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What's in Your Heart?

By Rick Hanson

We all want to receive love. But maybe it comes in a form you don't want - perhaps someone offers romantic love but that's not what you're looking for - or it doesn't come at all. Then there is heartache and helplessness; you can't make others love you if they won't.

Definitely, do what you can to get the love you need. But the practice here is about expressing love, distinct from receiving it. When you focus on the love you give rather than the love you get, then you're at cause rather than at effect; you're the cue ball, not the eight ball - which supports your sense of efficacy and confidence, as well as your mood. And it's enlightened self-interest: the best way to get love is to give it; even if it's still not returned, your love will likely improve the relationship, and help calm any troubled waters.

Sometimes people worry that being loving will make them vulnerable or drained. But actually, you can see in your own experience that love itself doesn't do this: it protects and nurtures you when you give it. While you're loving, don't you feel uplifted and stronger?

That's because love is deep in human nature, literally woven into our DNA. As our ancestors evolved, the seeds of love in primates and hominids - such as mother-child attachment, pair bonding, communication skills, and teamwork - aided survival, so the genes that promoted these characteristics were passed on. A positive cycle developed: As "the village it takes to raise a child" evolved and grew stronger, the period of vulnerable childhood could become longer, so the brain evolved to become larger in order to make use of that longer childhood - and thereby developed more capacities for love. The brain has roughly tripled in size since hominids began making stone tools about 2.5 million years ago, and much of this new neural real estate is devoted to love and related capabilities.

We need to give love to be healthy and whole. If you bottle up your love, you bottle up your whole being. Love is like water: it needs to flow; otherwise, it backs up on itself and gets stagnant and smelly. Look at the faces of some people who are very loving: they're beautiful, aren't they? Being loving heals old wounds inside and opens untapped reservoirs of energy and talent. It's also a profound path of awakening, playing a central role in all of the world's major religious traditions.

The world needs your love. Those you live with and work with need it, plus your family and friends, people near and far, and this whole battered planet. Never underestimate the ripples spreading out from just one loving word, thought, or deed!


Love is as natural as breathing, yet like the breath, it can get constricted. Sometimes you may need to release it, strengthen it, and help it flow more freely with methods like these:

  • Bring to mind the sense of being with people who care about you, and then open to feeling cared about. Let this feeling fill you, warming your heart, softening your face. Sink into this experience. It's okay if opposite thoughts arise (e.g., rejection); observe them for a moment, and then return to feeling cared about - which will warm up the neural circuits of being loving yourself.
  • Sense into the area around your heart, and think of things that evoke heartfelt feelings, such as gratitude, compassion, or kindness. To bring harmony to the tiny changes in the interval between heartbeats, breathe so that your inhalations and exhalations are about the same length, since inhaling speeds up the heart rate and exhaling slows it down. The heart has more than a metaphorical link to love; the cardiovascular and nervous systems lace together in your body like lovers' fingers, and practices like these will nurture wholehearted well-being in you and greater warmth for others.
  • Strengthen these loving feelings with soft thoughts toward others, such as I wish you well. May you not be in pain. May you be at peace. May you live with ease. If you feel upset with someone, you can include these reactions in your awareness while also extending loving thoughts like I'm angry with you and won't let you hurt me again - and I still hope you find true happiness, and I still wish you well.

There is a notion that being intentional about love makes it false or at least second-rate. But actually, loving at will is doubly loving: the love you find is authentic, and the effort to call it forth is deeply caring.

To love is to have courage, whose root meaning comes from the word "heart." I've been in a lot of hairy situations in the mountains, yet I was a lot more scared just before I told my first real girlfriend that I loved her. It takes courage to give love that may not be returned, to love while knowing you'll inevitably be separated one day from everything you love, to go all in with love and hold nothing back.

Sometimes I ask myself, Am I brave enough to love? Each day gives me, and gives you, many chances to love.

[Reprinted from Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, New Harbinger, 2011]

This comes from Rick Hanson, Ph.D., neuropsychologist, Affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and invited lecturer at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard universities.
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