I was in a Gurdjieff group for many years and although his teaching was mainly about presence and “self-remembering” (or what today we might call mindfulness), he also spoke about love.
Gurdjieff said, “Without self-love a man can do nothing. There are two qualities of self-love. One is a dirty thing. The other, an impulse, love of the real “I”. Without this, it is impossible to move.
An ancient Hindu saying—”Happy is he who loves himself, for he can love me.”
Gurdjieff is also reported to have said that if someone can really love then they have learned it in this lifetime. I had always thought that people with perfect parents, who perfectly loved them, would automatically know how to love, in the right way. Yet, apparently not.
So “love” has to be learned. But how?
For myself, I grew up without “love”. I did not know how to relate to others kindly and was often quite abrupt, even aggressive, without realising it. This non-loving behaviour was how I had been treated growing up and I must have absorbed it, automatically, as a way of being.
Gurdjieff said, if you want to learn to love, start with plants and animals. But I started with children.
I can’t remember where the idea came from, but in my twenties I started to visualise a small child or baby. I would hold them in my lap or in a warm hug and send them a feeling of love and feel a desire to protect and care for them. The idea was that the child was myself – receiving the love that I never had.
Not long after I began this practice I was sitting on a train when suddenly an extraordinary feeling of radiance and happiness came over me, as if I was bathed in a golden light that surrounded me with love. At the time I related this to the visualisation practice. But when I described the experience to my Gurdjieff teacher she told me to stop doing the visualisation and, of course, I did. This practice was something I returned to later, with much regret that I had given it up at a time in my life when I really needed it.
Later on I had a wonderful spiritual mentor who said to me,
“What you need is a sense of love.”
At that moment I realised I didn’t have it and couldn’t imagine it. I had never felt loved or cared for and didn’t know what it could be or what it would feel like.
One day as he observed me in my usual posture of utter dejection he said,
“What I wish for you – is to have heart”.
I realised that my posture, my feelings, my state of mind and my thoughts were all linked to this loss of “heart”. My childhood had left me heart-broken.
Years passed, my mentor died, and I found my way to Buddhism.
The Buddhist teachers taught a particular short prayer that could help to develop “Metta” or compassion. Interestingly, they said that it was important to always start by directing Metta to yourself.
May I be peaceful.
May I be calm.
May I be at ease.
May I be free from suffering.
This prayer often forms part of the Buddhist “Loving Kindness” meditation. The first time I tried to practice this, under a teacher’s guidance, was in a group at the end of a meditation retreat.
But I just couldn’t do it. The whole idea of it made me feel angry, very angry and I felt that if Metta was a substance I would fling it at the wall in a rage. When I listened to the voice within it was like a small child shouting,
“Why should I? Everyone hates me! Why should I send love to anyone! There is no love!”
The other participants spoke about experiencing “Metta” for themselves and others and how wonderful it was. As they described their rapture I thought, oh my God, there is really something wrong with me.
I realised that, in general, I lacked empathy. I had to find out what it was and to start trying to practice it. I started trying to put myself in another’s shoes and care about them. I had to ask myself, “Have I really tried seeing things from their point of view?”
Time and again I puzzled over the “sense of love” that my mentor had told me about. I knew I needed it, but what was it and where would I find it?
And then, unexpectedly, life gave me something.
There are not many moments in life where one can say, upon looking back over many years,
“That was a turning point.”
And although many things happen in life, including sudden changes, falling in love, bereavements, reversals of fortune – the real turning points are not the external events, no matter how unexpected they are.
The real turning point is when we have a change of heart – a profound inner realisation of some kind. Something that changes everything.
My turning point came just before my fortieth birthday. I was looking after two little boys and suddenly one day I realised that they loved me and I loved them.
“I am able to love after all!”
This was an extraordinary realisation for me because in spite of all the help I’d received from different spiritual teachers and traditions, in spite of all the efforts and meditation, I still had one important and very big problem:
I knew that I was a bad person.
I had been bad all my life, and as a child I didn’t know why I was bad or how to be good. There just seemed no way out of it. It was awful knowing that I was bad and that my parents hated me. I wondered why God had made me like this. My mother had a special mantra that she would say to me,
She had a strict rule that I was, under no circumstances, to touch her or speak to her.
By the time I was a teenager my dad told me that I was evil and should be locked up in a mental asylum. These negative labels from my parents reverberated throughout my life, through my teens, my twenties and my thirties.
But when I realised that I loved the small boys and cared for them – a light bulb went on in my head. Bad people aren’t full of love! They don’t love children! They aren’t kind and helpful to little boys! If I love these children then I cannot be all bad. And the children loved me too. How incredible.
That was my turning point.
Life has changed a great deal since my miserable childhood and youth. And yet on the outside, everything is ordinary, nothing special. Life goes on and the inner work must continue.
Perhaps learning to love, starting with ourselves, is the most important task that we have in this life.
Acceptance of ourselves and others, letting myself be as I am and things be as they are.
As Ajahn Sumedho says,
“This is the way it is.”
Author: Elizabeth Vince