Love Has Only One Law
You’d expect a measure of calm and serenity from someone who’s meditated for years, but I’ve just had a heated argument with the love of my life – over the size of a sidebar. (That’s a website margin, to the uninitiated.) You know how it goes: you love him/her more than anything in the world, and yet, inevitably, you find yourselves hurting each other over completely unimportant stuff. Stuff you wouldn’t even bother your dog about. Stuff you certainly won’t care about on your death bed, as you bid a final goodbye.
Anyone who meditates can unfortunately confirm that we do not become shining examples of love and light. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a very cool guy, but if he had a girlfriend, give him a few months tops and I bet he’d be having heated arguments about trifles too. There’s a point to meditation and it’s a very good one, but it doesn’t stop you being human. And humans cause friction. It’s what we do.
The old dictum ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ doesn’t shed light so much as despair. But take heart: look deeper, and you’ll see that there’s more to the story. Real intimacy uncompromisingly brings out everything you’ve got. It opens up your heart and pours it all out: your deepest love, as well as your deepest pain. If you’re going to love someone, and you want to stay close, you can’t just give them the good stuff and hold the other stuff back. Love doesn’t negotiate, and it has only one law: It’s all or nothing baby.
This doesn’t mean that you have to throw yourself into a relationship from the start. It’s wise to open your heart slowly, and with care. What I’m talking about is the stage that follows. If you’ve decided to give your heart to someone, from time to time it will hurt. Something in them triggers something in you, and your pain bubbles up from the same place that laughter does. Every self-preservation instinct in you will say “pull up the drawbridge”, but if you do, you’re closing the way to love, too.
“I don’t care! I hate him” is what I’m ashamed to admit I’ve said about that, in the heat of a bad moment. What I’m learning to do instead is leave the drawbridge where it is; hold my tongue and pause. Don’t shut down. Be willing for this to play out how it will. As the orphan narrator in the novel Thirteen Moons often did, “I sat within myself and waited.” I take the time to feel my hands shaking, stomach churning, breath quicken. This moment will sort itself out when it’s ready; it doesn’t need me to play judge and jury. It helps if the other person isn’t standing over me and shouting, but even then it can be done.
Until there’s something productive to say, it’s better to say nothing. The seconds pass as I realise that everything I’m thinking is either defensive or aggressive. Nothing productive comes into my head at all. Stepping aside instead and turning my mind inwards, I challenge myself quietly: “Really? Do I really not care? If something terrible happened to him right now, would I not care? And how is it that I did care, just before this argument? I felt real love up until just now, and it can’t have gone away. So why don’t I feel it?”
Questioning myself doesn’t come naturally. Culturally we’ve learned that in order to survive we must appear solid and authoritative, unswerving and above all, right. This can occasionally be a fair tactic in work situations. Personal relationships, on the other hand, are the opposite of competition; you need to stay on the same side. Insisting on being ‘right’ in a relationship automatically makes the other person ‘wrong’, and voilà! another divorce lawyer gets his Christmas bonus.
We’ve also learned to fling our emotional pain at others by blaming them, rather than taking responsibility for it ourselves: other people are irritating. Other people get it wrong. Other people are trying to take advantage of us.
But flinging it around only perpetuates it. A common Buddhist saying goes, “holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else: you are the one who gets burned.”
There is a way to dissolve emotional pain: take responsibility for it and accept it fully. Concentrate on the feelings, not the thoughts. Without making yourself into a victim, admit if you’re feeling frightened, hurt, vulnerable, and wanting only to be loved. You’ll find that your feelings transform into a place of strength. That which seemed frightening, turns into self-knowledge.
It’s a dynamic internal process which requires focus and a degree of self-containment. On the surface it seems as if this is a conflict between you and another person, but in fact arguments show where you both have personal internal work to do.
It also helps to have a good sense for where the boundaries go between you and others. You can’t dissolve other people’s pain, nor can they yours. Arguments are a perfect time to figure out where the line goes. Look closely at where the friction is coming from: that place is full of clues.
Once you’ve contained your own part in the conflict, you’re ready to reconnect. If you dig deep enough you will always find that you do care, no matter what situation you’re in. Admitting to myself that I care is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because it goes against my animal instinct. It’s delicate work under pressure, and returns me to a raw and vulnerable state. He might be raising his voice in anger, and I, if I am to be honest, have to say I care. The surprise of it breaks the pattern and lightness comes back into the room.
Raw and vulnerable isn’t a bad thing; it’s where love comes from. It stops us from hurting each other. It ceases the hardening of the heart, and allows me to admit to myself, eventually – although it might not be until the next day – that I love him. When I gather the courage to look ridiculous by telling him all that, he softens too, and all is once again well. For a while.
We arrived at a compromise about the sidebar. The other good news is that whether arguments are about big or little stuff they all work the same way, so once you’ve figured out what to do, they get better and better. Bet you can’t wait.
Video TED: The power of vulnerability, with research professor Brené Brown. In one of the most-watched videos on TED, Professor Brown explains light-heartedly how pain goes hand-in-hand with love, and why we can’t have one without the other. (20 mins)
Film Babel (2006). The snarky relationship between Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt’s characters is put in perspective when [spoiler].
Short reading Enlightened Relationships by Eckhart Tolle: chapter 8 in his ubiquitous book ‘The Power of Now’.
Book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships by Buddhist psychotherapist John Welwood.