by Julia Kristeller, MEd
In her hit song, Tina Turner begs the question:
What’s love got to do, got to do with it?
What’s love but a second-hand emotion?
What’s love got to do, got to do with it?
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?
She may be singing of her own heartbreak, but also echoing the woe of many love songs.
Most of us do know that love’s got to do with a lot of things, beyond just romantic love and heartbreak. The role of love in our lives has always been the stuff of singers, poets, philosophers, and theologians. Most clinicians, healers, and now even neuroscientists and the rare politician, recognize the importance of love in relationships, work, healing, and well-being for individuals, families, communities, and even our world.
February hosts a celebration of love and hearts. Valentines line shelves from the day after Christmas. Prices for roses, boxes of chocolates, and romantic dinners soar. This flurry of commercialized romantic “love” can literally make one see red, especially if one is alone or has a broken heart.
As an Interfaith Minister at PSI, I look for creative and healing ways to celebrate our often over-commercialized holidays. Ironically, Valentine’s Day happens to be a favorite. I see it as a chance to focus on the universal heart of the matter – love in its many forms, as a source of strength and healing within us and around us that is foundational across spiritual traditions. Not just amour (romantic love), or eros (sexual passion) but philia (loving friendship), storge (affection as with family), philautia (self-love), agape (universal love), and others (1).
I work mostly in community settings in healthcare and with recent immigrants. In comm-unity, (with-unity) we can help one another connect to the resilience and spirit of our own hearts and experience the diversity within ourselves, and the other. Most of us, especially those who have suffered, know the power of love and when it is present, in ourselves, in others, and in our world – and when it is not. We can feel when our hearts are open and when they are closed, in turmoil or in judgement of ourself or others.
I like to use Valentine’s Day as a reminder to simply open our loving hearts and connect, starting with loving ourselves. This possibility of self-love is captured in this love poem by Derek Walcott:
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Healing is like that. Therapy can be like that – to “greet yourself arriving at your own door.” To “love again the stranger who was your self.” We can own, unite, and heal the desperate and disparate parts of ourselves and our stories that we have held in judgement and pain, and even projected onto others. New possibilities in the way we see and love ourselves, can open us to new possibilities in the way we see and are capable of loving others.
Self-love, loving your own image, your own story, your own spirit, your own creative capacity – embracing and feasting on your own life, is a challenge. Some find their way through their spiritual life and practices, some through their creative endeavors, some through seeking professional help from a therapist.
How can we practice self-love and the healing and opening of our hearts? I recently heard Sharon Salzberg, a master teacher of LovingKindness (2) or Metta Meditation, speak. This simple Buddhist practice includes a repeated sequence of phrases such as “May I be happy, may I be safe, may I be free of suffering.” These phrases are then restated for someone close to us, someone we feel neutral about, someone we have difficulty with, and finally for all beings.
In her new book, Real Love (3), Salzberg quotes from the film Dan in Real Life: “Love is not a feeling, but an ability.” As an ability, or inner capacity, we can choose to access and to practice love. The “loving” in lovingkindness is not about romantic love or even liking or interacting. It is our fundamental connection to our whole self and to the wholeness of others, recognizing our shared humanity. And kindness is not just sweetness and niceness – fluff as some think, but about experiencing and treating others as kindred.
Neuroscientists and psychotherapists have been studying such meditation practices to explore some of the healing forces of connecting the heart, mind, body, and spirit that ancient Shamans and Yogis grasped. In a Scientific American issue on the Neuroscience of Meditation, Lovingkindness meditation was reported to stimulate and even change parts of our brains. In caregiving professionals, it created compassionate responses vs. anxiety and burnout that a flooding of mere empathy might engender (4).
There is much to study about what it means psychologically, physiologically and neurologically to “listen to” or “think with our hearts,” and how “love” plays out in our brain. Yet we can intuitively and spiritually know the power of love in our lives and work.
So whether or not you “have a Valentine,” take time to practice Lovingkindness, self-love, and an open heart this month and beyond. Break out some colored paper and dollies and create a Valentine for yourself, a family member, an unlikely soul in your community. Write a love letter or poem to yourself or sing yourself that love song. Spend time with loving friends. Grab a rose and connect with a lonely elder. Share some love through a charity with folks you don’t know. Imagine your heart connected to others you might not have considered before.
And if your heart feels broken, seek help to heal through your own spiritual and creative resources, or possibly from the diverse community of spiritually informed therapists at PSI, who acknowledge the power of relationship, connection, and yes, love, in our work with one another and our clients.
- Psychology Today: Blog posting June 25, 2016 https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201606/these-are-the-7-types-love
- Salzberg, Sharon. (1995) Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
- Salzberg, Sharon. (2017). Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection. New York, NY: Flatiron Books.
- Ricard, M., Lutz, A., Davidson, R. (2014). Neuroscience Reveals the Secrets of Meditation’s Benefits. Scientific American. Volume 311 (Number 5) pages 43-45. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/neuroscience-reveals-the-secrets-of-meditation-s-benefits/