I wrote the original version of this essay a few years ago and have decided to revisit it. What you’ll find below is a slightly reworked version oriented toward finding ways to take right action in light of the most current tragic events in the U.S. and the revelations of social divides and social injustice made more evident by this pandemic. I hope there is something within these words that resonates with you, and that it helps inspire you to reach deeply into your own heart; find new ways of loving and embracing yourself, so that you may find new ways of loving and embracing the people in your own community, and so on outward to your village, township, parish, county, city, state, country, continent, and world. My invitation to you is to start with yourself, and only then move outward, because you are just as worthy of your own love as your neighbor is. The Divine lives in all of us and is the center of all things. God is the hub; we are the spokes; this life is the rim. And the closer we get to each other, the closer we get to God.
As I write these last words, the reality of quarantine and safe (or social) distance measures strikes me squarely in the face. My heart longs to enter back into the world, and yet I feel trapped, without clear pathways, and also a little fearful. The need to take action is strong within me and many of the people in my community. I am reminded by my teachers that right action will look different for each and every one of us. For some of us, our first right step might be to hold our children close and feel what it feels like to be safe. For some of us, getting involved in our community’s social justice groups is the most pressing immediate action. And others of us will be called to speak in loving kindness with family, friends, and neighbors, or write letters of trust and strength and hope. Still others of us will find ways to connect with our spiritual communities and allow the passion and guidance of our spiritual leaders to bolster our hearts in faith and love.
May we be drenched in Holy Spirit wisdom, and soaked in gratitude, faith, hope, and love.
The Spaciousness of Love
If love is kind,
it is not cruel.
If love is not jealous,
it is supportive.
If love is not pompous,
it is humble.
If love is not inflated,
it sees rightly.
If love is not rude,
it is enlightened.
If love is not self-seeking,
it is generous.
If love is not quick-tempered,
it is tranquil.
If love does not brood over injury,
it is forgiving.
If love does not rejoice over wrongdoing,
it offers compassion.
If love bears all things,
it turns nothing away.
If love believes all things,
it does not deny.
If love endures all things,
it does not cede.
If love never fails,
it always triumphs.
In the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, a scholar of Jewish law asks Christ, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says to him in reply, ““What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The scholar responds with what we know as The Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replies to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live” (Luke 10:25-8).
From this quick exchange it seems our purpose on earth is simple, our mission, obvious, and the answer to the question of inheriting eternal life, a short one: love. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.
However, as simple as love appears to be, isn’t it simultaneously complex? What, exactly, is love?
In his first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul articulates clearly and beautifully what love is and what it is not, what love does and what it does not do. And he acknowledges that our actions can be either devoid of love or infused with it. We can serve in bitterness and resentment or in humility and compassion. Even our most helpful of actions can be empty of love, performed in a negative spirit that crushes our own and that of the recipient. St. Paul even goes so far as to proclaim that love is the greatest of all virtues, greater than faith and greater than hope: “Love will remain even when faith has yielded to sight and hope to possession” (USCCB Commentary).
Thankfully we can look to these guidelines and explanations of love to give us a starting point, a kind of pathway forward, but I know how much I stumble and wander about aimlessly, how often I fall and clamber in the dark of my ignorance, for even though I hear the encouragement, “love one another as you love yourself,” it is as if I do not have ears; I still find myself screaming, in my most wretched hour, “How?”
The Greatest Commandment, love one another as you love yourself, assumes that we already know how we are to love ourselves.
Zen priest and founder of the Center for Transformative Change, Angel Kyodo Williams, describes love as space: “[Love] is developing our own capacity for spaciousness within ourselves to allow others to be as they are — that is love” (OnBeing interview with Krista Tippett).
If love is space, it is not a vacuum; it does not pull all things into itself but expands and allows people to be who they are. Love makes room for the full expression of the human experience. Unfortunately, there have been many times in which I’ve been loveless. I’ve had a habit of pulling all things into myself, making myself the center of the multiverse, sucking the life out of life. I have been selfish, judgmental, prideful, vain, and vacuous, full of disdain, contempt, and self-righteousness, as I suspect most of us have at one time or another. It is a crushing cycle to find oneself in, as it damages others, as well as ourselves, on multiple levels.
I want to choose space.
Choosing space is hard.
It’s good to remember that love is not passive; it’s an action, whether or not it looks like action from the outside. To love is an act of the will; it is to choose, and we can’t make choices without awareness. To be aware is to choose to see rightly, to see ourselves as we really are, without quite so many labels, inherited or created, without stories in which we are always the protagonist; but instead, to choose to see ourselves simply as children of God worthy of love, worthy of forgiveness, by our sheer existence. Awareness can help create this space to see, this space in which we can choose dignity, this space to act in love toward ourself and our neighbor.
All this takes practice. When we work on our yoga mat to create space in the body for healing, we do so with awareness. When we work on our meditation mat to create space in the mind for choice, we do so with awareness. And when the mind is able to choose, we are able to work in our daily lives to create space in the spirit for loving ourselves. The hope is that if for a moment we can focus on the tree trunk, instead of the ever changing leaves, perhaps we will be able to notice, for even an instant, our constant spirit, instead of our changeable thoughts and emotions. And from inside this space, this separation between ourselves and our thought-feelings, we will find compassion for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, and for each person we encounter.
Creating space isn’t easy. It requires openness of mind and heart. This can be unnerving and can seem irrational. As human beings we strive to protect ourselves from the possibility of physical, mental, and emotional harm and to fulfill our basic needs. This is survival mode, and it causes us to lose touch with others and even with our truest selves. As we frantically search and scan our surroundings, our circumstances, we become absorbed with negativity. When this is our baseline functioning, we run the risk of closing in on ourselves, forgetting who we are, and who we are in relation to those around us.
But we can try, little by little we can try to find that necessary spaciousness. What can we practice letting go of to make space for something else, something like welcoming, like embracing? Making space for ourselves, and making space for one another are true acts of love. Even paying close attention is loving, for where we place our attention, there also will our love be. Bringing our awareness to the present moment, including the people and events within that moment, and allowing space for the moment to be what it is, is living in love.
Our practices of the limbs of yoga – the yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana, dharana – with the wisdom of Holy Spirit, will lead us to the answers. We’ll figure out what needs letting go of through practice, so we can’t quit; we can’t give up; we can’t deny ourselves the practices even when we are overcome with grief and anger – we take the grief and the anger to the practice with us. Just like we take the joy and the delight to the practice with us. We take everything to the practice. Practice is truly our own best teacher.
Yoga instructor Bryan Kest speaks of a yoga practice on the mat as being like a mini-day, or a mini-life in which we encounter obstacles and challenges, and we practice being with them with equanimity, so that when we go out into the world we function from this baseline of non-reaction, with gentleness and self-compassion as our default mode. Not only do we practice navigating difficulty as yogis, but we also practice nurturing ourselves through deep restorative postures and energy work that have the capacity to restore and bolster our right action in the world. And this is paramount – we must care for ourselves so that we can care for others. Continued, sustained practice creates in us the capacity to grow in wisdom and expand in love. It is when we deny what is present, when we hide from what is happening, when we close in on ourselves and shut everyone else out through fear that our chests tighten, our hearts constrict, and our capacity for love diminishes. Kyodo Williams encourages us when she says, ” for people who are not monastics, the world is our field of practice.”
And so we practice. We get on our mat every day; we let go of reactivity, harsh self-criticisms, vanity and pride, greed and grasping; we start to cultivate space for responding, for healing, for choosing, and for seeing rightly. We fail. We try again.
We welcome wisdom into our heart and begin to understand what it means to be wisely generous and wisely selfish, so as not to overextend or overwhelm ourselves, but so that we pace, renew and restore and keep going. We take that spaciousness off our yoga mat, through the doors of our worship space and out into the moments, the circumstances of our lives, and we practice some more, and we practice again, and unceasingly, like prayer.
Love is not cruel; it is supportive and humble. Love sees rightly and is enlightened. Love is generous, tranquil, forgiving, compassionate, courageous, honest, eternal, and triumphant. Love is wise.
Love bears all things because love is spacious. When we understand this and put it into practice by giving ourselves the space to be who we are without judgment, we will be able to give this same non-judgemental space to others. From this place we will hear the encouragement, “Love one another as you love yourself,” and we will know, because we live it, because we feel it in our bones.
Space is ever-expanding. So is love. Love never ends.