Let Love Live

I’m sure you, too, are amazed at scenes like this: You’re watching your child at play, or a puppy running around the yard. Or you’re walking in the woods and see a kit (baby fox) or a butterfly.

 

Or—I am sitting in bed, a magazine on my lap. My wife is next to me, doing a puzzle. In between us, near our feet, are two cats, sleeping. I look at them, at all of us, and feel awe. Ok, the cats are simply sleeping, my wife, puzzling. But there is such trust on that bed. These beings want to be here, with me, with each other. They care. Or we care.

 

One of the cats, Milo, starts twitching, as if dreaming. He wraps his front paws around and over his head, as if to hide. I lean over and touch his back, and the shaking stops. He relaxes, releases his head and turns over, showing me his belly. There is such vulnerability there, delicacy. I give myself to you, and you give it back, enhanced.

 

I am reading an article in the September issue of Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom For Our Time. It is a wonderful conversation between two Buddhist meditators and educators, Sharon Salzberg and Bell Hooks, about “The Power of Real Love.” Sharon talks of growing up and thinking that love is something given by others, but instead, it is an ability, a capacity, maybe even a responsibility we have in ourselves. Bell Hooks talks of love as residing in our actions, not just in our feelings. But in this day, in this political climate, where fear and hate are so frequently in the news—How do we love? How do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and care when the forces of domination seem to surround us?

 

Actions taken out of love can be the most difficult and painful in our lives—and the most liberating. There is more power in the touch of love than can be conceived and dreamed in fear and hate. Fear can be a message to wake up and observe more closely or to turn away. But it is built on opposition, and is unstable. It lasts only as long as we maintain a threat or an enemy, and a wall. Those outside the wall are rejected; those inside the wall are suspect. Such fear needs our compliance with it in order to succeed.

 

And this is our choice each day. You, me, all of us still have this choice. Will we touch and be touched by what is happening to those who share the earth with us? Will we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and learn what is going on, to care and to act? Will we allow love to live in us, or will we cover our heads and hearts with fear?

 

**And thank you to Bell Hooks and Sharon Salzberg (and Lion’s Roar) for the conversation and teachings.

Joy

Joy—What is it? Such a short and simple word. Sit quietly for a moment and let a moment of joy come to you. Maybe it will be a memory from the past. Maybe just a touch of the emotion itself will fill your heart. What do you feel? A sense of lightness, bubbling, or overflowing? A weight lifted from your chest? A release of something deep down, a sense of letting go or coming alive? An opening? You might feel you’ve discovered a secret and want to share it. Your hands might want to rise up, your body want to dance, your face smile, as if you were embracing the world, and your self.

 

I remember such moments. I remember receiving an email from my agent that my book was going to be published. I could barely believe it. Excitement and ordinariness both arose in me. Here was an email—I had received thousands of emails before, but none like this one. It was as if I had been hoping for this moment for my entire life. As if all prior emails had this one buried within them as a possibility. Likewise, when good friends or family came to visit. Or snow days, or at least when I first heard the announcement of a snow day. A burden was lifted. Or something feared was ended.

 

Joy can be what pushes back against fear. All emotion has this dynamic quality to it. No emotion is just one emotion. When one emotion surfaces, others arise on the borders. Love can carry fear as well as joy. Why is there fear with joy and love? Because love is allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Part of the ecstasy of love is the affirmation and sense of strength that comes from believing in yourself enough to know you can do this, you can feel this, even though pain might result from it.

 

When afraid, what do you do? Fear is a turning away from a threat or the possibility of pain, of hurt. It can be running away from others, from life, or a walling off, a way of hiding. It is the flight-freeze response. When afraid, you want safety and control. One way you gain a sense of safety is by rigidly controlling the moments of your life. You bind up time by filling moments with the simple and familiar, so nothing unknown and unfamiliar can occur. Fear is of the unknown or what might happen to the known.

 

You can do the same with your mind, filling it with thoughts and worries. Worries can seem like little magical mental devices you use to ward off what you worry about or fear. You deep down think “if I worry enough, what I worry about won’t occur.” You fill your mind with thoughts you’ve had hundreds of times before, to ward off the possibly dangerous and unknown with the safe and known, or with what you have already lived through. You use these worries and thoughts even though they might not be fun, because you’re focused on safety first, not joy.

 

The problem is you can go too far and create what you want to avoid. In order to maintain a wall, you have to create a sense of there being dangers outside the wall that must be avoided. You want to live. But by walling yourself off, you might wall away excitement, friendships, a sense of being fully alive. When you rigidly control the moments of your life, you don’t actually feel safe. You feel rigid. Rigid is another way to say fragile and fearful.

 

You have to let the light in in order to see what you have or could have. You have to take some chances in order to know you are capable of doing so. You have to embrace life, as much as you can at the time, and even when it’s difficult, in order to feel embraced. You can’t totally wall away the sense of vulnerability, because within it lies hidden not only life, but love and joy.

The Mystery You Solve As You Live

When I was in college, before going on a date, especially in my freshman and sophomore years, I remember I would first read a philosophy book or play music I loved, like that by Bob Dylan. I’d play “All You Masters of War” or “Maggie’s Farm” and feel filled with energy, with something to say, with character, and a self.

 

I’d become a persona built from my understanding of Dylan and what he meant to me. I’d become a rebellious philosopher, a person with a meaningful life who had meaningful things to say. I’d become, or tried to become, this mask that I wore for my date. I’d become, for a moment, someone worthy of loving.

 

But to focus on being this persona had side effects. I was looking for my self, “looking for love in all the wrong places.” The persona was a mask I wore not only for others but for my self. It hid me from myself. I expected it to be the real me, not whoever it was who wore the mask. So the reality of the wearer of the mask was hidden. And this led to a subtle sense that something was wrong with me. I felt anxiety because I could never feel real as a mask. A mask, no matter how well crafted, never feels like a face. Who wants to kiss a mask?

 

Only later on did I begin to realize that it wasn’t the music that “filled me up.” It was my love of the music that filled me. When the quality of mind is loving, whatever or whomever you meet is greeted with this emotion, including yourself.

 

Understanding the self is such a mysterious and complex endeavor. The more you look for the self, the more difficult it can be to find it. As Dogen Zenji, a 13th Century Japanese Buddhist teacher put it, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things….” You might think you are this image or memory you cherish, some demands or expectations you cling to for yourself, some hope that your parents or others hold out before you. But who you are can never be summed up by an abstraction, or a label you put on your character.

 

You don’t automatically develop this self-understanding. It is something you must work to discover, so persist at it with some gentleness. It’s not something you learn once and forever. It is a curriculum made by nature for your whole life, a class in which we are all both students and teachers. You have to learn that to live well, and to live fully, is what life is about. When you think of life as perpetual learning, or as a mystery you are solving as you live it, then you don’t spend too much time regretting or attacking yourself. You are more mindful; you notice, learn, and change. And to be open to learning, to learn well, it is helpful to be kind, or you won’t take in what is offered to you, and what is there in front of you. You need to appreciate, even love your life, in order to fully live it.

 

So, when you’re feeling lost or anxious or lonely, close your eyes and notice whatever arises. Feel the fact that you can feel and know. Simply breathe in the moment and let it go. If you normally hold up a mask of being unloved, you could instead hold up an image of someone who feels loved. If you normally hold up a mask of being powerless, imagine the face of someone who feels internally powerful. It might not be easy, but you can get better at doing it. You can even ask for help if you get stuck, find a teacher or therapist who you think knows his or her own mind. And study yourself: who is it that controls the whole play, who sees whatever is seen, who provides whatever reality is experienced?

 

The Lehman Alternative Community School, where I used to teach, has a Community Service graduation requirement. Service was such a meaningful experience for students that, at one of our weekly all school meetings several years ago, they voted to increase the requirement from 30 to 60 hours. Giving to others, and recognizing the reality of others and the suffering they face, and working to diminish that suffering, is helpful to everyone. It is especially helpful when you feel anxious or confused about who you really are. By giving, you feel you have more to give. You feel your inner world exceeds even your understanding of it, and in that excess you find yourself.

Remember Those Who Taught Us About Love

It is Mother’s Day. Last year, I tried to forget about the holiday, until I read some touching posts on Facebook. My Mom died 10 years ago, yet every Mother’s Day I still have an urge to do something for her. I feel she is alive and have to remind myself she is not. She even talks to me sometimes in my dreams. Maybe we all have similar experiences, not only with our Moms but with anyone dearly loved. I usually mistake my Mother’s Day urge as merely a habitual reminder to buy a card, to call or visit, until this year.

I now think the urge to remember is just that, a reminder of how important it is to remember—and a realization that I can remember. It is not forbidden; it is not too painful. I can partly thank two women I know for this realization. Elaine Mansfield and Robin Botie wrote deeply and beautifully about what could be learned from loss. Life, love and loss are woven inextricably together. To live well you must love. To love well, you must be willing to be torn apart by loss. “Love and death are a package deal,” said Elaine.

My Mom often reminded me to be aware of other people’s feelings, not just my own. She didn’t talk about empathy and compassion but showed it. She was able to take people in, to see who a person was and embrace them. When I first brought Linda, who is now my wife, to meet my parents, my Mom accepted her right away. There was no mother-girlfriend conflict.

The same with my sister-in-law, Mimi. My Mom even helped bring my brother, Gene, and Mimi together. Before they even really knew one another, they were on a flight together home for the holidays. They both attended the same university. My brother had noticed Mimi when exiting the airplane. She was knitting a scarf and he commented on the length of it (“long enough for a giant”) and my Mom witnessed the brief exchange. As my parents and brother were about to leave the airport, my Mom noticed that Mimi was standing alone; her ride never arrived. So my Mom went around the terminal trying to find Mimi a ride home. Mimi was greatly impressed and touched by my Mom’s actions.

My Mom modeled what it is to love. She did this in the way she took care of me. She did this with my Dad in the way they cared for each other. My parents showed me what relationship was about. They showed me what life can give you. Whatever or whoever I love carries their influence. Luckily, I still have my Dad. I am visiting with him this week. My Mom lives in my ability to love.

It’s weird that I must learn and re-learn these basic realities of life over and over again. It’s important to appreciate and thank all those people who have shaped and loved me. It’s important to notice how, when I feel pain, I wish that it will be the last pain I will ever face but fear that it’s just the beginning. I feel joy and don’t want it ever to end. I love and don’t want it ever to end. And maybe it doesn’t.

What would any of us be without those who love us, and our ability to love? Teaching children about love and appreciating others are basic necessities for a good life and a good education. It is because of these feelings, because of such relationships, that a society grows and survives. I hope we can all remember this, re-feel this, on Mother’s Day and beyond.

 

To Hear, First Listen

I had a discussion with a friend yesterday. I made what I thought was a logical and possibly obvious suggestion to help him with a difficult problem he was facing. The result was my friend yelling back at me all the reasons not to do what I suggested—and then apologizing. I realized he wasn’t arguing with me but himself. He was shouting back against the universe that had sent him the problems, hoping the vehemence of his objection would obliterate the reality.

 

So today, when he brought up the topic, I just listened, sometimes repeating back to him his own words, merely empathizing with him. The result: he came to his own conclusions. When you feel heard by others, you are more likely to listen to yourself. I don’t want this anecdote to be taken as a warning to never give advice or never point out to others lines of reasoning they might have missed. It is only a suggestion to listen carefully for projection, especially when fear and its close relatives, worry, anxiety and depression, are involved. And to listen carefully to notice your own response to anger.

 

A similar process can happen in the classroom. Students often argue a point not because they truly believe it but because they don’t want to believe it. They hear something from friends or family and don’t want it to be true and want you or the class to argue them free of it. They might feel conceptually stuck and want a way out. They might say there is no such thing as love, for example, or all actions are selfish, or all human beings are machines, because they fear a life without love, have been hurt by the selfishness of friends, and don’t want to feel their lives are meaningless.

 

And when such meaningful moments arise in a class, do not put them off because they are not in the curriculum or not in your lesson plan. Because they are the heart of education, the real reason you teach. They go beyond a “teachable moment.” By engaging with difficult and real questions and concerns you tell students that what’s difficult can be faced, that meaningful learning is possible, and the classroom is one place this can occur. Instead of dictating answers of your own, which will often be resisted, ask questions to help students better notice and understand their own experience and improve their ability to reason.

 

Students ask questions, we all ask questions, because we glimpse a deeper reality and thus know the answers we have now are unsatisfying or incomplete. One reason we get angry is we realize there is something crucial we are denied or can’t understand. We feel we are in the dark because we know what light is. What a good teacher does is point students to their own inner light.

 

No emotion exists by itself without other feelings, sensations and thoughts trailing behind it. Love is only as strong as our ability to tolerate vulnerability and face the fear of loss and hurt. Joy pushes back against fear, happiness against sadness. We learn when we acknowledge our mistakes and our lack of knowledge—and we accept that we must make mistakes in order to succeed. We must actually take in and notice what is truly there, both in us and in what surrounds us, even our fear and anger, in order to learn. Without this openness and engagement there is little learning.

 

To get answers, you must feel your own feelings and hear your own thoughts. Only if you listen can you hear.

 

**After writing this, I read the first half of Thich Nhat Hanh’s amazing book, The Art of Communicating. To study deep listening, practice mindfulness and enjoy this book. Almost everything I say, and so much more, is inside it. He says: “When you can truly come home to yourself and listen to yourself, you can profit from every moment given you to live.” (35) “To stop and communicate with yourself is a revolutionary act.” (15)

Orienting Ourselves

Every morning when I wake up, I resurrect the world. I check the time, look out the window, remember my schedule. When at home, I especially check up on those I love. I look over to see if my wife is next to me. I look for each of my three cats and worry if one is missing. They have a cat window and go in and out at will. I think of my Dad and other family members. This is, of course, what caring and love entails. But love, especially when it leads to marriage or an ongoing relationship, is much more than the emotion of love. It is part of my identity. It is a way of saying ‘yes’ to the world. So every morning, to orient myself, I check on those I love.

 

If I don’t find one of our cats, I think of him or her as lost, missing. Lost is an awful place to be. It is a black hole in my consciousness that disorients me. Being lost, or not knowing what has happened, makes my day difficult. I try to fill in the hole with conjectures but can’t quite make any conjecture stick.

 

We create this disorientation or sense of something missing in many ways. It is one primary way we torment ourselves. I formulate a goal and create a sense of something missing until the goal is achieved. I see something I want and feel the lack of it until I get it. I have a discussion with someone and don’t say all that was in my heart to say, and feel what was unsaid as a missed opportunity or a lie. I have an idea of how my class will go; I have my lesson plan. But if it doesn’t go as I wanted it to or how I thought it should, I feel bad afterwards, or that I am just not as good a teacher as I should be. And then there are the ways other people/institutions treat me or I interpret how they treat me. These lacks are disorienting and knock us off-center.

 

It is easy to lose sight of how we each orient ourselves. A few years ago, I was on my first visit to Turkey. It was a tour, and we were in a new place every second or third day. I woke up one morning with a sense of panic. I didn’t know where I was. The smells were confusing, and the curtains opposite the bed were clearly not from my home. We think we wake up and are just there, wherever there is, and don’t realize what goes into being there, or here.

 

In Buddhism, this sense of lack is likened to thirst. When we’re thirsty we feel the pain of missing fluid and nutrients. Our body needs nourishing. But how do we think about our thirst or what story do we tell ourselves about how to fill or end it?

 

We often try to fill this lack and orient ourselves with beliefs, ideas, identities of all kinds, often stories and images of who we are as somehow separate from the rest of the world. A story can fit elements of the world into a narrative in order to make sense of it all. Space and time are how we lift the story of our self from the pages of memory, emotion and intellect into the three (plus) dimensional world we live. The world is whole and complete. But the story is never complete, and can’t be completed. Reality always far exceeds our ability to imagine, explain, or write about it. To expect any story to fully capture or complete us is doomed to fail, is doomed to add to our sense of thirst, confusion, or of something lacking in us and/or the world.

 

We might never be able to totally free ourselves from narrating our lives. But since this story making is near the heart of our world, when we slow down our thoughts and aren’t judgmental, we can be aware of what we do and how we do it. We can step out of any particular story of lack but not the reality of how stories are created. Zen teacher Albert Low said: “When we awaken, we do not awaken from the dream; we awaken to the dream.” We can realize ourselves as the story-maker, not just the story; or more accurately, as the act of creating, as well as the creation, a moment when the world speaks, not a separate self. When that happens, we are more clearly oriented and the story that is written is likely a good one, and a loving one.

Awareness Is Political

I woke up this morning about 6 am. It was still dark. I got out of bed, walked around and almost stepped on my 7 month old kitten, Milo. Instead of being freaked out, I was happy, not only that I didn’t step on him but that I could see him, or just see, period. Maybe because of now being a “senior citizen” I am more aware of what someday I will lose. There was fear at the opposite side of the joy, fear of losing sight and my other senses. And hurt. I felt what I imagined Milo might feel if I stepped on him. He would not know why I hurt him.

 

Perception is not just about information. My seeing makes it possible to step around and reach out to pet him. As I sense him, a feeling of approach or avoidance arises, then like, dislike or indifference. Then memories, of how he rolls over to get my attention or how he chases our other cats. There is relationship.

 

Our perceptions and emotions link us to others and our world, a world from which we are never, even for an instance, separate. Yet, do we always feel this? Of course not. We can lose the sense of connection even more easily than we lose the sense of sight. Never forget that sensing connection is a sense. And we pay an enormous price for its’ loss. We pay with violence. We pay with suffering. Once painful emotions are aroused, it is easier to enact them on others. Feeling disconnected or isolated hurts and makes it easier to get angry, blame and hurt others. Thinking gets confused. Manipulation is easy. A population that is hurting is easily manipulated.

 

Empathy is the heart of connection, love and ethical action. It can take different forms. According to Paul Ekman, there is recognizing what another being thinks or feels. There’s feeling with or caring about others, and lastly, being ready to act for their welfare. I feel the pain I could cause Milo and thus shudder at the imagined hurt. Because I experience his pain, I am more careful. Some argue that such empathy will not stop violence or hurt. People often hurt themselves. Others hurt the ones they love even more frequently than those they don’t care about. If empathy doesn’t protect us from hurting those we love, when will it protect us?

 

But examine the hurt that arises with the emotion of love. To love is obviously a highly complex state that comes in all sizes and shapes. Feeling love is feeling the edge between two strong polarities. You feel entirely open and vulnerable, “connected.” You care. You feel joyous and valued. You say “yes” to the world. On the other side, you feel the possibility of loss. With love, you feel alive; you feel the moment strongly, which means you feel its impermanence. From there, it is easy to fear loss, hurt, the world saying “no” to you. You desire security, continuity, even control. When you hurt the one you love, you are trying to stop the fear. But that is the same as stopping the vulnerability, which is to stop the love. You try to protect love by ending it. It is not love that causes the hurt. It is the fear that you can’t love. Living on the edge of a sword is a highly prized skill. When you hurt yourself, instead of feeling too much, you feel too little. You hurt yourself because feeling something, even pain, is preferable to feeling nothing or feeling dead.  There is danger in feeling too little or too much.

 

So, to educate love, empathy and connection, awareness of thoughts and emotions, is a politically and socially responsible act. It makes us better citizens and neighbors. It is difficult to manipulate those who are emotionally and socially aware. It is revolutionary. I wish schools would teach it more. In the late 1960s, the slogan “the personal is political” helped rally the student and women’s movements. Maybe “awareness is political” will rally each of us today.