I read a while back that the Dali Lama was stunned when he was told that people in the west suffer from the lack of self-love and acceptance. Since learning of this, he has said that it is vitally important that all people develop this inner source of love, and that until they do, they cannot advance spiritually. One must first be grounded in love of self before one can step up and genuinely love the rest of the world.
For some reason, I’m thinking a lot about love these days. I’m thinking that after all these decades of life, I really don’t know much about love. My mother suffered from depression all of her adult life, which made it hard for her to be emotionally demonstrative with her children. We were given good care, but she had little nurture or smiles to provide.
I grew up loving many things and and many people, but never having any sense that I, myself, was loved. My psyche did not recognize how to receive love. And so lately, I’ve been exploring what it might be like to believe—and to truly feel—that you are loved by the divine mystery.
Because this is all new to me, I am moving forward with baby steps. My first tentative step has been sitting with my feelings for nature. When I want to conjure love, nature is my most generous source of it. Sitting beside a very old tree, watching a shaft of sunlight through dark clouds, following the jerky movements of a hurrying beetle—all these things soften my heart and bring a smile of gratitude to my face.
Yet when I try to imagine this love coming back to me, I feel a sudden stab of shame: why would/should the trees and sunlight and the racing beetle offer me love? Who am I to think I deserve such a thing?
Intellectually, I can override this, because we are all deserving of love, but the challenge for me is to make this a “felt sense” as well as a rational belief.
And so I walk through the forest and alongside the lakeshore with the dogs frolicking in delight, and say a silent “I love you, I appreciate you so much,” to the trees, the water, the geese floating on the water, and to my dogs smiling like sunshine. Then, I sit down, close my eyes, and try to feel something coming back to me—some softness or gentle stillness, or maybe a sense of peace. It mostly eludes me, but I am new at this and figure I’ll need to be practicing for awhile.
I intend to keep at this practice until I have some felt sense that the divine love between me and the cosmos is indeed a two-way phenomenon.
I’ve also started practicing being grateful for everything in my path: the sidewalk (wow, someone made this a long time ago…), the paper bag holding my groceries (how many hands connect me to this bag? Who cut the wood, who processed the pulp, who printed the logo on the bag?), the food on my plate (so many hands helping to get this food to my plate…). The simple acknowledgement of how many lives are intertwined with mine helps me feel connected to the world.
At night, my prayer is to know and feel the presence of the holy. It is an earnest, sometimes near desperate prayer of mine these days. And just the other day, I got an answer of sorts.
John and I had just slipped into our booth at Val’s, our favorite local breakfast place. I was just pulling off my jacket, enjoying the hustle bustle of the restaurant and the smell of pancakes on the grill, when big burly gentleman in a red plaid coat stopped at the head of our table, and leaned forward, as if to share a secret with us.
“Did you know?” he began. “Did you know that God loves you SO much, that if he had a refrigerator, your pictures would be on it.” And with a broad smile—and I swear he even winked—he moved on out the door.
I sat there stunned, blinking like I’d seen a vision. I turned to John. “Can you believe that?” I said.
John smiled widely. “He came out of the myst,” he said. Yes, he came right out of the mysterious cosmos with a message of hope I really needed to hear. I am reminded, again, that the answer to prayers comes in unexpected ways.
Now when I walk the forest during my practice of love and gratitude, I whisper at each bend in the path, “Thank you, God, for keeping me on your fridge.”
In these days of ceaseless upheaval, practice love in whatever way you know how. Practice it moment to moment. Be willing to look clumsy seeking love and sharing it. Even in my small, meager efforts, I sense the holy wanting to move toward me, waiting, impatiently for my heart to soften, for my very being to just soften and open to the love that is always there.