The On Being Project

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How to Train Your Mind to Recognize the Love All Around You

How to Train Your Mind to Recognize the Love All Around You

Valentine’s Day has a perverse way of making some people feel not just unloved, but unworthy. Seeing stacks of heart-shaped candy boxes and sentimental cards at the grocery store, or specials for roses at the florist, may confront them with the feeling that they wish they had someone to send these to or someone from whom they could expect these from.

I wrote Real Love to be an antidote to that kind of despair. These lurid expressions of love on a heavily commercial day are not a true measure of one’s connection to the world. My goal was to open your eyes to the abundance of love that is all around you and how love is a capacity within, an experience that you can create, rather than something you have to wait to be given. So in this season, with this day devoted to acknowledging love, come with me to the wider world where love is abundant and close at hand. There is no need to yearn fretfully for it and wonder why it isn’t here — it is right here if you view your world in a different way.

All love is a deep and often wordless connection, a resonance of the soul. Love lifts us up, ennobles the moment, and reinforces our sense of safety. I have found this quality in friendships, in nature, and in my connection to a world bigger and more complex than me.

What is clear from my conversations and research, is that love has many faces. One man said that when we love another person, we strive for 50-50, but that the love he shares with his dog is 100-100: They are always happy to see each other, eager to spend time together, and comfortable in shared silence. One woman, a widow whose children were launched, felt love in caring for her elderly dad. He is frail, but still vain, embarrassed by having to use his walker. When they go to his favorite breakfast spot, love is her taking his arm, walking tenderly and slowly by his side up the handicapped ramp, and ushering him into his favorite booth. After she has taken her seat across from him, he always says, “You take care of me.” In that, she hears, “I love you.”

Love is a practice. Sometimes you may want to walk away thinking that it demands too much of you. You may think: Why bother? Love has not been giving you what you were seeking. I have been very moved by the words of parents whose beloved children have become addicted to drugs. They must speak of loving unconditionally — in the same breath as they talk about setting boundaries and caring for one’s self. When I described my expansive sense of love, one mother said it sounded simple, but not easy.

Love is simple and abundant, but it is not always in the places we look for it. What could be simpler than taking a walk in the park, disconnecting from the urgencies of the plugged-in world, and letting your body absorb the clean air, the filtered light, and the expanses of green and trees? Yet it is not easy to claim the time or clear your mind to just see the world around you without expectation and without judgment.

With the right frame of mind, it would be simple to see your morning routine as a sequence of acts of love for yourself, of cherishing. Long ago you decided what kind of tea you like in the morning, the soap that feels best on your skin in the shower. You’ve always loved the light in the bathroom window early in the day. These are moments that help you connect to the world around you and appreciate your place inside it. Again, it is not easy to pause to savor these touches of love and comfort — they do not come in a bright, heart-shaped box that makes them easy to identify. But this month, regardless of whether you are receiving one of those boxes, I urge you to pause to cherish the flashes of connection and comfort that populate your day.

Connection — to the world and to yourself — is the foundation of the love that is abundant in our lives. My close friend was at one point hospitalized for depression and stayed several months before he was well enough to be discharged. In depression, he was disconnected from the world and unsure of how to reach out, or if he could ever again. So I was surprised when he told me he had decided to volunteer at a food bank to help prepare meals for shut-ins — just getting out of his apartment and making his way through the city to the kitchen seemed like a heroic act to me.

At the kitchen they gave him the task of cutting sandwiches. His hands were shaking so badly from his medication that he could not cut them well. When the kitchen manager saw how this upset him, she asked him if he wanted to come back another day. My friend said he wanted to stay. He wanted to contribute. She gave him the job of wrapping sandwiches in plastic, which suited him perfectly: He could do it quietly on his own and take as long as he wanted, all the while knowing that his simple action was contributing comfort to those who were shut in, just as he had been. This was a way for him to start to love the world again. And, eventually, he got better.

In the season of Valentine’s Day, you can train your mind to recognize the life that is rising up all around you. The gift you can give yourself is to pause here and there to appreciate it. Enjoy the feel of the comforter around you as you wake up in the winter-dark morning and the familiar texture of your favorite slippers. As you go through the ritual of getting ready to meet the day, note the colors and the smells that please you, as well as the little interactions with the people you encounter. In this way, you are generating connection, not waiting to receive it in a pre-packaged form.

Doing this might have its price, as it did for my friend wrapping the sandwiches, or the mother with the son struggling with addiction, but you have a lot of love within you — and there is much more available. Generate love for yourself by keeping the stream of love coming your way strong, clear, and bright.

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