The book I’m currently writing is called Real Love. I seem to choose topics that are pretty lofty, so my continual need is to try to stay grounded and keep my writing as “real” as possible. I am moved to try to reclaim words like happiness, faith, and love. Part of my impetus for writing this book is that love tends to be so culturally misunderstood. And it’s this misunderstanding, I think, that is at the heart of so much of our anxiety about what our lives are about.
Odds are, when most of us think of love, we probably think of the dictionary definitions: “intense affection,” “romance,” “adoration,” “strong attachment,” and “personal attraction.” Yet we can redefine love by allowing ourselves to become more available to our present circumstances, what’s actually happening within ourselves and in our relationships, rather than our ideas about what love should be. Cultivating mindfulness can help us open up our hearts, breaking free of the limits and expectations we usually carry about nearly everything, but especially about love, given how frequently it is confused with attachment.
During the past several months, I wanted to see what sorts of limits and expectations about love people actually carry, so I got together with several groups of people to get support and clarity for the project. While each person’s thoughts were unique and most often born out of specific experiences of loving others and being loved, I noticed one common phenomenon: most people used the word “need” when it comes to love.
“All you need is love” is an idea many of us have grown up with, which I’d agree with on some level. What I’m calling “real love,” some essential sense of connection, is the foundation of happiness. In this way, love is indeed a need. Most people described “needing” X, Y, or Z from their relationships, be it with a partner, parent, or friend. A parent might need their child to follow a particular career path; a man might need his spouse to provide a sense of validation about his worth as a person; a woman might need the approval of her friend before taking a risk. But what is it we really need?
This idea of needing as maintaining a tight grip on something isn’t just a sensation we experience interpersonally and in love. It’s basically the same thing as attachment, the sensation of feeling expectations for things to be a certain way, sometimes quite rigidly.
I remember an experience I had years ago in the open market in the Old City of Jerusalem. As I was walking through the colorful, crowded stalls, I heard a vendor yell toward me, “I have what you need.” I don’t even remember what he was selling, but I definitely didn’t need it. I remember thinking to myself, “How does he know what I need?” The answer was obvious: he didn’t. But this experience made me think about a bigger question, one I am asking again here: What do we need in order to be happy?
That is one of the most radical and important things each of us can do: step away from those external voices and ask ourselves what it is we need right now in order to be happy. The world will tell us we need lots of different things. Our conditioning will impel us in lots of different directions. Underneath all that, what do we actually need in order to be happy right now. I’d encourage you to try this exercise in good times, on ordinary days, and when facing adversity.
The bottom line is that all beings want to be happy. And as part of that, we all yearn for connection. Yet most of us also tend to feel trapped by our sense of isolation, anger, envy, and other forms of aversion. What I think we actually need is simple: a sense of spaciousness from within that lets us feel abundant and whole internally.
When we are able to access a place where we aren’t looking elsewhere for what we need, we are able to give to ourselves and give to others. I’ve found meditation to be one of the most skillful tools to help us release the burdens of others’ voices, and discover a more pure and a more real understanding of what the word “need” means for each of us.
Whether it’s in love, at work, or in one’s meditation practice, the takeaway is the same: when we feel deeply connected, there is nothing needed outside of what is right now. If we feel frustrated, we don’t need to hurry to fix it because we can’t tolerate the feeling of frustration. We can just be with what is, and see what emerges.
If we are unsure, we don’t need our friends’ advice to figure out who we are and if we deserve to be happy. We can express our desire for support and try to find the balance between working to have our lives move in a certain way and the generosity of heart that allows us to be okay with what is. In that balance, that spaciousness, we can begin to understand the meaning of real love.