“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” — The Bible
I’m not sure if I had ever known love, like I do, if it weren’t for my past experiences with the psychoactive substance called MDMA, or ecstasy as it’s commonly referred to. It blew my eyes open to a whole new mode of being, something that ended up rewriting my priorities in life. Since then I’ve pretty much left MDMA in the past for reasons summed up by Alan Watts rather eloquently: when you get the message, hang up the phone. Instead I have incorporated the Buddhist practice and philosophy in my life to further cultivate that noblest of things, which is love.
Love as a word has become a meaningless slur. It has strong positive connotations, very true, but no meaning. Yet love is something very distinct, something very powerful at the heart of most of this world’s religions. If you look closely enough, love is the ultimate form of meaning in our lives, yet it’s so hard to convey — especially in a secular world with the attention span of the Internet. It’s misinterpreted by the fool and deemed irrational by the clever. This is my attempt to tell you what true love is. And for this I’d prefer to take you to the beginning, a night some years ago when I was going out to dance with friends and a pill in my pocket.
How I came to find love
It was a rave in the middle of the city. We waited the queue, went straight to the bathrooms, popped the pills and headed to the dance floor. Pretty much on schedule, an hour or so, the effects came rushing in. Things started to feel heavy; the music was pulsating through the room and I no longer felt good to fight those waves with my aggressive motions but rather flow through it smoothly, tenderly even. I’d found a new kinetic language that I still use to connect with myself and others to this day.
And I guess this girl saw what was happening. I opened my eyes and there she now was, this tribal angel graciously flowing in sync with me, smiling, looking into my eyes. No. Looking into me. In that moment I was already stripped of all my guards, all my notions of an outer appearance and was connecting with my being in its entirety; expressing my soul rather than a social mask invented to please.
Well, how did I react in this moment? Under all that ecstatic rapture of MDMA coursing through my blood-brain barrier, the substance eminent in its promise of treating war veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I still managed to have a panic attack. My chest… I couldn’t breath. I had to get out of there. I forcefully dragged myself from the spot, went upstairs and finally took a seat from the outskirts of the venue. I was asking why? I was supposed to have fun, enjoy myself… Why?
One of the therapeutic effects of MDMA is that it creates love and through it dissolves fear. Some things, so painful that we don’t even allow them to move into our conscious mind, can now be seen, addressed and dealt with. And in this blissful consciousness then be re-written in our minds as something less painful. So the thought occurred to me. Well, not a thought really, but rather an epiphany.
I didn’t really love myself.
That was it. I had, during my life, during countless of subtle choices created a persona, because deep down I believed that whatever there really was inside was bad and unlovable. And now showing that something to someone made that scar ache so intensely that I had no other option except to acknowledge its existence, and MDMA gave me the courage to admit it. I went out to party and here I was in the verge of the biggest existential epiphany of my life. God damn you, drugs. Not even once, they say.
The rest of the party I just sat there with my newfound eyes of love, quite baffled of it all. The venue was exactly the same, but I was different, thus everything was different. I used to think most of the girls in this club scene superficial, shallow, intimidating even, all these bad things. I saw them now but that wasn’t what I saw. I saw them teetering across the room with their high heels, adjusting their dresses, correcting their hair. I remarked those subtle yet nervous glances they shot around the room. Such fragile creatures just wanting to be noticed, just wanting to be accepted. They had gone through so much work in choosing the clothes, putting on the make-up, walking in those painful shoes just to have someone hold them and love them.
And at that moment I loved them. This was love. My god…
Religious philosophy as the vehicle of love
So what is love then, that ultimate truth conveyed by prophets for the last millennia? When Jesus said, “love your enemies”, did he perchance mean that I should like them very, very much? Maybe eventually marry them? No, of course not, that’d be stupid. To love and to like are two different things — a distinction, I believe, the Buddha managed to explain far better. Please let me offer some context.
Buddhism is a practice established to alleviate suffering through meditation and philosophy. The Buddhist observes his or hers mind quietly while focusing on the breath. Illusory notions such as good or bad are to not be identified with. Rather than condemning the thought “there’s a very bad itch in my neck, I better scratch,” one simply observes it. One tries to observe the raw reality, not these pre-conceived notions and labels we’ve learned to instinctually assign to it. What does it really feel like to have an itch? What does the emotions evoked by it look like? In our mind? Or what about in our body? What am I actually experiencing right now and how does it effect me? The meditator comes up with a very clear view of the nature of the mind: one sees the true value of certain experiences, how they’re formulated and where they lead.
Buddhist philosophy argues that we suffer because we’re ignorant, mainly of three things:
Impermanence — We expect things to last forever and remain unchanged when, in fact, things are always changing. Change is not something to be feared but embraced. Things are valuable exactly because they’re not forever, because we need to pay attention to them now, not tomorrow. But things are also not that important because they’ll never be forever. If you’re depressed now, it’s hard, but it’s impermanent, and the world will look very different soon enough.
Unsatisfactoriness — Nothing in this world can make us permanently happy and content. We are, by our nature, insatiable wanting machines. Still we spend our lives running after things believing our peace and happiness is dependant on things rather than our way of thinking about them.
No-self — This last is told to be the hardest of the three to comprehend. One way to understand this would be to understand the problem in identifying with our thoughts. If we are unmindful we feel we’re angry and it feels like it’s us that’s decided to do unskilful things in the next few moments. But that’s an illusion. If we’re mindful enough, in an enough meditative state we can clearly see that there is anger inside of us, but that anger is not us. We’re not angry, we’re merely perceiving anger. In this mindful anger you have the possiblity to say: “I’m sorry. There seems to be so much anger in me that I can’t see straight. Let’s have a break of whatever we’re currently doing.”
Most if not all things on this planet are, fundamentally, acting under these illusions. They’re recoiling from pain instead of perceiving it with equanimity, they’re running after transitory feelings of happiness always ending up disappointed, and finally they continually try to prop up and defend an egoistic self that’s never the same from one moment to the next. We try to be happy and at peace, but life is hard, and we end up doing unskilful things. That’s the human condition.
Buddhist love: Metta
So here comes the biggest revelation of love: when one thinks that, “I need to have myself someone who loves me, and then I’ll find lasting happiness”, that is the ultimate illusion comprising all of the above three. Love is not about grasping transitory pleasures in hope for egotistical fulfilment. This romantic love was invented by artists of romantic era Europe in the 20th century, from where all your classic fairytales come from. The love, which I’m referring to here, religions usually have their own names for it, but because of my Buddhist background, I’ll use the Pali word, Metta.
Metta is not primarily an emotion but rather a trained habit of mind, which then leads to the feeling of it. Metta is simply the result of deeply understanding the human condition. When you look within and see your own human failings, see suffering, where it stems from, how it affects us, you understand yourself. You laugh at your own silliness: “Oh that’s why I acted so foolishly ha!” And when you understand yourself you finally understand others. It follows that if you truly understand someone, you see that given the same experiences, the same situation, the same temperament and knowledge, you yourself would’ve acted exactly the same. There’s no longer self-righteous judgement, but understanding. Only illusions can be hated.
So is a, say, violent person who wishes to inflict harm upon you, happy and at peace? No, he isn’t, he is suffering. Wishing to inflict more suffering to this person is not going to make anyone suffer less, not even yourself. It’s the exact opposite: suffering breeds suffering. Thus we should wish all the best to our enemies, not as a pious sacrifice, but because that’s simply how the world works and we’re no longer ignorant. The less that person suffers, the less of our enemy he will become.
Moreover, how we feel about others is intimately related to how we truly feel about ourselves. Our minds are full of visitors and not all of them are exactly pleasant. There’s pride, jealousy, bitterness. And, according to mainstream psychology, we can only recognise these things in others by first finding a reference point to them in ourselves. So in order to see pride there always has to be a certain portion of it in ourselves as well. So is it a wonder, that when we feel contempt towards other’s failings, it’s such a wearing emotion? Hating others is always in some form hating parts of ourselves as well.
But it may be worth mentioning that having Metta towards the human failings of yourself and others isn’t about turning blind eye towards them. Unskilful actions are still a problem to be dealt with. A mother who refuses to see anything wrong with her child ever is not a loving mother, she’s a delusional mother whose self-worth is attached to the silly notion of having a perfect child. This is simply a form of egotistical fulfilment. Metta on the other hand evokes a certain softness which empowers us to not recoil in pain and sink to the level of biases, defence mechanisms and delusions, but to accept reality as it is. This is where true transformation stems from. So having Metta fundamentally changes the relationship we have with ourselves as well as others.
So as said, love is not something one goes out to find in the world — unless we’re talking about that fickle form of love that the Greeks called Eros, sexual passion. Love is something one practices to experience. And the more one experiences love, the more one can see love and receive love. It has no direction, but it just is. I prefer the metaphor “eyes of love”, because it perfectly captures what it’s about.
One of the easiest way to get this path started is to go somewhere in this world where it’s perfectly legal to enjoy 160mg of MDMA and experience the dissolving of ego in a, for the lack of a better word, spiritually conducive and serene setting. Preferably go through this experience with a safe and trusted person. Then in the future work to reflect on that past experience: remember how it felt, and how it was brought about by your own neurotransmitters, how that experience can be, in some ways, part of your everyday existence, if you want it to.
But there are subtler ways as well. Buddhists have many forms of meditation, and one of these forms of meditation is specially designed to cultivate Metta. I, personally, find it especially helpful on bouts of depression, times when I can’t seem to accept myself as I am and feel a complete failure as a person. It’s a peculiar feeling to be in that dark hole one moment, practice Metta, take a walk — and 15 minutes later see the world around you transfigured into a place of warmth and acceptance, like a mother’s embrace. The effects can be quite dramatic, but alas, oftentimes they’re more subtler and slowly compounding than that.
How to do Metta meditation
Here’s how Buddhists do Metta meditation: Lie down with your eyes closed in a pleasant spot that’s not too hard or too cold. Open your body, have your face upwards, hands on your side, and legs next to each other. Take some time to relax and feel your body. Feel your chest moving, air flowing, the clothes against your skin. Be in the present moment. Now that you have established some initial mindfulness in the present moment, let’s establish some more.
Notice your breathing again. This time focus on the rims of your nose. Notice the air moving back and forth. How it changes the feeling of temperature in your nose. Try to let go of the breathing. This is not a breathing exercise but an exercise in your awareness. Try to see the breathing more and control the breathing less. Where does the breath end and where does it start? Or is it a continuous flow?
Your mind may wander a lot. You just spent 5 minutes thinking about that thing at work, or what you’re planning to do after this meditation, but gently bring your awareness back to the current moment, to the breathing. Don’t try to struggle, notice the struggle. How does it feel to be struggling? In your body? In your mind? Let your breath be the anchor where you bring back your awareness when it starts to wonder. And don’t worry if you notice yourself wondering: noticing one’s inattention is actually a moment of learning, not failure. Those are the moments your practice goes forward. You can also help this with counting, if you want to. Just note the numbers from one to ten in accordance to your breaths to have a bit of extra control of your awareness. And then start from the beginning again.
When thoughts or itches come back, just lightly pay them the compliment of your pure, undivided attention. Our awareness is like mental acid: it slowly chips away whatever you put into it. But lying doesn’t work, you’d only be lying to yourself. We need to accept whatever is in our awareness, trying not to recoil from it or cling to it. Let go of that in-order-to mind: “I’ll now look at this thing here in order to achieve these things x, y, and z…”
You may do this 30 seconds, 5 minutes or an hour. No matter what you choose, the goal is to be more grounded in the present moment and calm that monkey mind a bit who wants to be anywhere but. So we can do our practice. It’s a lot like standing very still on a murky pond; after a while all that sand drops to the bottom to reveal wonderfully clear waters. Well, now that we’re mindful, now we can start cultivating Metta itself.
What we’re gonna do next is to choose four people: yourself, someone who’s very dear to you (but not a lover), a neutral person to whom you don’t feel anything special, and finally, someone you don’t like at all. Go through all these people in that order and repeat the following phrases: “May you be happy, May you be healthy, May you be safe, May you live with ease.” While you’re thinking saying these things, imagine those people in front of you. Try to feel the message and the intent of what you’re saying.
You really want to your best friend to feel healthy and safe. What does it feel in your body to really feel these things for an important person? You may feel something at this point, or you may not. Your compassion is a muscle in need of training, and your awareness is a skill in need of refining. It’s all OK. But if you feel something, that feeling is what we’re trying to cultivate here. Now bring that feeling to the second person, the neutral person, and send them Metta. And finally go to the person you dislike and do the same. At this point some people may even cry. And others may not. It’s all good.
Now, here’s some tips and tricks you can use. First of all, if the sentiments you’re sending feel somehow very impersonal, you can substitute them with something of your own. What do you wish for yourself and your loved ones? What would happen if you wished those same things for others as well? If you feel it hard to send Metta for someone, try imagining them as a child. Try imagining hugging that innocent child. What kind of experiences did it have to go trough to become what he or she is now? And if you find it especially hard to send love to yourself, make yourself the last person to send Metta to. In that way you’ve already established a lot of Metta the time you get to yourself, and it’s a lot easier at that point.
Ideally, during the practice, you’ll feel something growing inside of you. You’ll feel how that something changes how you see yourself, your enemies, the world. To me it has a softness, a warmth and a feeling of safety in it. And there’s compassion. In that state we’re not directed by fear, what would happen if we don’t do something, we’re directed by love, what we feel needs to be done. And that actually feels terribly good, not hurtful.
Now you’ve practiced Metta meditation. Remember, it’s like going to the gym. Some times you feel this terrific burning in your muscles and you feel like you could take over the world. Some times everything goes to hell and you’re wondering why you’re lifting these weights. Anybody who does muscle training knows what I’m talking about. But they also know that every time you get home from that gym, you’re stronger. The same applies here.
And you can always come back to this text and remind yourself that what was it that you were actually doing and trying to achieve. We tend to forget these things. There are books on meditation that I’ve read three or four times, and every time they teach me something new or forgotten. There’s only so much intricacies we can learn or understand in a given time with a given experience.
Good luck on your meditations, friend, and may you feel loved and at peace.