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.