The Pathway of Love

Be of love (a little) more careful than of everything.(6)

Beginning with love or loving kindness

The first abode is love or loving kindness.(7) How wonderful to begin with love as kindness. The Dalai Lama has said: "My religion is kindness." Simple and profound. If I think of love as loving kindness, then I increase my love by increasing my loving kindness. Doing acts of kindness in a kind manner. Does that not presence love?

In a romance language like Italian, one way to say "I love you." is to say "Ti voglio bene." This is to say that I wish you well. I wish good things for you. I commit to your well being.

This form of language reminds us that love is a giving more than a receiving. Love is other-directed, directed to the well-being of the other. Love is for the sake of the other. The first impulse of love is to serve the other, to forward the other’s good. In order to love in this sense, I must make a Copernican Revolution from seeing the other as a supporting player in my drama to seeing the other as the main player in his or her own life story.

Let us modify an old Hindu saying (8) in the following fashion:

When I do not know who you are, I manipulate you.

When I begin to know who you are, I serve you.

When I know more fully who you are, I am you.

(Perhaps better than "I am you," we might say: we are "not one, not two" and through us shines always the Great Mystery).

Learning to love demands a Copernican Revolution. We all begin in a pre-Copernican state. We think of ourselves as the center of the universe. Others exist to serve us. We picture ourselves as our ancestors pictured the earth in a pre-Copernican worldview. We see ourselves at the center of everything. I think of myself at age two or three or four. At that time I lived what I now call the Ego Chant:

  1. Me,
  2. Me want it,
  3. Me want it now,
  4. Me want it now, regardless.

Imagine pounding your fist in the air while reciting this chant and at the end — stamping your feet by way of throwing a temper tantrum. This will give you the idea! Naked ego unadorned.

In growing as a person, I reverse the Ego Chant.

  1. I go from me alone as measuring stick (Me!) to myself as one among others, others who have their own lives and needs and feelings and points of view.

  2. I go from making my wants into needs (Me want it!) to distinguishing wants from needs.

  3. I go from demanding instant gratification (Me want it now!) to learning to delay such gratification when appropriate.

  4. I go from making others solely the means to my ends (Me want it regardless!) to realizing others have rights and responsibilities — that others are owed respect and that I cannot override such boundaries without becoming unjust to them.

When I was little, I thought that if I liked puppies, everyone would like puppies. As I grew, I learned to take on the point of view of the other. I learned to listen, to appreciate differences. The road to growing up is long. Many setbacks occur. In any moment of frustration, I can become four or five years old again. I can enact once again the Ego Chant.

When I do not know who you are, I manipulate you. Yes, I seek to get my way, regardless of the costs. I violate the core of the Golden Rule. Instead of treating you as I would wish to be treated (i.e., with care for my integrity, point of view, power of choice and life plan), I am willing to coerce or deceive you in order to get you to do what I want. A one-way street. I am willing to exercise "power over" you. In so manipulating you, I am treating you as a thing to be used. Being willing to deceive you, I treat you as if you had no intellect to be respected. I offer no reasons or false reasons. Being willing to coerce you, I treat you as if you had no free will and were owed no choice in the things that matter to you. I treat you as a thing to be used, without mind, without will. In other words, I treat you as if you were not someone of worth in your own right, with an intellect seeking understanding and a will capable of making choices. I treat you as a thing without such worth and without such qualities. I treat you as less than a person. No one who understands what it is to be a person could agree to be treated as less than they are. Thus, manipulation is not reversible. I cannot in awareness agree to be treated as something I am not. Manipulation is not reciprocal. When I forget who you are, I manipulate you, yet I rightly resist being so treated myself.

As is increasingly familiar, the modes of manipulation are many. Some manipulate by force or threat of force; others by a kind of emotional blackmail.(9) Yet all life need not be so. I can refrain from treating you as a thing to be used (without regard for your worth or mind or capacity to choose freely). I can refuse to allow you to treat me as a thing to be used (without regard to my worth or mind or capacity to choose freely). We are persons, you and I. And we can, with practice, meet in a field beyond manipulating or being manipulated. Stepping out of this restrictive prison of manipulate or be manipulated, I come to realize that far more is possible.

Love is seeking the good of the other

James Edwin Loder speaks of love as "the non-possessive delight in the particularity of the other."(10) He is describing a love between grown-ups, between those who work to reverse the Ego Chant. He is pointing to a Copernican world where persons are recognized as centers in their own life, not simply means to satisfy my wants or needs. For love to increase, certain tendencies in me must decrease. I must let go — again and again — of certain ways of identifying who I am. I must break out of my self-enclosure if I am to meet you as the holy particular you are.

When I know more fully who you are, I serve you. In our times, saying this is likely to send up a hundred red flares of warning. We live in a see-saw world of separate selves wherein, if I am up, you must be down and, if I am down, you must be up. I win; you lose; I lose, you win. In this way of understanding life, the best we can hope for is win-win. Yet love can offer more.

Scott Peck took the risk of giving a definition of love in his 1978 classic, The Road Less Traveled.(11) Love, he said, is "the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth." Here "well-being" becomes "spiritual growth." Growth adds the notion that we can become better at nurturing our own or another’s good. Spiritual growth places the process in a wisdom narrative. This definition does not say everything about love.(12) How could it? But it does emphasize love as an action rather than simply a feeling. It does emphasize will or commitment to the well-being of another, hence it looks to consistency and character. Of course, love will include care, sensitivity, and more. Yet Scott Peck is right to see love as a verb, to see loving as giving. To emphasize we must go out from our self-enclosure. We must contribute beyond ourselves. The shadow of manipulation can still fall upon us. Yet we are here looking at healthy service which has its own kind of reciprocity.

When we break free of the world of manipulation (or what Martin Buber(13) calls the I-IT world), we perceive a more excellent way.(14)

It is not only minimal decency (not to manipulate the other or oneself). It is not only treating oneself and others as persons (having worth in themselves, with minds to understand and wills to give or withhold consent). Something more is possible. Now we are beyond the world of right and wrong as minimal ways to be.(15) Now we notice that my well-being and your well-being are not so separate. I can take sympathetic joy in your happiness and you can take joy in mine. We can even begin to perceive a third reality — the subtle field of the relationship itself — like a garden in which we are growing. The relational field itself can be more or less healthy, that is, the conditions for spiritual growth and interpersonal flourishing can be stronger or weaker.

Interlude: Three names for Love

In the West, we have three Greek names for love: eros, philia, and agape.(16)

Eros. I think of eros as the primal power of attraction at work in all things from atoms and molecules, through all the forms of life, especially those species who invented or perpetuated sex.(17) The mysteries of sex, like nature itself, can be gentle as a caress and wild as a hurricane.

Plato relates a tale told by his mentor Socrates. But Socrates gives credit to this teaching about eros to a woman, Diotima, who taught him that the all-pervading nature of attraction follows us — the embodied ones — throughout our lives. As new horizons open for us, so eros like a shapeshifter follows us. We experience eros first in attraction to bodies and physical beauty, then (without negating the former) adding attraction to beautiful souls, next attraction to learning and the arts, and then in a moment of insight to glimpse the source of eros in its triple guise: the true, the good, and the beautiful. The source of eros is partly present in everything. Eros is that longing in us for the good, the true, and the beautiful. And these three are not separate, but inter-be. Such is the lovely hymn to eros Socrates shares. A view of the erotic that blessedly never leaves us. And we come to understand that, in seeking the good and beautiful and true anywhere, we are seeking fullness, seeking wholeness. Even when we go astray, Aquinas will later say, we are still seeking what we believe to be good.

Philia. The second name for love is philia — the love of friendship.(18) Philia stands between eros and agape. It is central in more ways than one.

Think of a relational field such as friendship. I wish my friend’s well-being and my friend wishes mine. We do not see each other as separate selves but as committed to each other and to the relational field of our friendship.

Here is my variation of a Lakota prayer:

I join my breath to your breath,
    that we may be
        committed to our own and each other’s growing,
       committed to our partnerships and all they serve,
    that we may finish our road together.

Our friendship is a greater third, as if the glass bowl of "who I am" and the glass bowl of "who you are" are both floating in a much vaster bowl. Present are (1) your growth and deepening, (2) my growth and deepening, and (3) the growth and deepening of our relationship. What I call my good and what you call your good and what we cultivate as our friendship are not so different as first we thought.

When I am aware of myself and yourself and what joins us, then dialogue is possible, feedback is possible, growth in sensitivity is possible.

When my daughter Heather was a little girl, I took her to see a play. Afterwards, I asked her what she thought of plays as compared to movies. "The thing about plays," she said, "is when you look at the people, they look back." The thing about friendships is when you look at your friend, your friend looks back. When you speak and listen to your friend, your friend is able to listen and to speak to you. Each of you is concerned for the other’s good and for the good of the relational field that you share and co-create. With caring feedback, skillfully given and received, we each learn more about our shadow side, our stuck points, our emotional patterns. Perhaps we find outside of our family of origin what psychoanalyst Alice Miller calls "enlightened witnesses." Then new healing can occur. In such friendships, we can speak and listen, see and be seen, know and be known in new ways that allow us possibilities we had not seen before. Such friendships also permit us to return to loving-as-giving in healthy rather than unhealthy ways. American psychologist James Mark Baldwin once remarked that every genuine act of self-sacrifice is also an act of self-enhancement. I would add that the self ("little self") that is sacrificed is not the same as the self ("larger self") that is enhanced.

The Buddhist therapist David Brazier sees love as the antidote to greed. Where greed is a taking of things into ourselves; love is a giving to the other. Brazier writes: "Love heals greed, as compassion heals hate. In greed, I want to get things for myself, to incorporate everything into me and my orbit. In love, I want to give to others, to respect things just as they are, unconditionally. In ... comparison with humanistic psychology..., just as compassion is close to empathy, love is close to positive regard."(19)

It is worth noting that, in these times where codependent relationships have been rightly exposed as unhealthy, that an equally unhealthy reaction has set in. Any notion of love as self-giving is blamed. Brazier tells this story: "A client apologizes for being late. She explains that she had stopped by to take something to a friend and when she arrived found that the friend’s window had just been broken. She stayed to help mend the window. As a result, she was late for her appointment.

The client then said, ‘I am no good at looking after myself — I shouldn’t have offered to help her.’

Therapist: ‘You looked after your friend: how can you look after yourself better than by looking after a friend?’

Client: ‘No, I can’t let myself get away with it that easily, I want to be angry with myself about it.’

Therapist: ‘OK, I’ll listen.’

Client: ‘Well, I could have left home earlier in the first place.’

Therapist: ‘Yes, you could. What you did was good, but that would have been even better.’"(20)

Brazier notes that his client had learned from an earlier therapist that looking after her own self interest was more important than looking after her friend. "A crazy idea which is quite common," he comments. "She now feels guilty when she does something kind and feels guilty when she does something cruel." A true catch 22!

Agape. The third type of love is agape. It is commonly defined as unconditional love. And it is said that this is the way God loves. Agape is how God loves us and all our brothers and sisters, all our kin. Here we are reduced to a kind of stammering. Or, to vary the metaphor, we are engaged in writing with one hand and erasing with the other.

First, this is not the picture of God that most of us were taught. We were taught that God’s love was conditioned on our thoughts, words, and deeds. Such a "God" appeared in a world of reward and punishment.

Second, we are fortunate indeed to have experienced moments of such love.

A mother tells her estranged son, "I love you no matter what. You are my son and nothing will stop me from loving you. You can receive that love or not, but know it is there and will be there whenever you choose to accept it."

A wife takes her bandages off after a mastectomy. She is looking at herself naked in the mirror for the first time since the surgery. Her husband has asked to be with her. He says to her: "You are beautiful and nothing essential about you has changed."

Nelson Mandela emerges from 27 years in prison and forgives his captors.

In Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s presence, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions creates conditions where bitter enemies face what they have done and make new starts.

The Amish in Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, find a way to care for the families of five slain schoolgirls and the family of the one who perpetrated the attack before taking his own life.

There are even times when God is forgiven as in the story of the Jews in the death camps who put God on trial, condemned him, and then went on to perform the ritual prayers of the Sabbath.

In the Gospels, the story of the prodigal son reveals an unlimited love, far beyond the world of what is deserved, far beyond the any measured rewards and punishments.

The Sufi saint, Rab’ia, loves with this unconditional love when she speaks to her God in this fashion: "Lord, if I worship you from fear of Hell, burn me in Hell. If I worship you from hope of heaven, exclude me from heave. But if I worship you for your own sake alone, then come to me."(21)

Agape is to love the Whole from the Whole or even as the Whole. "That of God" in me loves "that of God" in all beings. And all is well. Our response is humility (the understanding of our true size, between nothing and everything), gratitude, and generosity. And more subtly, a new quality of listening, to those without and to the still small voice within.

So these three intertwine: eros, philia, and agape. Each seasoning the others while we live embodied and among others, "In the City and under the Mercy."(22)

Loving Kindness Meditation

In the Buddhist tradition (where we started) loving kindness accents the positive. Loving kindness meditation (23) encourages us to extend the circle of love and kindness.

  1. Starting closest to home, we send loving kindness to ourselves and our loved ones, wishing all to be well, happy, free from needless suffering,
        wishing that we come to know who we are and rest in our true nature.

  2. Then we send loving kindness to neutral persons, perhaps a slight acquaintances, wishing them to be well, happy, free from needless suffering,
        wishing that they know who they are and rest in their true nature.

  3. Step by step, we move to people we find difficult or even those we think of as enemies. We send loving kindness to them,
        wishing that they be well, happy and free from needless suffering,
        wishing that they know who they are and rest in their true nature.

Going Forward

This first essay is a beginning, not a conclusion. Each of the four paths intertwines with all of the others. We shall learn more of love as we explore compassion and joy and equanimity. We shall see love as sensitive to suffering, love as enacted with joy, love as adding the inclusiveness that equanimity encourages.

Here I have focused on love as a verb, on love as opposed to greed(24), on love as a giving, an action of service, an affirming of the other. I have also noted that in enhancing the other’s spiritual growth we also contribute to our own and that of all our kin.

Sensuality always accompanies us, much as a child in us who plays as the world is being created.(25) Friendship brings in the very particular other to whom we listen, to whom we speak. As we diminish ego-centeredness, we increase the capacity to see more clearly, love more dearly, and follow more nearly what is unfolding unto good. Finally, there are hints that while justice is a condition of love,(26) love goes beyond anything we "deserve." Always we have been loved beyond measure. The scriptures tell us to "Fear not." Lessening fear, we can open our heart, lessen our judgments, and learn to love more fully.

Linking love to spiritual growth reminds us of concrete practices of mindfulness and openness to the Great Mystery. In our time, genuine spirituality begins with interconnection, interbeing, interdependence. Spirituality usually echoes the narrative of one or more of the great wisdom traditions of humankind. This I find heartening since all great wisdom traditions teach: "By their fruits you will know them."(27) And the fruits of the Spirit resonate across traditions. "What the Spirit produces is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.(28)

While lingering with the wisdom traditions, I wish to bring in perhaps the most loved of scriptural passages on love, from the letter of Paul to the young church at Corinth. I offer a slightly different variation, so that we may hear this good guidance anew:

When I truly love,
        I am patient and kind.
        I do not envy others, but rather rejoice in the good of others.
        I am not boastful, not caught up in my own importance.
When I truly love,
        I do not put on airs. I am not rude.
        I recognize that humility and courtesy are marks of love.
When I truly love,
        I do not insist on my way.
        I do not become angry.
        I do not rejoice over injustice, I stand gently with truth.
When I truly love,
        I never give up, never lose faith.
        I am always hopeful and endure all things.
Such love, I find, does not fail.((29)

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminds us of process. "Life," he says, "is not a finished action; love is not a completed thought." This sentiment is even more strikingly summed up by a five-year-old girl. Here is the story:

The family consists of a mother (an artist and teacher) and her two daughters, Stella, age 5, and Sophie, age 10. Each week, the family would write a "saying of the week" on a large piece of art paper. They would then hang the saying in a prominent place in their house as a reminder.

For some years, the family has been suffering the pain that comes with the dissolution of a marriage. One week, the younger daughter said: ‘Mommy, write: We won’t give up on love.’ Good advice when one has hope for love reconciled. Yet even if the love will not return as it once was, still good advice: "Mommy, write: 'We won’t give up on love.'"


6 The first full lines of American poet, e. e. cummings’ poem “Be of love (a little) more careful than of everything.” See E. E. Cummings, Complete Poems: 1904-1962, ed. George J. Firmage (New York: Liveright, 1991), p. 453. This poem originally appeared in e. e. cummings, No Thankss, p. 68.

7 Often the phrase loving kindness is written as one word: “lovingkindness. This does echo the Hebrew “hesed.” However, I prefer to accent both the ”loving” aspect and the “kindness” aspect and so choose to keep the words distinct.

8 The original says: “When I do not know who you are, I serve you. When I know who you are, I am you.” However, I think this is already at a more advanced level. To me, the starting point is more likely to be "When I am in deeper ignorance and highly egocentric, then I manipulate you, i.e., I am willing to persuade you to do what I want, against your will and best interest, using techniques of deception and/or coercion." For more on these matters, see my Living Large: Transformative Work at the Intersection of Ethics and Spirituality (Laurel, MD: Tai Sophia Institute, 2004), Appendix VII, pp. 253-256.

9 Psychologist Frederick “Fritz” Perls distinguished Top Dog manipulators – typically using an aggressive bullying style – and Underdog manipulators – typically playing “poor me” and winning sympathy. See Fritz Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (New York: Bantam, 1959/1971). Perls’ student Everett L. Shostrum gives four types of Top Dog and four types of Underdog manipulators. See his Man the Manipulator (New York: Bantam, 1968).

10 See James Edwin Loder’s book, Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1998).

11 See M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978).

12 The cultural critic and writer, bell hooks, in her wonderful book All About Love (New York: William Morrow and Company, 2000) affirms the choice to start with love as an action. She also broadens the context to see genuine love as a combination of “care, commitment, trust, knowledge, responsibility and respect.” See p. 7 and again p.94.

13 See Martin Buber, I and Thou, a new translation with prologue and notes by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Simon & Schuster Touchstone edition, 1996) – originally issued by Charles Scribner Sons, 1970.

14 I hear this phrase in the voice of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, chanting: “But there is . . . a more excellent way."

15 We are beyond the ethical not by lapsing back into the pre-ethical but by moving forward to the trans-ethical. The sentence echoes a line of Rumi, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” See Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), p. 36.

16 I look at the three developmentally. While I treat eros as a feature of our embodiment and hence always present in shifting forms, there is also a sense that eros – as an urge to union – can be pre-personal, pre-ethical even. Philia as the love of friendship is personal and includes the ethical. Agape can be viewed as trans-personal and trans-ethical. Sharon Salzberg in her book Lovingkindness (p 24) points out that the Pali word “metta” has two roots: One is the word “gentle” as in a gentle rain; the other is the word “friend.” Furthermore, love as metta contains something of the unconditional that also marks agape.

17 See Brain Swimme, The Universe is a Green Dragon: A Cosmic Creation Story (Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company, 1984).

18 On this topic, Aristotle has much to say in the West; Confucius has much to say in the East.

19 David Brazier, Zen Therapy (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995), p. 201. The reach of love to unconditional love will be looked at in the section on agape; for now it is enough to note that in friendship we often are speaking of a love that has not grown all the way to unconditional. Brazier recognizes the point in distinguishing ordinary love and great love. He says:”Ordinary love is the love we have for the things and people which are important to ourselves. Great love is non-possessive and unconditional” (ibid.)

20 See Brazier, Zen Therapy, p.202.

21 This is my rendering. For a more literal translation, see Margaret Smith, Rabi’a: The Life and Work of Rabi’a and Other Women Mystics in Islam (Oxford: One World, 1994), p. 50.

22 The phrase is that of Charles Williams who in naming “the City” names London as it is to us but also as it is to God whose mercy adds a depth dimension where spirit manifests the beauty in all things.

23 Also called “metta” meditation.

24 As love increases and greed lessens, we shall also see that fear dissipates. As scripture teaches, when love reaches its fullness, there is no place for fear. See 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.”

25 I am echoing here the figure of wisdom, Sophia, in the Hebrew wisdom literature. See Proverbs 8:27-31 where Wisdom is “ever at play by God’s side, at play everywhere in God’s domain, delighting to be with the children of humanity.” There is, for me, a sweet sensuality in all of this.

26 See bell hooks, All About Love, e.g., pp. 19, 33, 72.

27 From the Christian tradition, see Matt. 7:20.

28 See Gal. 5:22.

29 This is my own version of St. Paul, drawing on a number of translations and at times drawing out a meaning by adding an equivalent phrase. I offer it respectfully -- not to replace but to illuminate the much-loved passage. To compare with the original in a number of translations, go to>