Love, Need, and Self-Completeness

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Dear Still Water Friends,

When I was a child I was very confused by emotions and relationships. I remember an exchange between my father and me when I was about eight years old. Often before my father’s mother visited, my father prepped me to tell my grandmother that I loved her, and I would comply. On this day, however, I resisted. I said, “I don’t love her! She is mean to me.” My father replied that I was wrong, that I did love her. I sensed from his tone and his insistence that he was now angry at me.

I don’t remember what happened next, but the underlying emotional lessons stayed with me:

  • that my effort to correctly label the emotions I was experiencing was both insufficient and morally wrong,
  • that my father was angry at me for expressing feelings he did not want to hear, and,
  • that the way to appease others, such as my grandmother, was to lie to them.

Ouch. It has been a long journey since then to understand the emotional energy in that exchange and to evolve more satisfying ways of relating to myself and others. (Along the way, I also developed a lot of compassion for my father, who was only passing along the emotional survival strategies that he had learned from his family. I also came to understand that in other ways he loved and supported me.)

For me, one of the benefits of practicing in the Plum Village tradition is that it has consistently encouraged me to grow my understanding of what is means to truly love someone. A section in a 2010 interview with Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) succinctly captures a distinction that has been important in my life between love based on need and love based on self-completion. The section starts with the interviewer, Melvin McLeod, asking Thay:

I think all of us feel true love toward somebody in our lives, someone whose suffering we would gladly take on ourselves and to whom we would gladly give all our happiness. . . . How do we take the love that each of us has within us and expand it to a wider circle?

Thay begins by explaining that in our first moments of life we experience “original fear” — that we may suffocate if we are not able to expel the liquid in lungs. And we also experience “original desire” — the desire to survive. Those twin desires are deep in our consciousness:

… and when you grow up, your desire to have a partner is only the continuation of that. You feel that you need someone to take care of you because you are helpless, you are vulnerable, you cannot do it by yourself. You need another. So if you are eager to look for a partner, that means your first, original desire is still present, that you do not feel safe when someone is not there. So your partner, your lover, may be a continuation of mommy or daddy. You are peaceful because you feel, “I’m okay now, mommy is there, daddy is there.” It is not the true presence of the other person that brings you this relaxation. It is your idea that “Mommy is there” or that “Daddy is there.” Later on, you might find that the person sitting next to you is a nuisance and you want to divorce him or her. That’s because it’s not truly his presence or her presence that gives you that feeling of relaxation, but your own ideas and desires.

Love, in Buddhism, always begins with yourself, before the manifestation of the other person in your life. The teaching of love in Buddhism is that when you go home to yourself, you recognize the suffering in you. Then the understanding of your own suffering will help you to feel better, and to love, because you feel the completeness, the fulfillment in yourself. So you don’t need another person to begin to love. You can begin with yourself.

True love does not just choose one person. When true love is there, you shine like a lamp. You don’t just shine on one person in the room. That light you emit is for everyone in the room. If you really have love in you, everyone around you will profit—not only humans, but animals, plants, and minerals. Love, true love, is that. True love is equanimity.

Then McLeod tries to summarize what Thay has said.

So it’s less a matter of expanding the love we now feel than shifting the very basis of our love, from need to self-completeness?

And Thay replies:


I love that simple ending exchange. It’s about shifting “from need to self-completeness.” “Right.”

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will consider Thay’s teaching on True Love.

We will begin our Dharma sharing with these questions:

  • Has shifting “from need to self-completeness” been part of your life?
  • Have you known people whose love “shines like a lamp”?
  • Has mindfulness practice or other adult life experiences changed your understanding of what it means to love someone?

You are invited to join us.

Two related questions and answers that follow the “from need to self-completeness” section are below. The full article, “Love and Liberation: An interview with Thich Nhat Hanh,” is available on The Lion’s Roar website.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

From “Love and Liberation: An interview with Thich Nhat Hanh”

by Melvin McLeod


Sister Chan Khong led us in a meditation to develop awareness of the various causes and conditions, such as our parents, culture, and spiritual mentors, that have made us who we are and that still live within us. Why is that helpful?


The self is made only of non-self elements, and it is the insight of non-self that can liberate us. We are made of non-us elements. When we look deeply, we recognize ancestors, parents, cultures, society, everything, in us.

A lot of Buddhist teachers talk about the principle of interdependence in abstract terms, but I found it very helpful to look at the specific influences, both positive and negative, that made me who I am now.

I think that the teaching can be made simple, and even children can understand it. This morning, we were led in a meditation about the family elements alive within us: “Within me I see my father as a five-year-old child, five years old, vulnerable. I smile at him with compassion.” That kind of visualization can help us touch the truth of non-self. When you know you are made of non-you elements, you know that your father is in you. Your father is fully alive in every cell of your body, and the suffering of your father is still there in you. That is the kind of practice that can bring the insight of inter-being, of no-self. It can liberate you from your anger, if you have anger toward your father, and so on.


Why do we meditate on these non-self elements within us not only with insight but with love?


Insight and love, they are the same. Insight brings love, and love is not possible without insight, understanding. If you do not understand, you cannot love. This insight is direct understanding, and not just a few notions and ideas. In meditation we allow ourselves to be shined on by the light of that insight.

Sometimes it helps to have an image so that you can truly understand. For example, I described to the children that it is hard for the plant of corn to see that at an earlier moment she was a grain of corn. But that is the truth, and if you really see that way, you have the insight of inter-being between the plant and the grain of corn. Because without the grain of corn, how could the plant of corn be? The same thing is true with father and son, mother and daughter. If this truth is touched through meditation, then hate and anger will vanish, and love becomes possible.