How to Love
Nourishing Our Love
As a lover we need to learn the art
of nourishing happiness and love. If we don’t know how to nourish our love, it will die. To love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness.
Recognizing True Love
True love brings us beauty, freshness, stability, solidity, peace, and freedom. If we don’t feel this way when we feel love, then it’s not true love. True love includes a deep joy and awareness that you are alive. “Breathing in, I know I’m alive.” We touch the miracles of life inside us and around us.
Without mud you cannot grow lotus flowers. Without suffering, there can be no happiness. So we should not discriminate against our suffering. We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our suffering, the suffering of the other person, and the suffering of the world with a lot of tenderness. With the energy of mindfulness, you continue breathing, and walking, so you can keep generating that energy of mindfulness and look deeply into the suffering so we gain the understanding and insight that will liberate us.
Many of us are afraid to go back to ourselves, because we worry we’ll be overwhelmed by the block of suffering inside. We get crushes on others not because we truly love and understand them, but to distract ourselves from our suffering. But when we learn to love ourselves and have true compassion for ourselves, we come home. We recognize and embrace our suffering and only then, with compassion for our own suffering, can we truly love and understand a loved one.
Listening to the Suffering of the Other Person
When you have understood your suffering and loneliness, you feel lighter, and you can listen to the suffering of the other person. It becomes easier to understand his or her suffering, because you’ve understood your own suffering. Your suffering carries within itself the suffering of your ancestors, society, and the world. This is why we have the word interbeing. My suffering is in your suffering, and your suffering is in my suffering. Therefore, when I’ve understood my suffering, it becomes much easier to understand your suffering.
Understanding is the Nature of Love
When you understand someone’s suffering, that’s a gift that you make to the other person. That person may feel understood for the first time. Understanding is love itself. Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love. If you don’t understand your son, you can’t love your son. If you don’t understand your father, you can’t love your father. To offer understanding means to offer love. Understanding another person isn’t possible without understanding yourself.
Reverence Is the Nature of Our Love
There’s a tradition in Asia of treating your spouse with the respect you would accord a guest. You treat your spouse as a guest, not only before marriage, but also after marriage. You have to be respectful of him, of her. In order to respect the other person, you have to respect yourself first. Reverence should be the nature of our love.
The Four Elements of True Love
Happiness is only possible with true love. True love has the power to heal and transform the situation and bring deep meaning to our lives. Love is organic. If we don’t know how to handle love, it can turn into hate or despair. We have to learn how to feed our love so it will continue to grow. In Buddhism, love is spoken of as being unlimited, having no boundaries.
In the beginning your love may include only you and the other person. But if you practice true love, very soon it will grow and include all of us. Love is a living thing. The moment love stops to grow, it begins to die. It’s like a tree; if a tree stops growing, it begins to die. So we have to learn how to feed our love and help it continue to grow.
The first element of true love is maitri, loving kindness. This means being able to offer happiness. You have to be the sunshine for the other person. But you can’t offer happiness until you have it for yourself. So build a home inside. Accept yourself. Learn to love and heal yourself. Learn how to practice mindfulness in such a way that you can create moments of happiness and joy for your own nourishment. Then you have something to offer the other person.
The second element of true love is karuna, compassion. This is the capacity to understand the suffering in yourself and in the other person. If you understand your own suffering, you can help him to understand his suffering. Understanding suffering brings compassion and relief. You can transform your own suffering and help transform the suffering of the other person. We can generate this energy by practicing mindfulness.
The third element is mudita, joy. When you know how to generate joy, that nourishes you and nourishes the other person.
The fourth is upeksha, which means equanimity, inclusivesness, nondiscrimination. In a deep relationship, there’s no longer a boundary between you and the other person. You are him, you are her. Your suffering is his suffering. Your understanding of your own suffering helps her to suffer less. Suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters. What happens to him happens to you. What happens to you happens to him. There’s no longer any discrimination.
If your love is made with these four elements, your love is healing and transforming, and it has the element of holiness in it, because it’s made of mindfulness, concentration, and insight.
When an intimate relationship contains the four elements of true love, then physical intimacy, sexual intimacy, becomes something very beautiful and consolidating.
If a couple isn’t happy and there’s no longer pleasure in looking at each other, it’s because there’s suffering in each of them that has accumulated over many years. Of course there is suffering in us. But there is also suffering in him or in her. When both of us don’t know how to handle and transform the suffering inside, our suffering continues to be there.
When we suffer, we have the tendency to blame the other person. We believe our suffering has come from him or her. We may think that after separation or divorce our suffering will stop. But that isn’t true. When we meet another person, we’ll make him or her suffer because the suffering is still intact in us. With the practice of mindfulness and concentration, we can reduce and transform our suffering. Then we can help transform the suffering in the other person, and restore communication, love, and happiness.
Suffering and happiness are closely related to each other, and they both have an organic nature. If we’re skillful enough, we can transform suffering back into happiness. A flower can become a piece of garbage, but a piece of garbage can be made into compost that nourishes the soil so a flower can grow again. Without the soil there’s no flower. Without suffering, there will be no happiness. So we learn to handle and take care of our suffering in such a way that we can turn it into happiness.
Don’t be afraid of suffering or try to run away from it. Instead, come home and embrace it tenderly in order to find out its nature and its roots. A few days of practice can already change the situation. We know that suffering is there in both of us. We need help. The other person also needs help. Nobody needs punishment. So whenever you get angry and you suffer, don’t try to say or do something to punish the other person. There’s a lot of suffering in him or her already. She needs help, not punishment
Watering the Flower in the Other Person
One day I was giving a talk on the practice of selectively watering the wholesome seeds in ourselves and each other and not watering the negative seeds. I saw a lady sitting in the audience who was crying from the beginning of the talk to the end. So after the talk was over I went to her husband, and told him, “Dear friend, your flower needs some watering.” He understood right away, but he’d needed a teacher, or friend to remind him to practice. After lunch, as he drove home with his wife, he practiced watering the good seeds in her. When they arrived home an hour and a half later, she was completely transformed, very joyful and happy, and their children were very surprised. The transformation can happen very quickly. Recognize the good seeds in him or in her, water them, and you will see.
Be Beautiful, Be Yourself
Sexual desire and sensual pleasure are not love, but our society is organized in such a way that sensual pleasure has become extremely important. Companies want to sell their products so they create advertisements to water the seed of craving. They encourage you to develop a craving for sensual pleasure. But sensual pleasures can destroy you. What we deeply need is mutual understanding, trust, and love. But we don’t have so opportunities to meet that deep need. Many young people in our society suffer greatly as they long or strive to meet the accepted standard of beauty. There are women’s fashion magazines telling us that to succeed, we have to use that kind of product and we have to look like this or that. Many young people suffer very much because they can’t accept their bodies. They want their bodies to be otherwise, because people are expected to have a certain kind of body.
Sometimes they want to have cosmetic surgery to transform their body.
Your body is a kind of flower. Every child is born in the garden of humanity as a flower. And flowers differ from each other. ?Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh.” Each of us has to accept ourself as a flower that’s different from other kinds of flowers. If you can accept her body, then you have a chance to see your body as home. If you don’t accept your body and your mind, you can’t be a home to yourself. There are many young people who don’t accept their bodies, who don’t accept who they are; they want to be someone else. How, then, can you be a home for yourself and a home for the other person? As teachers and parents we have to tell young people that they are already beautiful as they are; they don’t have to be someone else.
I’ve written in calligraphy: ?Be beautiful, be yourself.” You have to accept yourself as you are. This is a very important practice. As you practice building a home in yourself, you become more and more beautiful. You have peace, warmth, and joy; you feel wonderful within yourself, and people will recognize the beauty of your flower.
There are three kinds of intimacy. The first is physical, sexual intimacy; the second is emotional intimacy; and the third is spiritual intimacy. These three should go together. Sexual intimacy cannot be separated from emotional intimacy. If the spiritual intimacy is there, then the sexual intimacy will have meaning and will be healthy and healing. Otherwise it will be destructive. Every one of us is seeking emotional intimacy. We want to be in harmony with someone. We want to have real communication, mutual understanding, communion.
We begin by going home to ourselves and listen to the suffering inside. We embrace our pain, sorrow, and loneliness with the energy of mindfulness. The understanding and insight we receive helps transform the suffering inside. We feel lighter, and we begin to feel warmth and peace inside. This benefits us and it benefits the other person. When the other person joins you in building home, you have an ally. You are helping each other and together you have home. You have home in yourself, and you have a home in him or in her. If that kind of intimacy doesn’t exist, then a sexual relationship can cause a lot of damage. Sexual intimacy can’t be separated from emotional intimacy.
Between the spiritual and the emotional there is also a link. Spirituality is not just a belief in a spiritual teaching. Spirituality is a practice; and the practice always brings relief, communication, and transformation. Everyone needs a spiritual dimension in his or her life. Without a spiritual dimension we cannot deal with the difficulties we encounter in daily life. We need a spiritual practice, a spiritual life. And we should have a path, a spiritual path. We learn the Dharma, and we learn how to put it into practice. With that practice we’re able to deal with the difficulties we encounter in daily life.
With a spiritual practice, you’re no longer afraid, because you know you’re able to face and handle the difficulties daily life presents to you. As well as your physical body you have a spiritual body. Having that spiritual body, you’re no longer afraid, you know you can overcome a difficult situation. The practice of breathing, walking, concentrating, and understanding is very important. Your spiritual practice can help you greatly in dealing with your emotions, in listening to and embracing your suffering, and in helping you to recognize and embrace the suffering in the other person. The emotional and spiritual forms of intimacy inter-are. You know how to deal with a strong emotion, like fear, anger, despair, and knowing how to do that, you feel more peaceful and warm within. Spiritual practice helps you build a home within for your own sake and for the sake of the other person. Emotional intimacy can’t be separated from spiritual intimacy.
The three kinds of intimacy inter-are. Sexual intimacy can be a beautiful thing if there is mindfulness, concentration, insight, mutual understanding, and love. Otherwise it can be very destructive. Sexual intimacy should not occur unless there is communion, understanding, and sharing on the emotional and spiritual level. Then the sexual intimacy can also be holy.
Sexual desire is not love. Sexual activity without love is called empty sex, something very prevalent in our society; it causes a lot of suffering in our young people. Empty sex should be avoided. If you’re a teacher or parent, you should help your students and children to learn about this. Many young people nowadays practice empty sex. This can damage their body and mind, and later there may be depression, mental disorders, even suicide. Often they don’t see the connection between empty sex ,or sexual abuse, and the physical and mental disorders they’re experiencing.
When both of you are suffering, you can go to the other person and use loving speech. You might like to say, “Darling, I know you’ve suffered a lot in the last many years. I wasn’t able to help you to suffer less. Instead, I’ve made the situation worse. I’ve reacted with anger and stubbornness. Instead of helping you, I’ve made you suffer more. I’m very sorry.” Many of us are no longer able to use this kind of language because we’ve suffered so much. We can no longer practice gentle speech with that person.
But a few hours of practice can help us to do this. In sitting meditation or walking meditation, focus your attention on the suffering in that person. He has a lot of suffering and doesn’t know how to handle it. That’s why he makes the people around him suffer. What he needs is help and not punishment. Looking deeply can help us to see that. When we see that the other person suffers and feels helpless, compassion will be born in our heart, and suddenly we find we’re capable of using loving speech.
In the mindfulness retreats we offer, on the fourth day we always ask people to practice loving speech and reconcile with someone. If the other person is in the retreat, it’s much easier, because she has been exposed to the teaching and she’s practiced looking at her own suffering and at your suffering. During the first four days of the retreat, the seeds of understanding and compassion in you are watered by Dharma talks, by the practice of mindful walking, mindful sitting, Dharma discussion. By the fourth day you’re ready to use loving speech to reconcile with the other person. If the other person isn’t in the retreat, you can use your mobile telephone to practice loving speech and reconcile with them. That person may be your partner, your parent, your child, or a friend.
Excerpted from How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh. Copyright 2015 by Unified Buddhist Church. Excerpted by permission of Parallax Press.