The Absence Of Love Means Only That We Are Not Present

When we ask for love, we implictly acknowledge that the conditions we specify as loving are not present. But since love cannot be absent, as it is our fundament, “not present” means that we are not fully or properly in attendance.

So the problem is not an external lack – circumstances not aligning in the right way – but rather an internal misdirection of attention, for which we are responsible.

The problem is never the world or the other but rather what we are doing with our attention. If we are unhappy – if we are feeling unloved or unloving – it is because we are giving attention to our expectations, desires and preferences and asking others to exist according to them. They cannot do this, which leaves us disappointed, which we denote as the absence of love.

But love is our responsibility; not anybody else’s.

So the solution to this problem is to realize through attention that when we insist on seeing others through the lens of our projected expectations, desires and preferences, we are injuring their self and our self. Naturally we feel those effects as unloving.

Expectations, desires and preferences arise naturally according to our structure as human beings; they are not themselves the problem. It is only when we project them and pretend their validity applies to all people, places and things that they become problematic, making us – and likely others – unhappy.

We don’t need to “fix” our expectations, preferences and desires. We need to become aware of how we project – or disown – them. We have to give attention to them.

One cannot intentionally undo projection. Projection happens naturally enough. To try and stop projecting is to project responsibility for stopping projection onto a projected self. All one can do is see that projecting is happening, and then see what happens as a consequence of that seeing.

Seeing that we are projecting is usually – at least briefly – the end of projection. But the end of projecting entails responsibility for our expectation, desires and preferences – not to mention the guilt and fear underlying them – that instigate projection in the first place.

So there is often a brief intermission, which is confusing and often painful to one degree or another, and then projecting begins again.

It is actually quite difficult to just sit with oneself in a natural way – a way that is not religious or formal or otherwise explicitly therapeutic. To not do anything goal-oriented – not count one’s breaths, not talk to Jesus, not pray a rosary, not catalog past errors and future goals, not compose tweets for later . . .

Mentally, we have grown deeply unaccustomed to this sort of simplicity. To literally doing nothing. Our bodies can readily do it – they are actually incredibly skillful at it – but our minds will no longer allow it.

So that is an old way of being human that still works, that we literally still long to bring forth – to sit quietly and give attention, doing nothing in particular (not even “give attention, doing nothing in particular”). It is actually not old because it remains perfectly accessible and viable. But it appears old because it is no longer familiar; we have sent it away, in a sense, and so we need to invite it back and make it welcome.

But again, putting it that way – “sent it away,” “invite it back,” “make it welcome” – is too intellectual. It is too poetic. We can’t actually send living lovingly away, we can only ignore its ongoing presence. We can only pretend we know better than the ancients and our ancestors. We can only pretend that we are separate from our bodies, and know better than they do.

Of course in a lot of ways, we do know better. Time has passed, bringing with it many boons. I am grateful for penicillin, toilet paper, septic systems, soap, twelve-string guitars, printing presses and so forth. Not all technology is bad, not by a long shot.

But also, we remain alienated from one another, and from ourselves, and we are vulnerable to manipulation, and we are confused about love. We waste a lot of time, energy and other resources trying to fix a problem that runs in significant part on our commitment to trying to fix it.

When I say “give attention,” all I mean is to just be quiet and easy with what is going on. Treat experience as a toddler of whom you are deeply protective of, highly amused by and also whose moods and feelings are not to be taken literally. Notice experience and notice your noticing and notice what happens as a result. Exclude nothing and include nothing. What’s here is what’s here; it changes and shifts less than you think.

So is this our spiritual answer? Is this the method to end all methods? Giving attention?

I think that is an unhelpful question because it perpetuates the illusion that there is anything external which can serve as the end-all/be-all – whether it’s God, psychotherapy, a certain lover, giving attention or science.

Life as we live it just doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t actually break into parts, it just seems to.

When we give attention in a gentle sustained way, things do happen. We project less. We become responsible, and response-able. After some early conflagration of discomfort, this responsibility and response-ability makes us happy, and since happiness begets happiness, we notice others being happy, too. In happiness, the original “problem” ceases to exist, and so “solutions” cease to exist as well.

It is only on the far side of joy that seeking joy makes any sense, and when we see clearly – and experience deeply – the joy-that-never-leaves, then seeking too dissolves.

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  1. Hello, Sean. Thanks, as always, for sharing your rich thought process. I have a question or two. Let me see….

    When I read—

    “The problem is never the world or the other but rather what we are doing with our attention. If we are unhappy – if we are feeling unloved or unloving – is because we are giving attention to our expectations, desires and preferences and asking others to exist according to them. They cannot do this, which leaves us disappointed, which we denote as the absence of love.”

    —I believe you mean by this that when we are in Right Mind instead of giving attention to our expectations of others, then we are aware of our utter and abiding belonging-to and participation-in Love. Love as fundament, as you often say. And so there is no reason to feel unloved.

    But I get hung up on the idea—it seems to be implied here—that we should not have expectations of people. If I’m correct about that, then how do you think a person in Right Mind would deal with an abusive relationship, for instance? (Just recently a Catholic archbishop trotted out the position that if women weren’t so uppity, they wouldn’t get battered. Aaaarrgghh!)

    Can we judge the relationship as toxic and nonviable (on the level of illusion) without judging the person (tricky but possible), and then ask for guidance? I’m thinking (hoping, really) that it’s never about trivializing a violation as being based on an unwarranted expectation, but rather responding to what seems violative from a deep frame that acknowledges the priority of our unity, even when egos need to protect themselves.

    I hope this is clear. It goes, of course, to the juggling of Reality and seeming reality. Thanks so much.

    1. Thank you for reading closely and nudging me to think a little deeper, Margaret. I appreciate that.

      It seems clear to me – both at the intimately local level and radiating outward into and as the world – that love, which is our fundament – is often ignored, denied, refused, confused, postponed et cetera. Awareness of it can be – to borrow the framing of A Course in Miracles – blocked (In.1:7). We can’t end or obliterate love, but we can effectively stymie it, and then double down on suffering by living with the consequences.

      I experience this blockage in my own living when I am impatient, snarky, arrogant, greedy and when I refuse to go slowly in order to do no harm and when I assert the prerogative of the senses without question or care. To name but a few. 🙂

      I experience it in the world apparently external to me (yet with which I am conjoined) in the form of, say, misogynistic Catholic leaders, racist border practices, wasted food and water (and other natural resources), grossly inequitable tax policies, social media models premised on profit rather than communion, literary canons that exclude women’s voices, black voices, Latino voices . . .

      Given that, one thing that is clear to me is that the unloving behavior I perceive as other or external is not actually foreign to me. It is not unlike watching someone enact a ritual I have enacted many times myself (like opening an umbrella when it rains, or hugging a friend). I know how and why unlovingness happens, I know what how and why it is subsequently justified, I know how easy it is to overlook, et cetera.

      I may not be as bad as that Archbishop or Donald Trump or Mark Zuckerberg but . . . the basic model they enact is not really different from the one I enact. How could it be? We share the same structure and bring forth such similar worlds.

      Thus – at least ideally – meritorious criticism of the other arises in a context of familiarity. The other may be farther out of the circle of love than me, but the basic act of transgression is mutual. I get it. Thus, I’m not criticizing aliens or even strangers but rather brothers and sisters who could be – and sometimes are – my own self.

      More broadly, in perceiving and responding to hate/fear/violence/grief/etc I am trying to heal a process that inheres in my own self, my own living. At that level, the Archbishop is me which, when accepted, has a profound and far-reaching impact on how I respond to him and his behavior.

      Sometimes folks will say things to me like, “Sean, you’re a nice guy but the way you are talking is alienating me.” Or, “I know you mean well here but what you’re doing is actually dysfunctional.” Chrisoula does this with me a lot. Some of my students do it. It happens. I don’t like it but I’m past the point where I think it’s never justified.

      So I have learned by and through the willingness of folks to help me see where the blocks to the free flow of love inhere in my living that it is possible to criticize behavior without conflating that criticism with the one who is behaving. Chrisoula loves me – that is why she criticizes me. My students respect me – that is why they criticize me. As the Dalai Lama said with respect to Osama bin Laden, it’s important to separate the act from the actor. We need to condemn acts of violence but we don’t need to write the perpetrator out of the Book of Life (I tried to make a similar point here).

      Thus, helpful dialogues with folks who are transgressing the bonds of love can begin with clear, non-dramatic statements that behavior X is hurtful, violative, fear-inducing et cetera. Getting to clarity and non-drama – for me anyway – are a consequence of realizing that the behavior I observe and intend to criticize is not foreign to me. Pointing it out arises as a kind of self-responsibility.

      Critically – and to your point about abusive relationships – nobody is obligated to remain in circumstances that hurt them, and nobody is justified in instigating circumstances that hurt others.

      So the work might be collated this way:

      1. We are not to hurt others;
      2. Sometimes we do hurt others, and it is possible to make amends and heal the hurtful behavior going forward;
      3. We are called to help others avoid being hurt; and
      4. We are called to minimize circumstances in which others can hurt others and be hurt themselves.

      Dialogue feels fundamental to me in terms of bringing all this about. I mean dialogue in a very broad sense, which includes representative democratic principles (so we can elect folks to enact social policies that make it easier to be healthy and happy), freedom of speech, free education and health care and so forth. I don’t say any political system is THE answer but I do think that there are systems that make it easier to be happy and fair and gentle. I see no reason not to lean into them.

      The overarching dialogic principle allows that we can figure it out as we go, talking and listening together, and this, too, is a form of love.

      What does this look like in practice?

      If I know that someone is in an abusive relationship, then intervention is appropriate. The type of intervention depends on the circumstances. There may be public health officials to call. Or local volunteers who have expertise in domestic violence, say. Or law enforcement officials. Maybe I need to open my own home.

      If I don’t act when I know that another is being hurt, then I am essentially degrading them as unworthy of help. This is not coherent! So while the kind of help may change form according to circumstance, the response itself cannot. If I ignore another in need, I hurt them, and – since we are not separate but together – I hurt my own self, too.

      I would extend this to the way that we eat, the way that we meet with neighbors and family, the way that we tend to the land given to us, the ways we spend our money. Nothing is excluded; everything is grist of the mill of learning to love.

    2. I want to add this further thought.

      Using the words “reality” and “illusion” in opposition to one another has not worked especially well for me. The specific confusion it entails makes it hard to act with confidence, where “act” means to fully and intentionally inhabit my living as love.

      [I fully recognize that others may have a different experience with those words! Such is the nature of language)

      Reality as such is foreclosed to me; I can know it in a proximate sense, or a relative sense, but not in an absolute sense. What passes for “absolute” for my particular structure boils down to “I’ll-never-know-the-absolute.”

      Hence my ongoing emphasis on epistemic humility which, really, should just be “humility.”

      On the other hand, what is given, is given clearly and unconditionally. For example, I am not confused about my coffee mug or coffee or the opposable thumb that makes lifting it such a breeze. Nor am I confused about why being patient and attentive in parenting matters.

      On top of that, my body knows how to breathe, how to digest food, how to grow its hair and so forth just fine.

      I mean to really just notice how everything is actually running just fine is sort of miraculous. It takes a lot of the pressure off us to get anything right.

      And, to the extent it things are not working well (which, as I mentioned early, is a distinct possibility), then correction is available. Which is also miraculous. If I screw up, it is possible to apologize. It is possible to indentify dysfunctional patterns of behavior and amend them. I can vote racists out of office, and encourage other voters to do so as well. I can share my bread with the hungry, teach literacy in prison, run a local ACIM group . . .

      It is just so utterly beautiful – it is either coherent or capable of coherence. It’s almost like A Course in Miracles says: “Fear and love are the only emotions of which you are capable” (T-12.I.9:5), and “fear is a call for love” (T-12.I.8:13), which means there is only love and calls for love which means that:

      Gratitude is due [your brother] for both his loving thoughts and his appeals for help, for both are capable of bringing love into your awareness if you perceive them truly. And all your sense of strain comes from your attempts not to do just this. How simple then, is God’s planf or salvation. There is but one response to reality . . . (T-12.6:2-5)

      Does all of this equal an illusion? If I can’t say unequivocally what reality is, then what are my grounds for asserting what’s illusory? And does my response to the world actually change in any case?

      It seems to me that experience arises in a given form integrated with other forms and that collectively this formality is both responsive and comprehensive. It seems to be intelligent even, with a decided preference for wholeness and love.

      A fundamental integrity abounds, even if it is hard to talk about and easy to overlook or forget.

      On that view, the misogynistic priest, the racist lawyer, the lusty guru and the rapacious banker are all in their way coherent, if we understand that incoherence is a way of signaling – specifying – the more fundamental coherence (which must exist in order for deviation from it to exist).

      So – and now I am looping back up my previous comment – the form of the response as such isn’t important as it necessarily shifts with the shifting appearance of shifting circumstances. But the love infusing – informing, really – the response matters a great deal.

      Thank you again for nudging me deeper, Margaret – which brought the course back to my awareness, for which I am always grateful.


      1. Thank you. I think I followed every single word and disagree with nothing. I started to mentally note especially strong or beautiful sentences and then stopped, because they are the norm and not the exception. Thanks again. With love, Margaret

  2. Thank you. I think I followed every single word and disagree with nothing. I started to mentally note especially strong or beautiful sentences and then stopped, because they are the norm and not the exception. Thanks again. With love, Margaret (And my phone is being screwy, so I hope this doesn’t post twice.)

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