In 3rd grade, I learned that love is a four-letter word. A classmate, Danny, was in the hospital, and we were all to write him a get-well letter. I did and signed it “Love, Juli.” The teacher asked me to read my letter out loud. When the roar of laughter died down, I was in tears not just from embarrassment but from confusion. I didn’t love Danny in the way I was teased over the next year. I just thought you were supposed to love everyone, even those you didn’t really like. Like Danny.
Why is love such a bewildering word? Why is it scary to say for some and glibly said by another? Most movies and books would have you believe it’s all about romantic love — like grabbing the gold ring on a carousel, except we often miss or drop it. While we long for the gold ring, we also shy away from the commitment and courage that goes along with seizing it. Our thoughts inflame that fear.
My teacher, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, has said that in Western cultures “you fall in love with your heart and you fall out of love with your head,” meaning our heart is for feeling, our head for rational thought. From a Buddhist perspective, mind and heart are not separate. Clear awareness and compassion are both the domain of the heart. While passion may draw us towards someone or something, it is compassion that widens the field. “Com” means “with,” so right there compassion is about including others.
Fast forward several decades to another classroom early on in my exploration of Buddhism. A lot of pain, well beyond 3rd grade, had towed me towards a weekend teaching on Loving-Kindness. I could not shake a year-long conflict with someone, and the passionate battle of who was right and who was wrong was eating me up.
As we practiced sending love first to ourselves, next to a loved one, then a stranger and finally our so-called enemies, the center of my chest grew warmer, softer, relaxing a tad. But it hurt. The more my heart opened, the more my ego-mind wanted to shut it down. As practice continued, I began to feel/see that my “enemy” also suffered. She, too, wanted to be right but more so to be happy.
We never really became close again but over time, with practice, the feelings changed. While I didn’t really like her, I felt compassion for her … and for myself. I signed my notes to her with love, that crazy four-letter word.
There are a number of teachings on Loving-Kindness in all wisdom traditions. The following practice comes from the Buddhist tradition. It’s simple, effective and can be used whenever we need help opening our hearts. By relying on our heart/mind united, we can bring a sense of kindness, compassion and equanimity into our world.
Take a few deep, slow breaths to settle into your body. Bring yourself to mind and repeat the following sentences on the exhale for several minutes:
May I/you enjoy happiness
May I/you be free of suffering
May I/you be healthy and safe
May I/you live with ease
Next, repeat the practice for a loved one; then a stranger; finally an “enemy.”
Conclude by wishing happiness for all beings everywhere!