Love is ethereal, complicated.
Lovingkindness is practical, straightforward.
We learn the word love when we’re children, with an innocence and openness we later learn to cover up and defend. It’s only with intent and practice that we can learn to be innocent and open again as adults
This being February, home to cupid and Valentine’s Day, love might be on your mind: hearts and flowers, butterflies and hummingbirds, chocolates and a candlelit dinner with white linen tablecloth, and a glass of Pinot something or Veuve Clicquot regardless of your relationship status. You might feel a sense of longing if you’re single and alone; escape if you’re in a relationship and unhappy; or expectations of a specific experience if you’re in a relationship and relatively happy. Whatever your response, my guess is it has little to do with love the way we’re going to look at it. I could be wrong.
A pleasant feeling for a romantic partner is one kind of love. Other kinds of love include: love of an activity or experience (hiking), love of an object (pepperoni pizza), love for a parent, child, friend; platonic love, spiritual love, and of course, romantic love. Each has varying levels of intensity, attachment, and expectations.
Some, not all of us, expect pepperoni pizza to deliver the same dopamine rush it always has; hiking the same adrenaline rush as the last climb past your comfort zone. We expect parents to accept and love us unconditionally; a child to love without question; a partner to give us everything we could want or need. Of course, I’m exaggerating to make a point…you can see how expectations can lead to disappointment, pain, anger, sadness, and suffering.
Love can be the greatest feeling you’ve ever experienced. Being in love can be quite a high too, but…well, let’s put all of that aside for the moment.
Gil Fronsdal, teacher, co-founder of Insight Retreat Center and Insight Meditation Center both in Santa Cruz California, explains that there are four types of healthy love according to Buddhist psychology: lovingkindness (metta in Pali); compassion (karuna); sympathetic joy (mudita); and equanimity (upeksha).
Lovingkindness is the foundation for the other three. It is a friendly expression or treatment of others. Hmmmm…already there seems to be a difference between this type of love and the Hallmark version that Valentine’s Day conjures up.
Unlike the expectations that come with love, lovingkindness emphasizes a selflessness even when wishing lovingkindness to self. Lovingkindness is a practice. That means, it takes time and intention to change the habit of wanting or longing to loving and being kind to self and others.
The Dalai Lama often says, “My religion is kindness.” He talks about a gentleness in his relationship with his mother and her affection for him. Kindness and gentleness may not occur to you when you think of love.
Thich Naht Hanh differentiates true love from intrusive or unwanted love:
[Lovingkindness is] the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness. To develop that capacity, we have to practice looking and listening deeply so that we know what to do and what not to do to make others happy. If you offer your beloved something she does not need, that is not maitri [love]. You have to see her real situation or what you offer might bring her unhappiness.
You can start to practice lovingkindness with yourself to soften the inner critic, deconstruct the defenses and barriers (we all have them). Then later, you can set an intention to offer joy and happiness to people you care about, and extend those same intentions to everyone you know and don’t know.
If this sounds saccharin to you or impossible, no need to accept it all at once or even at all. But consider this experiment: compare the responses (yours and others) you get when you are angry/sad/defended/expecting something from yourself and others and the responses you get when you feel kind, gentle, loving, accepting, and non-judging.
We live in a culture that promotes the winner takes all philosophy, cynical beats vulnerable, and intimidation rules. We learn that it’s better to protect the heart than open to the possibility of it being broken. But guess what? Too much protection eliminates the possibility of the heart being enriched and full of love and joy.
Based on my experience, practicing lovingkindness is as much for you as it is for others.
Want more from the sources?
Gil Fronsdal’s talk on audiodharma.org. Gil talks about different kinds of love according to Buddhist psychology, what love is, and what it isn’t.