Love as a Practice
In our language the word love often refers to a feeling, sometimes to a need, and sometimes to a quality of presence (loving presence). Love can also be an action and refer to a practice. You don't have to wait for love to find you. You don't have to stumble upon some magical person that loves you. You can choose to practice love. Choosing to practice something doesn't mean giving yourself some vague command like "be more loving".
Choosing love as a practice, and really any mindfulness practice, includes setting an intention, directing attention moment by moment, compassion, and consistency. Setting your intention each day gives you direction and gives you a place to come back to throughout your day. Choose a time each morning to set your intention. It will be easier to remember if you pair it with something you already do every morning. For example, your first sip of tea could be your cue to set your intention for today. Setting your intention might sound something like this: "Today my intention is to practice love. Between each interaction or task I will check in with this practice."
Any particular snapshot of your experience is infinitely layered and complex. It's important to know exactly how and where you are directing attention as a part of practicing love. A simple and powerful place to start is in your body. At a basic level when you are in judgment, anger, or clinging your body is contracted and tense. When you are practicing love your body relaxes and softens, especially around your heart. Relaxing and softening doesn't mean collapsing and falling asleep. Relax and soften in your body while maintaining vibrant attention.
Also direct your attention to your emotional experience. Whatever emotions are moving through you in the moment you can practice a loving emotional tone in the midst of it. Thích Nhất Hạnh offers the practice of smiling in your heart. Just a subtle smile in your heart can bring a loving emotional tone. Other practices include putting your hand on your heart, offering yourself a gentle thought of reassurance, or making a wish for the well being of someone in your life.
Lastly, direct your attention to your thoughts. Most thoughts are simply habits. When you are not intently focused on a task, your mind will generate the type and quality of thoughts you have most often. Turning your attention to this stream of thoughts you can choose the content and quality. It might be as simple as directing your thoughts towards what you appreciate about someone or towards a being in your life that easily evokes love. And of course, you could pause your thoughts and take a moment to notice beauty in the present moment.
In your love practice, you will find yourself in moments of judgment, anger, and clinging. As you wake up again and again in these moments, it's essential to practice compassion for yourself. Simply saying to yourself in a gentle tone, "I am in judgment again. That's okay. It's just a habit* and will dissolve over time as I catch myself and return to the practice of love." Take time to grieve the suffering that judgment, anger, and clinging create for you. Take time to study yourself and notice the impact of judgment, anger, and clinging on your body, heart, and mind and on those around you. Each time you do this you will notice another subtlety about how these states show up in your body, heart, and mind. For example, you might notice that judgment brings on a headache or that anger tightens your stomach. As you become more subtle in the study of yourself, you will find yourself waking up to your experience more easily and more often.
Unless you live in a monastery, it's likely that the world around you isn't set up to support your mindfulness practice. It's essential then to set up your own support structure so that you maintain a consistent practice. A consistent practice gives rise to layers of insight and relief from suffering and thus naturally encourages you. Support for a consistent practice might include regularly participating in a community that practices, having a practice buddy that's doing it with you, checking in with significant others in your life about your practice, setting up your home so that you are surrounded by an environment that supports mindfulness, or setting regular dates for self-reflection, meditation, and acts of loving service in your community.
Take a couple of minutes right now to check in with your intention for today. What mindfulness practice is just right for you today?
*Judgments, anger, and clinging are also a sign that you are perceiving a threat to one or more needs. You can also use these as cues to practice self-empathy. You can find the handout Self Empathy Steps on my website here: http://www.wiseheartpdx.org/resources.html