I have been reading the book True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart by one of my favourite teachers, the Wonderful Thich Nhat Hanh. This book gives you a very deep insight into what it means to truly love, as opposed to only professing your love.
Being good at love is probably the best talent you could possibly have. Unfortunately it seems like our ideas about love, especially romantic love are lacking in a fundamental way. We love people and yet they do not feel loved by us. We don’t really know how to show love and still, to love and be loved is vitally important for us to feel joyful and content. Also, if we were better at loving we would probably not have the divorce rates that we have today.
To love we have to be there. We have to be with the other person and do our best to truly see him or her. We must try our best to understand them. Not assume that they like the same things we like. They might not feel loved by the same things that we feel loved by. For an example I love to receive flowers but if I would give my older son a bouquet of flowers he might simply wonder why I was giving him flowers, rather than feel loved by the gift. A more appropriate way to show him my love would be to take him to see a movie or play video games with him. To love is to do your best to understand the person you love.
(Writing this bring to mind another wonderful insight into how to love. The book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman gave me a tremendously valuable insight into showing love. You can find more about the Five Love Languages here and here you can find his book.)
Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching applies to all kinds of love. Love for your spouse, your children your friends and co-workers. Not less importantly, this also applies to loving yourself. This is a deep universal understanding of how we should love to truly be loving.
The 4 Elements of True Love
According to Thich Nhat Hanh there are four elements to true love. These elements are also called the 4 immeasurable emotions; or Brahmavihara, the four Buddhist virtues. These are the four elements:
1. “The first is maitri, which can be translated as loving-kindness or benevolence. Loving Kindness is not only the desire to make someone happy, to bring joy to a beloved person; it is the the ability to bring joy and happyness to the person you love, because even if your intention is to love this person, your love might make him or her suffer.”
He goes on to say that do be able to do this we need training. We must practice “deep looking“. We need to be able to truly look at the other person and see what him or her needs. Because if we do not understand the other person we can not love properly. “Understanding is the essence of love. If you can not understand, you can not love. That is the message of the Buddha.” How can we gain this understanding? Only by giving the other person time and by being there. We must look deeply if we are to be capable of True Love.
2. The second element is karuna, which can be translated as compassion. “This is not only the desire to ease the pain of another person, but the ability to do so. You must practice deep looking in order to gain a good understanding of the nature of the suffering of this person, in order to be able to help him or her to change.
Again the heart of the matter is deep looking, in order to gain understanding of the suffering of the other person. “The practice of understanding is the practice of meditation. To meditate is to look deep into the heart of things.”
3. The third element is mudita, or joy. If there is no joy in love, it is not true love. If you are suffering all the time, if you cry all the time and you make the person you love cry, this is not true love.
So true love has to include joy to really be love. If there is no joy, it is not true love.
4. The fourth element is upeksha, which can be translated as equanimity or freedom. “In true love, you attain freedom. When you love you bring freedom to the person you love. If the opposite is true, it is not true love.
When there is true love there is freedom. Not only external freedom but also internal freedom. He suggests that the question we should ask our beloved is “Dear one, do you have enough space in your heart and all around you?” If you do not feel this space of freedom, and if you are not capable of giving this space to the person you love, it is not true love.
How to Love
There is another book by Thich Nhat Hanh called How to Love, that is on my reading list. This book has short meditations on each page that are all good starting points for mediation or journaling about love and how to be better at it. The book I am reading is not only about love but also about fundamental buddhist ideas. So if you are only interested in his ideas about Love, this book might be a better start. As I said, I have not read it myself but I have heard people i trust spek very highly of it and I have read enough from Thich Nath Hanh to recommend all of his books. Here you can find more information about Thich Nhat Hanh and his Plum Village Buddhist community.