Jack Kornfield’s recently published book, No Time Like the Present, contains many insights related to our Dharma practice. Tonight is the second in a series of Dharma talks that present highlights from each chapter. Chapter two is titled “Free to Love” and begins with the question, “What good is a clear mind if not wedded to a tender heart?”
Neuro-scientific research shows that love is a necessity. In the absence of bonding and nurturing, individuals and societies suffer. Close emotional connections change neural patterns and allow for empathetic responses. Jack quotes Thomas Lewis, MD, author of A General Theory of Love: “In some important ways, people cannot be stable on their own.”
This past weekend, my husband Mark traveled to New England to visit Glenn, our longtime friend, a talented artist, who recently tried to kill himself after Parkinson’s disease robbed him of the ability to paint. Glenn had been living alone like a hermit, too embarrassed by his shaking hands to eat in public restaurants. Yesterday, in his hospital bed, Glenn told Mark that he now feels that it is worth living with a debilitating chronic illness to sense the outpouring of love from his family and friends since the failed suicide attempt.
While Mark was with Glenn, I attended a celebration of life at St. Thomas University and a memorial concert at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in honor of another dear friend, Joe Romano, a local musician who died in August of brain cancer at the age of 67. On the cover of the program was a quotation from John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” The auditorium was packed with family, friends, and parents of troubled teenagers, whose lives had been enhanced by Joe’s guitar lessons. Not an eye was dry as Joe’s widow Susan Elliott gave an eloquent tribute to her husband and musical partner of 35 years. During the concert, Susan and fellow musicians performed some of Joe’s heart-wrenching compositions and sold CD’s that he had recorded. The band of Joe’s older brother “Rock” Romano brought the love fest to a climactic close. As we shed tears and cheered on the musicians together, those of us in the audience felt united and uplifted by our shared love for Joe.
Jack reminds us that the 13th century Italian poet Dante’s epic work, The Divine Comedy, was inspired by a single moment of love. Jungian analyst Robert Johnson describes how young Dante fell in love at first sight with a beautiful woman named Beatrice as she stood on the Ponte Vecchio overlooking the Arno River in Florence. Shortly afterwards Beatrice died of the plague. She became the grieving poet’s muse and anima, the bridge between his soul and Heaven.
650 years later, during World War II, American troops were chasing the German army up the Italian peninsula, as the retreating Germans were blowing up everything in their wake to stop the Americans’ progress. But nobody wanted to blow up the Ponte Vecchio, because Beatrice had stood on it and Dante had written about his love for her. So the leaders of the German army made radio contact with the commander of the American troops and said that they would spare the Ponte Vecchio if the Americans would promise not to use it. The promise held, the bridge was not blown up, and not one American soldier or piece of military equipment crossed the bridge.
The sage Nisargadatta stated, “Wisdom says I am nothing. Love says I am everything.” Love and spacious awareness are our true nature. Consciousness knows each experience, and love connects everything. We can all be caught in fear and separation until our loving awareness remembers to include and cherish those emotional and mental states too.
Love is inclusive, generous, and down to earth. Father Greg Boyle, author of Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, writes about his ministry with gangs in LA’s immigrant community. In the 80s, he designated Delores Mission Church a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. Newly arrived men from Mexico and Central America would sleep each night in the church, and women and children slept in the adjacent convent. One morning Father Boyle found the insulting words “Wetback Church” spray-painted across the church’s front steps. Upset, he announced to the congregation that one of the ex-gang members he was mentoring could clean off the graffiti. To his surprise, Petra Saldana, a normally quiet member of the church, stood up and declared, “You will not clean this up! If there are people in our community who are despised and hated and left out because they are mojados (wetbacks), then we shall proudly call ourselves a wetback church.” Her message embodied fierce solidarity, compassion and love.
When we open to any form of love, others feel it. Neuroscientists call this limbic resonance. Our mirror neurons and whole nervous system are constantly attuned to those around us, and love is communicable. When Neem Karoli Baba was asked how to get enlightened, he responded, “Love people and feed them.”
We may feel too wounded by family trauma, rejection, abuse, or neglect to love. Yet each of us is a mysterious, unique, amazing being, fully worthy of love. The poet Rilke writes, “Ultimately it is upon your vulnerability that you depend.” We are born and cared for by others, and we are dependent on the web of life. We eat from farmers’ fields, we trust other drivers to stay on their side of the road, and we rely on the water department, the utility web, teachers, doctors, nurses, and firefighters to sustain our lives. Mother Theresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.” When we honor our vulnerabilities and our dependence on the community of life, we open to love.
W.H. Auden advised his readers to “love your crooked neighbor with your own crooked heart.” We can remember that love is our gateway to freedom. Jack warns that whenever we cling to a lover, a spouse, our children or anyone at all, we suffer. He says, “Commitment isn’t about loving another person only when he does what you want and meets your needs, or when she fulfills your ideas for her life.” Ideally, we commit to love them just as they are and devote ourselves to their flowering. The paradox of love is that it does not grasp, but it is spacious and free to bless. As Jack notes, “We love best when we let go of expectations, just as we pray best when we don’t expect a certain outcome.”
According to Meher Baba, “to have loved one soul is like adding its life to your own.” True love, given freely, blesses the one you love and frees you at the same time. This is love that is openhearted, spontaneously offered, caring no matter what. Our commitment is to love, and our dedication is to honor the heart’s connection.
Most of us have trouble loving our physical body. Eduardo Galeano writes, “The church says the body is sin. Science says the body is a machine. The marketplace says the body is good business. The body says, ‘I am a fiesta.’” Jack counsels us to love being alive. Along with learning to love the body, we can practice loving our creative, distracted, overworked mind as well as our anxiety, depression, longing and wisdom. We can connect with loving the food we eat, celebrating our survival at the end of each day, and opening our senses to the mysterious communion of life wherever we are.