“All You Need is Love.”
I am not going to offer political commentary because there’s plenty of that already floating around. However, the current political atmosphere makes me want to write about love and suggest that everyone listen to The Beatles because there’s an awful lot of hate.
I’m defining love specifically from a Buddhist perspective, certainly not the chemical cocktail of romance that tends to make us feel crazy. There’s also enough crazy right now.
Buddhism defines true love explicitly. Through practice, we can develop the four aspects of true love: metta (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), and upekkha (equanimity). While our brains are wired to do the romantic bad-decision making obsessive romantic love of poetry and song, true love requires a little effort.
Loving-kindness starts with the self. The traditional metta meditation includes phrases along the lines of: May I be (or feel) safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease. These same phrases are then extended out to a mentor, a neutral person, someone who is sometimes called a troublemaker, and finally to the world at large. The idea is to generate an energy of love and kindness that produces a sense of connection with others. Clearly, our culture is failing at this currently.
The other parts of true love spring from loving-kindness.
Compassion builds on metta and on the First Noble Truth, for to feel compassion, we must acknowledge—without fear—the omnipresence of suffering for all beings, including ourselves. We must, in fact, be open to suffering, something that modern culture certainly doesn’t encourage and that we are not inherently prone toward doing. Like metta, compassion must begin with the self since to blame ourselves and carry guilt and shame shuts us down rather than leaving us open.
Joy refers to the ability to rejoice in the happiness and success of others rather than to feel envy. Often when someone we know—or even love—succeeds, we feel threatened rather than truly happy as if happiness were in limited supply and there’s now less of it for us. The joy belonging to true love genuinely celebrates the happiness of others.
True love requires the equanimity that comes from letting go and not attempting to control. Equanimity grows with the acceptance of impermanence and simply being with things as they are in the moment.
I am by no means claiming to have mastered any of this. Like pretty much every other American, I’m struggling with anxiety and communicating with those who clearly don’t share my fundamental beliefs. But I’m practicing, both personally and when teaching.
We’re reading Mansfield Park in my Austen class now. The novel is filled with selfish characters who cause a lot of suffering. One is Mrs. Norris, a character so hateful that J.K. Rowling named Mr. Filch’s spying, disliked cat Mrs. Norris. Austen has no expectations that we like Mrs. Norris, and we should not be okay with her abusive behavior. However, we’ve been talking about how to extend her some true love even as we actively dislike her. If we look closely, we can see that Mrs. Norris is a victim of a culture that valued women as commodities on a marriage market, how this leads her to a life of dependence and insecurity. Sure, she should make different choices and not be so incredibly unkind, but we can extend some love her way even as we don’t excuse her behavior.
Yeah, it’s a lot easier with a fictional character. But research shows that our brains light up when reading in the same way they do when we’re performing real-life tasks. If a character enters a new setting in a novel, the parts of our brains that would process moving into a new room also light up.
So maybe start there. Extend some loving kindness your own way. Then read a good book (I have suggestions!) and practice extending a little love to a fictional character who is a troublemaker. We’ll work our way up to doing it in our daily lives.