"How to Love" by Thich Nhat Hanh is a pure expression of the essence of himself – deep and abiding love. It explores the quintessence of love, looking at its various dimensions and providing practical guidance on nurturing genuine love within ourselves and our relationships with others. At its core, this book is about understanding, accepting, and caring for oneself and others.
Thich Nhat Hanh was a renowned Zen Buddhist monk (he left this planet in January of 2022) who emphasized the importance of mindfulness, or being fully present in the moment, in developing love. He teaches that love is not merely a fleeting emotion but rather a practice that requires dedication and daily effort. This entails cultivating understanding, patience, and deep listening to truly connect with others and foster empathy.
One thing I loved about this book and its teachings is the remarkable similarity its message shares with other spiritual teachings and philosophies. The concept of cultivating love through mindfulness and compassion can be found in other parts of the world and at other times in human history. For example, the original teachings of Jesus Christ often focus on love, compassion, and forgiveness, such as the commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself." Similarly, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote about the transformative power of love in his piece, "The Symposium," emphasizing the importance of selfless love and the pursuit of truth and beauty.
"Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature." – Aristophanes, The Symposium
In Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita teaches that selfless love, or what it terms Bhakti, is one of the paths to spiritual liberation. This type of love transcends personal desires and attachments, allowing one to experience unity with the divine (which I interpret as unity with everything and everyone). Likewise, in the Sufi tradition of Islam, the concept of "ishq" (divine love) is central to their teachings, with the famous Persian poet Rumi often writing about the transcendent power of love that connects us to a greater spiritual reality.
"How to Love" is a masterpiece that explains how to foster deeper connections and enhance our well-being. And, for me, it’s only made better by its similarities with other great teachings on love that can be found throughout other cultures and times. To find independent similarities in the explanation of love across so many different spiritual sources speaks to the validity of their wisdom regarding one of the most multi-faceted, amorphous, and universal aspects of life – love.
Clue #1: love must be shared with others
Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how love isn't something you keep to yourself. To really experience love, you need to share it with others. He starts by saying that before you can love someone else, you need to learn to love yourself. This means being aware of your thoughts and feelings and being kind to yourself, and practicing self-love consistently and repeatedly.
Thich Nhat Hanh explains that love is like a living thing that needs care and attention. There are four important parts of love that we should practice: kindness, compassion, joy, and balance. When we work on these qualities, we can connect with others in a real and honest way, which helps us share love with them.
He also talks about how important it is to truly listen to what other people are saying and feeling. When we do this, we can understand and support them better, which creates a space where love can grow and be shared. But in order to truly pay attention, we must practice mindfulness and the development of a calm mind. Without a calm mind, we cannot have the presence necessary to truly listen.
Overall, he is saying that we need to share love with others to fully experience love. The complete essence of love can’t be experienced alone. We can do this by first loving ourselves, practicing the four important parts of love, and completely listening to and understanding others. This helps us form deep connections and allows love to thrive.
Clue #2: love has four attributes
Thich Nhat Hanh also talks about the four traits of love that are important for us to practice. They're kind of like the building blocks for creating real, meaningful connections with others.
The first one is kindness, which is all about wishing for the happiness of others. It's like looking at someone and thinking, "I hope they have a great day today!" When we practice kindness, it helps us create a warm and positive atmosphere around us. Others can sense it and they are drawn to us because of it.
Next up is compassion. This is all about feeling the pain and suffering of others and wanting to help ease it. Imagine seeing someone struggling and wanting to step in and help them out. That's compassion at work.
Then there's joy. It's pretty simple, really. It's about being happy for other people's happiness. So, when something good happens to someone, we feel happy for them and share in their joy, instead of being envious or bitter. It’s always a punch in the gut when a supposed friend says “Must be nice!” in a jealous tone whenever we share something good with them, like a new job promotion.
Finally, there's balance or equanimity. This one's about treating everyone equally, without picking favorites. It means caring for all people, whether they're close friends or strangers, and not being swayed by our own biases or emotions. This applies to everyone, including those in higher or more esteemable positions.
Clue #3: Trust and respect for yourself and others
Thich Nhat Hanh makes an essential point about how trust and respect are super important in a romantic relationship, but they're also important when it comes to yourself. He believes that trust and respect form the foundation for a healthy and loving relationship.
He argues that when you trust your partner, it means you have confidence in their honesty, integrity, and abilities. You're not constantly doubting or second-guessing them, which creates a sense of security and stability in the relationship. Trust allows both partners to be open and vulnerable, knowing that they have each other's support.
Now, respect is just as important. When you respect your partner, you value their feelings, opinions, and boundaries. You recognize their individuality and treat them as an equal. This fosters a sense of harmony and helps to prevent conflicts from escalating.
But here's the thing – trust and respect also apply to yourself. Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes that we need to trust our own feelings, instincts, and abilities. It's important to have confidence in ourselves and to believe that we're deserving of love and happiness. And just like with our partners, we need to respect ourselves too. This means valuing our own thoughts and feelings, setting boundaries, and treating ourselves with kindness and care.
So, Thich Nhat Hanh's argument is that trust and respect are crucial for a healthy romantic relationship, but they're also essential for our own well-being. By nurturing these qualities in our relationships and within ourselves, we can create a strong foundation for love to flourish.
Clue #4: a spiritual practice helps us cultivate love
Throughout the book, he also talks about how having a daily spiritual practice can actually help us learn about love and intimacy. He believes that when we take the time to connect with ourselves and the present moment, we become more in tune with our emotions, which is the first step to deepening our connections with others.
One of the key practices he suggests is mindfulness, which is about being fully present in the here and now. He says, "The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers." By being present and really listening to our partners, we can develop a deeper understanding of their needs and feelings, and in turn, nurture our love and intimacy.
Thich Nhat Hanh also emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and self-love as part of our daily spiritual practice. He believes that by understanding and accepting ourselves, we create a strong foundation for loving others. He says, "To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love." So, by cultivating self-awareness, we can learn how to love ourselves and others more effectively.
Another aspect of daily spiritual practice that Thich Nhat Hanh highlights is the power of meditation. He explains that through meditation, we can cultivate a peaceful and compassionate state of mind. He says, "Meditation can help us embrace our worries, our fear, our anger; and that is very healing. We let our own natural capacity of healing do the work." By developing inner peace and compassion, we become more open and receptive to love and intimacy in our relationships.
So, Thich Nhat Hanh's message is that a daily spiritual practice, including mindfulness, self-awareness, and meditation, can teach us about love and intimacy. By investing time and effort into nurturing our inner selves, we're better equipped to build strong, loving connections with those around us.
Clue #5: sex itself does not ensure intimacy
To those obsessed with dating apps and hook-up culture, I have bad news for you. The book also discusses the idea that sex alone doesn't lead to true intimacy. He believes that while sex can be an expression of love, it's not enough to create the deep connection we all seek in relationships.
Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes the importance of building emotional intimacy and understanding, which goes beyond physical closeness. He says, "If you don't understand, you can't love." This means that in order to develop true intimacy with our partners, we need to take the time to really know them – their thoughts, feelings, desires, and fears.
He also talks about the significance of communication and deep listening in cultivating intimacy. Thich Nhat Hanh believes that when we truly listen to our partners and share our own feelings and experiences, we create a strong emotional bond. He states, "When you love someone, you should have the capacity to bring relief and help him to suffer less. This is an art. If you don’t understand the roots of his suffering, you can’t help."
Moreover, Thich Nhat Hanh highlights the role of mindfulness in building intimacy. By being present and fully engaged in the moment, we can connect with our partners on a deeper level, beyond just physical attraction. He encourages us to practice mindfulness in our relationships, saying, "The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers."
Clue #6: a shared purpose and aspirations are important for loving relationships
Romantic partners must have shared values and aspirations in a relationship in order for it to last and to be deeply loving. He believes that when couples share a common vision and purpose, it creates a strong foundation for their love and helps them navigate the challenges that come their way.
Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes the idea of building a "spiritual dimension" in a relationship, where partners can support each other's growth and development. He says, "To develop understanding, you have to practice looking at your partner with the eyes of compassion. When you understand, you cannot help but love. And when you love, you naturally act in a way that can relieve the suffering of people."
He encourages couples to communicate openly about their values and aspirations, and to find ways to support each other in their individual and shared journeys. This might involve discussing their spiritual beliefs, their hopes for the future, and their commitment to personal growth and development.
Thich Nhat Hanh also highlights the importance of practicing mindfulness in nurturing shared values and aspirations. By being fully present and engaged in the moment, partners can deeply connect with each other and develop a mutual understanding of their shared goals. He states, "When you practice mindful breathing, you become truly present. If you are here, life is also here. The past is gone, the future is not yet here. If you go back to the present moment, you have a chance to live and to be happy."
In essence, Thich Nhat Hanh's argument is that shared values and aspirations are crucial for a strong and enduring relationship. By openly communicating, supporting each other's growth, and practicing mindfulness, partners can create a solid foundation that allows their love to thrive and withstand the inevitable challenges that life brings.
Clue #7: Don’t make assumptions about our relationships
The book also brings up the idea that it's essential to question our assumptions about our romantic relationships. He thinks that we often have preconceived ideas and expectations about love, which can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts, as well as lead us down separate paths. This message of assumptions is in strong agreement with The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz which similarly discusses the virtues of making no assumptions.
Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to practice "beginner's mind" in our relationships, meaning we should approach our partners with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to learn. He says, "In a deep relationship, there's no longer a boundary between you and the other person. You are her and she is you. Your suffering is her suffering. Your understanding of your own suffering helps your loved one to suffer less."
By questioning our assumptions, we can develop a deeper understanding of our partners and their needs. This involves letting go of stereotypes and expectations about what love should look like, and instead, focusing on the unique dynamics of our own relationships.
Thich Nhat Hanh also emphasizes the importance of communication in challenging our assumptions. He believes that we should be open to discussing our feelings, fears, and desires with our partners, and listen to their perspectives as well. He states, "Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person... You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty their heart."
By questioning our assumptions and practicing open communication, we can create an environment of understanding and empathy in our relationships. This allows us to connect with our partners on a deeper level, and it helps to prevent conflicts and misunderstandings from escalating.
In a nutshell, Thich Nhat Hanh's argument is that we need to question our assumptions about our romantic relationships to foster deeper connections and understanding. By embracing a beginner's mind, communicating openly, and letting go of preconceived ideas about love, we can create a more authentic and fulfilling partnership.