I was sitting in a chair in the living room watching a television program I had no initial interest in. My wife, who was sitting near to me, wanted to see it. It was a television program featuring songs and songwriters. At one point, I looked over to her. She was running her fingers through her hair, absorbed in the music. And then my whole sense of the program changed.
When we allow ourselves to feel that this other person is, right then, feeling, just like we do. When we do something as simple as that– no thoughts, just feeling. Just sitting there, looking at him or her, letting them in. I think we let in so little. We let in labels. We let in little pieces. Not the reality that this person is breathing with you.
Love is like that. To let someone or something in, you must be at least a little vulnerable. You must tremble a little, let go of your normal defenses and ways of filling time. You must let another person write who they are directly on your heart. Or it can be a pet. My cats write frequently on my heart. They also step on it, drop dirt and ticks on it. I am constantly floored by the way that “my” two cats, brother and sister, choose to sleep on top of each other. Who said that cats are just walking bellies? Walking pillows for each other, maybe.
With this openness and vulnerability you allow yourself to feel the terrible possibility of loss, yet you do it anyway. When you love, fear of loss is always there. Love and loss go together. To value someone means not only that you experience their beauty, inner or otherwise, but that you don’t want to lose them. The possibility of loss energizes the bond. To value in this way, you tremble with life and joy. You feel the breath of another as your breath. So breathe in.
All emotions incorporate contrasting emotions. Think of anger. Who do you get most angry at? Why get angry if you don’t care? Or joy. What is it that you overcome in joy? Isn’t there an overcoming or a letting go of fear involved, a relaxing of the impulse to hold too tightly?
It is so important for students to get a chance to discuss love in an honest way, yet it is a difficult subject. There is so much hype, distortion and expectation that teens can easily get confused and even cynical about the possibility of a loving relationship. To introduce the discussion, try the following experiential exercise on the role attitude plays in perception. This is more easily done if you have already introduced mindfulness in the class. Start by walking through the room with a basket filled with simple objects like stones, leaves, and pinecones. Let students choose one from the basket and put it on the table in front of them. Then say, with a calm voice:
Now, close your eyes partly or fully, or just soften your focus so you allow your eyes to relax and be at ease. Gently, allow your attention to go to your breath. Just breathe in, allowing yourself to feel the inhalation; and breathe out, letting yourself settle down. With each inhalation, bring your focus to the breath. Notice whatever arises for you. Maybe a thought will come up, maybe a sensation, maybe a sense of quiet. Then, with each exhalation, allow your body to settle down. Feel the natural tendency to settle into the exhalation and let go of any thoughts or feelings. Return your attention, gently, yet with clarity, to your breath.
Now, can you imagine maybe a pet, a kitten, a puppy? Something small. Something you could care for and want to protect. Just watch it—watch it play, run around, or sit in your lap. Just take in this image. Notice how your expression, your facial muscles soften, shoulders relax.
What do you feel when you see this young being? Just feel the image and notice your response.
The purpose here is to bring up a caring, open feeling or mental attitude. An emotion is not just in the heart but the eyes—and nose, ears, etc.. Once a person has this caring mental state, they will more likely perceive the world more gently.
Now open your eyes and simply look at the object that you chose earlier. If you can, look at the object as you looked at that kitten or other animal or baby. Instead of staring, just breathe it in with a gentle or soft focus. Then place the object in the palm of one hand. Move it closer and further away. With a soft focus, take in the colors, shape. Are there patterns to the object?
Feel it. Feel the weight, the texture of the object–is it smooth or rough? Soft or hard? Feel whether its warm or cold. Now turn it around and look at it from different perspectives.
Study a small detail of the object keeping that gentle focus. Study its texture, shades of color. How does the small detail fit in the whole? Study another detail.
Then close your eyes. Visualize the object in your mind. Visualize the shape, colors, size, texture. Look at it from different angles.
Open your eyes. And look again. Feel the life of the object. What did you not remember or not feel in your memory that you feel now?
Now put the object down. Close your eyes. How do you feel when you look at something with a gentle or soft focus? Just sit with that gentle, open feeling for a moment.
This isn’t quite teaching love. But it’s a step.
Now, breathe out.