What Is Love?

11/30/2012 12:52 am ET | Updated Jan 29, 2013

"Love your neighbor as you love yourself." Sounds good. But am I really supposed to love him? You don't mean her, do you?

This is how my spiritual journey began. I was seeking practical steps to achieve what seemed like a very idealistic goal: living from love. Raised Roman Catholic, I deeply admired people who seemed to embody love -- Jesus, Mother Teresa, and other saints. Later, I added holy people from many faiths to this list, people who seemed able to love others well -- Gandhi, Buddha, and many more. Love became my "true north" -- my guiding principle for acting from my highest and best self. When I am confused and upset, I need something simple and easy to remember. So my "guiding question" in a tough moment is: "What would love do?" This orients me to my intention -- to show up as love in as many moments as possible.

When I began to create my definition of Spiritual Intelligence, many years ago, I naturally turned to the word "love" as central to what I was trying to express. Spiritual Intelligence, to me, was all about "behaving with love." But I ran into the problem that "love" in the English language is a very vague and imprecise word. We say, "I love my children," and "I love pizza." To express the kind of love that the great wisdom traditions point to, I needed something more precise.

One day I came across a definition of love from the East that read: "Love is a bird with two wings. One wing is compassion; the other wing is wisdom. If either wing is broken, the bird cannot fly." I got goosebumps all over. I knew that I had found what I was looking for. I felt that I was remembering a deep truth. Love = wisdom + compassion.

Now you can see where my definition of SQ comes from. I define Spiritual Intelligence as "the ability to behave with wisdom and compassion, while maintaining inner and outer peace, regardless of the situation."

Wisdom is the best of the "head" or mind. Compassion is the best of the heart. Wisdom not informed by the heart can come across as unskillful or even offensive or harmful. Compassion uninformed by our wisdom can mean well, but can create co-dependencies or enable people who need us to do the harder thing and set boundaries. Wisdom and compassion together became the two pillars of loving behavior. I had found the terms that would allow me to "operationalize" this thing called "love." They represent, to me, the best of the heart and the best of the head coming together to create loving behavior. How can we be loving parents? Loving friends? Leaders? Coworkers? How do we serve the world? We serve the world by being wise and compassionate -- that, to me, is the essence of love.

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