What is love?
Baby don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
In 1993 a song swept the nation, entitled “What is Love?” I have listed most of the lyrics above. It was a simple song, but one that was catchy. It also identified a crucial connection: love and heartbreak go hand-in-hand. When you make yourself vulnerable to someone through the act of love, you are making yourself open to all the pleasures of that experience…but you are also making yourself open to the pain of being hurt by that person. I don’t know of anyone who has fallen in love with someone who has not, in some way, been hurt by that person.
That particular sword cuts both ways: when we fall in love with someone we bring them happiness but there are also times when we will inevitably hurt them too. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love. In fact, we couldn’t stop loving others if we tried.
From a Buddhist point of view, love is innate to who we are. I get that when we’re hurt we try to shut down our heart and not be available for love. We want to protect ourselves so we throw up some armor and try to harden ourselves against the world. Yet underneath all that armor, there is always some part of us that yearns to love. In the heartbreak appointments, even the most guarded gentleman who sat with me blurted out his relationship story and then ended with, “I know I have love to give. It may not be to the woman I talked about, but I know I have love to offer.” He’s not alone. We all have a limitless amount of love to give, if we can get out of our own way to do so.
Love is a natural expression of our truest self. The more we are able to settle our mind, in meditation or through other means, the more likely we will be able to touch the love that exists right underneath that set of armor.
In the tradition within which I was raised, we call that armor — the myriad ways we spin a web of neurosis and self-protection — a cocoon. This cocoon is something we spin to hide out from our world; it’s an illusory device that we think will shield us from suffering. We have some really thick thread we spin, made out of storylines that look like, “You’re worthless” and “You’ll never find anyone that get you” or my favorite, “Everyone else will settle down with someone else and be happy…but you.” We can armor up pretty quickly when we let those storylines spin out, in this radical attempt to protect our tender heart.
Meditation is a tool for snipping the cords on these various threads of uncertainty and unearthing that raw and tender heart underneath. That vulnerable heart is incredibly powerful and strong. It possesses fathomless love. If we can drop our storylines around what a jerk we are that powerful heart is ready to shine forth and cultivate a life that is full of good people we love and are loved by. Don’t take my word for it though. Try out meditation yourself.
The meditation tradition I offer teachings from is Buddhist and there are four main qualities discussed in the Buddhist notion of love:
- Loving-kindness — translated from the Sanskrit word mitra, or friend, the act of loving-kindness is the very act of befriending ourselves. If we cannot love ourselves, we have no hope of loving others. It is like throwing a lawn party and inviting all of your friends. You tell all your friends you want to serve them from your limitless keg of beer. “Great!” they say excitedly. “Where’s the tap?” If you can’t tap the limitless keg, no one can drink your beer, no matter how many plastic cups they’re holding. The same goes for love. You can hook up with any number of people, or hold the hands of family members, or go on a million dates, but if you haven’t unlocked your heart by befriending yourself there is no love to offer to those other beings.
- Compassion — having befriended ourselves, we can offer our heart to others. We share in their joy and we share in their suffering. There are many types of suffering we will encounter. If we can become familiar with the many ways we suffer, then we will be more comfortable accommodating and embracing the suffering of others. We can’t just be there for the good times; we need to be there for the bad as well. My personal definition of a loving relationship is one where two people are able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder together to meet the many discomforts life presents them. That is a compassionate relationship, regardless of whether it is romantic, familial, a friendship, what-have-you.
- Sympathetic joy — the next quality of love in the Buddhist tradition is sympathetic joy. This means we don’t hold ourselves apart from the joy of others, in a similar way to how we don’t hide from other people’s suffering. We take on both. Sometimes when we hear someone else’s good news we think of how that will affect us instead of simply rejoicing in it. Sympathetic joy is us making our heart wide enough to not just be there when people are having a hard time but in being there for them to celebrate the good times too.
- Equanimity — my favorite translation of the Sanskrit word for equanimity, upeksha, is actually “inclusiveness.” It means we remain open-hearted not just when we’re hanging out with our good friends — we also do so when we see our ex at a bar or that colleague that really screwed us over at work. It means we include in our heart the people we like, the people we really don’t like, and the vast number of people we have never even met. The Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “When you love one person, it’s an opportunity for you to love everyone, all beings.”
Of course, the foundation of loving all beings is starting with taking care of and loving yourself. As the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron has said, “Unconditional good heart toward others is not even a possibility unless we attend to our own demons.” First we attend to the demons. Then we befriend the demons. Then we grow to love the demons. In other words, we grow to love all aspects of who we are. At some point in that process, we learn to see and attend to the demons of others.
If we can contemplate and incorporate these four qualities into our everyday life then we will love in a meaningful and truly impactful way. Our love will not be attached to one person. It will flow freely and be available throughout our day; we will offer it to everyone we encounter. We will still get hurt at times, and our free-flowing love may not always be reciprocated, but it’s a hell of a lot better than schlepping through our day closed off to everyone we meet. Heartbreak is a part of the experience of love and love is simply a part of who we are. We better become familiar with both.
This piece is adapted from Love Hurts: Buddhist Advice for the Heartbroken (Shambhala Publications, 2016) by Lodro Rinzler
Lodro Rinzler is the award-winning author of 7 books including The Buddha Walks into a Bar and his latest, Take Back Your Mind, and the cofounder of MNDFL Meditation. He has taught meditation for 20 years in the Buddhist tradition and travels frequently for his books, having spoken across the world at conferences, universities, and businesses as diverse as Google, Harvard University and the White House. Named one of 50 Innovators Shaping the Future of Wellness by SONIMA, Rinzler’s work has been featured in The New York Times,The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, FOX, CBS, and NBC. He lives in upstate New York with his wife Adreanna and a menagerie of small animals.