Many of us seek love - to have and to hold it forever and ever. People struggle with the ups and downs in that journey but do not always understand the complexities within this beautiful emotion.
There are two experiences of love. One is the love that we receive in relationship to others which is more obvious and “out there” and the other is in relationship to oneself, which is more subtle and “in here.” The love we receive in relationship with family, friends and community is a beautiful thing, but it is built on the more fundamental love that we receive in relationship to our self.
The relationship with our self is, in fact, our primary relationship and every other relationship is only a corollary to that one. In other words, the state of all other relationships is directly connected to the state of that primary one.
Remember the story of the Princess and the Pea? Although many mattresses were laid on the first one, the subtle pressure of the pea upon the delicate back of the princess left her uneasy and sleepless. In the same way, if our relationship with our self is knotted with unresolved issues, even the greatest friend or lover cannot help us to relax and enjoy connection.
What is this self that we are referring to? It is our basic human identity - the person within- the one who is great on the one hand, yet fraught with imperfections and anomalies on the other. Each of us is a unique being on the planet and no person has greater access to our inner world than we do. One of my spiritual teachers in India once said to me, “Love is a stand that you take.” I think of his words often. Nature has wired us to “take a stand” to love our children just the way they are, so as to ensure their survival. Despite their many flaws and mistakes, we love them. Completely. Unconditionally.
But we were not wired to love ourselves the same way - which is why it feels so unnatural to do so. We are wired for self-protection, again in service of our own survival. Self-love, which is a whole other thing altogether, is a choice we must make, over and over again; even when we do not understand or cannot make sense of our nature; when we do things right and especially when we do things wrong.
While self-protection and defense enable us to survive, self-love helps us to thrive. Yet true self-love is not blind narcissism. It is intentional and urges us to live up to our honest potential. It is not self-criticism or self-improvement, which is a “subtle aggression against who you are,” to quote the great mindfulness teacher Pema Chodron. True self-love is inspiring and working with yourself to “rise and shine.” It is adopting a life-style that honors your individuality and investing the time to discover who you really are behind the labels of good and bad, success and failure. It cultivates good habits of food, exercise, and self-care from a place of genuine personal nurturance and not from competition and comparison with another.
This honoring of the light within us in all its originality is a most spiritual act and brings deep peace and joy into our lives. Although challenging at times, it is always powerful and healing with a ripple effect upon all other relationships. As we exercise the muscle of unconditional love towards ourselves, a deep softening occurs within, moving us from judging those we know to loving them as they are. Perhaps this unconditional love is what we seek each Valentine’s Day till we become our own Valentine one day.