What Is Love? Understanding the 3 Spiritual Levels of Love

What is Love? As much as we might like to, we can’t force love to happen. But we can understand its many levels and connect more easily to its source.

BY SALLY KEMPTON  | Originally posted here in Yoga Journal

“I know love is there,” my old friend Elliot said. “My question is, Why is it that so many times, I can’t feel it?”

We were in the middle of a workshop I teach called “Exploring the Heart.” Elliot had recently lost his father, and so I asked him, “Are you talking about something specific?”

“Of course,” he said. As he told me the story of his father’s death, I felt a deep sense of recognition. The questions his experience raised are essential ones, questions we all deal with as we probe that most fundamental and yet elusive of all human feelings: love.


Elliot and his father had been polite strangers for nearly 20 years. Yet when the father became seriously ill, the only person he wanted around him was his son. “I knew we’d been given our big chance to open up to each other,” Elliot said. “I kept thinking, ‘Now he’ll finally get who I really am! We’ll bond, and I’ll be able to feel love for him at last!’”

See also Love-What-Is Meditation

The problem was that Elliot couldn’t dig out a single nugget of love for his father. He wanted to love him. He knew he should love him. But their history together had formed such a habit of disconnection that he felt nothing at all.

How Love Feels

So Elliot did the only thing he could think of to close the gap. He asked himself, “How would I act if I did feel love for my father?” Then he acted on the intuition that arose for him.

Elliot realized that when we really love someone, we’re attentive to even the smallest minutiae of that person’s existence. So he practiced paying close attention to his father. He slowed himself down and tried to keep his awareness linked to his father’s breath. He served his father. He fielded the emotional crises of the other family members. He did everything, in short, that a devoted son would do—and he did it, as best he could, as an austerity, a practice.

See also Feel Your Best This Season

Elliot’s father died three months later, and Elliot sat through the funeral dry-eyed, still waiting for his heart to open. During the last hymn, he finally gave up hope. He slumped down in his seat, deeply tired, with no more effort left in him.

At that moment, like a small trickle from a dammed-up stream, he felt a stir of tenderness in his heart. It came softly, yet it was almost shockingly sweet. It was the love he’d been trying to feel. “It felt as if I’d tapped into some kind of big, impersonal loving energy,” he told me. “It didn’t exclude my father, but it definitely wasn’t about him. Instead, the feeling I had in that moment was that there was nothing but love.Everything was love. ‘Oh, my God,’ I thought, ‘I’m having a spiritual experience, right here at my father’s funeral!’” The thought struck him as so funny that he giggled—causing something of a commotion in the funeral chapel, as people turned to see what was making him laugh at such an inappropriate moment.

“I wondered where that love came from,” he told me. “Was it a reward for taking care of my father? If so, why wasn’t it there when I needed it, so to speak?”

I realized that behind Elliot’s question was an even deeper set of questions, ones that plague us all. They go something like this: If love is real, why doesn’t it feel the way I’ve always heard it was supposed to feel? Why can’t I feel it all the time? And why does love so often feel lacking, or painful, or both?

Love Is a Many-Leveled Thing

pinky-loveMost of us have been confused about love all of our lives. In fact, we often begin the inner life as a search—conscious or unconscious—for a source of love that can’t be taken away. We may have grown up feeling unloved or believing we had to perform heroic feats to deserve love. Our parents, the movies we see, our cultural and religious milieu give us ideas about love that go on influencing us long after we have forgotten their source. When we read spiritual books and encounter teachers, our understanding about love can get even more complicated, because depending on what we read or whom we study with, we get slightly different takes on what love means in spiritual life.

Continue reading here on Yoga Journal.

Thinking about NOT Thinking

BY EDWARD ESPE BROWN | Originally published here in Yoga Journal

yoga beachAt my first formal interview with Suzuki Roshi, I didn’t know what to say. Perhaps I really could not think of what to say, or nothing I was thinking was worth saying. I was young and sincere, and I wanted to make a good impression. After a couple of minutes of sitting quietly facing each other, I began to relax and Suzuki took the initiative.

“How’s your meditation?”

“Not so good,” I replied.

“What’s not so good?”

“I’m thinking a lot.”

“And what’s the problem with thinking?” he asked.

That stumped me. When I looked directly for the problem with thinking, I couldn’t find it. My fallback position was to tell him the do’s and don’ts of meditation.

“You’re not supposed to think in meditation,” I said. “You’re supposed to quiet your mind.”

“Thinking is pretty normal, don’t you think?”

I had to agree with the Roshi, who then explained that the problem with thinking was not thinking per se, but thinking that was stuck.

When people tell me meditation is “difficult,” what they really mean is that quieting their minds or stopping their thinking is what’s difficult. And just as I was as a new student, they are extremely reluctant to examine the issue more carefully. It’s not so simple. And when it is not simple, the simplest approach is to stick to the rules.

I’ve known people who have seriously devoted themselves to “not-thinking,” and when I ask them if they called to let their friends know that they would be late, they say, “No, I didn’t think of that.” This is not a new phenomenon. An old Chinese Zen Master once said, “Some of you are taking me literally when I say, ‘Don’t think,’ and you are making your minds like a rock. This is a cause of insentiency and an obstruction to the Way. When I say not to think, I mean that if you have a thought, think nothing of it.”

Mind Against Mind

The capacity to think is an essential element of our lives. We need to plan, make decisions, and communicate. The problem is not that we think but that we haven’t had a truly new thought for most of our lifetime. In other words, our thinking is fixed.

meditateFor example, once I believe no one likes me, do you think I’m going to let anything change my mind? No way. I can explain any contradictory evidence: You don’t know me well enough; if you really knew me, you wouldn’t like me; you are just pretending to like me so you can get something out of me. Thinking tends to be for and against—and to be intolerant of thoughts that do not obviously concur. This is often referred to as “the disease of the mind is to set mind against mind.”

Rather than eliminate thinking, you could say that one of the basic skills to develop in meditation is to be able to hold and sustain contradictory thoughts—calming the impulse to eliminate the opposition. One obvious example has to do with sitting still. You want to sit still, so can you have the thought to move and go on sitting still? Or do you have to do what the thought says?

If sitting still means eliminating the thought of moving, you may find meditation difficult—because the way to remove thoughts is to tighten muscles, and this makes sitting quite painful. Holding on to a thought, such as, “I am not going to move,” also tightens muscles. This is what you are busy doing a good deal of the time, so if you are serious about releasing and calming the body and the mind, thoughts are going to be popping up one after the other. The trick is not to mind.

You could say that the point of meditation is to liberate thinking, and understanding this, you are ready to examine what to do with thinking during meditation. There are two basic strategies. One is to do something other than thinking and to use your thinking to help accomplish that. The other is to give your thinking something to do other than what it usually does.

It’s important to keep in mind that the goal is not to eliminate your thinking. I hear this all the time: “I’m so sick and tired of my thinking. I just want to get rid of it once and for all.” Your thinking knows you want to get rid of it, so it is going to cling to you for all it’s worth.

So what do you do with thinking during meditation? This first strategy, which is basic to Buddhism, especially Zen, emphasizes posture and breathing. With energy and commitment, give your attention fully to them rather than to your thinking.

This means emphasizing a straighter spine, including the small of the back curved slightly in and the neck long. But don’t be shy about asking your thinking to lend a hand when needed. Is the neck shortening and the chin jutting forward? That’s a red flag that thinking is in full bloom, and when your thinking notices that, lengthen your neck. You can also have your thinking count the breaths, say on the exhalation, or note the breath as it proceeds in and out.

Any Questions?

The second strategy involves giving your thinking a task.

Read more here: http://www.yogajournal.com/article/practice-section/thoughts-on-thinking/

Star Power

Large clouds of gas glowing deep in space

Experience the natural world with “nonconceptual awareness”

BY MARK COLEMAN  |  Originally published here in Yoga Journal

When we spend time in the wilderness, it can be tempting to focus our awareness on “doing” something: taking pictures; getting a certain amount of physical exercise; traveling from point A to point B; naming all the species of birds we encounter. While nature photography is a lovely craft, and we need to exercise for good health, and understanding what lives in our environment is a valid part of deepening our relationship with the land, these activities can separate us from a more intimate experience of the natural world. It is all too easy to forget to actually experience with all our senses that which we are busily capturing and identifying.

The natural world invites us out of our world of fixed concepts and into a closer proximity with reality—what Buddhist teachings call “nonconceptual awareness.” Experiencing the natural world with nonconceptual awareness means that, rather than seeing a [small] black bird and thinking, “That’s a starling, a nonnative bird introduced from England several centuries ago,” we stop and see each particular bird’s incandescent blue-black velvet feathers, piercing amber eyes, and delicate, wiry feet. Instead of encountering the world through a filter of ideas, memories, and labels, we connect deeply with the unfiltered and vital pulse of life in that moment.

If we’re not mindful, intellectual knowledge can easily cloud our direct experience. When we’re guided through life solely by our intellect, by our ideas of what we know, we’re robbed of a sense of discovery. A nonconceptual awareness allows us to approach each moment as fresh and new. A depth of wisdom can arise from such immediacy, and lead to greater wonder about the mysteriousness of life; we may realize just how little we can ever know.

Whatever we experience most often provides us with an excellent opportunity to cultivate nonconceptual awareness. My garden sits in the shade of an old California oak tree that has a wide trunk, deeply veined and wrinkled. The gray-brown bark has deep, dark, vertical grooves intersected by thinner lateral lines——on some days it looks to me like a lopsided checkerboard. Where limbs once grew, there are large knots on the trunk the size of dinner plates. The tree curves gracefully skyward, supporting branches laden with young, shiny, dark green leaves holding their palms to the sun.

When I look at this oak without any preconceived ideas, it is a “different” tree each time I encounter it. My awareness or mood may be slightly different, altering how I see it. Depending on the time of day or time of year, shifting light changes its color. Gentle breezes and strong winds bend the tender limbs into different shapes. From this perspective I forever see it anew. Instead of relating to it solely through a static concept of “oak tree” or failing to see it in all its living, breathing aliveness, I can take it in with fresh eyes. This tree is my constant mindfulness companion, mirroring to me how present and open I am to the freshness of the moment.

The challenge is to be present to all of our experience with such wakefulness. Our concepts of time, of good and bad, of right and wrong can easily distort our ability to see the world clearly. Abiding with nonconceptual awareness allows us to observe the natural world, as well as the people and opportunities we encounter, without the lens of our fixed concepts, views, and opinions. Similarly, we can begin to look at ourselves with a fresh perspective in each moment, without any preconceptions or predetermined limitations.

Starry Night

nighskyThe following meditation is a way to cultivate a nonconceptual awareness. It works best on a relatively clear night, preferably away from bright city lights.

Find a place outdoors where you can lie down on the ground and view the night sky. Gaze up at that vast ocean of darkness that sparkles with infinite stars until you find the cluster of stars known as the Big Dipper. Officially part of Ursa Major, the Great Bear constellation, the Big Dipper consists of seven stars broadly spaced apart. Four stars make the shape of a large rectangle, and the other three splay out horizontally to the left from the top of the rectangle, so they resemble a large dipper, or a saucepan with a long and slightly curved handle.

Once you locate this constellation, try to let go of any preconceived ideas you have about it, and look at the cluster of stars without fixating on the shape of a big dipper. Allow yourself to see seven bright dots amid black space. Notice each star individually. Notice the stars in their context in the sky, within the vast field of shining lights. See how the stars are located in relationship to other stars not in this particular constellation. Observe the spaces between each star.

As you continue the meditation, notice if you go in and out of being able to see the stars themselves, without the idea or image of the dipper. If in moments you find it difficult to let go of seeing the Big Dipper, shift your focus to other parts of the night sky. Try looking at just part of the constellation, along with other stars outside the constellation.

Close your eyes for a moment, relax your body, and then open your eyes and refresh your attention using a soft gaze. Let your vision be broad and spacious, and look at the stars without thinking about them, yourself, or anything else—just rest in open awareness. Another approach is to stare at the Big Dipper for a long time; after a while, the concept or memory of a dipper may fade and the stars will return to just being individual lights in the sky.

Once you practice this meditation, you can apply the technique to other constellations—seeing the stars without their associated imagery, taking in the simple reality of what is, and experiencing the vastness of the night sky. Try doing this meditation for up to half an hour, taking time to alternate between simply resting your awareness in the vastness of sky, and noticing whether you get caught up in concepts about specific constellations. You can also expand this practice to include other objects and people—you might try looking at a rose bush without the concept of “rose.”

The more you do this, the more you’ll begin to see how using only our preconceived concepts to approach the world can limit our experience and our awareness. Simple concepts can in no way describe the fullness and complexity of any experience or thing, including something as simple as a single, unique maple leaf or mushroom, or something as vast as constellations in the sky.

This technique can also help us approach people with a fresh awareness every time. Try looking at an acquaintance or a loved one without fixing on a preconceived idea about who they are, what they are like, or what they will do. We often get stuck in our concept of who someone is, which limits both people in the relationship.

A dear friend of mine sits his teenage daughter down every year, and they do a playful exercise in which they look at each other, and he says, “I am not your father,” and she says, “I am not your daughter.” This attempt to break down the narrowness of the concepts of “father” and “daughter” allows them to see each other more completely as people, rather than seeing only the parts of each other that relate to the roles they know each other in.

So when you look at someone, notice what concepts arise about them—man, woman, parent, child, waitress, taxi driver, lover. See how your approach to them changes based on your ideas of what it means to be old, young, sick, cute, shy, loud, extroverted, or smart. See then if you can let go of the labels and look at them without these concepts interfering with your perceptions of who they are. Notice their form, movements, and expressions, and try to get a sense of their essence beyond their surface appearance, movements, and expressions. When we look at people or anything in this way, we get to see the world anew, with fresh eyes. We come closer to experiencing the truth of how things actually are, undimmed by the concepts in our minds.

Excerpted from Awake in the Wild: Mindfulness in Nature as a Path of Self Discovery, by Mark Coleman.