TLDR: Being in love with love is different from being in love with a person. Being in love with another brings sadness, excitement and passion. Being in love with love brings peace, joy and rapture.
This is a reflection piece as contemplated by the author based on the Buddha’s teachings. As such, it may not contain the truths as taught by the Buddha. The author hopes the reader takes away useful bits that may resonate and discard whatever parts (or the whole article) that make no sense without any aversion.
I have not listened to popular music for quite a long time. I wouldn’t know what are the most popular songs of the last decade. I also have not had that intense rush of passion or interest in another person for that same amount of time. Recently I decided to listen to songs of my youth. I don’t know if it is the right choice because these songs brought up particular memories for me.
It is interesting how most of my strongest memories have to do with my youth. I am guessing raging hormones of youth brought about stronger emotions that led to deeper impressions made on the mind. According to Buddhist cosmology, we have been reborn countless times–however, as the music carried my mind to the past, experiences of my youth still seem so fresh in my mind as if I’ve lived them for the first time.
What is love?
Love is too big a word for anyone to express. In Western movies, characters who express love toward one another make it seem like a big deal. But still, that is not love.
The word, “love”, is used too frivolously in our society.
We romanticise feelings for another person just as we romanticise love itself. Love in its true meaning is unconditional. Unconditional love is hard to find on earth.
The closest would be that of a mother’s love towards her child. Therefore love would have the elements of sacrifice, forgiveness, compassion, perseverance and faith.
The mother is also able to let the child go because of love. But she is readily available when the child needs help.
Attachment not love
If you are unable to wish your other half happiness and goodwill if s/he leaves you, what you have is not love but attachment.
Also, if you are unable to accept and forgive your partner’s bad habits with patience and compassion, that is not love. What we have is attachment and a sense of responsibility towards our partners.
I found that in all of my relationships, I have never really loved anyone. I would do things to make myself feel better and make others feel bad in the name of love. There is an egoic possessiveness towards all of them. Looking back now, I can only feel compassion for my own ignorance and for the ones who had to suffer me.
Our obsession with love
The human race is always looking for love. This is evident from the many popular romantic and breakup songs in pop culture.
We seek happy endings in love. Many years ago, a friend’s father passed away. The only wish he had not fulfilled was finding true love. This is even after being married, begetting children and divorcing. That is because I was judging my friend’s father from my perspective. I would not marry unless I love the other. Therefore I was surprised he was still seeking true love on his deathbed.
I have not consciously looked for love with another person for the longest time. Although that thought did pop up every now and then. Listening to songs of my youth reminded me of my first love and despite it being such a long time ago, I still cherished that relationship and have goodwill towards my first love. The relationship brought up bittersweet memories. But the relationship is not something I would like to experience again.
Recently, I witnessed a friend’s misery and happiness from her attachment to her partner and it reminded me of the pitfalls of romance.
Romance brings about happiness only when the other meets our conditions and vice versa.
Being in love with love
There is a way to be in love and be happy without involving another person. That is to be in love with love itself. In all religions, from Christianity, Buddhism, Sufism to Sikhism, there are practices on the contemplation of love. Love is universal as taught by all religions, and we seem to have misunderstood love by trying to find it in another person.
Jesus and the Buddha (two of whom I am most familiar with), both taught and possessed unconditional love. These two great teachers were themselves unconditional love and so they did not need to seek it from elsewhere.
It makes sense why they need not seek love from others. If we feel that we are enough and full of love within, we will have lots of love to share and there will be no need to get it from others.
In Buddhist practice, the Buddha taught us to cultivate love in our hearts and to share it with all beings. I think the difficulty lies in cultivating love in our own hearts because we are so used to romantic love which is dependent on the sight of another. Though love itself and our ‘love’ for another differs in quality. Our “love” for another is narrow because we only can love the object of our affection and depend on this object to further grow this love in our hearts. Love, in reality, is wide and does not depend on others to do certain things or be a certain way for us to have love in our hearts.
How to cultivate love in our hearts?
Buddhist meditation teaches us various ways to develop love in our hearts. One way is to think of a person we love and respect and to pay attention to the love that arises in our hearts.
We then radiate it throughout our bodies and spread it out in all directions.
You can also spread the love by thinking of various people, animals, the earth and the universe. It helps to smile when doing this meditation because smiling relaxes oneself and helps to develop love and kindness.
Similarities between being in love with love and with another
When we are in love with another person, we can’t help but think of that person. We feel drawn to that person, we yearn to understand them and to know their secrets. We want to be united with that person, to be intimate and to relate to him or her. We also hope to be able to please our partner.
When I was doing a home retreat on loving-kindness, that was how I felt. I enjoyed thinking about love. That love in my heart contained elements of joy and lightness. I wanted to draw close to it and was not interested in others. However, I did not go deep enough to become intimate in that love or to know its secrets.
Thinking of the Buddha to cultivate love
For those who need the image of another to bring up love, you can always think of the Buddha or other religious teachers.
I thought of the Buddha’s immense love and compassion for all those around him. This exercise managed to cultivate those qualities in my mind during meditation.
However, I am not spending enough time thinking about the Buddha’s qualities of love and compassion in daily life. I wish it would occupy at least two-thirds of my mind at all times.
Being in love with love is indeed different from being in love with a person. Love that depends on a person includes elements of sadness, longing, discontentment and excitement.
One could even get depressed when ignored or rejected by the object of attraction.
But love itself is different. There is no rejection, no longing, no sadness or excitement. Love includes feelings of joy, peace and rapture.
Since it is virtually impossible to find love from another person, perhaps we can only love another when we ourselves become love by being in love with love.
Love begins from the self. To be able to love others, we have to love ourselves. Love is like a fire on a candle that lights up the room. Start to love yourself by first forgiving yourself.
Bring to your mind a living spiritual friend whom you admire and think of his or her qualities of love.
Contemplate the loving kindness, compassion and equanimity of the Buddha. Thinking of these qualities can also help to bring up these feelings within yourself.
TLDR: Grief is not a stranger to me. I have overcome cancer treatments and I understand the fear of losing someone close to me. Here is my story and why closure is not always a necessity.
Once upon a time,
Birth and Death were lovers.
They have always been in love and
had never been separated.
But one day,
Life separated them.
Like all great love stories,
They will find each other again someday,
because they always belong together.
Birth & Death are inseparable.
Grief is not a stranger to me. I have overcome cancer treatments and I understand the fear of losing someone close to me. It started with my grandparents, my good friends, and then my father.
I have not seen my father for over a year after my cancer treatments because he was suffering from Pneumonia, an infectious disease. Due to my low immune system, I had to move out and keep a distance away from him. How do you say goodbye to the person when you are not right by their side? Grief only becomes harder. It hurts a lot and it took me some time to go through the grieving.
Death is a selfish B*tch. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old. It can happen anywhere and at any time. There is no warning or a good ending. Death never left anyone behind. The lucky ones will get to depart first. The one that stays on will linger on a bit longer facing grief.
Death will eat you up, mess up your mind and when someone we truly love dies, it can feel like the end of the world.
I remembered the story of Kisa Gotami vividly from the Buddha’s chronicle. After losing her only child, she went crazy, holding her dead son desperately seeking someone that could bring her son back to life. Her grief was paralysing so an old man advised her to look for the Buddha, a man well known for his wisdom.
The Buddha asked her to find mustard seeds from a household where no one had died so he could bring the child back to life. After hearing this wonderful news, she eagerly went from house to house, but to her despair, every household had suffered from a loved ones’ death. Eventually, the realization struck that there is no house free from death. She buried her son and returned to the Buddha, who comforted her and preached to her the truth.
I always wonder why would the Buddha agree to save her son although it is not possible?
The first stage of grief is self-denial, refusing to believe that the person had gone. There is this strong attachment that keeps holding on to the person. Buddha is a wise teacher, had he not assigned Kisa Gotami an impossible task she would not have understood the inevitability of death by herself.
We don’t have to find “closure.” Seeking closure is akin to someone trying to ask a question with no answer. Closure personally for me seems harsh, like trying to shut the door and end it with a bang. How can you shut down the love you had for someone?
The ability to face the truth is better than closure, it allows us to come to terms with what’s happening. It can help us to process the overwhelming reality of death.
Grief is like a stream running through our life, and it’s important to understand that it doesn’t go away. Our grief lasts a lifetime, but our relationship to it changes. Moving on is the period in which the knot of your grief is untied. It’s the time of renewal.
— Martha Beck, “Elegy for Everything”
Dhamma is the best Psychiatrist
Dhamma helps to clarify. There is no right or wrong way to grief. Everyone has their way of coping with it.
Don’t let anyone judge how your grieving should be. Some people travel, some people take a break from their job and some people just need to get help from a professional by seeing a psychiatrist. The truth is it will get better as time goes by.
However, it takes effort to understand the Dhamma, read what Dhamma has spoken about death. The purpose of Dhamma is to help our mind to expand and grow, to clarify. It should uphold us and create an inner sense of peace, joy and clarity.
No one can tell you how long this grief will last or how to make it right.
What is important is that we should stop concentrating on what we have lost and instead acknowledge what our loved ones have achieved in this life. Doesn’t it make sense that life is not subjected or defined by how long we live, but by how we make an impact on our surroundings, family and friends?
When a caterpillar metamorphoses, it doesn’t want the other caterpillars to feel sad for him. Instead, every caterpillar knows it will get through this process naturally. There is no pain, no sorrow, and no guilt. It is merely how nature works. No one can stop the metamorphosis. Death is just a temporary end to a temporary phenomenon.
Also, part of me selfishly focused on my grieving and on what I’ve lost, failed to understand that this person doesn’t belong to me and his presence is not existential. Our loved ones are not born for us to grieve. I realised that everyone, not just me, had experienced grief before and we have to understand that everyone was born to die.
We all will become someone’s ancestors someday.
After the preaching from the Buddha, Kisa Gotami was awakened and entered the first stage of enlightenment. Eventually, she became an Arhat (An enlightened being that goes beyond birth and death). We too can work towards enlightenment by realising these small truths of grief along the way.
Don’t let the grief destroy love, shatter hope, corrode faith, suppress precious memories that you have for the departed.
Closure is not necessary. Don’t beat yourself hard by asking questions that don’t come with an answer.
A lot of the suffering in life is stems from ill-will, anger.
That’s why whenever there is a loss and grief, it’s often associated with ill-will and anger as part of the symptom of grief. It’s the opposite of love. It is fighting reality, fighting the world.
“This shouldn’t be. This mustn’t be! I’m not going to let this.”
It’s controlling again.
When you cry for someone who is dead, who are you crying for? You’re not crying for them. You’re crying for yourself. You want them around, now they are no longer there. It’s not a selfless love, it’s a self-love.
“I want to control life and death.”
“I want all the people I like, to be around.”
“All the people I don’t like, may they drop dead.”
“For all the people I really love and care for, I want them around for a long long long time.
That’s what people think, isn’t it?
Life is like a concert
The detached love can actually love death, can love separation, can love things going wrong, can love mistakes. It embraces them; it embraces death as this wonderful sunset ending the day. It embraces it like the simile I say of the ending of a concert. Stand up, give an ovation to the band or the orchestra. You shout for more, you scream, you feel so good.
This is what we do in Buddhist funerals. You give a standing ovation for the person who has died. What a wonderful life. It’s been such a wonderful concert, so great knowing you. Thank you so much.
The door of my heart is open to you. My heart is open to the reality of life and death.
In fact, all the people you like and love, they will only be with you for a matter of days, months or years. It’s like a concert. When you go into that concert hall, you know it’s not going to last forever, but you still go in there and enjoy every moment.
TLDR: Set your boundaries, learn how to self regulate, and listen with openness
Does family = sacrifice?
Being born in a typical Asian family, I have always been expected to excel in everything that I do. Honestly, as long as what my parents expect of me is reasonable, I do not really mind that. I know that they have done so much for me and doing well in life is just one way I can repay them. Besides, having them push me forward will help me grow as a person.
The problem is what happens if what they expect of me is way too demanding and I fail to achieve those goals that they have set for me. They will be so upset and disappointed in me. Being a generally filial daughter, I do not want that to happen. I love them and I want them to be happy.
However, the continuous chasing after those ambitions can sometimes be suffocating, that it jeopardises my wellbeing. The questions then, does familial love really have to be sacrificial? Can we not find a middle ground where we both can be happy?
The answer is of course we can. I have been to two extremes from rebelling against their words to following everything that they want. As you might have guessed, both methods did not work. I did not feel happy doing them. The Buddha taught the Middle Way and we can use the concept to balance parental expectations and what we want in life.
Tips for juggling with parental expectations:
(disclaimer: these are what work for me. If you find that any of the tips below do not apply to you, you may choose to ignore it.)
1. Build a relationship with your parents that is based on open communication
Communication is key in any relationship. If you want to build a harmonious relationship with them, make sure you spend time with them. Having time together allows you to understand one another on a deeper level which makes communication easier. In that way, you know what kind of attitude and tone to adopt when discussing your concerns with them.
For example, if your parents expect you to take an engineering course in the university, but you know that your passion is not that and you will dread your decision if you simply follow what they want you to do, then, talk to them in a way that you both can reach a conclusion.
While you acknowledge their concerns (e.g. stable career), you explain to them why engineering is not suitable for you and why choosing another course of your choice will be better in a long run (e.g fulfilling career). I am sure that if you talk to them logically with realistic reasoning, they will eventually understand you.
Also, when explaining our concerns, we can practise the five factors of right speech taught by the Buddha (AN 5.198). The five factors are that a statement must be spoken at the right time, spoken in truth, spoken gently, spoken beneficially, and out of goodwill.
It is also important to understand that communication is a two-way process. Just like you, your parents also want their opinions to be heard. A lot of conflicts arise not because we think that we are right and the other person is wrong, or vice versa, but because we feel that we do not get the respect that we deserve. Hence, it is important to practise effective listening if we want communication to occur smoothly.
2. Set your boundaries
It is important to understand that you are not an extension of your parents’ ambition.
As much as you want to pay back your parents’ kindness, you need to understand that you are not perfect.
There are times when you fail and that is alright. In fact, it is great that you experience failure. In that way, you know where you are lacking and where you can improve on. You do not need to feel guilty for not achieving something. Be kind to yourself and thank yourself for doing the best you can.
Also, instead of always asking what your parents want you to do, start asking what you really want to do. Because you are the pilot of your own life, not your parents. There is a difference between repaying your parents and living all your life for your parents. Understanding that, you will not be stuck with the oppressive feeling of guilt for not living up to your parents’ expectations.
3. RELAX (breathe in, breathe out, repeat)
I know that it is not easy and extremely unnatural to be relaxed when you are expected to be the best all the time, outdoing everyone else. However, being tense will only result in you underperforming because instead of focusing on what you need to do, you pay attention to your negative emotions. Then, you feel guilty for being negative which makes you even more negative and this vicious cycle continues.
The thing is, my dear friends, when you are relaxed, you can face problems with a clearer state of mind. With a clear state of mind, you can better understand your parents and why they expect certain things from you. When you are calmer, you can also perform to your fullest potential, thereby achieving your goals and meeting your parents’ expectations.
A few ways to relax are:
a. Practising mindfulness through meditation.
There are many benefits of meditation including feeling less stressed as your stress hormone, cortisol, decreases. When you are not as stressed and anxious, the condition becomes more conducive for you to relax. One mobile app that I use to keep my meditation practice in check is insight timer. There are many guided meditations if you are new to meditation 🙂 You may consider using it too!
b. Changing your perspective.
Rather than expecting tasks to be accomplished to see tasks as adventures to experience. Inducing some form of fun can also help you to calm down.
Jotting down your emotions in a form of journal, music, or poetry. Externalisation of your emotion can uplift your mood and alleviate your emotional burden.
In conclusion, I believe that when parents expect something from us, it is usually out of goodwill. It is just that when they fail to see things from our perspectives, their expectations become overwhelmingly unrealistic and difficult to achieve.
Know that you are not alone in this and a lot of us experience the same thing. I hope that this short sharing can be of some help to you and I hope that you can better juggle with your parents’ and your own expectations. Jia you!
Find a routine that increases your mindfulness and centres you
Practise holding multiple perspectives, you do not have all the right answers