What's so Scary about Peace, Love and Understanding?

A close friend recently shared with me this excerpt of a Brain Pickings review of Thich Nhat Hanh's book How to Love. I found it very moving, so I've chosen to share it with you. You can find my musings about it below: 

"At the heart of Nhat Hanh’s teachings is the idea that “understanding is love’s other name” — that to love another means to fully understand his or her suffering. (“Suffering” sounds rather dramatic, but in Buddhism it refers to any source of profound dissatisfaction — be it physical or psycho-emotional or spiritual.) Understanding, after all, is what everybody needs — but even if we grasp this on a theoretical level, we habitually get too caught in the smallness of our fixations to be able to offer such expansive understanding. He illustrates this mismatch of scales with an apt metaphor:

"If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform."

"The question then becomes how to grow our own hearts, which begins with a commitment to understand and bear witness to our own suffering:

When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love. That’s why to love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness.

Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love.""

It's scary to talk about peace, love and understanding in a time when it's cool to marginalize and despise those with whom we disagree. These days almost everyone seems to have someone or some group that it's cool for them to hate or be afraid of, and I understand where that's coming from. The world is scary and unpredictable these days. The future doesn't look bright. In fact, if we project our current patterns into the future, it looks downright terrifying. That seems to me to be a clarion call to all of us to transform the way we do things, and that is why I love what Thich Nhat Hanh offers us here. It is a path towards transformation and it begins with us. 

I really just want to flag two aspects of this. On one hand, our capacity to love transforms ourselves and second. On the other hand, it allows others to transform.

On the first point, Lauren Rosenfeld beautifully explains, "Sometimes we stubbornly refuse to understand because we believe that understanding is a zero sum game: if I reach out to understand you, I must give up a part of my self that I am clinging to as if it were a raft on turbulent river of life. But, in reaching out to understand, what I truly give up is self certainty, which is ego driven and illusory. I let go of the raft of self certainty and find that the flow of the river of life will carry me and you together. Understanding is infinitely expansive and illuminating -- and in this way -- as [Thich Nhat Hanh] explains -- it is equivalent to love: it casts light on our true nature, our interconnectedness, our infinite and infinitely expansive being." 

The truth is that opening up to a world full of diverse perspectives takes courage. In the process of realizing that we don't have the only right way of seeing the world, we become able to hold grasp everything a little more lightly. Primarily this releases us from the suffering inherent in trying to control the flow of life. It also allows us open up to our own selves, because that desire to destroy what we don't like, instead of embracing and understanding it, is easily turned against our own selves. Finally, when we let go the idea of clinging to right or wrong ways to do things, then we become able to grow and evolve. Life becomes a process of potentially continual improvement and we create the space for ongoing transformation. 

If we can learn to love and understand ourselves, then we can also learn to love and understand others, and the effect is the same. By understanding and loving others, we give them permission to change. This is best understood by considering the opposite strategy: If we hate someone for the way we see them, their natural reaction is to defend that way of being, to try to justify it, and that can only lead to deeper entrenchment. Even if they do decide to change, they wouldn't want us to know and may resist their own evolution as a matter of principle. No one wants to give credit to someone who has treated them poorly. If, on the other hand, we want to see someone change, the best thing we can do is to love them, to wish the best for them, to understand what's important to them. It is only when one feels safe and held that they can bring their best self to the table. 

And so we come full circle. It seems nearly impossible to learn to love our various enemies, but it is also totally necessary if we want to create a better world. We can't force the world to change around us, so the place to start is within.

Sigh... It sounds like a lot of work, but I can't think of anything more important in the world today.