A friend of mine asked me for the definition of love the other day. I reached into my spiritual tool box and started to try to put into words a description of Universal Love. I have heard it said many times on the spiritual path that we are supposed to love everyone and everything, and I was doing my best to come up with a definition that could be written down on a flash card. Universal love in twenty five words or less. She was not impressed at all.
“No” she said. “That’s not it at all. Love is a special connection between two people. When you say you love someone, you are talking about a bond between two people. It is the glue that holds them together in a relationship.” She went on to point out that all this spiritual talk about love and about how we are supposed to love everything and everyone removes the meaning from the word.
I have been sitting with this for several days. How can I reconcile these two notions of love? I think the only way to do so is to recognize that the word love is used to describe two very different energies.
The first, the Universal love, or spiritual love, is really a way of being. When we talk of spiritual masters like the Buddha or the Christ, we see that these masters have love that comes from the divine and then when they look out upon the world, love is the lens that they look through. In this sense, love is like a set of rose colored sunglasses. We look out on the world through the lens of love, and then we love all of the things that we see in the world.
The second notion of love is very different. When we say “I love you” to someone, most people think this means something significant. This is where I was running afoul with my sloppy language. It is one thing to understand the principle of universal love and to say that I love all beings as I love myself. Actually, that would not even be true in my case, because I have not achieved anything close to that level of spiritual perfection. There are plenty of things in the world that I judge and dislike. But at least I understand that concept, and if I were to develop true spiritual mastery, then I would be able to say I love all beings.
It clarifies my thinking when I consider relationships that have ended with people who I once had a special bond with. When these relationships have come to an end at a few painful crossroads in my life, the first stage of separation is a very painful process. I have still felt a lot of energy between myself and the other, but the feelings are very difficult feelings. It hurts when we suffer a severance of these relationships. It feels like a limb has been amputated.
So imagine people are like birds or fish. There is a flock of parrots flying around my neighborhood right now, and I can see the little green noisy parrots in the palm tree outside my window. All of the birds in the flock are pretty much the same to me. Let’s say I love the parrots. This does not mean that I love any one of them in particular. There are a bunch of these green birds in the flock, and I love them all. Easy enough to understand.
But lets say I start to feed one of these parrots in particular, and that we start to develop a relationship, until one day, this particular parrot bites me really hard. I will have gone through several stages of relationship with the parrot. First, this bird was a member of a flock, and then I felt about it like I did the rest of the flock. Then I made a special relationship with it, and had a friendship, and then this relationship soured when it bit me. I know have special feelings for this one parrot as a result of the relationship we have together.
So now that the relationship is over, it does me no good to carry negative feelings towards this parrot any longer. I should return it, in my mind and heart at least, to the flock. I should seek to restore for myself the feeling of loving all the parrots that are in the flock, and not having any particular feeling toward this one member.
The same happens with people. When we walk down the street, we see people everywhere. They are like birds in a flock. We can have a sort of universal love feeling towards all of the people we see when we walk down the street. Then, when we enter a special relationship with someone, we can call this love, and we feel a special bond with one person in particular, and we walk the road of a love relationship with them. Sometimes this goes on for life and all ends well, but for most relationships, they end sooner than that, and this causes upset right? And so now instead of love, we have these injured feelings. We look at this one person as different from everyone else.
This happens in all kinds of relationships, not just romantic relationships. We can love a new job, love our coworkers, love our boss, but when things don’t go so well, then love quickly turns.
So the first kind of love is a Universal Spiritual Love that says a lot more about us than about a particular relationship that we have. This is about looking upon the world with kindness and forgiveness and tolerance. If we look at the world through this lens, then we will have warm hearts and good feelings. On top of this we have our special relationships, and these we have to nurture and care for.
And so what have I learned? I have learned not to throw the word LOVE around so carelessly. I have been guilty of saying “I love you” to people without being clear about whether I mean something special. When I tell someone that I love them, I want to be clear that I am talking about appreciating the special bond we share. I need to be clear that I am not talking about my spiritual frame of reference, but about my feelings in particular towards a special relationship.
I am very fortunate that I have several close loving relationships in my life. I am also fortunate that I have some understanding of how having a loving frame of reference can make me a happier person. But I’m not going to confuse these concepts anymore, and I think I’m going to be a little slower to reach for that word so I do not reduce the significance of it when I really do mean it.