Love: The Supreme Emotion

Session I Robert Hodge

What is love?

Love is mentioned in many contexts.  What does it mean in terms of spirituality?  What is the purpose of love in our life?  In this series, we are going to explore love using Love 2.0:  Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection by Barbara Fredrickson.[i]

There are many current of views of what love means to people.  As Fredrickson notes, these can include:

  • a special bond or relationship
  • commitment, promise, pledge
  • loyalty ritual such as marriage
  • Mishmash of shared cultural messages
  • Own deeply personal experiences with intimacy
  • Sexual desires
  • Blood-ties of kinships
  • Something “out there” that you fall into or –years later – out of
  • Exclusive, lasting and unconditional

Actually, all of the above are products of love – “the results of the many smaller moments in which love infuses you – rather than of love per se.”[ii]

One way to gain a better understanding of love is to look at the body’s perspective on love.

“When you equate love with intimate relationships, love can seem confusing. At times it feels great, while at other times it hurts like hell. At times it lifts you up with grand dreams for your future and at other times oppresses you with shame about your inadequacies, or guilt about your past actions. When you limit your view of love to relationships or commitment, love becomes a complex and bewildering thicket of emotions, expectations, and insecurities. Yet when you redirect your eyes toward your body’s definition of love, a clear path emerges that cuts through that thicket and leads you to a better life.

There’s still more ground to clear. I need to ask you to disengage from some of your most cherished beliefs about love as well: the notions that love is exclusive, lasting, and unconditional. These deeply held beliefs are often more wish than reality in people’s lives. They capture people’s daydreams about the love-of-their-life whom they’ve yet to meet. Love, as your body defines it, is not exclusive, not something to be reserved for your soul mate, your inner circle, your kin, or your so-called loved ones. Love’s reach turns out to be far wider than we’re typically coaxed to imagine. Even so, love’s timescale is far shorter than we typically think. Love, as you’ll see, is not lasting. It’s actually far more fleeting than most of us would care to acknowledge. On the upside, though, love is forever renewable. And perhaps most challenging of all, love is not unconditional. It doesn’t emerge no matter what, regardless of conditions. To the contrary, you’ll see that the love your body craves is exquisitely sensitive to contextual cues. It obeys preconditions. Yet once you understand those preconditions, you can find love countless times each day.”[iii]

In summary, love is

  • An emotion
  • Not lasting (impermanent)
  • Not exclusive
  • Has a very wide reach
  • Connected with bodily sensations
  • Sensitive to contextual cues
  • Has preconditions, not unconditional
  • Renewable.

Fredrickson’s approach comes from the body’s perspective and integrates recent scientific findings with the spiritual and the practical.  The basis for her approach is the science of emotions.

What are emotions?  In the teachings, emotions are called mental formations and they arise from the conditioning of what we experience in life.

We have six sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind).  These organs contact sense objects (tangible objects, visible objects, sounds, smells, tastes, and mental objects: thoughts/memories).  This interaction is called form.  All of our experiences come via one or more of these sense organs.  However, although our sense organs are constantly sensing, we are not aware of this interaction until our consciousness makes contact with the sense organ and the object sensed.  When all three factors are connected, we become aware of what we can call an experience.

The mind conditions that awareness by comparing it with stored memories and beliefs.  Out of this comparison arise a series of three conditioning factors:  feelings, perceptions and mental formations.

Feelings are what is sensed in the body about the experience.  These feeling are not emotions.  Emotions are mental formations.  Feelings occur instantly after awareness and are either pleasant, neutral or unpleasant.  After a feeling arises, a perception (mental impression, identification, recognition, discrimination, assessment) of the experience arises in the mind.  Note that the perception is dependent on memory for identification.  If we have no previous memory of what we have originally sensed, we can’t identify it.  Next, mental formations (emotions) arise as a result of the feeling and the perception.  Depending on the intensity of the mental formation, a reaction might occur.  Recent scientific research confirms this flow.[iv]

Unpleasant feelings and negative perceptions lead to negative emotions.  Pleasant feelings and positive perceptions lead to positive emotions.  The Buddha taught the importance of positive states of mind in the sixth step of the Eightfold Path, Skillful Effort.  Skillful effort is how we can embrace the wholesome thoughts and address the unwholesome ones.  The Buddha said that we should direct our effort in four ways:

  1. Prevent the arising of unwholesome thoughts.
  2. Overcome unwholesome thoughts which have arisen.
  3. Strive for wholesome thoughts to arise.
  4. Maintain those wholesome thoughts which have arisen.

Love is a positive emotion and a wholesome state of mind.  Fredrickson uses the term positivity which she defines as a broad term covering a range of positive emotions and the immediate as well as future beneficial psychological and physiological (e.g. blood pressure) effects.  In general, positivity can:

  • Open you up
  • Transform you for the better

“At every moment we choose whether to embrace wholesomeness or unwholesomeness.”[v] 

Fredrickson shows us how to practice love to embrace and maintain wholesomeness.

It’s all about connecting with others as it takes at least two to love.  Fredrickson notes that positive emotions “knit you into the fabric of life, the social fabric that unites you with others, and how they orchestrate the way you grow and rebound through changing circumstances”[vi]  She defines love as “pleasant yet fleeting moments of connection.[vii]  Or put another way, “that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being.[viii]  She calls it our supreme emotion.  “Love is our supreme emotion that makes us come most fully alive and feel most fully human. It is perhaps the most essential experience for thriving and health.”[ix]

Fredrickson has confirmed another one of the Buddha’s teachings, loving-kindness or metta.  Through her research, Fredrickson discovered that training in loving-kindness (metta) expanded the connectivity with others and gave positive results.  “The results were abundantly clear. When people, completely new to meditation, learned to quiet their minds and expand their capacity for love and kindness, they transformed themselves from the inside out. They experienced more love, more engagement, more serenity, more joy, more amusement—more of every positive emotion we measured. And though they typically meditated alone, their biggest boosts in positive emotions came when interacting with others, off the cushion, as it were. Their lives spiraled upward. The kindheartedness they learned to stoke during their meditation practice warmed their connections with others. Later experiments would confirm that it was these connections that most affected their bodies, making them healthier.”[x]

Homework assignment – Life is filled with connections to other living beings. Reflect on all of the interactions that you had today with others.  After each connection with someone, be mindful of what you feel in your body, not your thoughts.

[i] Barbara Fredrickson.  Love 2.0:  Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection Plume 2013

[ii] Fredrickson p. 5

[iii] Fredrickson p. 6

[iv] Barrett, Lisa Feldman. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.

[v] Gunaratana, Bhante, Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness: Walking the Buddha’s Path (p. 149)

[vi] Fredrickson p. 8

[vii] Fredrickson p. 8

[viii] Fredrickson p. 9

[ix] Fredrickson p. 9

[x] Fredrickson p. 11