Emotion? Energy? Practice? What Is Love?

Small plastic heart in glass of water

Jo Christian Oterhals via Flickr http://fetz.us/2kTdIqm

Experiences of love leave indelible marks on our lives. We may experience love through our family members and pets, our friends and mentors, our romantic partners, and in professional, religious, volunteer or other communities where we are linked to others through shared beliefs, causes, activities, or goals.

Love is also a compelling and timeless theme for poets, writers, musicians, and artists who have sought to capture its essence in words and images. Moral exemplars like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and Rigoberta Menchú Tum, to name just a few, have modeled an expansive, powerful form of love that encompasses forgiveness and deep compassion.

Scientists, too, have turned their attention to love and the biological roots of love and compassion in humans. In a study at the University of Wisconsin, psychologist Jack Nitschke found that new mothers, when looking at pictures of their babies, demonstrated unique activity in a part of their brains associated with positive emotions. This suggests that this region of the brain may be attuned to the most primal objects of our love and compassion—our children. Other studies have indicated that when subjects contemplated harm being done to others, a similar network of regions in the brain—regions associated with love and compassion—were stimulated.

A team of developmental psychologists also reported a study of newborn babies who did not cry when they heard taped recordings of their own crying, but did get upset when they heard a recording of another baby crying.

In these studies, very different stimuli caused similar neurological reactions that suggest that love and compassion may be biologically innate to humans. In fact, there is growing scientific evidence indicating that love, both given and received, is often associated with better health and well being. It also promotes caring and altruistic behaviors.

Still, in so many ways, love remains a mystery. Where does it reside? Is it an emotion, an energy, a practice? Can it be cultivated or taught? What propels us to express or receive love, and what holds us back from loving or letting ourselves be loved?

Most of us can name love when we experience it. It may feel like warmth, support, care, closeness, or safety. It may feel like the unconditional acceptance of someone who allows us to share all facets of ourselves, including our fears, imperfections, and misdeeds. We may feel familial love and a sense of belonging with our parents, siblings, and very close friends. We may feel romantic love with a partner, and we may feel love in the unexpected kindness of a stranger. We may also experience love in nature and among creatures in the natural world.

We’ve also witnessed love through small and monumental acts of generosity, selflessness and compassion in others, the loving care of someone attending to a sick or needy friend, the self-sacrifice of organ donors, and the efforts of volunteers responding to a need in their community. After tragic events, we often see countless acts of generosity and loving-kindness as people open their hearts, homes, and wallets in response to human suffering.

Many speak of the heart as the seat of love and speak about maintaining an open heart to keep love flowing in our lives. Listening to our hearts can be a way of tapping our inner wisdom and finding compassion for ourselves and others. But in our fast-paced culture, being still enough to listen to our hearts is a challenge. It doesn’t often top our “to-do” lists.

Still, when some of us listen to our hearts, we hear the echoes of past pain. Fear of having our feelings hurt (yet again) can keep us from giving or receiving love. Yet as author and educator Parker Palmer explains in his book, A Hidden Wholeness, “There are at least two ways to understand what it means to have our hearts broken. One is to imagine the heart broken into shards and scattered about...The other is to imagine the heart broken open into new capacity—one that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome.”

Love requires a vulnerability and openness that may seem risky in a world filled with violence, injustice, pain, fear, and intolerance. It takes great courage to love in the face of hostility, but that is often where love is most needed and effective. This is why many spiritual leaders throughout time have advised humankind to cultivate and tap the collective power of loving hearts (what some call the communal heart) to transform our world when economic and political solutions fall short.

Whether romantic, platonic, or altruistic, we all know love when we feel it—an expansive openness, an unconditional acceptance and the acknowledgment of a greater good in all of us. We each have our own stories of love to tell, and, in telling and hearing these stories, we can broaden our ideas about where love exists in our lives, and where it may be missing. We can learn to see love in new ways and places, to use it as a resource for problem solving, and, perhaps, to begin viewing the people and events in our lives through a lens of love.

This article is a revised version of one of four essays on love in our free, downloadable Conversations About Love guide.

Roselle Kovitz, a member of Fetzer’s social media team, is a writer and communication consultant who lives in Seattle.