We are sometimes confused about the nature of love, and this confusion is well-founded, because love and attachment are often (or usually) intertwined. There’s a pertinent sutta in the Middle-length discourses of the Buddha, #87, “Born from those who are dear” or “Born from the Beloved”.
In the discourse, the controversy starts when the Buddha tells a grieving father that our loved ones are a source of sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress. Many people, especially those grieving, insist on the contrary, that our loved ones are a source of joy and happiness. This question goes round and round until it reaches King Pasenadi and his wife, Queen Mallika. Mallika, a devout and accomplished follower of the Buddha, explains:
“What do you think, great king? Do you love [our daughter] Princess Vajirī?”
“Indeed I do, Mallikā.”
“What do you think, great king? If she were to decay and perish, would sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress arise in you?”
“If she were to decay and perish, my life would fall apart. How could sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress not arise in me?”
“This is what the Buddha was referring to when he said: ‘Our loved ones are a source of sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress.’ … (translated by Sujato Bhikkhu – full sutta is here: https://suttacentral.net/mn87/en/sujato)
So the point is, if our joy and happiness depend on the health, welfare, and presence of others, then we are continually at risk of the pain and sorrow of losing that joy and happiness. Many of us understand this and have chosen to risk (and probably suffer) great pain to enjoy great affection. This is not an unwise decision.
We want reassurance and reciprocity in our love relationships, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we can tinker with the balance between pure love and the needy kind. The “divine abodes” of loving-kindness (mettā), compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity are also called boundless (mental) states because they flow freely from our hearts and don’t depend on circumstances.
There’s a classic Steven Stills song from 1970 titled “Love the One You’re With”, a title that could be taken as an anthem for the divine abodes. Although the lyrics describe a more romantic form of love, when we’re experiencing mettā, it radiates freely, without picking and choosing its objects.
Wherever we are, we can embody unfettered good will towards all who are present (and absent). We can generate and enjoy a deep wish for the welfare of ourselves and others at any time:
- when we’re in public among people we don’t know,
- when we’re with family (even the relatives we don’t admire),
- when we’re with the one(s) we love best in the world,
- when we’re alone.
Mettā is similar to deep listening; we accept and embrace people (including ourselves) and circumstances just as they are, with no resistance and no expectations. We can learn to relax into this non-rejecting, non-judgmental feeling by intentionally practicing mettā at regular intervals. Once we have a taste of this divine mindstate , we may choose to visit it often.