The below is adapted from the book Real Love by Sharon Salzberg. Copyright © 2017 by Sharon Salzberg. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.
Pull the thorns from your heart. Then you will see the rose gardens within you,” wrote Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi poet and mystic.
Why focus on the “thorns” — all of those barriers to love we may feel within —instead of cultivating it directly? And what are these thorns, anyway?
Though it may sound paradoxical, identifying our thoughts, emotions, and habitual patterns of behavior is the key to freedom and transformation. If we don’t acknowledge the places where we’re stuck, we inevitably twist ourselves into knots to bypass certain feelings and perceptions, and the love that would otherwise be available to us also becomes tied up in knots. But when we set an intention to explore our emotional hot spots, we create a pathway to real love.
For example, no matter what we think we should do, I don’t think you can coerce yourself into loving your neighbor — or your boss — when you can’t stand him. But if you try to understand your feelings of dislike with mindfulness and compassion, being sure not to forget self-compassion, you create the possibility for change. Your neighbor or your boss may still do things that annoy you, but the anger and tightness you feel in your chest whenever you see him is bound to diminish, leaving you freer and more available for love.
Instead of exclusively searching outside of ourselves for the source of our difficulties with others, we also look within. This is true for all relationships. Our longing for closeness brings us face-to-face with those inner blocks. And so we begin at home.
The Great Balancing Act
You don't have to love yourself unconditionally before you can give or receive real love. This turns the quest for self-love into yet another self-improvement project—an additional barrier to feeling whole and deserving of love.
"When we develop our ability to love in one realm, we simultaneously nourish our ability in others, as long as we remain open to the flow of insight and compassion."
The good news is that opportunities for love enter our lives unpredictably, whether or not we’ve perfected self-compassion or befriended our inner critic. When we develop our ability to love in one realm, we simultaneously nourish our ability in others, as long as we remain open to the flow of insight and compassion.
Just as a prism refracts light differently when you change its angle, each experience of love illuminates love in new ways, drawing from an infinite palette of patterns and hues. We gaze at an infant and feel our hearts swell, and when we notice it’s not the result of anything the baby has done, we can begin to imagine regarding ourselves the same way. We learn from any relationship in which we’ve made a heartfelt connection.
"...we suffer when our sense of worthiness relies too heavily on what we give or receive."
Yet this balancing act between self-regard and love for others is delicate; we suffer when our sense of worthiness relies too heavily on what we give or receive. Some of us give away too much of ourselves and call it love. Perhaps we’ve been told that if we love others enough and sacrifice more, we will ultimately be fulfilled. Some of us try to possess others in order to feel whole. Perhaps we’ve been told that if we feel control in our relationships, we are more empowered. But when we come from a place of inner impoverishment, love becomes merely hunger: hunger for reassurance, for acclaim, for affirmation of our being.
For my student Emma, love was a lofty vision of idealism and self-sacrifice. The pattern began the summer after her freshman year of college, when she went to Italy to study Dante. “The professor focused on St. Francis as he’s shown in Dante, and we visited Assisi,” Emma recalls. “Francis was a hero of the Divine Comedy because of his ideal vision of love. He humbles himself completely, puts his face in the dirt, and renounces everything. The image our professor emphasized was that St. Francis emptied himself out like a cup—that he became an empty vessel to be filled with God.
“My idea of love was just being a steady, reassuring, utterly forgiving, and kind background, in front of which my brilliant significant other could play out his brilliance. I wanted to be selfless.” What’s more, she says, “I was drawn to men I perceived as deeply troubled genius types. I was an English major, and historic literary relationships, like that of Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, seemed to justify my notion of love, though my friends were horrified by how much autonomy I was willing to give up. Still, giving in entirely to another felt holy, pure, and essential.
“I remember once going on what seemed like a perfectly normal date to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts with my first serious boyfriend. It was springtime, and we went on a walk after, and he just kept repeating, ‘I can’t do this... I can’t... I can’t...' I panicked,” Emma says in retrospect. “I couldn’t figure out what he was so upset about. Finally, he said, ‘I can’t tell what you want, what you’re thinking...'” Suddenly, Emma realized they were in actuality two separate people rather than her idealized vision of how a relationship must be: never two, only as one.
"It was only after Emma unpacked her assumptions about intimate relationships that she was able to start treating herself with the kind of care and respect she’d bestowed on others..."
So often we operate from ideas of love that don’t fit our reality. It was only after Emma unpacked her assumptions about intimate relationships that she was able to start treating herself with the kind of care and respect she’d bestowed on others — and her relationships gradually became more mutual and satisfying.
Ultimately, as Jungian psychologist James Hollis writes in The Eden Project, “The best thing we can do for our relationship with others... is to render our relationship to ourselves more conscious.”
Unpacking Our Assumptions
I once gave a talk about equanimity, and afterward, a woman approached me. At first she mentioned the beauty of the church where the lecture took place; then she thanked me for coming. But the whole time, she seemed to be squirming inside her skin, her eyes darting around, not looking at me. “What would you say to someone you knew was being physically abused?” she asked finally, her gaze directed up at the ceiling. I didn’t challenge whether her question was hypothetical or autobiographical, and I thought carefully about how to answer, sensing that a lot might be at stake.
“Well,” I replied, “it’s really important to have lovingkindness for oneself. When we talk about equanimity in the context of abuse, we’re talking about boundaries. Sometimes people in abusive situations think they’re responsible for the other person’s happiness or that they’re going to fix them and make them feel better. The practice of equanimity teaches that it’s not all up to you to make someone else happy.” She seemed to thoughtfully consider what I was saying, we looked deeply into each other’s eyes, and she thanked me and left.
"It’s not bad to go home alone if you feel whole. But if you go home alone thinking you’re not enough without another person next to you, that can be a source of great pain."
In fact, the practice of equanimity also makes us realize that it’s never up to someone else to make us happy either. This can be a bitter pill to swallow, especially when you’re lonely. Singer Janis Joplin famously said, “Onstage I make love to 25,000 different people, then I go home alone.” It’s not bad to go home alone if you feel whole. But if you go home alone thinking you’re not enough without another person next to you, that can be a source of great pain.
My student Dan, who is vulnerable to depression, used to dream that once he became a parent, his demons would somehow magically disappear. “Maybe because I always felt so harshly judged by my own father, I believed that the only way for me to heal was to have a child of my own,” he says now. “After my son was born, my most cherished hopes were realized. Being a stay-at-home dad gave my life meaning. My kid needed me and I was there, unlike my own dad. As Jake got older, we went to baseball and basketball games and on all sorts of father-son outings. I mean, we were a team, even after he started elementary school.”
But once Jake hit third grade and became more interested in playing LEGOs with his friends than spending all his free time with his dad, Dan sank into a deep depression. “It was very painful, but the only way to climb out of that dark place was to really see the burden I’d laid on this little kid for my own happiness,” Dan reflects. “For his sake as well as mine, I had to let go and let him develop into his own person.” A combination of psychotherapy and mindfulness, with a strong emphasis on self-compassion, lifted Dan out of his codependent and depressive state, and ultimately saved Dan’s relationship with his son.
"In order to free ourselves from our assumptions about love, we must ask ourselves what those long-held, often buried assumptions are and then face them, which takes courage, humility, and kindness."
In order to free ourselves from our assumptions about love, we must ask ourselves what those long-held, often buried assumptions are and then face them, which takes courage, humility, and kindness. Do we believe, as Dan once did, that someone else is responsible for our happiness? Or that we’re responsible for someone else’s happiness?
Our unconscious expectations take many forms. Kathryn explained what she learned when a significant relationship ended: “I realized that one of the underlying assumptions of this relationship that I had not communicated with him was this transaction: I’m going to take care of him and try to heal him, and then he was going to take care of me. When I went to therapy, I recognized that I, like my ex-partner, was also suffering from my own acute trauma. My father is an alcoholic. He was a difficult person and abusive in various ways. But what I wanted from my ex-partner was to fix him and then fall apart and have him fix me. We invest in these relationships with so much of our own personal pain and hopes. But this is deeply unfair to oneself and to the other person.”
Perhaps we’ve believed that if we loved a friend or child or sibling or spouse enough, our love would cure all ills. We’d suffer fewer painful setbacks, as would our loved ones. No more desperate midnight phone calls or interventions. Do we believe that we’re at fault because someone we care for is suffering deeply? Do we expect another person to complete us or fix us?
Making Peace With Fear
When we pay attention to sensations in our bodies, we can feel that love is the energetic opposite of fear. Love seems to open and expand us right down to the cellular level, while fear causes us to contract and withdraw into ourselves. Yet so often, fear keeps us from being able to say yes to love—perhaps our greatest challenge as human beings.
"Yet if you felt unseen or unappreciated in childhood, the risk of self-disclosure can seem almost life-threatening."
Close relationships ask us to open our hearts and expose our innermost thoughts and feelings. Yet if you felt unseen or unappreciated in childhood, the risk of self-disclosure can seem almost life-threatening. Or if you were valued only as a “good kid” and not encouraged to express your individuality, intimacy may feel suffocating. How we felt in relation to our caregivers in childhood is the (often unconscious) prototype for our connections later in life. Becoming more conscious of those early feelings can make us less fearful of dropping our protective masks.
This fear of loss is natural, especially if you’ve had a big loss early in life. But it can also keep you from savoring the love that’s available to you right now.
Working With The Barriers
As we explore new ways of loving and being loved by others, we need to equip ourselves with open, pliant minds; we need to be willing to investigate, experiment, and evaluate as we approach a topic we thought we knew so much about.
I imagine an internal version of a position taught in tai chi, in which the knees are always slightly bent. Sometimes called the Horse Stance, it is thought to increase the flow of energy throughout the body. It also lowers the center of gravity, increasing stability in the event of an unexpected blow.
"We attend to the present moment. We gather in our attention, again and again, and open to whatever comes, humbly accepting it."
In the practice of mindfulness, the counterpart to the Horse Stance might be called the Stance of Inquiry. We attend to the present moment. We gather in our attention, again and again, and open to whatever comes, humbly accepting it. In doing so, we begin to peel back the layers of conditioning and unconscious expectations. We can’t judge whether they’re realistic or not until we know we have them. We start to discern what, in actuality, is available to us, both in terms of what we can give and what we can receive. And at a deeper level, we realize that love simply, perpetually exists and that it’s a matter of psychic housekeeping to make room for it.
As psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm said in his book The Art of Loving: “Love is not a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole..."