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.

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