In 1967, during the Summer of Love, The Beatles sang “It’s easy. All you need is love.” I kind of agree, but for my taste they could have been a bit more specific. Love from whom or for what? And how much or how many? After all, different answers to these questions suggest radically different approaches towards a love-filled and therefore supposedly happy life. To make things worse, the above questions actually contain several more specific questions, which complicate the discussion. For example, all I need is to give love, receive love, witness love, yet something else, or all of them? All I need is love for myself, for friends and family, for romantic partners, pets, combinations of these, or all things regardless of whether they are living, inanimate, or even abstract (e.g., a nation)? Also, how much love do I need and how could I perceive and express quantities of love anyway? Finally, which quality of love are we talking about: Romantic love, parental love, platonic love, bodily love, or any of the many conceptions that have arisen around the world, such as Ren, Kama, Bhakti, Mettā, Ishq, and Chesed? (follow the links to Wikipedia, where I found them) It’s not easy. It’s kind of scary and overwhelming, but I’ll try to unpack and address each of these questions within a mini-series on love.
Today’s question might be an odd one, but I found that it was actually pretty exciting to explore (and before I wrote this post I didn’t know where I would end up): What should we do with love: Give, receive, witness, something else, all? This question connects to my last post on the extent to which we should try to change ourselves versus the world. Giving love is obviously the act which we have most control over, so if we would want to increase our ability to give love, we would mostly work on changing ourselves. Note that in a sense we’re 100% in control over how much love we give, because other people don’t necessarily have to reciprocate or even notice it (e.g., we can think lovingly of someone without telling them). And giving love generally feels good. But then again, one-sided love can be anything from awkward to excruciatingly painful. After all, receiving love is a great source of happiness for most people and even a necessity while we are young. Who hasn’t heard of the experiment, where newborns died because they didn’t receive human affection even though all their biological needs were cared for?
So, should we then prioritize receiving love over giving love to maximize our happiness? Should we all just get dogs, because they’ll love us no matter what? I don’t think so. Not only do I think that owning dogs is a form of trans-species slavery (sorry, this is besides the point, but someone had to say it), but we also want to be loved for the right reasons. Sure, on the surface it might feel good that our furry friends are having the times of their lives every time we’re coming home, but if we think about it more deeply, they’d be just as happy for the return of any owner who doesn’t outright abuse them (oooor maybe one shouldn’t think too deeply and just enjoy ignorant bliss with a dog). Another problem with prioritizing receiving over giving is that, unlike dogs, humans don’t tend to love you no matter what. Their love is contingent upon many things, including how lovable they think you are in general, how lovable you have behaved in their eyes recently, what mood they’re in right now, and whether they have found a better mate yet or not. This means that even if you bend over backwards to attain someone’s love for as often and long as possible, which is exhausting and humiliating anyway, they might not deliver for reasons mostly outside of your control. So don’t.
This, however, poses a fundamental conundrum: We can control mostly only how much love we give, but we need to receive it, too. In my eyes, a big part of the solution lies in loving ourselves. Yet, I don’t mean this in a cliché way like “Just love yourself (and, of course, believe in yourself and be yourself) and everything will be fine.” Loving yourself, like most paths to true happiness, is one of the hardest things you’ll ever try. At least for me it was. But it also seems to be for other people, because when I look around I mostly see self-loathing, self-insecurity, and self-sabotage. Not on the surface, of course, but when you dig deeper (why again do we dig deeper?).
I also want to stress that self-love the way I see it is something entirely different from vanity, selfishness, egotism, arrogance, narcissism, hauteur, and the like. For me, the love towards one’s self is characterized by benevolence, kindness, empathy, appreciation, fondness, and unconditional acceptance. If you’re like me, this list of qualities right there has provoked some noticable pushback within you. This pushback is among the things that make self-love so hard, it’s kind of strange that many of us feel it. For now, I can only say “it’s ok, it will pass.” Let me also say that ideally we’d have the above described kind of love for every sentient being in the universe, close or far, known or unknown, present, past, and future. To get there we have to include ourselves at some point along the way – and the way may just be more beautiful if we start with that sooner rather than later.
The reason why I think self-love is the best solution to the conundrum is that we direct the act we have most control over, giving love, to the only person that is always right where we are and will be so for as long as we live: our self. Additionally, it’s the only instance in where giving love automatically means receiving love, at least to the extent to which we can accept love from ourselves. If this all sounds very touchy-feely to you, I have several answers: It does to me, too. What’s actually wrong with touchy-feely? Why do we belittle touchy-feely? Wouldn’t it be a virtue to swallow one’s false pride and really open up to something allegedly silly such as touchy-feely? Especially, if the arguments behind it are logically sound and one could derive some real pragmatic benefits from it?
I think touchy-feely self-love is worth very serious consideration. And I think that consideration must be two-fold in order to be serious and fruitful. First, one should develop the arguments behind it, as I have started doing in today’s post. For sceptic thinkers like myself and probably much of my readership this first step paves the way for the second, ultimately more crucial one: Experiencing it for yourself. With this I mean that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. You can read all about pudding, watch how-to videos on its preparation, study it from every angle, and write dissertations about it, but you will never fully know what it’s all about until you have taken a bite. It’s in the eating where you understand and feel what the pudding’s wobbly texture and sweet aroma actually mean “in reality.” After all, we’re alive to live life, not just to read or think about it [mic drop]. No, but seriously, what might sound trivial to some, is actually one of the biggest aims of mindfulness meditation (and you know I’m a fan): To stop listening to the voice in your head telling you the story of your life, commenting every beat like a relentless lunatic, and instead actually live your life in an immediate way, really be there, be immersed, be the protagonist rather than pervy observer. I digress.
In psychology, we call the results from studying pudding “declarative knowledge” and the results from eating pudding “procedural knowledge.” And don’t get me wrong, procedural knowledge is not “better” than declarative knowledge – both come with their strengths and limitations. One limitation of procedural knowledge, for example, is that the same procedural knowledge, such as resulting from a strong, positive, and subjectively transformative ecstasy, can be explained declaratively in different ways, some arguably closer to “truth” than others. A person, who explains and studies their ecstatic experience only through the declarative lens of a certain Christian sect, will have a narrower understanding than a person who also incorporates lenses from other Christian sects, non-Christian religions, various kinds of philosophies, and scientific disciplines. For example, the first person might strongly believe that the ecstasy came from directly experiencing “God” (in this case: Yahweh), while the second person would be aware that individuals of virtually all faiths report such ecstatic experiences and interpret them as encounters with various gods, spirits, ancestors, energies, dimensions, etc. or explain them scientifically as certain replicable alterations of brain chemistry or activation. In short: We need both, declarative and procedural knowledge about the important topics in our lives.
Sorry for this lengthy excursion – what were we talking about again? Ah yes, love. For oneself. And that one has to not only think about, but also try it out. So how to try self-love in order to evaluate if it improves one’s life? I would suggest a two-step approach. Step 1: Find a suitable method, which makes theoretical sense, speaks to you, and is easily applicable in your everyday life (because otherwise you won’t actually apply it). Step 2: Apply the method daily for a month or two. If you want a short cut and you can afford it, you could do an intense retreat where you apply the method for hours on end for a week or two (this might not be suitable for every method). Whichever way you do it, give it time, because it would be a pity to miss out on a great puzzle piece to a better life, just because you were too impatient to wait for results.
Now this might sound all very abstract. Luckily, I have three small examples from my own life where moments of self-love emerged from a specific practice. I am using “emerged” in this context, because I have never set an explicit self-love goal or started an according project. Hence, these moments were accidental, yet welcome, as I have realized again and again that self-love the way I have described it above seems to be a big key to a better life.
One time I experienced increased self-love during a guided gratefulness meditation I found on YouTube. I actually thought that that particular meditation was really cheesy, but I couldn’t find a better one in the moment (and I didn’t bother since). Yet, even this version made me really appreciate what I had in myself. It prompted me to go through the different parts of my body, bit by bit, organ by organ, and thank them for the service they’re doing and have always done for me. Even if a part didn’t function like it used to or like it ideally could, one could still be grateful that it wasn’t worse than it was. All these nice, helpful parts were part of me and by appreciating them I could appreciate a big portion of myself. Sounds worth giving a try? Here’s the link (it’s in German and again, be warned, it’s really cheesy, even cringeworthy at times).
Another moment of self-love came during my Vipassana meditation retreat. I’ll make it short, because I’m already over 2000 words in: I had a profound moment of appreciation for all natural things. I was moved by the miracles of physics, chemistry, and biology, by how all these molecules could come together in such peculiar and wonderful ways. And I experienced (note: experienced, not thought – that’s the power of meditation, procedural wisdom) that I was part of that miraculous machinery. How could I not love myself if I loved nature? How could I be so harsh with myself so often, if I was just another being in this world, like a plant or wolf. I wouldn’t scold the plant or wolf – they are good enough as they are. So am I. I’m sighing inside right now, “if such insights could just stay with you….” Unfortunately, we have to rediscover them again and again, but eventually practice will make perfect and they’ll stick. Wisdom, like all other things, is not an end state, but it’s a process made up of smaller and larger wise moments. As long as you attend to it, it will grow and when you neglect it, it will wane. Every moment makes a difference. But more on this in a dedicated post.
The third moment of self-love, and especially self-empathy, came during an exercise from a book on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT – it’s basically Vipassana meditation translated into a psychotherapy and enriched with some good stuff that Vipassana, as far as I know, lacks). In a nutshell, the exercise asked me to recall a painful experience and then to psychologically and physically comfort myself in the way that I would comfort a good friend. Again, might sound touchy-feely, but to me it was (surprisingly) powerful. And I’m really interested in your experiences and opinions, so bring on the comments (and don’t shy back from being touchy-feely, we can take it)!
Ok, prepare for landing, I’m starting to wrap this big boy up. I started by criticizing The Beatles (of all bands!) for not being specific enough in a pop song. Then I posed today’s question, which is the first in a mini-series on love: “What should we do with love: Give, receive, witness, something else, all?” I basically got around to discussing “giving” and “receiving” a little bit and I would have liked to go deeper, but this post is already too long as it is (or let me know in the comments). Also, I’m not your bitch so I won’t (ever) deliver everything you want (but the discussion may and shall go on in the comments).
Regarding “receiving” I wanted to add that this might be another field where increased attention and awareness (e.g., from meditation practice, but also otherwise) may improve your life by making you more aware of the love you receive; this in turn likely translates into more appreciation and gratefulness from you, which likely sparks more love-giving impulses from others, so we enter a lovely upwards spiral (and those are the ones we want to aim for in general).
I didn’t get around to “witnessing,” “something else,” and “all,” so here are my thoughts in a nutshell: I’d apply the same arguments to “witnessing” as to “receiving.” The first is that it is mostly outside of your control how much love the people you see give to each other and to the things around them (= the love you can witness), so it is futile to try to change that amount. Yet, training your attention and awareness for the love in your surroundings should improve this part of your life. Regarding “something else” I’m curious to hear from you what that could sensibly be (e.g., remember love, anticipate love, etc.). And regarding “all” I’d say “yes” with an emphasis on “giving,” because that’s in your control.
Next time it’s likely going to be about the objects of love (i.e., people – human and non-human, inanimate objects, and abstract concepts). With self-love, I’ve discussed an important object of love already today, so next time we can explore couples, groups, nations, civilizations, and even bigger systems. I hope today’s post made you hungry for more love!
If you like what you see, please like and follow! If you think that somebody else might, too, please share – it would be my honor! As you might have noticed (I haven’t been subtle about it), I want to get this discussion going, so the more the merrier! As always, I’m Thomas, your happiness nerd.