From a former student I recently received the following question by email:

“In the MBSR program I heard people ask how they can love what happened to them when they bring attention to the unpleasant and painful sensations surrounding a traumatic event? How can they love the pain in the body? The steps one is supposed to take are to follow the sensations, note, open, soften, allow, accept, and then love. I personally direct love and compassion to myself, even with this experience of pain, but not the pain itself.”

“How can I love pain, tragedy and all the awful things that occur in the world?” This is a frequent question that puzzles novice meditators.

The sun does not discriminate where it shines. It shines as strongly on ISIS death camps as it does on Buddhist monasteries. Such is awareness and love. It is indeed about loving the pain as fully and completely as we love our children. The left brain problem-solving mind cannot comprehend that and seeks ways of avoiding this truth such as ‘I cannot love my pain, but I can love myself’. The mind seeks pleasure, not truth, and therefore is conditional in its love. In the literature this is often referred to as ‘eros’ love, as opposed to ‘agape’ love, which is not the same. The spiritual agape love we are talking about in mindfulness is indeed impossible to imagine, hard to embody and very misunderstood. The reason lies in the dual stance of the problem-solving mind, which can only think in terms of opposites, good and bad. From this limited perspective, one loves what’s good and hates what’s bad. But when this conceptually limited view is transcended and replaced by a non-dualistic view based in awareness, the love we discover can love Hitler AND go destroy him to protect life, humanity, decency and ultimately him from himself. Heinous acts come from pain and ignorance (or the breakdown of the social engagement system blocking access to the medial prefrontal cortex – MPC), pain comes from chaos and rigidity – it all requires the embrace of awareness to heal and integrate. That awareness is love.

More specifically, when unpleasant experiences arise within us, whether they be cognitive, emotional or physical in nature, the steps are to bring curiosity to the experiences, openness to whatever is present and acceptance to what is present whether we like it or not. This attitude of curiosity, openness and acceptance is tantamount to love. In other words, by approaching experience in this way, it is an act of love and self care, in and of itself. It is not that we need to manufacture anything else, least of all some feeling of love the way we remember loving our children on a good day. So when we say we ‘send love to the sensations inside ourselves’, we simply approach them with curiosity, openness and acceptance, which feels very spacious, aware and loving. It is not that we ‘love’ from where the pain originated (for example a past trauma), because that hurting part of ourselves is incapable of that kind of presence and love. Rather, we learn to be with what is present now, including this pain, by sitting firmly in the seat of awareness in the MPC. This then means we actually do develop a loving attitude to whatever pain is present, meaning that we are curious, open, accepting and therefore present, aware and loving. With this attitude, pain and tragedy become our teachers, unimaginable sources of useful information and wisdom.

“What is the difference between loving pain in this spiritual way and masochism?” you may ask. The latter belongs to the dualistic world of the problem-solving mind, which seeks pleasure in all possible ways. In masochism, excessive pain is sought out and pervertly woven into the mechanisms with which we seek pleasure. The pain does not get transformed, but used. More of it is sought out all the time, since the pursuit of pleasure is an addiction without limits, eternally feeding the hope for deliverance from suffering that never comes. Agape on the other hand does not seek pain, but embraces the inevitable pain that is always already there as part of the human condition. It does not chase after pain, but is a particular way of relating to it that does not engage it in any positive or negative way. It simply shines the light of insight onto it, making it of course the work of awareness. Everything awareness holds in its embrace gets transformed, not used. Since awareness dances to the tune of curiosity, openness and acceptance, all transformation that occurs through its embrace moves towards greater integration and harmony, which manifests as abiding peace independent of circumstance and love. The pain energy turns into fuel for insight, transformation and wisdom.

So yes, until we deeply love everything, including pain and all the unsavory aspects of existence, we haven’t experienced mindfulness to its fullest. This is one of the messages in Christ’s crucifixion – the ability to be fully present and awake, flexible and free in the face of life’s hardships and our existential challenges. It is hard to take at first, yet so simple: curiosity, openness, acceptance ….

What better way to close this blog with Rumi’s poem THE GUEST HOUSE, commenting exactly on this subject:

This being human is a guest-house
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Say I Am You, poems of Rumi, translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks, Maypop 1994

Copyright © 2015 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.