You Can’t Fail at Love!

Invisible by Laura Williams for Love blog post


February can be a tough month for love, reminding us of relationships we wish were brighter, deeper, reciprocated or still there. We’re inundated by images of couples walking on a tropical beach or canoodling under the stars. Our heads fill with comparisons, and worse, we imagine we don’t measure up, or have failed at love.

I bring you reassuring news. The words “failure” and “love” live at opposite ends of the universe. Whatever our disappointments in love, we aren’t doomed to relive them. Our minds may get stuck in unhelpful patterns, but love does not. Love isn’t fixed or static. It’s a quality of the heart, a transformative force that blasts through preconceived ideas and stale assumptions. As my wise and wonderful Buddhist teacher and acclaimed author, Sharon Salzberg, said during a recent conversation, “Love isn’t just a feeling. Love is ability.” We can develop our love skills. We can grow as students of love.

Sharon Salzberg for Love blog postSharon is my spiritual consigliere. At eighteen she left the States for India on a spiritual quest. Fast forward many years and she is now a world-renowned author/meditation teacher and the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts. I seek her counsel because, like many of us, I feel worn down by the grim news around the globe, the sense of escalating violence at home. As a poet and novelist, as a wife and mother, and as a woman concerned about the state of humankind, my work is to examine and articulate the dilemmas of the human heart.

The Conditions of Love, my debut novel, explored familial love, friendship, and a young girl’s first experience of passionate love. My novel-in-progress examines how we can survive terrible things and still keep our hearts open. Over the last year I’ve felt an increased urgency to hone my skills as a “love activist,” to search for new approaches and a new set of behaviors for how to respond to violence and the threat of harm. After reading Sharon’s latest book, Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, I set up a time for us to talk.

Bodhidharma Seated in Meditation by Gahō for Love blog post Sharon, too, has been a lifelong investigator of love. She tells me the story of her younger self who used to think of love “as a commodity in someone else’s hands,” something like a UPS package that others could deliver to her or withhold. When she realized that her ability to experience love wasn’t dependent on others, that love was inside her, her anxiety about being lovable evaporated. Other people or situations might awaken her love, but she “owned her ability to experience love.”

Many of us grow up believing our happiness is in the hands of other people. We forget that the ability to love others starts with the ability to love one’s self. This may seem counterintuitive, even sinful to those of us raised to put the needs of others first. Self-love is a radical idea. How many of our parents said, “You really ought to love yourself better, dear.”

If befriending yourself feels difficult, Sharon advises offering kindness and compassion to ourselves as if we were our own best friend. Part of my own loving-kindness meditation practice is to imagine a very young self held in the arms of an older wiser self. Effortlessly, my compassion flows out to the little one.

But what if love has beaten our hearts and crushed our spirits? While we can’t undo the past, our history doesn’t have to be our destiny. Science validates what the Buddha instinctively knew: meditation can rewire our brains. Our marvelous organ of cognition is adaptable, plastic, and capable of regeneration. We’re not condemned to live out the negative consequences of rejection, loss, or trauma forever. Sharon reminds me that feeling connected to others has beneficial physical effects as well as mental ones: our nervous system functions better and we get more control over pain relief.

Sara Lazar slide for Love blog postNo matter what we’ve been through, however troubled, we always have the capacity to awaken our potential to love. According to Sharon, “real love is trying to come alive in us despite the distortions of our culture and the habits of fear, self-condemnation, and isolation.” We’re born with an innate goodness. Our ability to love is our birthright, a tiny seed that may be hidden from view or damaged by experience, but it is indestructible. To keep the seed alive and help it blossom, we can water it with a meditation practice and attention.

How do we practice love? Imagine every encounter as a love encounter—at the grocery store, on a bus, with a pet, or a favorite tree—let each be an opportunity to experience our connectedness. We can even send love to people we don’t like. His Holiness the Dalai Lama considers his enemies to be his best teachers, and encourages us to think of our real enemies as the fear and anger within. The Buddhists liken overwhelming anger to a forest fire that burns up all the trees, destroying its host.

Is it possible to heal the world with love? At an earlier time in my life, I might have thought this sappy. Now I don’t know. I do know that a dedication to alleviating the suffering of others goes a long way in creating happiness within our own hearts. And happiness can encompass a range of emotions. “Anger and compassion,” writes Sharon, “are not mutually exclusive in the brave and willing heart.”

Recently, my husband and I decided to write a new set of marriage vows after decades of being together. You don’t have to be married, or even have a partner to do this exercise. In fact, I highly recommend it as a way to soulfully connect with any person you love. When I sat in silence and brought an image of my husband into my mind-heart, I saw him clearly, with an appreciation for who he is, not for who I’ve wanted him to be. A quality of love is paying attention. Sharon suggests meditation is “attention training.” Love brings us into the mystery of the present moment, to cherishing the smile we see each morning, or delighting in the goofy antics of our dog. Love is a responsibility to ourselves, to our beloveds, to all beings. In moments of stillness, truth comes to us free of our ideas, associations or desires. We start by keeping our hearts open and our compassion ever-ready.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

Cherubs for Love blog post

Exchanging devotion

mindfulnessThe subject line of an email caught my attention last month: Devotional Exchange. The purveyor of the message hoped to start an interfaith/no-faith exchange and requested I send a number of friends my favorite motivational/devotional poem or meditation. When I looked at the names already on the list, I saw some were dear writer friends. This made me curious. I reread the request and decided to participate. Unlike the chain letter I blogged about in February, good luck was not being offered this time. What I did receive was much richer than mere luck. Participants shared devotional passages they treasured. I’ve copied some of them below. I’ve always felt that when emotional turbulence strikes, or when seeking advice on the human condition—go to the poets! Don’t many of us have a Rumi or Hafiz poem we pull out in emergencies? When I was fifteen and besotted by teenage love, I devoured Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poet Mary Oliver is regularly read at weddings and funerals, and Bob Dylan’s a prophet to some. So, here are some of the devotional pieces that came my way, the first, unfortunately, without a credit.

Always expect something wonderful is going to happen. Your mind is a powerful thing. When you fill it with good thoughts, your life will start to change.


samuel_beckett1Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

—Samuel Beckett, Worstword Ho (1983)

When the shell of my heart breaks open, tears shall pour forth and they shall be called the pearls of god.

—Rumi (13th century)

Try to praise the mutilated world

Try to praise the mutilated world.

Remember June’s long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.

You watched the stylish yachts and ships;

one of them had a long trip ahead of it,

while salty oblivion awaited others.

You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,

you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

You gathered acorns in the park in autumn

and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.

Praise the mutilated world

and the gray feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.

—Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh (2001) [Even though written before 9/11, this poem became affixed to the event when The New Yorker published it for the first time on its back cover on September 24, 2001]


RumiThe Guest House


This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.


A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.


Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.


The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.


Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

—Rumi (c. 13th century) Translated from the Persian by Coleman Barks

davidfw2Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lambsquarter, cutgrass, saw brier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butterprint, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads nodding in a soft morning breeze like a mother’s hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

—David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (2011)

C.G Jung Portrait“To live oneself means: to be one’s own task. Never say that it is a pleasure to live oneself. It will be no joy but a long suffering, since you must become your own creator. If you want to create yourself, then you do not begin with the best and the highest, but with the worst and the deepest. Therefore say that you are reluctant to live yourself. The flowing together of the stream of life is not joy but pain, since it is power against power, guilt, and shatters the sanctified.”

—C.G. Jung, The Red Book: A Reader’s Edition (2009)

whitman_log“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

—Walt Whitman, from the Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855)

Who do you go to for succor and inspiration? I’d love to hear what texts you turn to for uplift during challenging times.