"For one human being to love another;
that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks,
the ultimate, the last test and proof,
the work for which all other work is but preparation."
-- Rainer Maria Rilke
We live in an age when the nature and meaning of love is wildly confusing and widely misunderstood. Controversy and confusion exists regarding honoring or sanctifying loving relationships in the myriad different forms that loving relationship may constellate in, and there are clearly more than 50 shades of grey in how people comprehend and consider what love might be in our lives and relationships.
While a myriad of shallow and confusing images from ads and media, coupled with our own haphazard explorations of love, may lead some people to have a distrust or disdain for the superficialities of love, many scientists continue to seek to discern and fathom the true depths and dimensions of love. The inspired work of Barbara Fredrickson and her brilliant book, Love 2.0, the work of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), and Dr. Richard Davidson's Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin all help to illuminate that love is about bonding, healthy attachment, and deep connection.
Love is about the synchronization and attunement between our personal selves and "other my-selves" that pumps up our oxytocin and optimizes our vagal nerve tone allowing the circuits connecting our hearts and brains to synch up with each other and free us from the overdrive of our conceptual minds over-riding our physiology. Love is about learning to be quiet and receptive enough to allow our mirror neurons to attune to the presence of others, and the "brain coupling" necessary for empathy, compassionate concern, and intimate love to emerge and be shared. Taken to heart and deeply contemplated, these principles regarding loving and intimate relationships can be expanded to help us comprehend what Einstein describes as the remedy to the optical delusion of a separate self that is realized by expanding "the circle of our compassion to embrace all living beings and the whole of nature in all of its beauty."
A deep insight into the true nature and limitless expanse of love came to us some years ago when we were helping to teach and design a graduate course on "Contemplative Education and Transformational Learning" at Mahidol University in Thailand. As our relationships with our colleagues and students developed, we noticed that they would often use the phrase, Metta-Karuna, which, expressed in English, would translate as the inseparability of Lovingkindness-and-Compassion. From the Thai Buddhist perspective Metta, or Loving-kindness, is the quality of love that wishes that living beings live in harmony and well-being, and takes the actions necessary to express this love through helping others to be happy. Metta is complemented and completed by Karuna, which is the compassionate concern that beings might be free from suffering. Karuna is embodied and expressed through actions of body, speech, and mind, intended to protect others from suffering and its causes, or to help to alleviate suffering that may be present for them. Love expressed as Metta-Karuna expresses the fundamental unity of the heartfelt wish for others to be happy and free from suffering.
Classically Metta-Karuna is complemented and completed by two other essential factors. The first is a boundless quality of Equanimity, which holds a quality of even-mindedness, regarding all beings with a quality of equal, non-preferential regard. The second factor is the quality of boundless Sympathetic Joy, that recognizes and celebrates the innate capacity of each being to realize and embody his/her highest potentials. These four noble qualities are regarded are the Four Limitless Abodes or dwelling places. Iconographically, when you see the image of a Buddha, representing the innate potential of all beings to awaken to their True Nature and highest potentials, the Buddha is actually seated upon, and has as its foundation, a double dorje, or crossed vajra, which symbolizes the unity and inseparability of limitless lovingkindness, compassion, equanimity, and sympathetic joy which embraces all beings. When considered together, these four boundless qualities offer a profound insight into the full dimensionality of "love."