Every choice that we make is predicated by the people we hope to love in the future and the people we love in the past.
“The ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered. And you don’t have to do anything about it. You just have to keep asking. And before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.”
— David Whyte, On Being interview “The Conversational Nature of Reality”
“Love is not a category of relationships. Nor is it something ‘out there’ that you can fall into, or — years later — out of,” explains Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, in her book Love 2.0. “Love blossoms virtually anytime two or more people — even strangers — connect over a shared positive emotion.” Fredrickson, who teaches in the psychology department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, calls these moments of connection “positivity resonance.” This expansive, science-based approach to love offers us many chances to experience it in the course of a single day. While it’s not easy to set aside the Western idea that true love must be exclusive, lasting, and intimate, we have a lot to gain by letting it go. That 90-second conversation you had with the stranger this morning while walking your dog? If there was eye contact, a sense of connection, and mutual respect — that’s love. Whenever we exchange smiles or friendly gestures with strangers, or take a little extra time to have warm exchanges with people we see every day, those “micro-moments of positivity” change us at the biological level. Princeton University neuroscientist Uri Hasson, PhD, a pioneer in neural mirroring (also known as “brain coupling”), examined brain scans of subjects in conversation. What he found was surprising, Fredrickson writes. “Far from being isolated to one or two brain areas, really clicking with someone else appears to be a whole brain dance in a fully mirrored room.” In good communication, she continues, “two individuals come to feel a single, shared emotion … distributed across their two brains.” The vagus nerve is also involved in forging personal connections. It stimulates the facial muscles necessary for making eye contact and synchronizing our expressions with others; it even helps the tiny muscles in the inner ear better track another voice amid background noise. We appear to be programmed to harmonize with fellow humans. Micro-moments of positivity resonance also improve our health, she notes. “People who experience more caring connections with others have fewer colds and lower blood pressure, and they less often succumb to heart disease and stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and some cancers.” When our hearts are open, love happens. All day.”
Usually we imagine that true love will be intensely pleasurable and romantic, full of love and light. In truth, true love is all about work. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wisely observed: “Like so much else, people have also misunderstood the place of love in my life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure was more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, just because it is the extreme happiness, can be nothing else but work …” The essence of true love is mutual recognition – two individuals seeing each other as they really are. We all know that the usual approach is to meet someone we like and put our best self forward, or even at times a false self, one we believe will be more appealing to the person we want to attract. When our real self appears in its entirety, when they good behaviour becomes too much to maintain or the masks are taken away, disappointment comes. All too often individuals feel, after the fact – when feelings are hurt and hearts are broken – that it was a case of mistaken identity, that the loved one is a stranger. They saw what they wanted to see rather than what was really there.
True love is a different story. When it happens, individuals usually feel in touch with each other’s core identity. Embarking on such a relationship is frightening precisely because we feel there is no place to hide. We are known. All the ecstasy that we feel emerges as this love nurtures us and challenges us to grow and transform. Describing true love, Eric Butterworth writes: “True love is a peculiar kind of insight through which we see the wholeness which the person is – at the same time totally accepting the level on which he now expresses himself – without any delusion that the potential is a present reality. True love accepts the person who now is without qualifications, but with a sincere and unwavering commitment to help him achieve his goals of self-unfoldment – which we may see better than he does.” Most of the time, we think that love means just accepting the other person as they are. Who among us has not learned the hard way that we cannot change someone, mold them and make them into the ideal beloved we might want them to be. Yet when we commit to true love, we are committed to being changed, to being acted upon by the beloved in a way that enables us to be more fully self-actualised. This commitment to change is chosen. It happens by mutual agreement. Again and again in conversations the most common vision of true love I have heard shared was one that declared it to be “unconditional.” True love is unconditional, but to truly flourish it requires an ongoing commitment to constructive struggle and change.