THIS LITTLE LIFE OF OURS rests between a longing to be loved and a calling to show love. These two stunning possibilities, so tender, so fugitive, are the subject of these pages.

My guess is that loving is what we are here for, that love is what every one of us deserves to receive and is here to give, that love alone makes this earth the heaven it was meant to be. The guess turns into a conundrum when we realize that so many of us prefer the signs that point to heaven over heaven itself. We yearn for and talk about the love we want. We lament the love we have been deprived of. Yet we sometimes fail to take the steps that can help it happen for us.

The puzzle becomes even more confounding when we sometimes prefer the hell of no love at all, which we bring on by our own unskillful choices or by our endurance of abuse or betrayal, especially from those who say they love us. This book proposes that love is real when we dare to become as loving as we can be toward ourselves and others and as careful as we can be not to confuse a history with someone or a connection that does not work for us with true love.

Biology shows us that the universe is a vast web of interdependence from the cellular to the planetary level. Nothing exists by itself.

There is no being-in-itself only being-in-relation-to. So to be is to be connected. Thus, relatedness, or connection, is the essence of our and of all being. Reality is relatedness. John Muir must have grasped this mystical fact when he wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Muir’s comment applies both to nature, since ecology is about the interconnectedness of all things in the universe, and human psychology, which is also about connectedness. Our present behavior
is connected to what happened to us in childhood. Indeed, our whole life is a tapestry of relationships. We are connected to our past, hitched to everyone we know and even to those we don’t know.

For us humans, to be is to connect and to cease connecting is not to be. Life began because of a connection between our parents; we survived through an umbilical cord that connected us to our mother; we thrived thanks to connections with our caretakers.

We are still here because of our ongoing connections to the natural world and the people in it. In fact, connectedness is the essence of emotional well-being. Healthy development proceeds most successfully and joyously when we have had a safe, secure, enduring experience of at least one person caring about us. Because of that original connectedness, we know ever after how to love and hold others as we were loved and held. We also know how to love and hold ourselves so that we can cope with whatever happens to us rather than being stymied by it.

Love is a specific kind of connection; it is a caring connection.

The word caring is from the Latin for “dear.” We care about someone who is dear to us. Dear also means costly; love requires a selflessness that is challenging and taxing at times.

When we care about someone, he or she really matters to us. Caring includes noticing, taking an interest in, and responding to the specific needs of others. It includes a genuine concern for what happens to someone and a hope for positive outcomes.

Love happens between us and others when we welcome connection from them and make connections to them. To decide if an act is loving, we can ask, “Does it serve to connect us in a caring way?” We learned in grammar school to convert fractions by finding the lowest common denominator. Caring connection is our lowest—and finest—common denominator of love in this world of so many unconverted fractions.

Here is a central point of this book: Giving and receiving love can become our primary life focus. Focusing on this combination is a way to become fully human, to fulfill ourselves psychologically.
If love comes our way, it is welcome and enriching. But in spiritual practice, our focus is on giving love rather than finding someone from whom to receive it. We feel fulfilled spiritually when we show all the love we have, no matter how others respond or act toward us. This is a radical alternative to showing love in order to receive it in return or showing it only to those who love us.

We will probably fail at this spiritual style of love almost every day. But as long as we maintain a pure intention to be as loving as we can be and keep putting honest effort into it, we are already on
the path to spiritual awakening. Truly enlightened living is knowing that love is all we ever want and making it all we ever give. Loving becomes easier when we open to it as our inner psychological
and spiritual code, the equivalent of a genetic code. A code dictates how we fulfill ourselves as individuals and how we make our contribution to the world of others. It provides us with a blueprint.
The code of love tells the whole story of what it means to be human and what the world we inhabit means by its very existence.

Love is the point of it all. What we can be is the same as what love can be: endless in duration, infinite in extent. Yes, we humans have that much time in our story (as much as eternity), that much space in our hearts (as limitless as outer space).

The love in us arises from an innate goodness beyond causes, conditions, predicaments, or stories. It is inherently and ineradicably within us, whether or not we feel its presence. At times, our inner goodness may evade us utterly or seem absent or lost.

Indeed, aggression is evident in us from our earliest days; it too is innate. The good news is that we can believe in the enduring reality and primacy of our capacity for goodness, no matter what we
may have done or how we may have lived until now. We may have to learn to show love, but the fact that the learning comes easily seems to point to love being a natural part of us. Love sits mindfully
and immovably in us, all our lives, waiting for us to unveil it.

What keeps us from seeing our inherent goodness, from believing that we are good people? Our self-worth may have been wounded since childhood by pummeling criticism and the imposition of inhibitions. We take back the sense of our own value when we dispel our inherited false beliefs about ourselves. This is why we work on our past. By doing that work, we can find tools that help us open the treasure chest of love inside us. In fact, all the psychological tools we have gathered from the self-help movement in recent years were for this: to become lovers who stand expectantly at every door, flowers in hand.

As we look back on our lives and all we have learned until this moment, we may delightedly realize that it was all a transmission of teachings about loving without limit or restraint. What if all that happens to us is exactly what schools us in how to evolve in love in the course of life? That is the very definition of synchronicity, meaningful coincidence: Just the right events and people come along to allow us to articulate the love we are inside. All of them are emissaries of some nuance of light we need to let the full colors of our love appear in all their incandescence.

We learn to activate our potential for showing love in the same way we learned to use language, by imitating others and making our own efforts to expand our vocabulary. Our capacity to talk was not based on how our parents treated us, but our ease in using words may have been stunted if they ridiculed or silenced us. It is the same with love. Our capacity to love endures, though it may have been damaged by how we were treated. But just as we can learn to speak well at any time of life, we can always learn to let our love come through fully and volubly. We can refresh our capacity to love if it has been injured, animate it if it has been dulled, recover it if it has fallen by the wayside.

Learning to do this is psychological work and spiritual practice at its best. In fact, it is the very reason we have a psyche, a body, a spirituality, a lifetime.

When we understand that love is native to us, we presume that there must be some help for expressing it. One reliable and powerful ally is our instinctive inner urge to fulfill ourselves. We
do not have to rely solely on our own effort; we can trust that something inside us is helping us along. We have an instinctive need to love without reserve. That need is the archetypal assisting force, the reliable confederate, the unexpected resource, our own inner self, the interior Beloved that the mystics refer to. It is up to us in any given moment to act in accord with that inviolable and steadfast energy.

Two clues help us believe in our inner goodness: First, we can sense intuitively what the loving choice is in any situation. Second, we can become aware that everything that happens to us presents us with an opportunity to love more or better. This is because everything that happens is an evolutionary driver, a push toward more consciousness and more connection, the fruition of which is love.

The way we were first loved and the ways we have been loved ever since form our definition of what love means to us. Some people really feel loved when someone gives them a gift. Others experience it when people stand up for them. Still others feel loved when someone goes the extra mile to help them. If our mother showed love by holding us in our pain or joy, without engulfing or controlling us, that will be the behavior that always feels like love to us. We feel love now as we first received it; we
give love the way others gave it to us. Thus, since love is unique to each person, we read and write love, receive and give it, in the style designed by our past experience. Yet, like good handwriting,
our unique signature can be read by others.

At the same time, we have the option of expanding our definition of love. All our relationships give us the opportunity to open ourselves to ever-new forms of sincere love from others toward us and from us toward them. This is how intimacy challenges us to take a chance.

In the Christian tradition, the magi came to welcome the newborn Jesus with precious gifts. We can trust that many angels and buddhas showed up at our cradle to celebrate the thrilling and meaningful moment of our birth—the arrival of a new version of love. The gifts they brought us were not gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They blessed us with a capacity to love and to be loved limitlessly, an ability to show and receive love ingeniously, a desire to open to it endlessly.

Once we understand that love is our true identity, we realize that the skill of learning to love is mostly an undoing of the ego obstructions that have gradually overlaid our natural tendency toward loving. This means letting go of our ego entitlements and inflations.

We then look for all the practices that can help that happen, especially those that release us from the grip of the main opponents to our happiness: our self-centeredness and aggression.

The moment we loosen that grip will be the same moment that fear takes flight and all that is left of us is whatever can still lovingly open.

Being an adult in love means being adult about love and loving.

Psychological adulthood—maturity—is letting love in carefully and showing it responsibly. Spiritual adulthood consists of expanding our love so that it is unbounded, a practice requiring recklessness. Since love sits in us someplace between trust and fear, a commitment to love requires both daring to trust and disregarding our fear, both risks we are willing to take when we love someone. Loving is often scary. This is why we have to become reckless in practicing it. Recklessness is defined as a letting go of concern about dangerous consequences to ourselves. We become reckless when we are so firm and focused in our intention that we are no longer held back by a fear of what seems threatening. This helps us give love unconditionally. (There is no such thing as conditional love—that is not love, only giving approval when the other is pleasing to us.)

At times we are selective about showing the love that is in us, and here we see a contradiction in ourselves. We have no trouble committing to honesty toward everyone, unconditionally and unilaterally, no matter how dishonest others may choose to be. But we think of love as having to be meted out warily and promised only to very special people in our lives. We believe everyone is deserving of honesty, but we imagine that only certain people deserve our love. Would we be able to sustain the same commitment if we substituted love for honesty? It would sound like this: we have no trouble committing to being loving toward everyone, unconditionally and unilaterally, no matter how unloving others may choose to be.

It is, of course, true that discrimination in trusting others is necessary if we are to have quality relationships. Selectivity is important for our safety and security, because it means trusting only
those who have proven their dependability. This makes sense but only in how we love, not that we love. Thus, our ways of showing love differ according to the commitment we have to various individuals in our lives. But our scope of love does not have to set or be set by limitations. We can be careful about our boundaries when others come close but free of boundaries in how far our love
extends. There are boundaries in the topography of love but no barriers.

As an example, we can love our alcoholic spouse, but as long as he is abusive and refuses to seek help, we cannot live with him.

Our love of ourselves does not permit placing our and our children’s safety, health, and happiness in jeopardy. Our tough love for our partner does not permit us to enable him to go on destroying himself and others. So our love can remain as strong as ever but our way of showing it changes. It might no longer include sharing the same bed, but it would include supporting him in his recovery once he is ready for it. We have boundaries but have erected no barrier, because we remain open to full reconnection on his full recovery. We show our love based entirely on what has to matter: safety, security, health, and happiness for us and for those committed to our care. Yet we go on loving no matter what.

In a world in which we’re scared of reckless loving, only those who please us or seem worthy deserve our love. In a world in which we’re ready to be awakened, everyone deserves love because it is not based on merit, good deeds, or willingness to reciprocate, only on being alive. That kind of limitless love is what we mean when we talk about the fulfillment of our human mission, the maximum use of our human legacy, the full achievement of our life purpose.

Our love response is usually based on personal appeal.

However, we can come to believe that the less lovable someone is, the more she needs—and deserves—love. We can learn to see lovability in everyone. Lovability is not earned. Our practice becomes
welcoming everyone in our ever-expanding style of caring connection.

This too is a subversive act, since we are overturning the usual sequence: We usually move toward those who are attractive and lovable and away from those who, in our opinion, are unattractive
and unlovable. It is counterintuitive to love simply because of other people’s existence rather than because of their winsomeness.

But true love makes everyone irresistible.

To commit ourselves to loving everyone is certainly a subversive act, because it is an act of unconditional and egalitarian connection.

It is up and running regardless of the qualities or the deeds of others. This is the love that honors diversity and excludes no one from its wide embrace. It is the love that ends every form of emotional apartheid, alienation, rank, and division. It is the love that can be unilateral if necessary. It is not based on likability or how others act toward us but on who we are.

Meditation on the Prajnaparamita Sutra: “Bodhisattvas do not become liberated from life, nor do
they pursue any form of separate self-realization. They direct an ecstatic flood of love and friendliness toward all, connecting their mind streams as intimately with all beings as with their most
cherished family member and beloved friend. This astonishing spiritual feat frees the bodhisattvas from every impure intention of harming, denigrating, abandoning, or even merely ignoring others.” This book banks on a firm trust that we can all accomplish that feat or move in that radically spiritual direction, and it shows us how to do so while maintaining our boundaries.

We have a place in our lives for intimate relationships, with special ways of showing our love. We can have a place for the broader style of love too. When we “love all beings” without preference,
when we extend love as caring and compassion to those least appealing to our ego, we are locating a new level of humanity in ourselves. We soon realize that those we come to love in this unconditional and unbounded way are transforming us by increasing our scope of loving.

In fact, every wounded person can be seen as the living incarnation of a bodhisattva, an enlightened person who has come to instruct us in the dharma, the enlightened teaching, of love. When we see that, it will not take us long to notice the trail of stars that follows his frail and disfigured body, now the light-filled radiant body of the Buddha.

We might say that everything we humans do is meant either to show love or to ask for it—often both at once. The asking can take many forms, charmingly pleasant or unskillfully unpleasant.

When we maintain a deep dedication to love, any seeming unlovability in others does not become a reason for despising or hating but a stimulus to us to care more. In this liberated way of loving,
the more unlovable people are, the more love we believe they need from us, so the more we give them. This is how we widen love without a frontier, unfazed by attraction or repulsion, able to open
our hearts to new possibilities of caring. Indeed, caring connection can only happen when our hearts keep opening. As John Donne writes in his love poem “The Good Morrow,”

For love, all love of other sights controls, And makes one little room an everywhere.

Buddhist teachings counsel us to watch out for attraction and repulsion. They lead to suffering when they trip us up or we are locked into them. We can be so attached to what we have that we cling to it, and clinging is a painful business. We can be so caught up in wishes for what we do not have that we crave, another painful act. Both these forms of suffering interfere with caring connections.

Our practice of universal love does not cancel out close attachments such as relationships with individuals. On the contrary, it offers us the resplendent alternative of expanding the reach, style,
and direction of our love. The love we have for our one special partner becomes richer when we are committed to loving in the universal way. Our dedication to unconditional love teaches us to transcend ego restrictions, a boon in dealing with conflicts in relationships.

Universal love is the most courageous and perhaps, to our materialistic society, the most foolish vow we can make. But the “I do” at the altar is surely deeper when it has already been pronounced to all our fellow earthlings as well.

The love that we are is ultimately a mystery to us. As a therapist and an author, I notice that I work from a structured framework of understanding about the psyche and the world. I appreciate the
usefulness and common sense of a coherent perspective on life. I have gained that perspective from experience, from clients and students, from my own history, and from my spiritual teachers and practice. But I often remind myself not to believe that everything—anything—is pat, definite, fully explained, all wrapped up.

I want to remain loyal to my sense of mystery about human loves, human conflicts, human sufferings, and especially the here and now, the greatest mystery of all. We enter it fully only when we are free of preconceptions, final definitions, and perfect solutions.

This reflects the Buddhist teaching about the void, the emptiness of definability in all that is. We realize that all we say about love is analogy not data.

I realize that my framework and set of practices in this and all my books is only an approach, a gingerly, tentative response to life’s conundrums, not a final statement on the matter. I want to
maintain my respect for the ever more evident grandeur of the human story. That story stumps any author or thinker who attempts to nail it down. (The nails would only be coffin nails, after all.)

Now I understand why Lao Tzu says that the essence of all liveliness cannot be adequately described in words. I am grateful that I have preserved my veneration of mystery, the last breath in any
discussion, the ultimate reality behind our guesses, the Cheshire cat smile at all our formulas. I want the rest of this book to bow to and abide in that supreme radiance.

The depths themselves remain uncomprehended. . . .

This is the dark silence in which all lovers are lost. —JAN VAN RUYSBROECK

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My Beautiful Distraction