With the holidays upon us, I'm thinking a lot about love. Especially as we celebrate not only the winter solstice, but a solstice garnished by the last full moon of the year, what the Native Americans called the Long Night Moon or Cold moon, when our darkest hour is lit up from within by the cosmic feminine, the source of regeneration and birth, of washing up and washing clean, of letting go and letting in, of the stuff of transformation.
Love is the radiant moon, and is also the vast black night in which it shines.
Nothing illuminates our inner life-source like love does, and nor is there a darker abyss than the one we're plunged into in the wake of love's loss. We are wounded in love, and we heal in love. We lose ourselves in love, and we reclaim--and name ourselves anew--in love.
Love's force is elemental, alchemical: every bit as fierce as fire, as forgiving as earth, as cleansing as water, as capacious as air.
To love--without apology, without agenda, for the sheer sensation of it--is to feel exquisitely alive.
For most of my life, I believed that love is what we experience when someone loves us and we love them back. But in the past few years, as I've honed the skill of self-love and learned to take responsibility for how I feel, I've come to know love in a whole new way, and honestly, it's changed my life.
There's the experience of being loved--truly, deeply, sweetly--and this is, without doubt, a delicious thing. But loving is not the same as being loved, and they are not in fact interdependent or contingent--sometimes, yes, but sometimes not.
And even though it feels amazing to be loved by someone we admire and also love, we never feel lovebecause someone else loves us. We might feel valued, seen, understood, cared for, cherished, but we don't feel love because the other person does. Think about it: has someone ever loved you whom you didn't love back? Did their loving create in you the feeling of love?
Love is a feeling we generate by loving.
Love is an action. It is a practice. It is not an accident, it is not passive. And this means that love can be a choice. We can choose to love others for the sheer joy of it. We can practice love for no other reason than we get to. We can decide to fill-our-hearts-to-bursting with love because it feels so darned good to do so.
And what, you may be asking, about those who have hurt us? What about the person you're going to see over the holidays who neglected you, who lied to you, who doesn't "deserve" your love?
I like to think of it this way: love is my birthright. I am, by virtue of my elementally, my start as star-stuff, deserving of love, as much of it as I can possibly muster and hold in this lifetime. Because I understand that no one else can make me feel love, I also know that my love doesn't generate the feeling of love in the person I am loving. Therefore, it is I who am the most deprived when I withhold my love.
Loving someone doesn't mean I need to sleep with them, or partner with them, or even spend much time with them. Love and boundaries in fact go hand-in-hand, because when I generate the feeling of love for myself, I am no longer looking to to another to do it for me, and nor am I holding the other responsible for healing my hurts.
When we take full responsibility for our feelings we free ourselves to love with abandon, just as we strengthen ourselves to enforce the boundaries that serve us. We don't need to curry hate or anger in order to feel safe. In fact, doing so puts us at perpetual risk, because we remain enslaved to the very person we're upset with; we've given them all our power.
Loving, in contrast, fills us up and frees us. One of my favorite teachers, the life-coach, teacher, and author extraordinaire, Brooke Castillo, drives this lesson home more succinctly and clearly than anyone I know. Her podcast, The Life Coach School, is a must. If you are my client, you know this already, because I've assigned you many of her episodes for homework. And if you're not, you're in for a treat.
I invite you to start with episode #27, "Unconditional Love." It's less than 30 minutes long, and you can listen to it, as I do, while exercising or doing dishes or grocery shopping or driving. This episode is jam-packed with insight regarding the nature of unconditional love, how to practice it, why it empowers rather than weakens us, and why it's only ourselves we punish when we withhold love because we don't want to "let them off the hook."
Seriously, if there's one thing you commit to doing in order to ready yourself for the often-anxiety-making experience of the holidays, let it be this.
Brooke has helped me understand that love is always up to me. When my 14-year old boy appears mind-bogglingly oblivious to my acts of care, wanting nothing to do with me, I can choose to withhold my love (become cold, arch, distant), or I can love him anyway. When I choose the former, which I have, he doesn't suddenly decide to spend time with me over his friends. At best, he feels guilty (a sure-fire recipe for codependence), and at worst, he retreats even further. The biggest cost is to me: my insides feel cinched, I'm irritable, my energy is edgy. But when I remember that I get to love my boy regardless of how he's feeling about his mom in the moment, I feel expansive, light, warm, and joyous. And he, as a bonus, finds himself chatting eagerly with me at the kitchen counter upon returning home from his friends'.
Same goes for parents, siblings, exes, and "friends." Choose love because you get to.
Choose love for you.
Here's a practice I use for loving unconditionally, one that is especially helpful for times like these, the holidays looming:
1. Love is a way of seeing, a way of walking through the world. It is a mindset. To love unconditionally is to look at the word through the eyes of a poet, a scientist, an artist, a lover: love says I want to know you (person, tree, sky, building, another's face). I want to see beyond the surface. I want to be surprised. Start by deciding to adopt the mindset of loving.
2. Seek to be surprised and delighted. Start by choosing someone who is fairly easy to love. Maybe a child, or a partner, or a pet. Next time you are with him or her, look on purpose at this other with the intention of discovering something you usually overlook. Maybe it's a gesture. Or a way of saying something. Or how their mouth moves when they laugh. Or how often they blink. Or when they smile, and why. Be on the lookout. Collect these little surprises, quietly to yourself, like treasures. Store them in your mind's eye, in your heart. Make a study of this person's capacity to surprise and delight you. If they do something that bothers you, don't fixate on it. Just notice it, and your own bothered-ness, and move on.
3. Look for the good. I firmly believe that every single person--yes, every person--has inherent goodness within them. And that whatever has, over time, come to block and dull and occlude and even twist that goodness is not lifted via shaming and shunning, but summoned through love. I see this with my students over and over and over. Now, to be clear: I am not saying that it is your job to fix someone or make them whole by loving them into wellness. No. Only they can do that for themselves, by committing to the difficult and rewarding path of self-love. But you can choose to amplify your own loving presence, your own moon-heart, by deciding on purpose to see the good. So, once again, choose someone to focus on: perhaps at your holiday dinner, and the end-of-year office party: decide ahead of time that you are going to witness the inherent light in this person. As with the above exercise, you are going to collect expressions of goodness, quietly and joyfully, and tuck them inside of your heart. Maybe you notice the way he or she looks you in the eye. Or the way he shuffles anxiously, betraying his wish to belong. Or how she breaks into dance at a certain song. Be on the lookout for the good, and I promise you you'll find it.
And finally, lest you fear that the practice of unconditional love will make you dull to the true atrocities and pains of the world, I assure you the opposite is true: the greater our capacity for love, the more unflinching we are in the face of pain, and the more efficacious we become as agents of healing and transformation.
With this, lovelies, I wish you the best of holidays, and a truly joyous new year.