Dec 10, 2008
Ursula K. Le Guin: “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new.”
Everything’s impermanent, but rather than be depressed by this fact we can use it to our advantage. Bodhipaksa looks at the Buddhist practice of developing lovingkindness and offers six lessons that can help us keep love alive.
Buddhism teaches that everything’s impermanent, which can seem like a real downer until you look more closely into what that means. At first glance it can seem rather depressing: I’m impermanent, and everything I love is impermanent too. I’m going to die. Everything I love is going to die. Love itself is impermanent. Oh, oh! Here comes bleak existential despair!
But the fact that everything is impermanent is actually the most wonderful thing about life. If anything about me was not impermanent then that would be something I couldn’t change. If my personality was not impermanent I’d never be able to change it. I’d be stuck with those aspects of my personality (like my irritability and my distractedness) that cause me most suffering. And the same’s true for you. If you have a tendency to depression, or to over-eating, or to anxiety, those tendencies are impermanent. They can be changed. They can become less predominant in your life. They can even disappear entirely.
What we call a personality is nothing more or less than an amazingly interwoven fabric of impermanent events…
Love dies, but it is also reborn. Hatred is reborn, but it also dies. What we call a personality is nothing more or less than an amazingly interwoven fabric of impermanent events being born and dying and being reborn again. We tend to think of death and rebirth in “macro” terms — about the end of one life of the beginning of another, but actually death and rebirth are taking place in this very moment as cells, sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts are coming into being and passing away. Left to their own devices — without our conscious intervention — the overall texture of our personality won’t tend to change much over time. Things keep changing, but they change in such a way that the stay the same, much as you can look at an eddy in a river and see that in every moment it’s different, but it still has about the same size, shape and position.
Generally it takes conscious intervention to bring about a change in the balance of the various mental factors that constitute a personality. A mindful awareness of our mental states, combined with skillful action, helps shape the process of death and rebirth that’s moment by moment unfolding within our consciousness. Something as simple as letting go of a critical and angry train of thought helps that part of ourselves to pass on into oblivion. Choosing to think about what we’ve achieved helps bring about more happiness. Contemplating the fact that, just as we do, others experience suffering and wish to be happy helps to bring into being the forces of compassion and love.
Love is not a thing that happens to us. It’s a thing we do.
Events can shape us, of course. Tragic events, unpleasant events, unexpected blessings, and the responses of others can bring about profound changes in our personality and outlook. But it’s the way we respond to outside events that is the true shaper of our being. It’s we, ultimately, who change ourselves.
It’s good to bear all of this in mind when we contemplate love. Love is not a thing that happens to us. It’s a thing we do. It’s not a “thing” that lives inside of us and can be left to its own devices. It’s an action. It’s not an experience. It’s a way of relating.
If we are not bringing love into being, it is in the process of dying within us. If we don’t sustain our love, it withers — slowly perhaps, but inexorably. We have to pay attention to love in order that it continues to live and grow within us. And this means that we have to pay attention to others in order that our love continue to flourish.
Lovingkindness meditation presupposes a number of factors that cause love to grow. If you’re not familiar with the practice of lovingkindness meditation I wholeheartedly recommend that you try it. This kind of meditation is a gentle but powerful way of working with our emotions, and I’ve noticed the following principles embedded in the form of the meditation:
1. First, we have to pay attention to ourselves. If we’re not aware of ourselves and our feelings then we’ll lack the responsiveness that allows us to love others. In the formal practice we bring our awareness into the body and into our hearts.
2. If we don’t cultivate a basic sense of caring for ourselves and our own wellbeing then we’ll also find it hard to love others. So we need to start here and develop a wholesome relationship with ourselves. The sitting practice of lovingkindness always begins with us cultivating love for ourselves.
If we’re not aware of ourselves and our feelings then we’ll lack the responsiveness that allows us to love others.
3. Then we have to give others our attention. We can’t include love in a package of multitasking. We need to spend time with others, and to give them as best as possible our full attention. When my attention is divided between my daughter and, say, some article I’m trying to read, an unpleasant tension arises that can easily lead to impatience. It’s much better just to put down what I’m doing and focus just on her. The more we give people our undivided attention the easier it is to cultivate love for them.
4. We need to relate to others as feeling beings, and to take their happiness seriously. When we see others as being either means or obstacles to our own happiness we’re not relating to them as feeling beings. To love is to take another’s well-being seriously, and we can’t do that if we don’t acknowledge the need others have to be happy.
5. We need to communicate that we love others. In lovingkindness meditation we commonly repeat phrases like, “May you be well. May you be at ease.” Even if we never speak those words to the other person they have an effect on how we feel. But outside of meditation it’s even more powerful to communicate with another person that we love them. This doesn’t have to be done in words, of course. A glance or a kind act can be an effective way of communicating a sense that we love others. But the words themselves are less ambiguous and often more powerful.
6. We need to repeat the above frequently. Love, if it’s not being cultivated, is beginning the slow process of withering. We need to bear others in mind as often as we can, calling to mind our love for them. We need to spend as much time as we can with those we love. In this way, our love can keep being reborn and our irritability, intolerance, and indifference towards others can fade quietly away.
Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.
As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/bodhipaksa or follow him on Facebook.