by Tim McKibben

Love is such an evocative word. Throughout the ages countless poems and songs have been written about it. In many cultures, it’s seen as essential for spiritual growth, and deep down most of us want to know love.  

However, often the ‘love’ referred to in literature isn’t love! The word ‘love’ is perplexing because it is used to refer to a variety of different emotions, such as intense desire, liking, affection and caring. For example, you can say I love my children, salt on my chips, or a movie star. 

The Buddha cuts through this confusion, explaining that desire is not love, because love is very simply, the wish for another’s happiness. Desire is all about me attempting to get what I want, whereas love is a heartfelt concern for the happiness of others. The focus is on the other party and their needs. Or, to put it another way, it wishes for other’s happiness as if it were your own. 

Desire on the other hand, is a deceptive mind that exaggerates how good the object of desire is, and how much happiness it will bring you. Desire can lead to the unhappiness of craving, grasping, dissatisfaction, frustration, depression, jealousy and anger. This can then give rise to harmful actions like lying, stealing, argument, domestic abuse, addictions, suicide and war. Turn on the news and you see this playing out every day. 

So much of the suffering we see in society and the world has its root in desire. (Desire is distinguished, by its deceptive nature, from, for example, simply liking something.) 

Love and desire are diametrically opposed in that at some stage desire always brings suffering, whereas love always benefits oneself and others. So, we might be craving an ice cream – which is desire, but if we give it to someone else, that is an act of love…. especially if it’s salted caramel with chocolate chips! If we can extend this sense of caring to all living beings, then it becomes what is termed ‘Great love’. Ice cream for everyone! 

Love and affection are an integral part of the human psyche. Babies are dependent for years on carers for their survival. Therefore, humans have evolved to be caring. It is biologically ingrained and as natural as wanting to eat.  

But this caring and kind nature can become obscured by habituated negative thoughts. However, once the mind is purified from its agitation and neuroses, it connects to others. After dirt is cleaned off a mirror, it can reflect everyone who appears in front of it. In the same way, our deeper mind, when freed from delusion, easily gives rise to compassion and love. 

How else can we cultivate love? According to The Graduated Path to Enlightenment, try focusing on how we are all in the same boat: we share an aversion to suffering and heartfelt yearning for happiness. Despite not wishing for it, our lives are afflicted by sickness, ageing, death and a wide array of mental anguish, from dissatisfaction to mourning. And we have no control over our death and rebirth.  

Also focus on how everything in our lives comes from others: our bodies, food, shelter, clothes, language, communication, education, plumbing, electricity and smartphones all come from other living beings. Reflect on this kindness of others.  

In his Precious Garland, Nagarjuna explained many extraordinary benefits of love: we see the best in others, we become healthy, happy and blissful, difficulties fade away and we achieve our spiritual goals.

Without love, our practice is dry, and we can’t progress on the path. But with loving kindness in our hearts, enlightenment beckons!