Nourishing Our Ability to Love

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Dear Still Water Friends,

Ever since the first time I read the Third Mindfulness Training, True Love, I’ve been puzzled by it. It sounds to me like a concerned parent’s lecture to a teenager. “Be careful. Sex is not love. It’s powerful. You can get hurt and you can hurt others.” Most of the Third Mindfulness Training is about sex (as was all of the Buddha’s original version) and it is a warning. In fact, maybe the name Thich Nhat Hahn (Thay) gave to the training is something of a misnomer, because it’s only at the end that the teaching talks about the elements of true love. But Thay talks a lot about true love elsewhere. Many of his writings on the subject have been compiled in the little handbook How to Love. Here he talks in detail about loving kindness, compassion, joy, and inclusiveness—the basic elements of true love—and he points out that in order for us to truly love someone else, partner, child, or friend, we must love ourselves first. In How to Love, he says,

The first element of true love is loving kindness. The essence of loving kindness is being able to offer happiness. You can be the sunshine for another person. You can’t offer happiness until you have it for yourself. So build a home inside by accepting yourself and learning to love and heal yourself. Learn how to practice mindfulness in such a way that you can create moments of happiness and joy for your own nourishment. Then you have something to offer the other person.

Each of us can learn the art of nourishing happiness and love. Everything needs food to live, even love. If we don’t know how to nourish our love, it withers. When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love. That’s why to love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness.

In other words, we must develop our self-understanding and our self-love before we can possibly truly love someone else.

Unfortunately, often our society teaches us that our fulfillment is to be found in another person—that they will complete us. Thay says the opposite, that those who truly love us have nourished their own ability to love and will help us to look inside ourselves:

Very often we feel like a pot without a lid. We believe that our lid is somewhere in the world and that if we look very hard, we’ll find the right lid to cover our pot. The feeling of emptiness is always there inside us. When we contemplate the other person, sometimes we think we see what we feel we lack. We think we need someone else to lean on, to take refuge in, and to diminish our suffering. We want to be the object of another person’s attention and contemplation. We want someone who will look at us and embrace our feeling of emptiness and suffering with his energy of mindfulness. Soon we become addicted to that kind of energy; we think that without that attention we can’t live. It helps us feel less empty and helps us forget the block of suffering inside. When we ourselves can’t generate the energy to take care of ourselves, we think we need the energy of someone else. We focus on the need and the lack rather than generating the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight that can heal our suffering and help the other person as well.

We tend to wonder if we have enough to offer in a relationship. We’re thirsty for truth, goodness, compassion, spiritual beauty, so we go looking outside. Sometimes we think we’ve found a partner who embodies all that is good, beautiful, and true. After a time, we usually discover that we’ve had a wrong perception of that person, and we become disappointed. A true partner or friend is one who encourages you to look deep inside yourself for the beauty and love you’ve been seeking.

And in order for us to be a true partner or friend, we need to encourage the other person to do the same.

Through our practice, mindful living, and Dharma learning we provide ourselves with the kind of care that allows us to bubble over with the happiness and caring that will cultivate true love in all our relationships. As Thay says,

If we take good care of ourselves, we help everyone. We stop being a source of suffering to the world, and we become a reservoir of joy and freshness. Here and there are people who know how to take good care of themselves, who live joyfully and happily. They are our strongest support. Whatever they do, they do for everyone.

On Thursday, our Dharma sharing will focus on the kind of self-care that produces happiness in ourselves and others. Here are some questions to think about:

  • Do you intentionally make time for nourishing true happiness? How?
  • In our culture, it’s often considered a virtue, especially for women, to put others first, sometimes to the exclusion of ourselves. How can we know when to nourish ourselves? Why is this hard?

Below is an excerpt from the Buddha’s Discourse on Love, translated by Thich Nhat Hanh and the translation by Bhikkhu Khantipalo of the original Pali version of the Five Mindfulness Trainings .

I hope you’ll join us.

Warm wishes,

Jane Newhagen

From the Buddha’s Discourse on Love translated by Thich Nhat Hanh:

Just as a mother loves and protects her only child at the risk of her own life, we should cultivate boundless love to offer to all living beings in the entire cosmos. We should let our boundless love pervade the whole universe, above, below, and across. Our love will know no obstacles. Our heart will be absolutely free from hatred and enmity. Whether standing or walking, sitting or lying, as long as we are awake, we should maintain this mindfulness of love in our own heart. This is the noblest way of living.

Translation by Bhikkhu Khantipalo of the original Pali version of the Five Mindfulness Trainings:

I undertake the rule of training to refrain
 from killing living creatures.
 I undertake the rule of training to refrain
 from taking what is not given.
 I undertake the rule of training to refrain
 from wrong conduct in sexual pleasures.
 I undertake the rule of training to refrain
 from false speech.
 I undertake the rule of training to refrain
 from distilled and fermented intoxicants which are the
 occasion for carelessness.

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