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Love on Valentine’s Day: What We Really Need to Know

by SHARON SALZBERG

This is the season that that has me thinking of love. After all, we celebrate Valentine’s Day on Feb 14th, though it’s also true that the holiday itself has a perverse way of making some people feel not loved and unworthy.  They walk through the aisles at the grocery store and pharmacy and see the stacks of heart-shaped candy boxes and sentimental cards, specials for roses at the florist and online that may confront them with the feeling that they wish they had someone to send these to or someone from whom they could expect them.

Yet these particular expressions on a heavily commercial day are not a true measure of one’s connection to the world. My goal in much of my teaching is to help open our eyes to how love is a quality, an experience that we can create rather than waiting for it to be given to us.  I see love as a deep and often wordless connection.

Love for someone has many faces. One man told me that commonly when we think of love with another we strive for 50-50, but he went on to proclaim the love he shared with his dog as being 100-100: always happy to see each other, eager to spend time together and comfortable in shared silence.

One woman, a widow whose children were launched, felt love in caring for her elderly dad. He is frail but still vain, embarrassed by having to use his walker. When they go to his favorite breakfast spot, she shows love by taking his arm, walking tenderly and slowly by his side up the handicapped ramp, and ushering him into his favorite booth. After she’s taken her seat across from him, he always says, “You take care of me.” In that, she hears, “I love you.”

I have found this quality in friendships, in nature, and in my connection to a world bigger and more complex than I.  With the right frame of mind, it would be possible to see your morning routine as a sequence of acts of love for yourself, of cherishing. Long ago you decided what kind of tea you like in the morning, the soap that feels best on your skin in the shower, and you’ve always loved the light in the bathroom window early in the day.  What could be more available than taking a walk in the park, disconnecting from the urgencies of the plugged-in world and letting your body absorb the cleaner air, the filtered light and the expanses of green and trees?

These are moments that help you connect to the world around you and appreciate your place inside it. Love may be abundant, but it is not always in the places we look for it. It is not customary to savor these touches of love and comfort. After all, they do not come in a bright heart-shaped box that makes them the conventional way to identify love.

Love is not only a gift; it is a practice. It is not easy to love someone and not be able to fix them, or eradicate their pain, and to care while at the same time let go of the ability to control. It’s a practice to explore the terrain of loving unconditionally in the same breath with talking about setting boundaries and caring for one’s self while seeking some balance. It is a practice to learn to sit with someone and simply be, in the fullness of the moment. It’s a practice to claim the time and clear one’s mind to just see the world around you without expectation and without judgment.

Love is also a legacy and a lineage. In 1976, on Valentine’s Day, a group of my friends and I moved into a building in the town of Barre, Massachusetts and established the Insight Meditation Society. We had purchased a Catholic novitiate, run by the Fathers of the Blessed Sacrament. The country was in the midst of what we then quaintly referred to as the “gas crisis.” Those buildings were large, expensive to heat, and more and more for sale. We had no money and couldn’t get a bank to give us a mortgage, but we raised some. The Fathers gave us a mortgage and some generous friends took out personal loans so that we could open the doors. I was 23 years old. I’m not sure I even knew what a mortgage was and certainly didn’t know the word “depreciation,” which was a topic somehow raised regularly at board meetings.

The few meditation centers in the U.S. at the time commonly referred back to a single Asian teacher or monastery. We were the first group of westerners to open a center that represented different lineages of Theravadan Buddhism that was to be run by Westerners, and we grappled with the various elements of what those traditions should look like here in this country.

For example, my first teacher, SN Goenka, said on the first night of my first retreat, “The Buddha did not teach Buddhism, he taught a way of life. Being here is not at all about becoming a Buddhist. It is about the power of your own awareness.” That was the first night! And it formed the foundation of my understanding and conviction.

The Buddha is always referred to as a human being, who through his own journey, came to exemplify enormous wisdom and boundless love and compassion for all. When we look at a Buddha statue or image, we are really looking at our own potential–to truly understand life, and to love all, even if we don’t like someone or decide to not spend time with them or to fight their agenda (love in the sense that we want people to come out of suffering and disconnection, recognizing that the pain of the world would then look very different.)

With the love of the Buddha, when we observe our own interior world, we don’t feel ashamed, we don’t feel guilty, and we don’t feel afraid. Letting go of these impediments to clear seeing actually empowers us to be courageous and honest in viewing ourselves. Then, out of boundless compassion rather than self-hatred, we can change our lives in the direction of liberation.

Similarly, when we look at others with the eyes (or the love) of a Buddha, we don’t feel distance or hatred; we again see clearly and with tremendous compassion. We don’t at all remain passive or apathetic in unjust or pain-filled situations, but we also aren’t driven helplessly by the force of our own judgments. We are vitalized by the force of love rather than depleted by hatred. We can discern even more clearly what is happening and what might be done about it through the widening of our vision brought by the inclusiveness of love. From the first time I heard about it, I started saying, “I want to be able to love the way the Buddha did.” That became the north star by which I tried to navigate my life.

When we opened the center, one of our big questions was, “Should we have Buddha statues?” On the one hand, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield and I all had that same orientation toward a secular view of meditation, which could argue against such imagery. We knew some people might consider any statue just as a kind of idol and might overlook the point that the practice was really about the capacity of our own minds. On the other hand, the presence of a Buddha image refutes the kind of assumption so commonly made in the west, as exemplified by a woman who once said to me, “Lovingkindness meditation is so terrific. When did you make it up?” I replied, “I didn’t make anything up! And we’re all the luckier for that!”

We went back and forth and back and forth: The ever so slightly salacious phrasing we used was, “Should we have Buddhas in public places?” implying that whatever you did in the privacy of your own bedroom was up to you. “Yes, about the Buddha statues;” “No, about the Buddha statues” was common in conversations at all times of day, in both public and private places. In the end, we decided to have Buddha statues in public places. For the group of people there at the beginning of the Insight Meditation Society, and hopefully, for many as they have meditated or worked there, the Buddha has served as a symbol of the embodiment of love, far more radical and potent than a heart-shaped candy box. The statues serve to remind us that through the practice of meditation, we celebrate the love of a Buddha, which wondrously is also our own potential.

SHARON SALZBERG

Sharon Salzberg is known globally as a pioneer in the field of meditation; as a teacher, and a New York Times bestselling author of books on various meditation subjects, including Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happinesspublished in 1995. She has played a crucial role in bringing meditation and mindfulness to the West since she first began teaching in 1974. Sharon is the co-founder of the first western meditation center in the US: The Insight Meditation Society. Her modern approach to Buddhist teachings makes them instantly accessible. Find out more about Sharon at www.sharonsalzberg.com.