What is Love?
by Diane Linsley
In a beautiful little book called True Love, Thich Nhat Hanh says
that true love is understanding.
Unfortunately, most people have the mistaken belief that love is a
feeling. But that comes from a misunderstanding of what feelings
that feelings come and go. They flow like ocean waves, in and out. They arise and then pass away.
Is this the kind of love that you want in your relationships? It's nice to feel loving, but it's not enough.
True Love is Understanding
In my article on dating advice, and when working with clients who are searching for their soulmate, I take a somewhat unique approach to helping people find a partner. I tell them that they must first know themselves. How can you understand another person if you don't even understand yourself? Everyone dreams of finding the "right person" who will instantly fall madly in love with them. That usually doesn't work out too well. Infatuation is common, but true love isn't. You can't make someone love you - no matter what you do. If they truly love you, it's because of who they are. Likewise, your ability to love is a reflection of your own developmental maturity. In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm says that learning how to love consists of two parts: learning the theory and then practicing until you become skilled.
"Here lies the answer to the question of why people in our culture try so rarely to learn this art....In spite of the deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power - almost all our energy is used for the learning of how to achieve these aims, and almost none to learn the art of loving." ~Erich Fromm
Love is not Pity
When coaching abuse victims, I often find that they pity the abuser, which actually keeps them stuck in the relationship. Can you love someone and leave them? Definitely. In fact, it is often the best thing you can do for someone.
I had an ex-boyfriend whom I left because the relationship wasn't good for me. He contacted me two years later to tell me that after I left, he immediately got into a new relationship, which turned out to be a disaster. But he learned a lot in that relationship (she was a mirror to him). After they broke up, he went into therapy with a Voice Dialogue coach. He thanked me for introducing him to Voice Dialogue during the brief time we were together. Now he is taking responsiblity and trying to develop himself so he can have better relationships in the future.
At the time that I broke up with him, he cried and begged me to stay. He was trying to trigger my feelings of pity. Fortunately, I had learned in my previous relationship that love is not pity. I stood my ground and did what I knew was right.
Trying to make someone love you by groveling and acting pathetic only works with codependents. And that's not a healthy level of relationship. Pity is a feeling that comes from looking down on another person from a superior place. Compassion is different.
Love and Compassion
What is compassion? The word compassion literally means "suffering with". It is the recognition of our own humanity in other people. Every one of us will suffer as a human being and ultimately die.
Most people try to deny this obvious fact. They keep themselves busy chasing money, fame, possessions and relationships - all in an attempt to escape from the pain of having to look closely at their own suffering.
The more you understand and embrace the human condition, instead of turning away from it, the greater will be your capacity to love. This is the secret of the great lovers of the world - and I'm not talking about romantic lovers. Mother Theresa was a great lover of humanity, as is the Dalai Lama. Their capacity to love is the outcome of much spiritual work.
Love is a Practice
In couples counseling, therapists try to help people improve their listening skills and other skills that make them better partners. How can you understand someone if you don't listen to them?
Listening requires us to humble ourselves - to set aside our own egoic wants for a brief time in order to try to understand another person's perspective.
After going through a marriage and two more relationships with men who simply walked out of the room or gave me the silent treatment whenever I tried to talk to them about anything important, I was very grateful to find my current partner. He is a great listener.
The next step is to act on what you have learned from listening. I remember the first time my partner said to me, "Love is action." And he has proven it many times.
In The School of Life: An Emotional Education, Alain De Botton says that the ancient Greek philosophers "proposed that we suffer from akrasia, commonly translated as “weakness of will,” a habit of not listening to what we accept should be heard and a failure to act upon what we know is right. It is because of akrasia that crucial information is frequently lodged in our minds without being active in them, and it is because of akrasia that we often both understand what we should do and resolutely omit to do it."
You can develop more willpower by practice. Make conscious choices. Keep your commitments to yourself and other people. Develop good habits. Small habits over time build characer. Not only will you be a better lover - you will also feel better about yourself as your self-esteem increases.
People are Mirrors
Everyone in your life is a mirror to you. This is a hard concept for us to accept. I recently had a client who questioned me when I proposed this to her. She said, "Well, what about so-and-so?" My reply was, "It's not a question of whether or not someone is a mirror to you. The answer to that question is always yes. A better question is, how is this person a mirror to you?"
You need to take your attention off the other person and what they are doing wrong, and look at yourself. This isn't denying that the other person is doing something wrong. But you have no power to fix the other person. You can only work on yourself.
The most empowering thing you can do is take responsibility for your own thoughts, feelings and actions. Somehow, even if you can't see it, you attracted all of the relationships in your life. The Law of Attraction really does work, but it's so misunderstood that I hesitate to even mention it. Let me just say that it's not about wish fulfillment. It is simply the natural result of who you are. If you don't like the results you are getting, you need to work on yourself.
A true love relationship requires skills, patience and practice. There's no end point at which we can say that we have achieved the goal. There's always more to learn and do. It may seem overwhelming at times, but it is the most worthwhile thing that I know of. And you can practice it today with anyone in your life, including yourself. You don't need to wait for the right person to come along.
Consider this quote by David Whyte: "Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive."
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