“We cannot reach any higher
If we can’t deal with ordinary love..
Are we tough enough for ordinary love?”
~ Lyrics by U2 from Ordinary Love
From the moment I first heard these lyrics, they stuck with me—sounding through my head at quiet moments like a summation of much of what I believe. Whether or not the words were intended in the way in which I heard them didn’t seem to matter (and I’ve yet to see the movie for which the soundtrack was written).
As often happens when words are strung together by writers and musicians, they are received in different ways depending on who hears them.
Much of my life has been about trying to reconcile the gap between the heights that I know we, as a species, are capable of when it comes to love, and what tends to show up as normal reality for many people. And I’m finding, as many others have, that no matter where or how we find love, we eventually have to deal with grounding it through our everyday experience of reality.
The greatest romances, most ecstatic spiritual states and most visionary of solutions to human misery all have to be brought to life through our day-to-day interactions with each other and the wider world. Approaching it from the other direction, the ability to open our hearts to our nearest and dearest is essential in our hope for a world which is war-free and tolerant.
“But I find it easier to love at a distance—it’s much less messy.”
This protest from a male friend of mine a few years ago perfectly sums up for me the challenge that many of us have in remaining loving while also dealing with what life tends to throw at us. Perhaps, in this case, it also shows the masculine preference for detachment compared with the more typically feminine urge to merge. But I still understand what he meant.
How easy it has sometimes seemed to take to the hills and sit on my solitary cliff loving mankind from a distance.
My friend was going through a difficult time—work had dried up, he had a young family and his relationship with his wife was far from strong. He was finding it almost impossible to feel love in his heart for those closest to him, no matter what spiritual practice he turned to. Loving the world from a place of detachment seemed an easy option compared with trying to love his squabbling kids and cold partner from close up.
Roll forward again a few years and I saw him with his young son last week. They were sitting by a lake together, tossing pebbles into the water and watching the pattern of ripples that emerged. He looked so comfortable in his skin, and so connected to his son, that I had to ask what had changed for him.
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” he said, trying to find words for something he hadn’t articulated before. “I guess I realised that I just kept trying to escape from the challenges of being a husband and a dad, hoping that if I did enough courses or spent enough time meditating some miracle would happen and all the problems would go away. Really I just needed to find a way of dealing with the ordinary stuff without shutting down or running away.”
He made it sound so easy in retrospect, yet I knew it couldn’t have been.
“No, it wasn’t easy at first,” he laughed. “Every bit of my ego kicked and screamed for a while at the idea that I had to stay put and practice opening my heart, no matter how pissed off or wounded I felt. It worked though, after a while.”
And this, for me, is the crux of it.
It’s a practice and it can sometimes take time before we consistently feel ordinary love. We all want to feel love—not the abstract, distant, ‘California, I love you’ type of love that emanates at the end of a rock concert or from a guru on a platform. We long for the love that says ‘I see who you are and love who you are, no matter how I may react to what you do or say’—a love from those close to us who experience our ups and downs and still find us worthy of love. And we have to be capable of giving such love—both to ourselves as much as to others—if we are to receive it.
So what gets in the way of our ability to feel ordinary love for family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues, among others?
As my friend so eloquently said, it’s quite often the messy stuff—the small things that irritate us when we have to deal with them on a daily basis. The way a partner becomes hyper-critical under stress or a child won’t co-operate with our plans; a personality clash with the guy in the next office or the neighbor’s dog roaming free in our garden when we’re not around. They seem petty things to get wound up over but people have been killed for less and, over time, they can mount up to a serious challenge to the flow of love.
If we can’t find a way of lovingly dealing with differences of attitude and behaviour at this level, what hope have we of finding love in our hearts for those who are more significantly different to us—into which category we could also include our concept of God?
Can we honestly say we love God or citizens of a distant country if we’re unable to love those we encounter as we go about our daily business?
There is far from lack of agreement on how best to reach this Holy Grail of many quests—loving what is.
Do we spend hours in mantra meditation, erasing past imprints and raising our vibration? Do we find a tantric partner with whom we can raise our energy? Do we dedicate ourselves to serving humanity and find fulfilment through devotion to others?
The path that suits us best will depend to a great degree on our personality. But, as usual, I have a fondness for keeping it simple and some of what my friend discovered when he finally gave up struggling against his life can be used by all of us no matter what path we feel drawn to exploring.
- Make direct eye contact with those around you (and yourself in the mirror). It is easier to be open and loving when we connect with each other at a level that is deeper than words, appearances and behaviors. When we look to connect with someone at a deeper level, we find we have more in common than we have differences. My friend found when he took a few seconds to look into his children’s eyes—even if they were screaming at each other—he got a sense of a deeper reality that he could respond to.
- Make time for love. We get so busy, chasing goals and commitments that we forget to create a space in our lives where we can deliberately foster love. This can be shared time with a lover but it can also be time out to listen to music or to sit in nature. We make time for reading and writing as kids, for driving, yoga and whatever else as adults, until we reach a level of proficiency. Why can’t we think of love in the same way? If we can practice finding the frequency of love on our own, it makes it easier to find it with others. We have a fundamental need for love and without finding ways of charging our own cells, we have little to share with others.
- Reflect on reactions. It all starts and ends with ourselves. By taking a few minutes to watch our reactions to people and events, we become more aware of what’s happening deep inside us—what our own hidden attitudes, beliefs and agendas may be. This can help us to understand and to find loving solutions for situations that trigger negative reactions in us. My friend said that one of the things he started to do was to deliberately hold back for a few seconds before responding at times when he felt himself react. It wasn’t any deep spiritual practice or complicated method, but when he paused briefly before reacting to his partner’s jibes and his children’s fights, it gave him just enough time to decide what response, if any, fitted the situation best.
- Experiment with other perspectives. Trying to walk a mile in another’s moccasins can help us to quickly see how different reality appears depending on how we look at it. Taking time to see things from another’s perspective can get us out of our trenches and open us up again to love. The eyes of a child, a wounded adult and a stressed young mother all see the world in very different ways. When we understand others, even a little, it makes it easier to love them.
- Practice self-compassion. Yep, there’s that word again—practice. And hidden in these three words are probably the deepest keys to allowing ordinary love to flow. Compassion—a sense of wanting to be understanding, of wanting to find the positive in situations and people. Self—reflection back on ourselves. And practice—dedication to regularly repeating a particular behaviour, activity, thought, etc. When we make a regular habit of trying to find understanding and acceptance of ourselves—of ensuring our own basic needs are met—it becomes the foundation from which to understand and accept others, breaking down inner fears and feelings of defensiveness that often separate us from love.
Perhaps it’s not so much a case of being able to deal with ordinary love but rather of being able to love in ordinary circumstances that opens the door to reaching higher. We all go through easier and more difficult times in life, and there’s no doubt that there are certain times when loving our fellow human beings comes more naturally than at others.
But when all feels right with the world—when the virtuous cycle of love is in full flow within a relationship, family or work unit—it is so much easier to spread a wider love into the world.
Reaching a place in our lives where we are willing and able to share love openly with ourselves, with our families at home and with friends, predisposes us to being open-hearted with others, even those who may appear to be on the other side of cultural and moral divides.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise