Radical Sabbatical: Love

This weekend is a big celebration of love in my family:  my cousin is getting married on my sister’s birthday which is two days before my mother’s birthday (which was also my maternal grandmother’s birthday) which is four days before my father’s birthday!  We’re all gathering in New York for the first time in a long time to be together and celebrate all the people we are so lucky to have in our lives.

On my Radical Sabbatical, I’ve been reading and exploring a variety of lines of inquiry.  Last week, I came across two quotes about love:

“Neurons are not very efficient at getting across information. They are slow – they work a million-times slower than electricity runs in copper wires, they leak signals to their neighbors, and they are probabilistic rather than deterministic. They only do their job some of the time. … This is absolutely central to our humanity. It is absolutely central. It is the reason we have love. The reason we have love is because neurons suck as electrical processors….”

— David Linden, PhD

“Bodhichitta is a Sanskrit word that means ‘noble or awakened heart.’  Just as butter is inherent in milk and oil is inherent in a sesame seed, the soft spot of bodhichitta is inherent in you and me.  It is equated, in part, with our ability to love.”

— Pema Chödrön

A neuropsychologist and a Buddhist nun, remind us that love is built-into us:  it is who we are.  Dr. Linden and Pema Chödrön are both brilliant and it would seem that they are coming at the question of love from hugely different perspectives.  And yet they end with the same conclusion:  love is our essence.

I just love this:  we are love.  It’s literally in our cells.  I wake up in the morning, feel the cool spring air, hear the birds (those melodious chickens!) and see my beloved beside me and I can feel it.  I am love.

Until I stub my toe on the way to the bathroom.  And I can’t find my hair brush.  And I trip on the sneakers that were left in the living room.  And the cat knocks over her water dish.  And I think about that uncomfortable conversation last night.

Love may well be my essence and everything, but it feels like I’ve got a good bit of irritation, anger, worry and fear in there, too.  If I’m love at my core, why is it that these other feelings are so quick to flood the premises?

Part of what I’m experimenting with on my sabbatical is really paying attention to what is going on in my internal landscape.  I’m meditating more regularly.  I’ve been choosing to slow down my decision-making process so I can feel what I need or want in the moment.  Whether I’m picking the kind of movement I want to do, who I’m spending my time with, or what I’m eating for lunch, I’m doing my best to pay attention to what’s going on in the moment.

And darn barn, people, I’m amazed at how often I’m annoyed or worried or anxious or hoppin’ mad.  Even if it’s low grade, background noise, there it is:  that nagging tug at my sleeve.  Will I have enough time?  Would she stop talking to me with that tone?  Will he be angry?  Why doesn’t she pay more attention and be more thoughtful?  Can I do this?

All these clouds in my internal landscape.  All these dust bunnies in the corners of my mind.  And in the corners of my heart.  Because when she talks to me in that tone, for example, I tend to focus on how I want her to be different.  When I am focused on her being different, I am disconnected from feeling love as my essence. Which feels crappy.

Metta meditation is a simple practice that serves not just as a reminder of my love-essence, but actually as a way of retraining my nervous system to be more at ease even when I trip on those sneakers.  Here is where neuroscience and mindfulness intertwine:  where we might see that Dr. Linden and Pema Chödrön’s approaches aren’t so far apart.

“Metta” in Pali is roughly translated to “loving kindness” or “friendliness.”  Metta meditation is the practice of repeating four phrases of care and good will, first to the self, then to others.  Traditionally, these phrases offer wishes for safety, happiness, health and peace and meditators are encouraged to choose phrases that work well for them.  The phrases that I use are:

May I be safe and well.

May I be happy and content.

May I be healthy and strong.

May I be peaceful and at ease.

Metta always begins with the self since if we are rattled or upset, we are unable to offer care to others.  From there, the metta is offered to various categories of people, including benefactors (teachers or anyone who has helped us), friends and family, neutral people, and those with whom we have challenges or difficulties.

My experience is that even when I’m feeling strong emotions – resentment, anger, fear – practicing metta meditation (even if it’s while I’m driving or sitting at my desk and not in a more formal sitting session) calms me and brings me back to my center.  It softens me and makes me more easeful with myself and others.

Dr. Linden’s contention that human beings have love because neurons suck as electrical processors, frankly, cracks me up.  The idea is that because neurons are inefficient, it takes a long time to grow the nervous system of a self-sufficient human.  Humans have, by far, the longest dependent childhood of any animal on the planet (in any other species, a five-year-old offspring that isn’t independent is unheard of).  Given the long haul of human parenting, the human nervous system needed to cultivate a strong sense of love and care in order to raise a child to adulthood.

The neuroscientist tells us that we are hard-wired for love.  And the Buddhist nun tells us that love is in us like butter in milk.  Both the research of the scientist and the traditional practices of the nun argue that the connections we make more often, will color our moment-to-moment experience.  So if I chew and stew on that which is irritating me, I will strengthen those pathways in my brain.  The next time I trip on somebody’s sneakers, I will go quickly to anger and irritation.  If, on the other hand, I focus on offering myself and others loving kindness on a regular basis, especially when I’m feeling upset, the next time the sneakers and I collide, I will be more inclined toward patience and ease.  Just like anything, what I practice creates my experience.  Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” I would say, that not just excellence but ease or happiness or love is not an act but a habit.

On a weekend full of celebrations with loved ones, it can be easier to remember that love is at our core.  In the energy of excitement of a wedding, we can see that love is really all we are.  And after a few hours in high heels, I could imagine myself going down the road toward cranky.  The work of Dr. Linden and Pema Chödrön reminds me to come back to that which is my essence:  the loving-kindness that I am.  When I do that, I can kick off my heels and dance.

  1. Jen L. said:

    Susan, this is so helpful. I love the way you connect these two angles on our love essence. I keep getting the habit message, and just this evening needed the reminder of compassion for my old habits, compassion for myself in my moments of wishing those new habits had already taken root.

  2. Yes, that’s it exactly, Jen. It’s a balance — as always — to find the strength and discipline to observe habit and make a different choice and to have deep deep compassion for exactly where we are. Whew!

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