Loving and letting go

One of the wonderful things about social media, for an author, is being able to develop a closer relationship with the people who read your books. Through Facebook and Twitter I’ve heard from many people who have enjoyed my book, and who sometimes have questions. This morning someone asked me the following question.

I have been an avid reader of spiritual material, particularly Buddhist ones for quite some time. I am most intrigued by the Buddha’s message that suffering can be overcome by relinquishing clinging. I have applied more and more this concept into my life starting with the clinging to material things.

What I find confusing for me is when we talk about relationships. Let’s use the example of my loved one, as those as usually the ones that bring most powerful emotions into play.

When you deeply love someone you build expectations – i.e. to be loved back, because it feels so good. If the relationship suffers or worst you lose your loved one there is major pain associated with not being loved back. While I know that eliminating expectations should be a part of the process I believe that when it comes down to love it is somewhat a natural process to want to feel loved back.

So I am asking myself if, to eliminate the suffering, I should “destroy” the concept of love, in other words eliminate it from my emotions. No love – no expectations – no suffering.

I am having difficulties with this because I do have a lot of love to give and love itself is one of the pillars of my life.

And here’s my response:

Your question about relationships is a very important one, and also one that crops up a lot. I definitely don’t think you should “destroy” the concept of love. Love (real love) in fact is a breaking-down of the distinction between self and other, and so it’s a way of letting go of a narrow sense of self-identification. And this enriches our lives and brings happiness (most of the time!). When we love others we include their wellbeing as an integral part of our wellbeing, and often in fact we put their needs and desires above our own. I find I do this a lot with my children. There may, to take a trivial example, be only a small amount of orange juice left for breakfast. If one of my kids asks for it, it’s a non-brainer. I can do without.

I said above that it’s “true love” that is a breaking-down of the distinction between self and other, implying that there’s more than one kind of love. Sometimes what people call love is in fact an appropriation of another person to themselves. Sometimes when people say they love, that love is very conditional, and what they mean when they say “I love you” is that they want something from the other person, or they want the other person to be a certain way, or to do certain things. That kind of conditional love is called “pema” in Buddhist terminology, as opposed to “metta” (lovingkindness), which is true, self-transcending love.

As we learn to let go of clinging to a narrow sense of ourselves, we find that metta emerges naturally. When we stop being fixated on ourselves, even when we just relax and calm the mind, metta becomes more and more a part of our experience. This isn’t the same as the kind of self-denial that comes from thinking one is unimportant and that we have to put others before us all the time. What happens is more that we consider the needs of others while also recognizing that we have needs too. We even recognize that taking the needs of others into account is in fact one of our own needs! And out of this two-fold awareness of the needs of self and other, a synthesis emerges, and compassionate activity flows naturally. I may give the last of the orange juice to my daughter, but I’m not likely to give all my money to a perfect stranger, because I have needs too.

You mentioned expectations, and I think that’s another important area. I’d say it’s not a good idea to have an expectation that if you love someone, they will love you back. This is actually a tricky part of relationships, because how do we know when another person loves us? Often our idea of what it is to be loved is not the same as the other person’s idea of what it means to show love. This plays out over and over: for example, there’s the husband who shows his love by working like crazy in order to give his family a good standard of living, but the wife who wants the husband to show he cares by being around more, even if it means having less money. We need to clarify with others what it is we need from them. We need to learn to calibrate our demonstrations of love and our perceptions of when love is being offered. That is, we shouldn’t cling to a set idea of what love is.

This kind of thing can mean that our expectations may not be met, even though the other person does feel that they’re showing us love. But any kind of expectation of receiving love causes problems. We’re back to the idea, sometimes, of conditional love, where I’ll love you as long as you show me (in a way I can understand) that you love me. I love my children even when they’re angry and frustrated and hitting and kicking me (my daughter’s only three). Those behaviors are not things I associate with love. If I in turn switched off my love at such times I wouldn’t be much of a father. In fact I often find I love my children more when they’re behaving in these ways, because I recognize that they’re growing and evolving beings who are struggling to understand what they’re experiencing in life. I find that it’s when I see my children as “works in progress” that I love them more. And that “progress” often involves me not being loved back (or at least not at that moment, or not in a way that I can see).

Of course sometimes we end up in a relationship where we’re never going to get what we need from the other person. Perhaps they don’t really love us. And in such cases it’s healthy if the alchemy that arises from the balance of taking care of our own needs and taking care of the needs of others swings towards taking care of our own needs — in the form of getting the hell out of there.

Anyway, I’m glad that love is important to you. Keep at it! Keep loving. Notice when your love causes you pain, and see what you can learn at those times.

I should also have pointed this reader toward Sunada’s excellent article on Love, Sex, and Non-Attachment.

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