(This is part 3 of a four-part series on experiencing happiness and freedom in your day-to-day life. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here.)
When contemplating love, we tend to immediately think of romantic or erotic love, with its attendant pitfalls of possessiveness, dating strategies and self-doubt. Love, however, is a multi-faceted thing. The Ancient Greeks famously identified seven different types of love, ranging from love for the self to a universal love for all beings. It may help to view each of these types as facets of the same awesome phenomenon, each with its specific pitfalls.
Love, by its very presence in your life, opens you up to experiencing positive emotions, such as joy, gratitude and of course love itself. Positive emotions are “positive” in the sense that they tend to smudge out your boundaries, allowing you to feel more expansive and more in contact with others and the world around you, whereas negative emotions reinforce those boundaries, encouraging you to retreat into greater isolation within those boundaries, enlarging the gulf that separates you from the world around you.
Practicing love in a pure form, without the optional fearful and aggressive elements, opens you up to experience more connection, happiness and freedom. It reinforces a connection with yourself, as well as with the outside world. A life without love is a very poor life, and increasing the role of love can enrich it to a great extent.
Only, where to begin? This determination occurs mainly when first starting the practice, or when coming back to it after some time away. The good news is that most of us are familiar with some form of love. This is awesome because you need an operating base from which to venture out, and it’s easiest to start from a place where love is dispensed with ease. Even better news is that love generally tends to find a way to manifest itself, and, for most people, it then becomes a straightforward search for the outlet that is relevant for you.
One way to identify this outlet is by experimenting with the five-leveled metta meditation, wherein you wish good wishes to five widening circles of beings. You start with yourself, move to the people that are close to you, neutral people, difficult people and end with all sentient beings.
Once you have identified the level in which you experience the least resistance to this practice, you start developing this level until there is not much resistance left. Then you use love’s boundlessness to practice any of the other levels. An example.
Let’s say you’re able to genuinely wish one of your friends or family members all the best wishes in the world. Perhaps you’ve noticed that she is a really good person, or that she just wants to be happy and that you want that for her, or yet another characteristic. You can then start to identify one or more of these characteristics in yourself. Or vice versa.
Generally, love has the power to make us realize where we are similar to others, rather than different. Growth in the practice of love can then grow in two distinct directions. First, you can amplify the feelings of love that come naturally, just by practicing more frequently and more intensely. This is wonderful, and highly recommended. Time spent developing positive emotions translates directly into more happiness in your life. After a while, you may notice that feelings of love, friendliness or mildness start popping up in other areas of your life, too.
This points to the fact that love not just serves to soften your boundaries, but it also starts showing its own innate boundlessness. You might start to see similarity, vulnerability or beauty in people that are usually perceived as enemies, in the myriad neutral people that may cross your path every day, or indeed in your own bad habits.
And this tendency points to the alternative direction in which your practice of love can develop: a broadening out to eventually include as many of the beings, or processes, you can contemplate. Through this broadening, you eliminate the emotional sting of judgement which is a prime driver of personal unhappiness.
Ok, so here you are wishing your friends were happy. Wishing that your enemies may be free of hatred, and that neutral people can live their lives in peace. It’s good to realize that you’re ultimately not doing this practice for the people you think you’re doing it for. Other than your softened attitude towards them, they might not notice anything at all. Like mindfulness, this is not some magical mysterious method to make the whole world a better place. Well, it might be, if everyone would practice it, but that seems highly unlikely, and is outside the scope of this article, anyway.
The main reason you’re doing this practice – and it could take years of diligent practice for this insight to truly sink in – is for yourself. For YOUR happiness, YOUR freedom from hatred, and your own peace of mind.
Combining these practices with the insights gleaned from mindfulness practice can be especially powerful, leading you to gradually undo much of the separation that you might have taught yourself during your lifetime. The result is a more harmonious way of being with yourself and with the world as it presents itself to you.
A natural outcome of the experience of harmony is a happy, gentle mind.
On to Part 4: Notice what happens when a desire is fulfilled, when anger is a factor in your life, or when anxiety is practiced