“What Love Is” – by Ayya Khema

I came across a quote/excerpt yesterday on another blog that I frequent and I wanted to know more about both the author of the quote/excerpt and the excerpt itself. In particular I wanted to see if I could find source for the excerpt and see how and where the quote fit into the context of the rest of the article. I did find the article (here and here), and it was definitely food for thought—which, ultimately, is what I look for when I read and when I’m perusing blogs, articles, et cetera—food for thought, something wise and mentally stimulating.  And though I don’t agree with the entirety of the article, I thought there were many parts of the article that were very good and wise.

What follows is my abridgement and editing and at points rewriting of the article. (Again, you can find the original article here and here.) Part of leading an examined and eyes-wide-open life means thinking and reading critically. Sentences and ideas need to be considered and reality tested against what we’ve seen, lived through, read, what we suspect/intuit—our own highest and best wisdom. Certain word choices need to be mulled over. (For example, does the word “always” or cannot” really apply, or has the author over-generalized and lapsed into either/or black and white thinking in order to really impress his or her point?) It’s essential to read mindfully, to think and read critically—to be very attentive of what we’re letting into our brain, to be very attentive of what we’re reading is really saying. It’s little to no different really than reading the labels at the grocery and trying to make an informed decision about what we’re putting into our body or our mind—what we’re doing to ourselves, what seeds we’re likely sowing. Living mindfully—leading an examined life, being a real warrior—demands this. It means, in part, trying to understand what we’re doing to ourselves, both long-term and short-term (what the payoffs are), by of our choice of what to read and how we read it and why. As the Buddha put it, “We are what we think. With our thoughts we make the world.” It would seem a wise idea to really think about (examine honestly and objectively) our own thinking, including paying attention to our own thoughts while reading. And thus rewriting what we’ve read is a very honest way of doing this—considering our own thoughts and experiences alongside the author’s.

“What Love Is”

by Ayya Khema

Ayya Khema was born August 25, 1923 in Berlin of Jewish parents. She escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 with a transport of 200 children to Glasgow. She joined her parents two years later in Shanghai, where, with the outbreak of war, the family was put into a Japanese POW camp, in which her father died. Four years after her camp was liberated, Ayya Khema emigrated to the United States, where she married and had two children. While traveling in Asia from 1960 to 1964, she learned meditation and in 1975, began to teach. Three years later she established Wat Buddha Dhamma, a forest monastery in the Theravada tradition near Sydney, Australia. In 1979 she was ordained as a Buddhist nun in Sri Lanka. Ayya Khema wrote twenty-five books on meditation and the Buddha’s teachings in English and German; her books have been translated into seven languages. In 1988, her book “Being Nobody, Going Nowhere” received the Christmas Humphreys Memorial Award. She died November 2nd, 1997.  (from Tricycle magazine and Wikipedia.)

We have many ideas about love. The most “profound” idea most of us tend to have about love, which is propagated in novels, movies, and music, is the idea that love exists between two people who are utterly compatible, usually young and pretty, and who for some odd reason have a chemical attraction toward each other—none of which can last.

Most people find out during the course of their lifetime that this sort of love is a myth, that love and relationships don’t work that way. Most people then think it’s their own fault or the other person’s fault or the fault of both, and they try a new relationship. After the third, fourth, or fifth try, they might know better; but a lot of people are still trying. That’s usually what’s called love in our society.

In reality, love is a quality of our heart. The heart has no other function. If we were aware that we all contain love within us, and that we can foster and develop it, we would certainly give that far more attention than we do. In all developed societies there are institutions to foster the expansion of the mind, from the age of three until death. But we don’t have any institutions to develop the heart, so we have to do it ourselves. Most people are either waiting for or relating to the one person who makes it possible for them to feel love—to feel happy, safe, secure, affirmed, validated, warm, kind, grateful, generous—at last.

But that kind of love—the type of love that arises with and that is dependent on a specific other person—is beset with fear, and fear is part of hate.

What we hate is the idea that this special person may die, walk away, have other feelings and thoughts—in other words, the fear that love may end, because we believe that love is situated strictly in that one person. Most people think that their love-ability is dependent upon one person and having that one person near them. And that creates fear—possessiveness, jealousy, the fear of loss—and love beset by fear tends not to be very pure or genuinely loving.

But if we can begin to think about love differently—to see that it is a quality that we all can have by developing it, then we can start developing that ability. Any skill that we have, we have developed through practice. If we’ve learned to type, we’ve had to practice. We can practice love and eventually we’ll have that skill.

Genuine Love really isn’t about finding somebody who is worth loving, or checking out people to see whether they are truly lovable. If we investigate ourselves honestly enough, we find that we’re not all that lovable either, so why do we expect somebody else to be totally lovable? Genuine Love has little to do with the qualities of the other person, or whether he or she wants to be loved, is going to love us back, or needs love.

Everyone needs love.

When we’re looking for love—to be loved—we’re looking for somebody to support a certain image of ourselves. If we can’t find anybody, we feel bereft.

And when we find somebody who does want to love us, because we know our own faults, we begin thinking, Oh, that’s great, this person loves me and doesn’t even know I have all these problems; now I have to keep pretending to be more together, composed, grown up, interesting, sexual than I really am. Or we begin wondering if the other person even really loves us—because how can the other person love us if he or she doesn’t know us and only knows our façade?— and so we begin considering if the other person is just using us.

Meanwhile, we’re likely doing much of the same to other person—we don’t really know him or her, but we feel happy, giddy, alive around him or her, and we’re labeling all of this “love.”

But these are wrong ways of going about to get love.

On the spiritual path, there’s really nothing to get, and everything to get rid of—especially false and distorted cognitions and fears. And one of the first false ideas to let go of is the idea of trying to “get” love, and instead learning how to better give more and more of it. That’s one of the secrets of the spiritual path: One has to give oneself wholeheartedly. Whatever we do half heartedly, tends to bring halfhearted results.

How can we give ourselves?

By holding back less. By not wanting so much for ourselves. The truth about love is this: If we want to be loved, we are looking for a support system. If we want to love, we are looking for spiritual growth. It’s that simple.

Why else do we give or love half-heartedly? Often people feel that it’s necessary to love or give that way to protect themselves. But what do we really need to protect ourselves from? We have to protect our bodies from injury. But do we have to protect ourselves from love? Do we need to protect ourselves from the emotional pain and even trauma of losing someone, of losing love, of losing their love, or of not being loved in returned? We are all in this together, living on this planet at the same time, breathing the same air. We all have the same limbs and senses, we all have the same or similar emotions and fears, wants and needs, we all have the same or similar thoughts. The idea that we are separate beings is an illusion; we are interconnected. If we begin practicing meditation diligently with perseverance, then one day we’ll hopefully get over this illusion of separation, because meditation makes it possible to see the totality of all manifestation. There is one creation and we are all part of it. What can or ought we be afraid of? We ought to be afraid of living and dying without having learned how to love more genuinely. But instead we are afraid to love ourselves, afraid to love creation, afraid to love life, afraid to love others because we are afraid—afraid of pain, afraid of the pain of rejection, afraid of the pain of loss, afraid of the pain of change.

Another reason we don’t love others and life more is because we haven’t learned how to love and accept ourselves. If one likes or loves oneself, it’s easier to love others, this is why we always start loving-kindness meditations with the focus on ourselves. That’s not egocentricity. If we don’t like ourselves because we have faults, or have made mistakes, we will transfer that dislike to others and judge them accordingly. When we dislike ourselves, it doesn’t end there, it starts there; because when we dislike ourselves, what we dislike in ourselves we dislike in others. And disliking makes grooves in the heart, meaning it becomes easier and easier to fall into these grooves.

Knowing that we do things wrong, that we have unhappy or unwholesome thoughts, is no reason for us to stop loving ourselves. Small children have hundreds of unwholesome thoughts a day and give voice to them quite loudly. But a mother who loves her children doesn’t stop loving them when they act silly or unpleasant. And yet we don’t always extend that same courtesy to ourselves.

So if a mother can love a child who is making difficulties for her, why can’t we love ourselves?

Loving oneself and knowing oneself are not quite the same thing. Love is the warmth of the heart, the connectedness, the protection, the caring, the concern, the embrace that comes from befriending and understanding for oneself, sometimes in spite of what we know about ourselves. Having learned and practiced this on ourselves, we are in a much better position to extend this type of love toward others. They are just as unlovable as we are or were, and they have just as many unwholesome thoughts as we have or have had. Yet all that matters less the more we learn to befriend and accept ourselves and deal with our foibles and shortcomings with kindness and compassion. When we realize that we can actually love ourselves in this way and we start practicing it, there is a sense of being at ease. We don’t constantly have pretend or strive to be somebody. We can just relax and let our guard down and “be.” It’s nice to just be, and not try to be “somebody” and put on a performance—one performance after another. And learning to befriend and love ourselves, and practicing loving and befriending ourselves, makes that possible. And then from this place, when we relate to other people, we can let them just be and love them.

When we are able to arouse love in our hearts without any cause, just because love is the heart’s quality, we feel secure. And we all have daily opportunities to practice this, because this type of love is a skill, and like any other skill it can be developed and practiced, fine-tuned and honed.

It’s impossible to buy security, even though many people would like to do so. Insurance companies have the largest buildings because people try to buy security. But when we create certainty within, through a genuinely loving and compassionate and kind heart—a heart that is warm, tender (not afraid to feel its own emotions, not ruled by fear of loss), generous, grateful—many of our fears will vanish.

About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
This entry was posted in Ayya Khema, Conscious Love, Generosity, Gratitude, Intimate Relationships, Mature Love, Mental Health, Real Love, Spiritual Growth, Truth, Waking Up, What is Love? and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to “What Love Is” – by Ayya Khema

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