituality, until we deal with our shit, we cannot move past concepts to the reality itself. This is because ‘our shit’ is the pool of accumulated moments in which we rejected reality. We must atone for (be at-one with) these unwanted aspects of Life. And our body is the sacred vessel in which this gradual baptism takes place, one sensation at a time. As Life recalls a neglected fragment, we welcome it and love it, despite its discomfort.
In fact, I've found that sitting with, bearing the discomfort, is far more effective if I go even further, silently saying, 'I love you,' to it. As odd as I found it when I came across Matt Kahn’s suggestion, this sub-vocalising step of proclaiming my unjudging, unconditional acceptance of unease, confusion, anger, depression, anxiety and fear, has proven life-changing.
So, notice a disturbing sensation; slow your breath; stay with the sensation; and say, 'I love you,' with each breath for a minute or until the feeling abates. It is not your goal to make it go away. You simply love it until it does. And you repeat this each time discomfort arises, for the rest of your life.
The heart's reintroduction to its unlived feelings happens hand-in-hand with the mind's intellectual understanding of our true nature, with spiritual clarity. The heart and head now reinforce one another's rewriting of our model of reality. Together, and in concert with Life's undivided flow, they erode the conceptual prisons we've built for ourselves. Remember, though – erosion is often a gradual, almost imperceptible process. This is how Life reassembles us. As it does so, our self realises it is Self, Life dressed up as a separate person.
With this realisation, the spiral of our moth into the flame is complete. The sense of separateness ignites in a puff, leaving Life to dress and play as this person. And in this person, Life recognises itself in every other person, in each being, in everything, even as its daily flow presents itself in countless varied costumes.
The act of forgiving is a gift, not to the forgiven but to the one who forgives.
That’s right. Forgiving presents a precious gift of freedom to yourself. Imagine the power in your hands, the self-care at your disposal! Whenever you choose to, you can treat yourself by forgiving someone a past wrong. The ‘someone’ could even be yourself.
Your partner was tired. He had promised to take you out for a candlelit dinner to celebrate your promotion. You worked hard for the new title, and you'd put in long, stressful hours all week. Your anticipation of that evening's date had helped keep you going. It had meant so much to you. But then, exhausted by his own crisis at work, he cancelled. How could he? So selfish! So uncaring!
That was three weeks ago. Since then, things haven't been the same, at home or the office. You are more distant with your partner, less warm. Wakeful spells disrupt your nights, as your mind replays the episode. At work, you are grumpy and slow. The wound from the aborted celebration has become infected.
Resentment and judgement are reactions to injury or injustice. We've felt them aimed at us and learned to aim them at others we hold responsible for pain or unfair treatment. In our busy minds, the original events acquire layers of narrative and commentary, prolonging and often exacerbating our suffering. We await an adequate apology or restitution payment. Once the accused earns our forgiveness, we tell ourselves, we will give it. Until then, they don't deserve it.
I’m not saying they deserve forgiveness or that they've atoned for their sins. My point has nothing to do with anyone but ourselves. Resentment and judgement are dense loads to carry. We shoulder them because we think they even the score with someone who has done us wrong. But the only scales they register on are the ones measuring the physical, psychic and emotional burden we bear through our days and restless nights. And the energy spent on them is lost to us, unavailable to meet the opportunities and challenges of our one shot at life.
There, wasn't that easy?
What? It’s anything but easy? You try to forgive the one who injured you, but it doesn't work? Doesn't stick? When you recall the episode, even as you tell yourself that you forgive them, you still feel resentment rise? Maybe giving yourself this gift of forgiveness is harder than I first suggested.
Right. It turns out those injuries and the infections to them aren't at the direct call of our will and intellect. We might think of them less as recent injuries and more like someone poking old, infected ones we don’t remember. At heart, this painful reaction you can't shake is not about the person who did the poking but is tied to the old injury itself.
But this could be psycho-babble, couldn't it? So let's get concrete. Let's work right here, right now. All you need is at your disposal. You needn’t take anyone's word. Try this for yourself, and see if it works.
Think back on the episode of your recent injury, the one you want to forgive. As you revisit it, be alert to the onset of any strong tension or physical discomfort, perhaps a knot in your gut or a tightness in your chest. Once you notice that, concentrate; zero in on it.
We don't want you to pay attention to the replay of the event and its narrative any more, because it might take you too deep. So focus on two things only: 1) The physical sensation you’ve just noticed arising as you recalled the injury and 2) keeping still, with your eyes fixed on a single point somewhere two to six feet from you. (The second may sound weird, but this intentional stillness serves to crowd out the narrative layered on the injury.)
Stay with this physical sensation. Examine it. Bring your curiosity to it. Give it your attention. What are its characteristics? How long does it linger? Stay with it while it remains. Notice that you are doing fine. You are under no mortal threat. Nothing terrible is happening to you. You are just being still and attending to this sensation that arose alongside your revisiting the memory of the injurious event.
Your mind and body associate the recent event with this physical sensation. The thing is, they also associate the physical sensation with the original injury. When you incurred the initial wound, you lacked your current size, strength and emotional and psychological capacities. Back then, the injury seemed life-threatening, and this gave the physical sensation its immense power. Now, although there is no existential threat, the pokes at the infected site of the original injury trigger the same sensation with its life-threatening feeling.
The above exercise uses your body is an empirical lab in which you verify and then patiently teach your mind and body that the physical sensation does not relate to any current existential threat. You could sit with it forever, and it would do you no harm. But you needn’t stay with that sensation very long, only until it dissolves of its own accord.
You should repeat this exercise as many times as you need to, triggering the sensation by recalling the recent event and sitting with it until it subsides. When revisiting the memory of the recent injury no longer brings on the strong physical sensation, you have forgiven.
Having forgiven, you shrug off a weight, unshoulder a burden. You are lighter, free of a load that has sapped your energy, stolen from your life. By teaching your mind and body that the strong sensation within your resentment is no threat, you give yourself a most beautiful gift.
When you let resentment get the better of you, disappointment arises as a new layer. While you get the hang of this technique, you might lose patience with yourself because you are not forgiving as quickly as you'd like. You may go so far as to harbour resentment against yourself.
Aha! You've gone and poked an old injury yourself! No worry. Now just apply the same forgiveness to yourself as you've learned to do with others. Stick with it, when you forgive yourself, you give and receive the greatest gift of all.
The energies of the head, heart and gut
When Tami Simon, founder of Sounds True, asked renowned teacher and author Mary O'Malley to define enlightenment, she answered that it happens when the head, heart and gut align. Here's what she might have meant, and what it implies for us.
The entire body - and indeed all of life - is intelligent, but conventional wisdom has tended to focus on the brain as the seat of intelligence. We actually have three discernible neural centres - the long-accepted one in the skull plus partners in the heart and the gut. Think of the head, heart and gut as a leadership team, deploying our resources of wisdom, love and power. Let's look more closely.
The head is the home of our logical reasoning. It is a dividing and naming engine, conceptually recasting an undivided reality as constituent parts with predictable properties and relations. The head’s labelling role includes judging - applying the ultimate labels of good and bad. It answers 'How' questions that arise in life by theoretically isolating aspects of reality and identifying patterns among them, within and across moments. The head can cast its glance to the past and the future, and much of its busyness looks in these directions. A final important role of the head is as the ultimate storyteller. It observes the world and interprets it, based on its carving, naming and patterning prowess. We spend most of our time in our heads, spellbound in its narration, often mistaking this voice for our self. The gift the head can give us is clarity or wisdom.
The gut is the home of our 'animal' drives of fight, flight, food and f*ck. It is the driver of our moods and is central to both our stress response and our intuition. This nerve centre's function relies on bacteria, so the 'other' is instrumental in 'our' self-regulation even at this most basic level. The belly lives in the present moment. The gift the gut can give us is drive or power.
Finally, the heart is the home of our connection to the world - the whole, undivided world. It accepts without exception. In its holistic spaciousness, the heart knows the reality of Life as a single flow and so surrenders to it. It welcomes what the head calls the 'good' and the 'bad' in equal embrace, valuing the truth of What Is above any preferences the head imposes. Like the gut, the heart lives in the present moment as a holographic shard of What Is. The gift the heart can give us is the greatest, love.
Let's turn to the human predicament. The head creates concepts as it divides its representation of the world into pieces. The most powerful concept, the one that organises every story the head tells, is the separate self. This central image casts each experience in a new light, because the separate self claims to be the author of its own causal process, independent of Life's unitary flow.
Now, we've got to give the head credit. It has balls! That's shouldering hefty responsibility, separating the self from Life and setting out its own stall. The head is not evil. It isolates itself because this makes sense from its limited, disaggregating perspective. With that separation, the head moves from being a member of the self's leadership team to claiming dictatorship. Why is this so?
A young child navigates a confusing world populated by larger and more powerful beings. The child depends on them for life and love. In this immature stage of life, the heart's openness seems dangerous, leaving the child too vulnerable. The head, able to discern apparent threats and chart courses of action, becomes a refuge for the child. Judgmental narratives replace the intense experiences Life brings, experiences welcomed by the heart. And so, this child’s conceptual separate self, in distrusting the heart's holistic knowledge and rejecting its gift of love, further separates itself from Life, turning its back to reality's darker, uncomfortable half and substituting head-bound neuroses for what it rejects in the child's direct experience.
The head continues to enlist the gut, and without the accepting influence of the heart, the gut's dance with the head's myriad threats and worries floods the body regularly with chemicals best reserved for rare moments of primal need. The gut isn’t stupid; it knows things the head cannot. But missing the heart's connection to Life's intelligence, the gut must do its best on a diet of the head’s false news. It misspends its power chasing ghosts and responding to non-existent emergencies. The self lurches raggedly when it should glide with Life.
The human awakening that we sometimes call enlightenment is largely about re-enlisting the heart - opening it, embracing it and inviting it to its proper seat in the leadership team. As the heart assumes its rightful place, balanced regulation returns, and the self surrenders to Life. The sense of separateness, the image and story concocted by the head, evaporates. Love bathes every experience that arises, the head clears and the body's power aligns with the reality's unfolding, of which it is a magical sliver.
The trio of the self's energies - Wisdom, Love and Power – now align with one another and with the flow of reality, with Life. This is the realisation of human potential Mary O'Malley and other teachers refer to, whole human being.
But you can see your desires and aversions in a new, liberating light
If you want an ice cream cone, you can probably get one. The same holds for most material possessions, so long as you can afford them. We score little successes like this most days, feeling a desire and meeting it. Some shortfalls are harder to fill — true love, work with meaning, financial independence. But at least in theory, we can achieve these ends.
You can also escape things you dislike. If a downpour disturbs your afternoon stroll, you can duck into a cafe. We take medicine to alleviate pain, hide behind pillows when the movie gets too scary or diet to lose those few pounds, all with some partial success.
What, then, do I mean when I say that you can’t have what you seek? If we boil these examples down to their essence, we see that they involve getting what we want and avoiding or escaping what we don’t want. And although we can acquire or achieve with impressive frequency, although we can discard or dodge with admirable efficiency, the holes we fill and blights we escape always give way to new ones!
We get the ice cream cone but then want a drink to wash it down with. We find true love but then crave time and space for ourselves. We find work with meaning but then want a bigger salary to support our ice cream and soda spending! Perhaps we get what we seek and then demand assurance that we won’t lose it. At heart, what we think we want is one of two things: for this moment to be different (get something I lack or discard something I dislike) or for this moment to resist change in the next moment (to hold on to what I have).
No, we can’t change the present moment or stop the flow of reality, but we can’t help wanting to. Something in us, the world and life won’t consider the race won. There is no finish line. It’s not just that our seeking may be a marathon rather than a sprint. It’s that we’re on a treadmill, running just to stay in place. Our seeming progress leaves us no closer to breaking the tape and throwing our hands in the air. This isn’t just an anti-materialism declaration. The same applies for experiences, relationships and even spiritual growth.
Although there is no end to satisfying your wants or escaping your dislikes, there is a deeper current to this stream of life. Consider the possibility that success in this race of desire and aversion is not your deepest longing. What if you are not in the event to rack up points but to experience every step of it — unfiltered — with your full self?
Might that be what it’s all about? Then why are we so misguided, thinking we must filter life to collect the good and eliminate the bad? Why do we want less than the whole of life? The thing is, for most of us, life simply has this sense built into it. This unseen assumption colours our experience, which is all part of the race. One view is that our early life suggests that we need to filter reality in this way to stay safe, to survive. Perhaps we must as vulnerable children in awe of life’s chaotic creativity.
One implication is that we needn’t beat ourselves up for labouring on the treadmill. For most of us, it is part of what life — or at least a stage of it — is. But maybe the filtering strategy — the endless drive to pursue one half of reality while fleeing the other — though appropriate for our child selves, is unnecessary and unhelpful once we have developed into adult humans. Maybe we can look another way at the desires and aversions we experience as part of our humanity.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how the race felt if we tested an alternative assumption about our purpose or aim, if we trialled whether splitting reality into seeking and fleeing was necessary or worth doing? What if we are meant to experience the bad just as we are the good? If we realised that, how would life change? If we recognised that there was no finish line, no way of winning the race, how would that alter our participation in it, our experience of it?
I’m not sure, but I’ve had glimpses and hints. Perhaps you have too? Sometimes I experience an itch or drive for something — an acquisition or achievement — but I am not captured by it. I see the desire; I see it as a desire. But I see it in a way that doesn’t include an automatic launch into pursuing it. The same sometimes happens with fear or discontent. I hear the inner voice rejecting the moment or resisting change. I note it, even feel the call, but I am not bound by it. Sometimes, I just take interest in it. I’m curious about it. At times, with desires and aversions, I experience them but remain free of them.
Can we cultivate this capability? Can I, can you, get better at this? Might we access untapped capacity for engaging, face forward, with the full spectrum of life? I feel drawn to try. That desire (!) may just be another in the race, but perhaps I’ll check it out. It’s not a finish line, but it is the next stretch of the course for me, so I’m going to take part fully!
From time to time, I verbally remind myself of some uncomfortable truths:
This brief ceasefire - or at least lessening of hostilities - in my battle against reality, against What Is, allows those truths in. I let their day-to-day, real-life, concrete messengers into my experience, unaccompanied by the tension or flight that so often accompanies them. They bring their discomfort, but I don't amplify it.
Without exception, arm-in-arm with these messengers and trailing in their wake come their friends and family. These are the visitors I spend so much time hoping for and clinging to - friendship, intimacy, validation, contentment, success, pleasure.
And with my door open and my defenses down, these visitors bear even more beautiful smiles than normal. In the company of their darker cousins, free from my anxious filtering attempts, they bring warmth unknown in my moments of vigilant judgment. In other words, I experience life more fully. In yet other words, I am more alive!
Then, yes, some 'thing' or a succession of them happens, and my door begins to close. My defenses re-engage. I lose touch with this period - sometimes moments, sometimes days - of aliveness. Then, if I'm lucky, I remind myself of another inescapable truth: the path of opening to life has no finish line. The 'work' of the path is life itself.
I can access life's fulness more frequently and for longer periods by opening my heart to What Is. I can build my capacity to meet discomfort more immediately and lovingly. It is worth the work. But my failures in openness, in meeting discomfort and in accessing aliveness are ultimately just more of life's messengers. My work when these failures come my way is no different than at any other time - to let them in as harbingers of truth, of What Is. They carry the very aliveness I seek, just not in the packaging I requested.
I'm curious. I like looking beneath and behind the obvious, also looking for what is between me and the obvious, obscuring or distorting my view.