There is always a context that is loving. Whatever is happening can be both perceived and understood in terms of love. The work of being human is to clarify our perception and understanding in order to bring forth that love, which inures to our collective benefit.
The living that we do often involves pain: we step on a nail, or the car breaks down and our phone isn’t charged, or someone we love deeply dies. Earthquakes and nuclear meltdowns and serial killers pose statistically rare but not theoretical threats. Patterns ranging from alcoholism to depression to longstanding estrangements often wreak havoc on our families and communities.
It seems easy to see a way in which one ought to live in at least a modestly defensive crouch. It seems reasonable to dismiss as naive any suggestion that we can or ought to be happy even in moments of living that are painful.
However, there is a way to live that does not involve an adversarial relationship with grief, scarcity, loss, fear, guilt and so forth. It is to simply give attention to our living as we live, and to notice in particular the way in which love is natural and expressive and present. It turns out that we bring forth love not by invention or effort but by seeing the blocks which impede its free passage. It’s here; our work is to see it in its hereness.
Our search for a loving context takes place in the context of “the other.” “The other” is any person, place, object or idea that we experience as “not-me.” It’s the neighbor who runs his leaf blower during our meditation practice, the rain that falls on our birthday picnic, the cancer cells that overtake the body of our beloved.
Thich Nhat Hanh, whose expression of Buddhism is exquisitely clear and coherent, points out that “when another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”
We can gently extend this observation to our own self, since we are also inevitably “the other.” Suffering – be it because of an annoying neighbor, a ruined relationship or death itself – is a cry for help.
Here I am thinking of “cry for help” as a plea to be rewelcomed – regathered, reclaimed – into the family of the living. To be held as an equal, not as an oddity or an error, not as “less-than” in some way.
That is, when I experience suffering, I don’t actually need you to explain or correct or minimize or my suffering. Rather, I need you to reaffirm my fundamental equality with you – the radical sameness which is the fundament of our oneness, the community that we are, the unity. The form this affirmation takes will vary but its meaning never does: “you and I are the same, and your suffering is my suffering, and I love you in order to remember I am loved as well.”
A Course in Miracles frames the issue this way. Whatever we experience, be it “a tiny stab of pain, a little worldly pleasure, and the throes of death itself are but a single sound; a call for healing, and a plaintive cry for help within a world of misery” (T-27.VI.6:6).
Therefore, our work as students, is simply to “see forgiveness as the natural reaction to distress that rests on error, and thus calls for help” (T-30.VI.2:7).
Thus, I suggest that our work – what I sometimes call giving attention, or bringing forth love – is to seek in all that occurs a loving context. And it is work. It takes attention, intention, and practice. It is the deliberate offering of love to all beings – maple trees, cancer cells, human beings, elephants, the sea shells and the light of distant stars . . .
Thich Nhat Hanh again.
Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity, and all beings. By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species. If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth . . . This is the real message of love.
This love – and the work it necessitates in me – is often clearest in my role as a teacher. Students appear in a wide variety of fearful guilty postures: they are angry, smug, brash, aggressive, timid, indifferent, confused, stubborn . . . In time – years of time – I began to perceive how everything that appeared in these women and men arose from fear, which was simply the absence of love, and so my ability to respond to them clarified accordingly. How could it not?
When I am faced with a cry for love, I respond with love, because that is my nature – I am, as you are, homo sapiens amans. And when love is the focus, the form the expression of the need for love and the response to the need for love takes no longer make demands of my energy or attention.
It is like if I am tired and need to go upstairs to lay down in bed and sleep. I don’t look for an elevator that isn’t there. I don’t rearrange all the furniture in the house to accommodate the needs of the moment. I don’t lament my inability to levitate. I don’t pretend I live in a one-story house.
I walk to the stairs and climb them.
So practice love by seeking a loving context. Whatever occurs, whatever happens, whatever appears, whatever arises, there is in it a context of love. By seeking it, you bring it forth, and by bringing it forth, you heal yourself and the other and the world which is your shared reality. Nothing else becomes you.