When we think of the word “love,” most of us think of images, symbols, and mythologies about romantic love from pop culture: fireworks bursting, flower petals falling—she loves me, she loves me not; lightning bolts striking the ground; birds chirping and the sun shining. All of these images carry with them a sense of the unattainable, the magical. Love becomes something we chase after, an object we wait for, a person onto whom we fixate our attention, an experience wholly out of our control.
I think we’ve all been vulnerable to disappointment when it comes to love. Maybe we have a rough patch in a relationship with a friend or significant other and find ourselves shocked by how much work needs to go into love. Maybe we see these challenges as “problems,” and interpret them as our fault, or perhaps even their fault. We may even find ourselves thinking love itself is a deceptive, dangerous illusion.
The Universal, Healing Power
Regardless of where we’ve ended up with these narratives, there is one bottom line: no matter where we come from, we can experience love more directly, more freely—without all the weight of cultural baggage.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we can immediately rid ourselves of the stories, fears, assumptions, and judgments about love we’ve picked up throughout our lives. But if we are able to accept that there is only one kind of love—what I call real love—and that we all can access it, no matter what we’ve been through or what we will go through, we open ourselves up to a capacity for connection that is healing, restorative, generative.
When we give and receive love from a place of presence, we can identify our histories, stories, traumas and deep-rooted beliefs with more clarity. We don’t fault ourselves, but can see these challenges for what they are. From there, we learn that no belief, thought, feeling or experience can actually block us from love. We take a stand for ourselves on our right to feel, give, receive, and be the embodiments of love.
What is Real Love, Really?
But what does all this actually feel like? When I first sought to write a book about love, I reached out to some of my students to talk about their experiences of love. What I found was that many of them understood the concept of real love, but weren’t sure how, practically, to experience it. As we talked, we worked together on naming some of the clichés about love that hold us back. As we identified them, we found that an empowering first step to real love was for each of us to become authors of new stories about love.
Real love doesn’t have to be earned.
One of the most common clichés about love we identified was the idea that love is something to be earned—like winning an award for a groundbreaking film, or making a six figure salary for a 10-hour workday. Yet the truth is, we all deserve love simply by virtue of being in this world. We may be conditioned to think otherwise during our childhoods or later on, but we can come back to this simple truth. It may not feel easy, but it moves us beyond the cliché into real love.
Real love is available to anyone.
Some students voiced concern over their notions of original sin—that some people are just born broken, and are incapable of love. In fact, I think most of us can relate to the idea of feeling that we are never good enough. We can, however, invite ourselves to see our lives as both deeply connected to—but incomparable to—the lives of others. When we recognize our own abilities, talents, and heartfelt desires, we can move beyond the realm of comparison and competition. And from there, we start to question what “enough” really means. That is another gateway toward real love.
Real love for ourselves is not a prerequisite.
I personally struggled with how to take on this overarching topic of self-love, tripped up by the myth “you have to love yourself first in order to love another.” Despite the popularity of this idea, I know so many people are able to love others even while remaining highly critical of themselves. That doesn’t mean their love for others isn’t authentic, but perhaps that it comes from a place of greater emptiness than it would if self-love were part of the picture. But this myth makes us see self-love as a means to an end, an easy box to check before we can move onto bigger and better types of love. And that’s simply not the case.
Loving ourselves, others, and even our experiences, is never as simple as a box to check. All forms of love are ongoing processes, journeys we embark upon—without a fixed end point. To me, real love comes down to how well we are willing to pay attention—how closely we can notice and participate in the opportunities we get each day to act lovingly, to accept ourselves and our lives as they are.
Sharon Salzberg is a central figure in the field of meditation, a world-renowned teacher and NY Times bestselling author. She has played a crucial role in bringing meditation and mindfulness practices to the West and into mainstream culture since 1974, when she first began teaching. She is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA and the author of ten books including NY Times bestseller, Real Happiness, her seminal work, Lovingkindness and her forthcoming release by Flatiron Books, Real Love. Renowned for her down-to-earth teaching style, Sharon offers a secular, modern approach to Buddhist teachings, making them instantly accessible. She is a regular columnist for On Being, a contributor to Huffington Post, and the host of her own podcast: The Metta Hour. For more information, visit www.SharonSalzberg.com.
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