The four shapes of love
“Everything we do or think is either an expression of love or a call for love.”
Love represents the most essential quality that one can share with others and experience within. Yet most of us grow up to view romantic partnership as the ultimate expression of love; our so-called love life. Life seems not to be fulfilled, we learn, unless the right partner gives us “true love.”
Just as family, a significant other can of course represent a very potent source of love. Yet, as we know, not each one of us will be “lucky enough” to find a lifelong love partner. So, you might ask, are some of us simply excluded of the ultimate love experience in life? Of course not.
In some ancient wisdom traditions, such as the yoga and Buddhist ones, love describes a much vaster and more complex state than what romance and ideal family bonds can be related to. In fact, these eastern approaches discerned four different aspects of love that one can directly cultivate with the help of quite practical techniques. These fours aspects, or virtues, of love are (with the Sanskrit and Pali language, respectively, given in parentheses):
- Kindness (maitri or metta)
- Compassion (karuna)
- Joy (mudita)
- Equanimity (upeksha or uppekkha)
To a certain degree, at least two or three of the above virtues might sound familiar to you. Kindness is an act of intentional generosity under the form a positive, uplifting, or gentle approach towards others. Kind comes from the Old English and Proto-Germanic “cynde” and “kundi,” literally meaning natural, native, feeling of relatives for each other. In other words, being kind is considering each other as family.
Joy, from the latin “gaudere”, to rejoice, and the Greek “gaio” or “I rejoice”, is indeed a state of delight, pleasure, and happiness which we commonly associate with a great smile, laughter, and inner tranquility resulting from a deep experience of satisfaction. Seen with this lens, joy is one’s own allowing of being in bliss.
Compassion, literally “suffering with,” can be a little trickier to experience because it requires a radical opening in the first place. Indeed, unless one is willing to turn towards others’ pain without judging it or taking it on as one’s own, compassion cannot exist.
Equanimity is likely to be more intricated and less familiar for most of us. In Sanskrit, it directly translates as “seeing (the authors of such deviant acts) in the right context”. I like to define it as “loving neutrality” towards a given situation. Equanimity too requires a willingness to keep our heart, or our empathy and curiosity, open towards self and others. Differently from the other three virtues, however, it applies to situations we might not like or perceive as directly wrong, unpleasant, or against our values. Rather than fighting against them and the feelings such situations might trigger in us, equanimity is an invitation to show some curiosity and understanding, yet without compromising our integrity.
An example of the applicability of equanimity is in situations when we demonize people who act in ways we view as uncivilized or unacceptable. Instead of judging or even condemning them, responding with equanimity suggests moving beyond the heated righteousness that these people might trigger in us, and rather to find in our own hearts the ability to encompass others’ shortcomings and limited conditions that might result in unethical behaviors. It is not about an all-forgiving and utopic attitude, but rather a willingness to let go of the limited views of the mind, as suggests the ancient texts.
When one can see (the authors of such deviant acts) in the right context—i.e., their upbringing, socioeconomic background, limited experience of love and their true nature—equanimity becomes possible. The subsequent feeling will be one of liberation from the constraining and almost addictive drive for division. Equanimity is not simply a form of love towards others but also represents a powerful tool to use when dealing with the direct consequences of our own blind spots and reactive behaviors.
Both the Buddhist tradition and the classical yoga scriptures of Patanjali present practices and techniques to grow an experience of love through the direct cultivation of each of these four virtues. Patanjali contrast each of these qualities to what he calls “contaminant” of the mind, or the limited perception and behavior or the un-awakened mind. As the figure below illustrates, Patanjali suggests the yogi to practice a specific virtue whenever they discern that they were caught up in the limitation of a particular heated contaminant:
|Instead of the limitations of …||… directly cultivate the expansiveness of:|
|Envy or irritability||Kindness (or gentleness)|
|Pity or condescendence||Compassion (or empathy)|
|Jealousy or ill-will||Joy (or happiness)|
|Righteousness or judgement||Equanimity (or neutrality)|
Compared to the more general, perhaps less precise or applicable, invitation to connect to “unconditional love,” I find the practices above more tangible and effective to foster an expansive quality of love on a daily basis—if practiced regularly.
Developing physical awareness of the heart itself can be equally effective in nurturing an inner knowing of love as a quintessential part of ourselves. There are indeed many ways that can lead to the experience of love and our true nature. I hope this one might support and inspire you in your explorations…