Whether you and your partner are just getting started in building your love relationship, or struggling to get back the love and connection that once came naturally, the wise and mindful reflections of Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh offer couples amazing insights, a breath of fresh air, inviting you and your partner to take the reins of your love and adapt practices focused on awakening both of your hearts.
In this post, we will look at the four key elements of genuine love, among other essential heart awakening ways of consciously being and relating, that Hanh describes in his book, True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart. You may wish to refer to Part 1, where four “mantras” were outlined that partners may verbalize to one another, a practice Hahn says can deepen a sense of connection, presence and calm and presence in couple communications.
Like a horse and carriage, love and action are inseparable; the former shapes the latter, and the latter gives life or meaning to the former. Notably, the elements below are described both as emotional states of mind and body, on the one hand, as well as action-based practices on the other.
The four key elements of genuine love are:
1. Loving kindness, or MAITRI
Translated the word “maitri” means loving kindness, a benevolence from which flows a natural desire to bring joy to your beloved. Acts of kindness express a sustained passion to make the other happy.
If it seems simple, take a deeper look. To truly make the other happy requires each partner to develop an active practice of deeply looking, more specifically, to see and understand the other for who they are — a set intention to truly understand what the other most needs, how they yearn to feel loved, and so on.
This isn’t as easy as it may sound because most partners tend to see the other from their set of filters, and the expectations or assumptions they bring to the relationship. Too often both partners, albeit in different ways, hold limiting views formed in early childhood (early survival-love maps), from which they tend to perceive and thus treat the other in some way as incapable, weak and needy, etc., which serve to make themselves feel valued, important, strong, etc. For example, a partner may experience the other as an extension of themselves, or view the other from their own “need” for the other to remain dependent and needy in order “to feel needed,” etc.
Another common mistake partners make is focusing on getting their partner to appreciate the particular ways they yearn to love them, which would likely be okay, if they also saw and valued the other’s attempts to do the same! In these situations, partners are inclined to see their beloved from the eyes of a small child, i.e., what they “need” them be, or what they “should” desire to be happy, etc.
When partners use the particular strength they bring to the relationship in ways that, wittingly or unwittingly, keep the other dependent and needy (in their mind), this impairs the growth of both. Rather than a foundation for a healthy relating, this forms the basis for toxic relating patterns.
As a result, partners tend to get stuck in their own “neediness” to feel their love is valued — and fail to “understand” that the other is telling what the key is to their heart — they each yearn to be loved in the way they are loving the other. One partner loves to talk about problems, for example, and hopes to “influence” the other to approach issues as they do; in the meantime, the other partner loves to just have fun, hates negativity and thinks their greatest strength is to avoid potential conflict. This causes partners to get into pursue-withdraw patterns, leaving both frustrated and confused, feeling unloved, unappreciated, unseen, and so on.
Toxic patterns do not necessarily mean, however, that there’s something wrong with one or both partners, or human beings in general. Quite the contrary, judging from the frequency and duration of toxic relating patterns in couple relationships, their prevalence may be in part a natural phase in our development and growth as relationship beings (wisdom), and in part a toxic effect of limiting cultural beliefs, regarding what it means to be a man or a woman in a couple relationship, increasingly promoted as norms by media and entertainment. Without question, learning how to form healthy relationships with self and another, which are mutually satisfying and enriching, is the most complex skill of life.
Be easy on your self and one another. It’s impossible to get through childhood without being wounded, even in the best of families! Safe to say, most all partners enter their couple relationship with wounds they are seeking to heal, which can only be healed in an adult-to-adult relationship.
The practice or training of your mind and heart, toward truly understanding the other as a fully equipped being who, like you in growing their capacity to love and be loved, is the essence of love. For example, if husband (or wife) does not seek to know and understand his wife’s (husband’s) deepest concerns, how would he (she) be able to love them in the way that they most yearn?
Absent the critical element of two partners seeking to see, know and understand the other, you may say, it’s impossible to genuinely love the other.
Understanding is the essence of love — and it takes sustained, conscious effort to get there. Relationships are the most complex behavior we need to learn in order to fulfill our hardwired yearnings to be happy. Quick fix feel goods do not suffice; they lead to treacherous world of addictions….
The bottom line is that, without understanding, you cannot love the other, and you cannot love your self. Period. At best, well meaning attempts to love the other certainly deserve some credit, however, the real breakthrough you need is to break out of toxic patterns of reactivity.
What must you do to deepen your love and understanding? First, set an intention to do so, and invest time to this practice. You must be there, attentive, to observe, to get to know and understand. You will succeed, however, it takes both to be willing and open to truly developing their practice of seeking to deeply understand the other as a unique and separate human being. You may be surprised to find yourself increasingly valuing the differences and unique attributes, even challenges your partner brings.
2. Compassion, or KARUNA
This word “karuna” translated means compassion. It is both the desire to ease the pain of another, and also involves the practice or development of the ability to do so.
Once again, knowledge and understanding of your partner is essential. How can you gain a good understanding of the nature of the pain your partner is feeling unless you are open to deeply seeing? This knowledge expands your capacity to love and to support them to heal themselves which involves change. Knowledge and understanding are always at the root of the practice of meditation, or looking into the heart of things.
When our pain comes up, at times it is in the conscious mind; at other times, it is in the subconscious. Your capacity for consciousness awareness is a living thing, something oranic in nature. There are always waste materials and flowers within us, for example. Hahn suggests mature lovers learn to be grateful for their pains.
There is good reason to be grateful for pain. You need pain to grow you. Emotional pain is to your spiritual growth and wisdom, what physical pain is to your getting trim, fit and strong at the gym. You also need to connect to your pain to stop unnecessary suffering. Quitting the
Each time pain is embraced by the energy of mindfulness, it loses its intensity. A practice of mindfulness allow you to handle your pain or your partners as a caring mother caring for a crying baby.
Your pain helps you understand your self; your partner’s pain helps you understand them, and yourself. Pain nurtures your compassion, and expands your capacity to see that each person is so much more than their pain, and in our culture, we are often suffering from our pain because we have unhealthy views and beliefs about pain. We’ve learned to overall see pain as a weakness, defect, something that lowers our sense of worth in the eyes of others. More often we either turn to extremes of either wallowing in pain, or avoiding pain altogether and pretending it isn’t there. Both extremes cause suffering.
In the words of Carl Jung, arguably one of the most brilliant psychologists of the 20th century:
“Neurosis is the natural by-product of pain avoidance.” ~ CARL JUNG
To love yourself, and the other, you must each learn how to learn from pain. It offers a wealth of information, for example, that tells you what is most important to you, what you most care about and value. It’s also a process, so relax and let go of thinking of your pain or the other’s as a project that needs to be fixed or completed. Your pain is fear … waiting to be transformed into an asset, such as ever more strength, compassion, understanding, confidence … and an ever deepening authentic connection to self and other.
3. Joy, or MUDITA
The word “mudita” translated means joy. If there is no joy in your love, you can be sure there is no love…at least no felt love. Love is always there, however, when fear elevates in the body, love is hidden and can be experience or felt as utterly gone.
If there is no joy in love, it is not true love.If you are in despair all the time, worrying, fearful or anxious, if you cry all the time, or make the other cry , this is not true love — it may even be the opposite.
To love is above all to be there, and if you’re there for the other, you’re there for your self. To be there, to be fully present, is to be present to your capacity to feel both painful emotions, such as sadness, yet also not disconnect from your yearning for happiness and joy. Being there is very much an art, and the art of meditation expands your experience of being present to the here and now. When you understand what true love is, you do whatever is necessary to find time to know and be known, and do so in a way that also consciously increases your joy.
The most precious gift you can give is your true presence. Presence is meditation, and meditation is presence to yourself, to those you love, to life.
Hahn proposes a simple practice of mindful breathing, and affirming the following words: “Breathing — I know that I am breathing in; breathing—I know that I am breathing out.
When you are feeling fear, your body might be there, however, your mind is somewhere else. More specifically, it is either in the future, anxious or preoccupied with plans, worried about what may happen — or it is ruminating over regrets of the past.
When this occurs, your mind is not really there with your body.
Breathing is a bridge that connects mind and body. Why needed? The moment you begin mindful breathing your mind and body connect and come together with one another. It takes only seconds to accomplish this miracle.
4. Freedom, or UPEKSHA
Translated, the word “upeksha” means equanimity or freedom. In true love, you feel a sense of freedom to be yourself, and at the same time, you bring freedom to the person you love to do the same.
You must love in such a way that you feel free to love and they feel free to love, asking “Dear One, do you have enough space in your heart and all around you?” Whereas love is hidden by fear, in particular, core intimacy fears of inadequacy, rejection, abandonment, etc., to be free to love is to be free to love from a place of love, and therefore, love cannot be something that you can force another to do by shaming, guilting or intimidation. It is not love to instill your partner with fears that, unless they meet your expectations, they would not be loved, approved, valued, good enough etc.
The human drive to matter in relation to a loved one is a hardwired drive, a need and not a mere want, as real as the need for water or oxygen. Whether or not partners develop healthy or unhealthy ways to matter in relation to one another is the question.
Learning to speak and listen using a language of love is key.
In everyday life, deep listening, attentive listening is a mediation. Through mindful breathing, you can cultivate calm awareness, and compassion so you may be able to sit present tolisten to another. An hour spent this way can relieve a great deal of another’s pain. As we listen we do not say anything we just breathe deeply and open our hearts to understand the suffering of the other.