In life, things always go wrong when we depend on another for fulfillment.
When we depend on another to fill us up, our well-being is contingent upon countless factors completely out of our control.
And yet, we go back to love time and time again. Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we continue to put ourselves in harms way without a second thought?
The fundamental problem is a lack of self-worth. It’s a lack of self-worth that draws us towards others in an attempt to feel loved. It all comes down to an issue of love.
We believe intimate love to be of the highest calling, that thing which will truly fill us up and allow us to become fulfilled for the rest of our life.
If you're thinking, "that's SO me", don't worry, it's so common I've found it to be almost universal (I was the same way myself).
When I say low self-worth, I really mean you have a lack of love for yourself. And because we all need love, if we’re not finding it within ourselves we inevitably go somewhere else to find it.
This is often the reason we turn towards over-indulging in things such as food, sex, and intimate relationships.
By far the most common version of this is the idea of “the one”.
Perpetuated by stories from movies, books, and T.V., the idea of that one special someone coming along some day and changing our lives forever (leading to lasting happiness, etc., etc.) is a deadly myth.
True love between people is in fact possible, and it can be a beautiful part of life, but if acted on without wisdom and understanding it almost always becomes a source of great suffering. Relationships aren't bad, it’s when we try to fulfill our need for love in others that things go wrong.
When I was in my early teens, I had my first love. Her name was Stephanie. I was crazy about Stephanie in every way imaginable and couldn’t have imagined spending the rest of my life without her.
But then she broke my heart...and I was left crushed and very confused (for quite a while).
I had attached practically my entire source of peace, happiness, and self-worth to being with her to the point where when I lost her I felt completely empty.
With time I got over her, but it wasn't until just a few years ago that I realized exactly why we're so attracted to falling in love.
I saw love as the “end-all-be-all”, the highest calling in life and the thing which fulfilled a person’s desire for real happiness.
It makes sense when you think about it, falling in love promises us a total escape from the humdrum of everyday life and a flurry of intense emotions like few things allow us to experience.
Ultimately, if you have no other concept of something higher than it, you inevitably gravitate towards intimate love.
But there is something higher- true love. It’s available to you in every moment of every day and doesn't depend on finding romantic love.
The ways we suffer because of love
Intimate love can be a beautiful and wonderful part of life, just in the way that connecting with anyone deeply can be very fulfilling, but at the heart of your being it can’t take the place of true love. True love can only be cultivated from within yourself.
Love, true love, is the ever-present nature of all things. It’s a love defined by compassion, caring, and kindness towards ourselves and all other beings.
When we have true love, we feel as though everything is at peace. When we lack true love, we feel as though there’s a crevice within our hearts which we just can’t fill no matter what we do to try and fill it.
The problem is many of us don’t know true love exists, let alone how to cultivate it, most importantly starting with love for ourselves (self-love). And as a result, the place we most often go to fill ourselves up is through intimate relationships.
The pain we feel as a result of intimate relationships doesn’t just come from the disappointment when a relationship goes wrong though, it happens on all stages of the search for, and act of being in, love:
- Having not found someone yet, but still placing our sense of fulfillment in being with someone, we feel empty and as if our life has yet to begin.
- Being with someone, but still not feeling fulfilled, we become confused and frustrated and sometimes that even leads to adultery.
- When our partner doesn’t fully align with the image of our ideal partner in our heads we’re left confused and frustrated and end up either forcing the person to become someone else or quitting on the relationship altogether.
- When our love leaves this life, we’re once again left feeling empty because our entire sense of self-worth had always been placed upon them. The suffering we feel when we lose a loved one is real and unavoidable, but it’s something we can either be ruled by or overcome through equanimity.
The reason we suffer is always the same: we search out intimate relationships with others in an attempt to fill the feeling of “voidness” in our hearts due to a lack of self-love (or true love, which is boundless and includes all beings).
So, what are we supposed to do? Are we doomed to the cycle of pleasure and pain that is intimate love? Should we avoid relationships altogether? Or is there another way?
3 Ways Intimate Love Keeps Us from Peace and Happiness and How to Transcend Through Self-Love
Self-love is possible for everyone and there are easy and practical ways to cultivate it, both as formal daily practices and as informal practices within daily life.
The most important thing is to allow this idea to sit within your consciousness:
You don’t need someone to be happy and at peace.Fulfillment does not require intimate love, it only requires true love which is cultivated from within.
The more aware you become of this idea the more you’ll begin to see things arise within your life and in your mind that align with this idea, and the more easily you’ll be able to move towards it.
Below, you’ll find 3 major ways in which intimate love attempts to keep us from peace and happiness along with my suggestions for what to do about them:
1. Transcending the idea that “I need someone to be happy/feel complete"
Whether you’re with someone now, or are seeking a partner, this is arguably the most critical point because it deals directly with the heart of the matter- looking outside of yourself for fulfillment.
It’s a mistake though to think getting over this requires some intellectual process, or some cheesy affirmation (“I love myself!”). This requires to cultivation of true self-love.
Closely tied to this is taking care of yourself in a general sense, in other words nourishing your mind on a daily basis. Someone who meditates formally and makes the intention to be mindful in their daily life will inevitably have less of a problem with this because not only will they feel more at peace and at ease in a general sense, they’ll also have a clearer mind with which to notice when these thoughts and feelings arise.
So, how do we cultivate self-love? The heart of self-love and true love cultivating practices is loving-kindness meditation (or LKM), which is a simple and rather enjoyable form of meditation in which the meditator generates positive feelings of love, caring, & kindness and transfers them from one person to another, starting with yourself and moving up from someone you love to someone you hate (or at least dislike) and finally letting these feelings expand to all beings.
"The general idea behind LKM is that you’re sending well-wishes, or positive thoughts, to yourself and others...
...here are the instructions for practicing loving-kindness meditation:
- Hold an image of the person in your mind. Make this image as clear as possible and feel your connection with the person. - Generate feelings of love. Chant/say your mantra to yourself or picture beautiful imagery. - Imagine sending those feelings of love to the person. Let those feelings swell as high as they will go. - Imagine transferring those feelings of love to the next person. From you to someone you respect/who cared for you, then to a friend/family member, then to someone neutral, then to someone you dislike, all of those people together as one, and finally to all beings.
The general advice for beginning practice is to focus on each person for 3-5 minutes and generating love for them before transferring it and moving on to the next person."
Loving-kindness meditation is a great "formal" (as in daily, scheduled) practice which can be done easily in a few minutes at any time of day.
By practicing loving-kindness meditation you'll not only begin to generate self-love, but love for all beings, and those will both serve you infinitely for the rest of your life.
2. Overcoming attachment to an idea and accepting the person as they are
If you love a person, you say to that person, "Look, I love you, whatever that may be. I’ve seen quite a bit of it and I know there’s lots that I haven’t seen, but still it’s you and I want you to be what you want to be. And I won’t be happy if I’ve got you in a cage. You’d be a bird without song.”
- Alan Watts
Due to the stories we’ve grown up with from T.V., movies, books, and even games and the ideas which have accompanied them and ripened in our consciousness, many of us have developed certain ideas about what our perfect partner would be, or will be, like.
This isn’t just unrealistic, it’s harmful because our imagination will never match up to any living and breathing person.
What ends up happening is we search out someone based on these imaginary qualities, hoping to fulfill as many as possible in one person, and then pursue. Once we’ve been with the person for some time though we realize they’re not our perfect man or women and have a number of their own faults or “flaws”.
These faults or flaws are really just moments where the idea we have in our heads of the perfect lover doesn’t add up with the real person though, wherein we naturally resist and cause friction with the reality of things.
Some people try to change the person, some people don’t bother and decide to go elsewhere, and some bang heads endlessly not even completely sure what’s wrong with the relationship in the first place.
But we need to realize that our partner won’t ever match up to this perfect image in our minds. This image is nothing but an idea. An unrealistic idea perpetuated by fantasies, not reality.
But that’s totally OK, because if you take the time to truly accept the person as they are, something interesting happens.
You not only realize they’re perfect just as they are, but, now having the right water and sunlight, they blossom into the beautiful flower you know them to be. This is the power of true love.
In mindfulness practice, we’re nonjudgmental with what arises. We accept whatever arises fully and openly without labelling it “bad” or “good” or dividing reality in any which way.
We welcome what comes with the fullness of our being. And when we do this, good and bad fall away and what we’re left with is a grounded sense of peace and equanimity.
In just the same way, when we discover someone whom we can love and trust we need to be willing to openly accept them fully if we ever hope to experience their true beauty.
In my post, Why This Piece of Zen Wisdom is Critical to Helping Your Relationships Thrive, I talk about this very thing. If you’d like more information and actionable advice on how to deal with this point, I’d suggest checking it out (you can read it here).
Keep in mind though, to do this you need to establish a firm base of self-love before anything else can happen. We can’t expect to have the confidence to let go and allow the other person to be who they are without first being able to stand on our own two feet.
In just the same way that mindfulness is the basis for accepting without judgment, it’s also very important for cultivating self-love, because it’s through mindfulness that we can identify self-destructive patterns and make a shift towards nourishing ourselves instead of breaking ourselves down.
Plus, simply the light mindfulness shines on these issues often makes them lose much of their power.
3. Cultivating the equanimity to let go of a lost love
This is perhaps the most difficult of the three points I mention here.
This includes not just someone who got away, but most especially when your longtime love leaves this life, and as a result leaves you feeling empty and meaningless.
In such situations, it’s not realistic to think that the pain we feel for a lost love will just float away one day. Sometimes in life we experience things that are unavoidable and will affect us deeply.
But the problem isn’t that these things happen. The problem is that we’re still attaching our sense of self-worth to them to the point where we’re not just deeply saddened and sorrowful but altogether paralyzed by the lose of their presence.
Life goes on, and human beings have a remarkable ability to get back up and move on, finding real happiness even just a short while after a traumatic experience. But we need to give ourselves the opportunity to be happy again, and so long as we attach our sense of self-worth to the person we’ll never be let free.
To practice loving-kindness with ourselves is to set ourselves free in a very real sense. It gives us the ability to fill the illusory void which exists in our hearts and move on with our lives in peace.
Loving-kindness doesn't just have to be practiced in a formal sense though, you can send yourself (and others) loving-kindness at any time of day. To learn how to practice "everyday loving-kindness", read How to Overcome Daily Challenges with Loving-Kindness Meditation.
But there’s more to this process than just self-love.
True love is a very significant teaching, not just in Buddhism but in many of the world’s spiritual traditions. True love hints at the understanding of interconnectivity between all beings, the interbeing nature of all things and people.
With diligent meditation practice, we can begin to realize the truth of this universal love for ourselves, even if only slightly at first. When this happens, we can begin to see others in a stronger light, as if the lines which once separated “you” from “them” have started to fade.
In this way, by practicing mindfulness in day-to-day life and connecting with others in positive ways, we can see our love in those we meet and interact with.
This doesn’t just expand our true universal love, but it also helps us come to peace with those we’ve lost (it’s all connected).
No matter what stage you’re at on your path to pursuing intimate love, you don’t need another to make you whole.
Intimate love between two people can be beautiful and amazing, if both partners can move beyond attachment and on to a place of "whole-heartedness”, but know that at the heart of your being you’ll always have everything you need within you to realize true peace and happiness just as you are.