Learning to Love
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
Many years ago, after Mother Teresa achieved world recognition for her work in India, she came to visit the West. It wasn’t long before she delivered a surprise: she had decided to extend her work to the United States, starting missions in New York and elsewhere – including, eventually, San Francisco.
At the time, the Bay Area met Mother Teresa’s announcement with shock. After all, this was Mother Teresa of Calcutta, not San Francisco. We knew the third world needed her, but this was the first world. What could someone like Mother Teresa have seen here that warranted placing San Francisco in the same category as Delhi, Colombo, and Addis Ababa?
I have never forgotten the answer she gave. “There is hunger for ordinary bread,” she explained, “and there is hunger for love, for kindness, for thoughtfulness; and this is the great poverty that makes people suffer so much.”
In every human being, she was reminding us, there is a deep need for love – not only to be loved, but to give love as well. This need is written in our hearts. It is part of what we are as human beings, an inner necessity every bit as real as our need for food and drink.
All the world’s great religions explain this in the same way. We need to love, they tell us, because love is our real nature. “The soul is made of love,” says Mechthild of Magdeburg, “and must ever strive to return to love. Therefore, it can never find rest nor happiness in other things. It must lose itself in love.”
Once we grasp the sense of these quiet statements, they can change our lives forever. They mean that being able to love fully, unconditionally, is our native state. We cannot lose this native capacity, cannot get rid of it even if we try. The most we can manage to do is cut ourselves off from it, burying it under layer after layer of the self-centered conditioning that accumulates so easily in the modern world. But that conditioning can be removed, and when it is removed, what remains is our original goodness – a capacity for love that is, in principle, without limit.
At bottom, the promise of every personal relationship is to open up this wellspring deep in our hearts. We aren’t often aware of this promise, of course. We think of love as an emotional or even biochemical need that can be satisfied by something outside us. But as Mechthild says, it is a need of the soul rather than of the body – of our inmost self. In other words, our hunger for love is really spiritual.
We can think of Mother Teresa as a perfect physician. She puts a thermometer to modern industrial civilization, checks its blood pressure, and gives her diagnosis without hesitation: “Acute spiritual malnutrition.” But malnutrition is reversible. Just as negative emotions like anger, fear, and greed have great power to harm, positive emotions have power to heal. And Mother Teresa knows what to prescribe: good will, patience, overriding love for all.
Usually a good physician will not write a prescription without some accompanying instructions – plenty of rest, lots of fluids, and so on. Certain conditions have to be followed for the prescription to be most effective. Similarly, if love is prescribed as the remedy, we need five things. The first is time. Second is control over our attention. Third comes energy, vitality. Fourth, we need discrimination. And fifth, we must have awareness of the unity of life.
“Everybody today seems to be in such a terrible rush,” observes Mother Teresa, “anxious for greater developments and greater riches and so on, so that children have very little time for their parents. Parents have very little time for each other, and in the home begins the disruption of the peace of the world.”
An obsession with time has been so worked into our social system that we scarcely notice that we have left no time to love. Everywhere the slogan is Hurry, Hurry, Hurry. Yet to be aware of the needs of others, to speak and act with patience and consideration, we must have time.
On the one hand, this is a matter of simplifying our lives, dropping less important activities in order to allow more time for what matters most. But it is also essential to slow down our pace of living, so that we can free ourselves from the time-driven thinking and behavior characteristic of modern life.
One of the most effective steps to take here is simple: get up early. If you wake up late, rush through breakfast, run for the bus, and reach your office ten minutes after everyone else has settled down, that is the pace you are going to maintain throughout the day. It is not only inimical to health; it is also inimical to happiness. When we rush, we cannot even see people; they are just phantoms. We are too much in a hurry to catch the little signs in a person’s eyes or around the corners of the mouth which say, “You’re stepping on my feelings. You’re letting me down.” All the mind can think of is “What I have to do, and how little time I have to do it.”
When people ask how they can learn to love more, therefore, I sometimes say enigmatically, “Get up earlier.” Allow plenty of time for your full meditation, and then come to breakfast not only with an appetite but with time – time enough to eat leisurely, to talk with others at the table, and to get to work five or ten minutes early so that you can chat a little with your coworkers.
Eating leisurely is especially important where children are concerned. They are not only assimilating their oatmeal; they are absorbing everything they see and hear. It is a great disservice to try to hurry them through a meal. We need to give them time to ask questions that cannot be answered, to tell stories punctuated by long pauses while they search for a particular word, even to upset a glass of milk, and still get off to school on time; all this is part of a loving breakfast.
Slowing down is closely connected with one-pointed attention: doing one thing at a time, and doing it with complete attention. In the case of rushing, for example, the problem is not only one of speed. Our attention is riveted on ourselves – our needs, our deadlines, our desires – so there is no attention to give to those around us, who probably have needs and desires and deadlines very much like our own.
Through practicing meditation and giving full concentration to one thing at a time, we can learn to direct attention where we choose. This is an almost miraculous skill, with applications to the practice of love that are as simple as they are essential. When we can give complete attention to the person we are with, even if she is contradicting our opinions on tax reform or explaining the peculiarities of Roman law, boredom disappears from our relationships. People are not boring; we get bored because our attention wanders. Giving someone our full attention says clearly, “You matter to me. You have my respect.”
Attention is very much like a dog. Some years ago my friend Steve acquired a large, affectionate, and utterly blithe-spirited retriever pup whom his son named Ganesha. Ganesha had a lot of energy, and he had never been trained; he was accustomed to doing whatever he liked. If you put him in the yard, he would dig under the fence. Leave him in the bedroom and he would chew up your slippers. Take him for a walk and in a minute he would be halfway across a field chasing a deer. So Steve started to train him. For a while, I thought it was the other way around: Ganesha would bark and then Steve would run after him. But now, after a lot of patient practice, Ganesha has learned to heel and to expend his energy on a fast run at the beach instead of on bedroom slippers.
Attention can be trained in a very similar way. At first it wanders restlessly all over, looking into everything and everybody. But if we put it on a short leash and recall it many, many times, the great day will come when it will heel and obey. Then it becomes an alert, invaluable companion – very much like a well-trained sheepdog, which I have seen follow all kinds of complicated instructions. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that there is no limit to the degree to which attention can be trained. That is how responsive it is.
Almost every disruption in human relationships – between parent and child, man and woman, friend and friend, worker and co-worker – can be prevented by learning control over attention; for with attention comes loyalty, interest, desire, trust. I can illustrate with the most fascinating of relationships: the romantic. Suppose Romeo and Juliet had turned out differently, and the two lovers had married and settled down to a normal domestic life. After a few years, as sometimes happens, Romeo’s attention gets restless, and Juliet loses her attraction. Once the very sight of her made him think of flowers and bubbling brooks and the “light, sweet airs of spring”; now she just reminds him of the laundry and his morning espresso. Once he used to hang on her every word; now he answers everything with “Fine” and “Have a nice day.” After a while his attention falls on Rosaline, his old flame. Now she reminds him of flowers and brooks; his attention grabs on to her and will not let go.
If he could read what most of us read today, the advice he would get is, “Follow your desires. That is where happiness will be.” But that is precisely where unhappiness will be. If Romeo’s attention cannot stay with Juliet, how is it going to stay with Rosaline? After all, Juliet is the same Juliet, no less attractive than before. But Romeo is also the same Romeo. If he cannot get control over his attention, happiness can only get farther and farther away. The moment you hear the brook babbling and start thinking about spring, withdraw your attention completely from Rosaline and focus it on Juliet. With practice, we can focus our attention by choice just as intensely as it is focused by first love. Then Romeo will find that every day with Juliet is as sweet as the first. Every morning he will be able to exclaim with fresh wonder, “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!” And the love between them will grow deeper and richer every day. As Teresa of Avila says, Amor saca amor: love draws out love.
To love, we have to be able to do things for others, even if it is inconvenient. We have to be able to do things we do not like even when we seem to have no willpower or energy. How can we get more energy, so that we can give more love?
When people ask me this, I usually point out, “You already have a lot of energy.” As far as human beings are concerned, there is no real energy crisis. All of us have vast amounts of vitality. But we fritter it away, letting it flow out wastefully through one hundred and one channels.
Here again, there is a close connection with attention. Energy drains out when we let the mind go on working, repeating the same thought over and over. I have seen learned names for this phenomenon too, but I would compare it simply with a broken record. The mind is playing one of its little tunes – “Roses are red, violets are blue, Tchaikovsky is great and so are you” – and all of a sudden it is “Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky . . .” That is all that most guilt complexes amount to, most compulsive memories, most resentments, most obsessions: sitting there like the little dog listening obediently to “His Master’s Voice” while the same old thought goes round and round and round. There is no serious mental malady here, only a minor mechanical problem. When we know how to meditate well, if the mind slips into a negative groove, we can lift it up gently and set it down on something positive.
This is not turning away from problems or playing Pollyanna. It is simply good energy conservation. Whatever problems we might have, dwelling on them is only going to magnify them, and waste a lot of time and energy in the process.
To put it another way, negative thoughts such as anger, resentment, greed, and worry are like holes in a tank, through which vitality drains. A few weeks ago, as we were driving to San Francisco, a car passed us, leaving a trail of gasoline. About half an hour later, we saw the same car parked on the shoulder of the road, out of gas.
I read a lot today about the crisis with fossil fuels. Many people still talk as if the only solution is to find some other source of power, but that is not enough; it is equally necessary to reduce consumption. The same is true when we are talking about our personal energy, our vitality. Here we have no atoms to split or fuse, no windmills to make, no sun to draw on for an alternative source of energy; we have to conserve what we have and make it last.
If we lived in a house with only one big battery’s worth of electricity, we would be turning off lights right and left. If we had just one tank of fuel oil or gas, we would always be ready to turn down the heat. Similarly, when we are not using the mind, we can learn to turn it off. When some fierce desire is prompting us into action, we can learn to turn off the heat. The power is not lost. Instead of being wasted, it is consolidated as tremendous reserves of vitality, security, and self-mastery.
This brings us to the fourth essential condition for love: the capacity to discriminate between right and wrong desires. The criteria are simple. Right desires benefit everyone – including, of course, ourselves. Wrong desires may be very pleasing, but they benefit no one – again, not even ourselves. The problem that arises is that wrong desires can be very skillful impersonators. They put on a three-piece suit and a false mustache and present themselves suavely as Mr. Right, the benefactor of all; if they happen to be just what we like, that is only a happy coincidence. To love, we need to be able to recognize right desires and yield to them, which is a pleasant but rare state of affairs. But much more importantly, we need to be able to recognize wrong desires and resist them, which is very, very difficult.
Most wrong desires, I admit, are not easily resisted. We have to draw on every militant instinct we have to take on the desire face-to-face. We don’t even know we have this choice. When a big desire comes, we think we have to yield. There is some pleasure in yielding; but if I may say so, there is much more lasting satisfaction in resisting, even if at first we do not win. The very attitude of resisting wrong desires is the beginning of good health, vitality, and love.
Not only that, resisting wrong desires actually generates energy. Whenever we can defy a strong selfish desire, immense power is released into our hands. I do not think this is even suspected outside the major religions of the world, yet it is the secret of all spiritual work and transformation.
Our desires are not our business alone; they are everybody’s business. Whenever we resist a selfish desire, even if we do so for no one in particular, that is an act of love – just as every time we yield to a selfish desire, it shows want of love. The reason is simple: everything we do affects others, whether directly, through the environment, or by the force of our example. To me, for instance, smoking shows lack of love. First, the capacity for love is actually caught in that compulsion. But more than that, the smoke is harmful for everyone, and the example tells even casual passers-by, “Don’t worry about the surgeon general. Don’t worry about consequences; don’t even think about the future. If it feels good, do it!”
Pelé, the great Brazilian soccer player, has long been in a position to command a king’s ransom for endorsing commercial products. He has never given his endorsement to any brand of cigarettes, and I was very pleased to hear him give the reason in simple English: “I love kids.” That is a perfect choice of words. He does love kids. He knows that in most of the world they will buy anything with his name on it. Therefore, though he came from a very poor family, no amount of money can tempt him to do something that will mislead young people or injure their health. To love is to be responsible like this in everything: the work we do, the things we buy, the food we eat, the people we look up to, the movies we see, the words we use, every choice we make from morning till night. That is the real measure of love. It is a wonderfully demanding responsibility.
Discrimination, then, leads us naturally to the last essential condition for love: the awareness that life is one indivisible whole. This is the very basis of love. Any violation of the unity of life, whether it is between individuals, between nations, between us and the environment, or between us and our fellow creatures, is a failure of love. Everything that separates diminishes love; everything that unifies increases it. Lack of love divides; wealth of love heals.
To take just one aspect of this, you may recall Mother Teresa’s brilliant truism: “It is always people you meet everywhere.” Beneath the thinnest shell of differences, every one of us is very much the same, whether we live in Asia, Africa, Antarctica, or America.
Learning to love is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity – especially, perhaps, today, when the whole world, threatened with violence on every side, is starving for love and unity. “In the home,” Mother Teresa says, “begins the disruption of the peace of the world.” Similarly, it is in the home that the peace of the world is preserved. In nourishing our family, our community, and finally our world with love, turning our backs on ourselves when necessary to give what the world so desperately needs, we become, in the words of St. Francis, instruments of peace.