Love – A noun or a verb? Valentine’s reflections.

Love was in the air! Valentine’s Day came and went and we turned our thoughts toward love for a day, and perhaps, that someone our lives. I have a someone in my life that I’ve loved deeply for 32 years (my wife) and usually find the pressure of this day a little challenging.  Should I take her out to dinner? Buy her a dozen roses? Or, go big and take her to Paris for the weekend? I ask myself, “How do I express the depth and extent of this significant love in a way that truly honors it?”

This year, I felt more confident. A few years ago, after a rocky period in our relationship, I took steps to change things. When we say “I love you” to each other, which we do frequently, it seems honest and heartfelt. However, at this time, we seemed to be taking each other’s love for granted and not engaging actions that expressed the love in a more tangible way in day-to-day life.

I was expecting my wife to give me the love I felt I deserved, and I was disappointed when I didn’t receive it. Not being fully in touch with this reality, I was acting out in various ways that further damaged our relationship. Once I had this awareness and accepted it, I knew I needed to change – really change.  I needed a shift in my beliefs, my values, and my actions. I dove into a deep pool of self-inquiry and began exploring my own relationship to love. In addition to using my daily yoga and meditation practice for inner wisdom, I sought guidance outside myself as well. I read books, listened to dharma talks, and sought counsel from a trusted mentor.

Previously, I had thought of love in two ways. Love that is received and love that is given. I give it and I get it, hopefully in equal balance. When I reflect on that now, I wonder how I could have been so wrong for so long.  Through my inquiry, I learned about another form of love. Love that is simply there. It is there because it is a natural expression, like the fragrance of a flower. The flower doesn’t exert effort. It doesn’t have a balance sheet. It just is. Perhaps I needed to cultivate a garden conducive to love, so that the flowers of our relationship could bloom and freely give their fragrance. I asked myself, “How might I do this?”

I was drawn to re-examine the Buddha’s teachings on love. I didn’t find much about flowers and chocolates, but I did find the concept of dependent arising and the metta practice of loving kindness. Dependent arising explains a way of seeing things as interconnected rather than simply being about a singular cause for a particular result. With every act, we set variables in motion that will affect the desired outcome. We cannot expect one direct action to lead to an immediate result. In our love garden, it’s not just the gardener who creates the fragrance. Many factors play a role, including the quality of the seeds and the variable climate. But the work of the gardener is also very important. The gardener creates the conditions of possibility through daily care. Such care can increase the likelihood of fragrant flowers blooming in the spring. No guarantees; we can’t control the outcome. However, we can control our actions and try to set up the best possible conditions for success.

Some time after I began this exploration, something came to me in one of my morning meditation sessions. I felt a tremendous surge of love for my wife. It had happened before, but this time I chose to stay with it longer and to notice more. I had an awareness that my recent actions did not line up with the feeling in this moment. I was falling short. I was trying to take a direct route to getting the love I wanted. I was thinking, “If I do this, it will get her to love me.” In retrospect, I see that was selfish. I was full of misunderstanding. As I continued to meditate on this love, my feelings shifted, and what came up was a strong desire to love differently – to perform acts of love without attachment. To make love a verb, not a noun – and to simply set up the conditions arising for love to bloom.

As I meditated further, the intention soon materialized into a simple and doable plan. Every day for one week, I would perform a heartfelt act of loving kindness for my partner. The criteria for choosing my acts also became clear. It needed to be something that I wanted to freely give, and that would also serve my partner in some way. It had to come from my heart, not from a sense of obligation. And finally, I would not seek or expect any kind of recognition or appreciation from my partner for these acts. Instead, my reward would come from the act itself.

The first day, I noticed my wife rushing to make her morning smoothie before heading off to a meeting.  She was trying to multi-task and get ready for the day. I saw an opportunity to help her out and picked up the smoothie preparation to give her time to focus on getting ready. I also took extra care to put her favorite ingredients into the blender. I noticed how good it felt to do this small act to please her. She thanked me for the smoothie, drank it, and rushed out the door. Yet I had felt my reward long before that, and her thank-you was an added bonus to the depth of love I had felt in doing the act. Every day that week, I looked for and performed a new, creative act of loving kindness.

Toward the end of the week, I had another insight in my morning meditation – a nuance to the practice that I had not expected. In choosing the loving acts, I was reviving a great deal of compassion for my mate. To see the right opportunity for my loving act, I had to tune in to HER life experience at a deeper level. I was paying more attention to her. And it didn’t stop there. I had a stronger appreciation of her courage, wisdom, and integrity. I learned more about her and began to determine what would really help her in tough moments. I began listening more deeply, curious to learn more about this wonderful human being. In a short time, our love deepened naturally. This came without her needing to give me anything or please me in any way. Through my actions alone, I was creating the deeper love I had always wanted to express and to feel. And it was simply because I was being more conscious and aware, and I was willing to give one small thing from my heart each day.

Now, several months later, the practice is still going strong. It has become a daily habit for me. A few days ago, as I cleaned the snow and ice from her car, I felt deeply grateful for the opportunity to love her in this way. My act of loving was coming back to me as love. I’m hooked on this practice now, and I am also sharing it with you, as I like what it did for me and for my relationship. It has now gone beyond my original intention, and has created so much to love about my life.

I hope you’ll give it a try. Don’t wait a year for Valentine’s Day. The time for love is now. Take action and make love a verb. Take notice of what happens as a result. I think you’ll discover it’s a gift that keeps giving. And it’s really a very simple practice.

Here are a few brief instructions to get you started:

  1. Meditate or engage a mindful yoga practice today for at least 10 minutes.
  2. Sit quietly and reflect on your chosen loved one. Feel the love in your body.
  3. Take a moment to inwardly appreciate all that this person has given to your life. Feel that in your body too.
  4. Then ask what you have given to your mate. And what you have not given. (No shame or blame, just awareness). Feel it.
  5. Then ask, “What does this awareness inspire?” If you are inspired to be more loving toward your partner, then you are ready to move forward and make your plan. If it doesn’t come naturally, don’t move ahead. Return to Step 1 and repeat. This is not a practice you can fake. There must be genuine desire to love fueling it. When you do feel it, move on down this list.
  6. What kind of acts of loving kindness would serve your partner? How many days do you wish to commit to?
  7. Begin the practice daily, and notice what performing these acts brings up for you: feelings, thoughts, body sensations, a deepening of your connection to your partner, and any new awareness.

Above all, do not expect anything in return. Give freely and without expectation. And no need tell your partner what you are doing or why. Think of yourself as the gardener who loves his work. Enjoy what you do, and allow the reward to be in the act of giving. Then watch the flowers bloom.

Good luck! I’d love to hear how this works out for you. Please share in the comments below.

Michael is the creator of the Phoenix Rising Method based on his personal experience and  the integration of yoga, Buddha dharma, and elements of contemporary psychology. Phoenix Rising now has training programs in several cities in the USA, in Canada, and in Japan and  over 2000 graduates. Michael and his wife Lori are parents to five adult children and live in rural Massachusetts.