How do you love?
In my early 20s, I went through Rolfing, a form of deep-tissue bodywork, and I nervously anticipated the fifth session, the one that goes deep into the belly. But instead of gobs of repressed emotional pain, what poured out was love -- waves and waves of love that I'd pushed down due to embarrassment, fears of closeness, and my struggles with my mother.
It felt fantastic to let love flow freely. Compassion, empathy, kindness, liking, affection, cooperation, and altruism are all in our nature, woven into the fabric of human DNA, the most social -- and most loving -- species on the planet. Love is a natural upwelling current inside us all. It doesn't need to be pushed or pumped, it needs to be released. If authentic love in any of its forms is bottled up, it hurts. For example, one of the greatest pains is thwarted contribution.
Has any aspect of your own love stopped flowing freely?
Besides feeling good in its own right, opening to love heals psychological wounds, builds resilience, and supports personal growth. In your brain, love calms down the stress response and reduces activation in the neural circuits of physical and emotional pain. It nourishes moral behavior and helps keep you out of needless conflicts with others. And cultivating a loving heart is central to spiritual practice in every tradition.
Begin with the experience of love in any form, such as caring, goodwill, friendliness, support, appreciation, seeing the good in others, compassion, fondness, kindness, or cherishing. Can you soften and open to this experience? In a particular relationship or in general, can you make room in your body and mind for love?
Is it painful to feel love because it stirs up old frustrated longings... so that you dial down the love to suppress the longings? If so, this is understandable and common. Try to help yourself by letting the longings flow, too, so that they gradually ease and release. Meanwhile, bring awareness back to the love itself, which will lift and protect you. Amazingly, flowing in or flowing out, love is love; wounds from not receiving love are often soothed and even healed by giving love.
Sometimes people feel overwhelmed when they connect to others with love. Repeatedly sensing into your breathing and body can help you feel stable as "me" while opening to "we." See what it's like to feel both loving and centered in your own strength, respecting and sticking up for your own needs; fences make for good neighbors.
Since the brain gradually tunes out what it's used to, try to see others newly, taking some seconds at least to recognize the being behind the eyes. For example, I'll imagine another person laughing with friends, or feeling hurt, or as a young child.
No one can stop you from loving. I once had a difficult relationship issue and I finally realized that I could simply love this person even if the love needed to be mainly if not entirely internal to me. Not coincidentally, I began feeling better in the relationship and over time, the other person became more comfortable with me.
You can offer your compassion and good wishes even if there is nothing you can do to make a situation better. Your love is still sincere and still matters. What others do with your love is on them, not you. All you can do is make the offering. You can love even as you disengage from sticky entanglements, wishing people well even if you need to step back from them.
Love comes from an inner freedom in which you're not controlled by negative reactions. It also leads to a greater freedom in your mind, relationships, and world. Love is a kind of solvent, gradually dissolving the neurotic knots inside your head. In touch with love, you feel less vulnerable and have more room to breathe, speak, and act with others. And walking through the world -- whether down a busy street or out in the woods -- as no one's enemy, giving others no cause to fear you, with good wishes and kindness in your heart and face, you feel more like stepping freely into today, and into tomorrow.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist, a Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and a New York Times best-selling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (in 14 languages), Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (in 25 languages), Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time (in 14 languages), and Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he's been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA, his work has been featured on CBS, BBC, NPR, CBC, FoxBusiness, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and O Magazine, and he has several audio programs with Sounds True. His weekly e-newsletter - Just One Thing - has over 100,000 subscribers and also appears on Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and other major websites.