When you hear the word love, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? … It’s one of those words that can mean a lot of things. It’s a word we throw around with casual abandon. And it’s a word we use to speak about our highest ideals and our deepest commitments. In the Yoga Church community we talk a lot about increasing our capacity to love. We read books about love. We have monthly conversations about love. We talk about learning to love ourselves, our communities, and our world better. And we acknowledge that putting love into practice is complicated and often difficult.
Love is complicated because we humans (we complicated humans) struggle with other humans. We come into this world with certain emotional primes already encoded in our DNA. We’re wired for curiosity, care, and play. We’re wired for fear, rage, lust, and panic. These emotional primes are designed to help us survive and keep the species going. They influence our reactions to people and situations. And of course, they aren’t the only thing that shape our responses to the world. In addition to our encoded DNA, we have a lifetime of conditioning. We’ve been taught—by our family, society, country, religious affiliation, political party, and on and on—how to decide who counts as dangerous and who counts as safe. We’ve been taught who’s worthy of love and who deserves our contempt. We have a lifetime of inherited and conditioned habits that inform how we see everything and everyone in our lives.
Which means, that if we want to live lives of intention, we have to constantly ask ourselves why we think the way we do. Part of our spiritual practice is working to interrupt our automatic assumptions and reactions. Through our practice we work to cultivate a pause—we work to cultivate a mental and emotional spaciousness where we can just be—where we can take a breath and step away from the constant dance of like and dislike.
Because the reality is, we spend an unbelievable amount of energy every day moving back and forth between like and dislike. Between attachment and aversion. We take in data through our senses and mind. And from this data we perceive and experience sensation and feeling. From these feelings we decide whether to push or pull. Move toward or away. All this happens in a split second based on the habits we’ve built through the stories we hold about our identity, our fears, the things we won’t let go of, the things we don’t see clearly, and every action we’ve ever taken in the past. This whole cycle—from data input to action—happens over and over again all day long—reinforcing the habits that help us decide—again, in a split second—whether or not we like something or someone.
Which is all to say that love—and our practice of trying to love ourselves, our communities, and our world better—is complicated.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us to love not only our neighbors (which is hard enough), but also our enemies. Which, as we’ve just discussed goes against our survival instincts. And against all the ways that our habits of like and dislike have been built throughout our life. It’s not an easy teaching. And in my experience, it’s not something we can simply will ourselves into. While I think Jesus’ call for outright love is something to strive for, I don’t think it’s a realistic starting place.
Patanjali, the ancient sage credited with writing the Yoga Sutras, didn’t go as far as Jesus. He didn’t ask us to love our enemies, he asked us to develop impartiality toward them. But this impartiality doesn’t come in isolation. It comes in the context of a teaching about obstacles and relationship. In Yoga Sutra 1.33, we’re told:
“The mind becomes clear and serene when the qualities of the heart are cultivated: friendliness toward the joyful, compassion toward the suffering, happiness toward the virtuous, and equanimity toward the nonvirtuous.”
Patanjali understood that animosity, cruelty, jealousy, and self-righteousness are habits that contaminate our mind and effect the way we show up in the world. He proposed that before we can change our outward actions we have to change our inward heart. The call to love our enemies is not about our enemies. It’s about our own inner life.
Patanjali suggests that in the face of our animosity, cruelty, jealousy, and self-righteousness we cultivate habits of friendliness, compassion, happiness, and equanimity. Which of course, happens in the context of relationship. We can begin by noticing how we react to the people we already claim to love. If we reflect honestly on our close relationships, we have to admit that we don’t always love the people we love, perfectly. We can then expand our practice of noticing to people—whether or not we know them—who are suffering. Do we feel compassion, apathy, pity, judgement? And what about people who are happy? Are we happy alongside them or jealous?
I invite you to spend an entire day noticing your reaction to every person you come in contact with—people you speak to, pass on the street, see on TV. What assumptions do you make about them? Do you deem them good or bad? Happy, sad, virtuous, worthy of contempt? As you notice your reactions, can you trace them back? Can you figure out why you feel the way you do about them? What experience, family lesson, or habit lies underneath your automatic reaction?
When we decide that we don’t like someone, we assume our reasons are based on something external to us—on something about them. But what if rather than thinking about our reactions to people based on what we perceive to be true about them, we worked to notice how our reactions to people arise from something within us?
If we want to shift our emotional habits and build our capacity to love, we have to look inward. Not outward. Patanjali asks us to remain impartial toward the non-virtuous. This is not a call to condone dangerous and unjust behavior. It’s a call to respond to such actions and behavior from an inner place of equanimity, not animosity. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he wasn’t telling us to stop fighting against injustice. He was asking us to find a way to work against injustice without adding more violence and hatred to the world.
We humans are complicated. We have the Light of Divine Mystery within us and we have negative emotions, impulses, and habits within us. We are all capable of love and cruelty. Spiritual practice is about deciding which of these seeds we water.
This is all really hard work. And it requires that we remain present with and honest about what’s real. Feigning a pious sense of love is not only un-useful, it can be harmful. Suppression never works. Feelings have a way of making it to the surface. In order to water the seeds of Love within us, we have to practice being with our feelings—all of them.
In his book Love & Rage, Lama Rod Owens said:
“When I let go of the constant pushing away of things that are not comfortable, then I find myself reinvesting that energy of aversion into giving space to the material that is uncomfortable. Happiness is found in the space around the difficult material, and over time we begin to discover the space within the difficult material.”
If we truly want to increase our capacity to love, we must first increase our capacity for discomfort. As we learn to pay attention to our own inner reactions, we can notice our habits of moving toward and away—we can notice the inner sensation of push and pull that we feel. We can slowly build up our threshold for staying present with the sensation of discomfort… Neither attaching nor averting. None of this easy. It’s an ongoing practice. But over time, as our inner equanimity grows, as our inner love grows, we’ll have a base of inner support from which we can begin the hard work of responding to life—every aspect of life—from the energy of love.