[singlepic id=373 w=320 h=240 float=center] Have you ever thought about how you learned what love means? What moments in your life explicitly taught you how to love? What examples of love did you observe, and what did you unconsciously learn from them?
For most of my life, I have had a murky understanding of the words "love" and "compassion". They were abstract concepts, which I felt no bodily connection to. They were supposed to be good things that good people expressed and felt all of the time, but I had no clue what they felt like to me.
"I love you" was not something ever uttered in my household. As far as I know, the phrase doesn't exist in the Chinese language, at least as it applies to families.
For most of my life, "love" was a word used by my parents to rationalize their financial anxiety, anger, worry, asking for too much information, and criticizing. "If we didn't love you and care about you, we wouldn't bother to nag you so much," they'd say in defense of themselves.
Well, if love was such a great thing, and that was how love made me feel, then I didn't get why I should center my life around it. At all. It didn't feel good to me. It felt confining. It felt like a minefield, where I never knew if my next step would land me in a sudden explosion of admonishment, shame, and guilt about why the particular thing I just did was the wrong move to make.
I convinced myself that I didn't want my life to hurt. I created an association between love and hurt. So I did everything I could to make sure I was not dependent on love for anything vital in my life. Ha!
"Compassion" was an even more foreign concept. The images that come to mind when I think of "compassion" involve Mother Teresa, Sally Struthers and images of little kids with distended bellies and black flies on their eyelashes, and the Pope. I'm not sure why these people represent compassion, but it's interesting that I've never met any of them personally. (OK, I got within 25 feet of the Pope once, when I was eleven years old, but I was playing violin at the time and was delirious from sitting in St. Peter's Square for four hours in the hot sun of an Italian June.) My point is that "compassion" was an even more abstract term than "love", and I always thought it was reserved for saintly, selfless people who gave their lives to some grand, charitable cause. In other words, it was a luxury I could not afford to indulge in.
I've recently begun to learn that in order to experience the love and compassion I was seeking from everyone else in my life, I had to be willing to explore and discover what love and compassion feel like for me. I had to learn to demonstrate love and compassion toward myself first. This has involved identifying, questioning, and effectively unlearning many of the beliefs I had about love and compassion, which I held onto without knowing, and which were governing my behaviors without my knowing it.
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Today, I choose to share with you what I have learned, and also what I am unlearning. Each of the thoughts below are real beliefs I once had about love, and below them are the turnarounds that I am consciously choosing to practice, notice, and become more and more familiar with.
I could tell you that I am “letting go” of these thoughts, or that I have outgrown them.
But what actually feels more true for me is that I am developing a different relationship with these thoughts. By distancing myself from my thoughts enough to observe them, I have paradoxically become more intimate with them. I am able to look at them without avoiding them or pushing them away or labeling them as “wrong”. I can touch them, feel them, sense them, and know that they are within me, without loving myself less because of it.
I am willing to notice when I am believing one of these thoughts and acting on it and creating stress, and I am empowered to look directly at the source of the stress, without fear or less love of myself.
I am far from being perfect at this. It’s part of my practice to be willing to look at the imperfections long enough to choose something new and act without fear in that new direction. By acknowledging what has been painful for me and what I am growing through, I hope you can acknowledge some part of yourself that needs healing or more loving attention from the simple question, “Is it true?”
Love Lesson #1: The number of items I complete on my "To Do" list indicates my level of productivity, and therefore, my value in the world.
This may not seem to be about love, but it has been such a central belief in my entire life path, that I confront it every day. And every day I ask, “Is it true?” I am starting to get to answers that feel more true for me and set me free to do what’s truly important to me, not to anyone else. But with such a strong cultural message of achievement and productivity as the basis of human existence, this is a daily, moment-to-moment practice. I include it here because I've learned that true self-love is felt and demonstrated independent of how "productive" I am, and that becoming more productive does not help you learn how to love.
Turnaround: I am complete, as I am, in this moment. (notice that “what I do” is not part of the turnaround)
Love Lesson #2. What I am able to afford to buy indicates my level of freedom and status in the world.
This thought originated in my family’s struggle for survival and advancement and was reinforced by the strong consumerism in our culture. Without realizing it, I have created many outcomes in my life based on this belief. What I eventually realized was that ownership and accumulation of things do not equal greater freedom, and the only status that matters is the one you create from your inner world.
Turnaround: What I am able to LET GO of indicates my level of freedom and the status of my self-trust in the world I am creating.
Love Lesson #3. How I look and act in the workplace is more important than how I look and act at home.
This thought originated in so many examples I saw of “putting on a face” to play the game of work each day, and how starkly that outward face contrasted with the true self that emerged in the privacy of the home. It was confusing to me and I never understood the justification for sharing your best self with the outer world, and letting out all your stress and aggressions at home, with the people you claim to love the most.
Turnaround: I am creating a life based on authentic expression and generous sharing of my essential self. (I don’t see a necessary distinction between how I present myself “on the outside” and who I am at my essence)
Love Lesson #4. Love is an obligation and responsibility to another person.
Almost everything in my early life was framed as an obligation and responsibility. It seemed like the only reason to live a life was to be viewed as responsible and duty-bound in every possible way. Joy was not even in the equation of values. I still consider “desires” a luxury and have to practice consciously opening a valve in my mind to allow the flow of messages from my heart to enter into my awareness.
Turnaround: Love flows freely in the space between people. Love liberates.
Love Lesson #5. Loving someone means the right to criticize them in a "loving" way.
This was reinforced in every arena of my life from my family to my teachers to the higher academic training I received. I was trained to thrive on criticism. No matter how good a job I did, I wanted to know how to do better. We call this “drive” and “ambition” and hold it in great admiration in this culture. We aspire to “improve” ourselves in every way. The problem with this is we have no opposing muscle group or internal barometer to tell when “enough is enough”. We forget that by living our lives based on constant striving, we are training ourselves for imbalance and ultimate dissatisfaction, with no end in sight.
Turnaround: Love is truthful, accepting, calm, and peaceful. Love is filled with joy.
Love Lesson #6. Love means the right to hurt someone without having to apologize.
I remember the exact moment in a past relationship when I realized that this was my model of love, and the intense pain it caused me to see it in myself. But that moment of realization was also liberating, because I was able to see clearly where I was in the moment, and to consciously seek out another way to express love.
Turnaround: Love has no fear – neither of pain nor of apologizing.
Love Lesson #7. Love expects a return on its investment.
I believed that love was a transaction. I believed that I, as a person, was the investment of my parents’ love. I also believed that I owed a debt to them for providing this love, for withdrawing love from their bank accounts and depositing it into everything that I needed and wanted. As I saw the magnitude of their investment growing, I could not see a possible way to provide a reasonable return. So I kept setting the bar higher. Finally there were no more ladders to climb, and I had to come down to the realization that I am love, and that the returns on my love originate from within me and from my connection to the source of all love – not my parents but the universe.
Turnaround: Love is self-renewing, and expects nothing in return.
Love Lesson #8. Love means constant devotion, never relaxing or taking time for yourself. Love is the ultimate act of self-sacrifice.
I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “It’s because we love you…” or “If we didn’t love you, we wouldn’t…” as the justifications for overworking, overstressing, overdoing, overworrying. There was not one moment in my recollection that the major love figures in my life ever relaxed or took time for themselves. And they took pride in their self-sacrifice, since it demonstrated how responsible and duty-bound they were. It made love look very unappealing to me as a way of life.
Turnaround: Love comes from love. If you are not loving yourself, you cannot truly or fully love another person. Self-sacrifice is not loving.
Love Lesson #9. Love means living up to the expectations of those who love you (and sacrificed to give you your life).
This relates to the “return on investment” belief. I really saw myself as an asset of my family with certain expected returns. Every time I saw myself taking a step outside my “asset class”, behaving in a more high-risk (and high-return) way, I felt the weight of not having managed expectations, and having been at least slightly irresponsible. I had a nagging sense that I was never doing things the “right” way.
Turnaround: Love is free of all expectations about the future and exists fully in every present moment.
Love Lesson #10. Love needs to be earned.
So you might be noticing a theme here. I once believed that I had to earn love, live up to the expectations of those who loved me, pay back the investment of love that others put into me, and sacrifice myself in the name of love.
Turnaround: Love is the joy, freedom, and peace that exists within each of us when we are truly free.
I still don’t see myself using the word “love” a lot. Writing this post was a struggle, actually. I suppose I learned during the writing that I don’t have any obligation to use a word, like “love”, with so many old and convoluted (and false) beliefs attached to it. I prefer the words "peace", "joy", and "freedom", as a three-pronged cluster of words that captures the feelings I experience when I love myself. These carry a more important meaning for me right now - how they make me feel and how they free me to express who I am in every moment.
And it never hurts when I’m loving myself as I am right now.