With a notable and inspiring academic background of Buddhist Studies in England, Alastair is completing a PhD at Cambridge and was President of the University of London Buddhist Association in 2009. His scholarly and writing interests are broad, encompassing contemporary Buddhist culture, travels in Asia, and modern questions about the spiritual life.
Life constantly demands us to love. Whether it is our husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, children, relatives or friends, we are expected to spontaneously and effortlessly provide them with the necessary love and support they need.
We come home from work tired and frustrated. Our children run up to us with their latest artwork or stories from school. We do our best to give our full attention to them but often fail. Our wives and husbands want to discuss overdue bills, dinner plans or the recent events at their own work. We do our best to listen to them but often get distracted by our favourite TV programme or an interesting website on the internet. Our boyfriends and girlfriends call us at all times asking our advice on their problems. We add a few “humms” and “uhhuhs” to show that we are listening yet when they ask us a question we are sent into a brief moment of panic as we can’t remember what they were talking about!
Often we feel guilty about our perceived failure. We feel guilty for not having provided the love and care that was demanded by our loved ones. Sometimes we may also resent these demands on our time and then feel additional guilt about our resentment. We feel that we should put more effort into caring for our loved ones and try and force ourselves to feel differently. We push our tiredness and tension deep down and try and force ourselves to act in a more loving way. This can sometimes work but often it causes greater frustration and anxiety. It often increases the psychological pressure on us and may even inhibit our natural capacity to love. In this way, the need to be an instant source of love and support for all those around us has led us to neglect the processes of developing true loving-kindness.
Buddhaghosa, a 5th century monk, wrote about this topic in his meditation manual, the Visuddhimagga. Buddhaghosa states that rather than forcing ourselves to love others we should first turn our attention towards ourselves. Buddhaghosa notes that this may seem like a paradox as the Buddha so often spoke of extending loving-kindness (metta) to all those around us and of transcending selfish habits. Wouldn’t concentrating on ourselves be contrary to this? How can we justify using our time to love ourselves when our families and friends need so much from us? In response to this perceived problem, Buddhaghosa quotes this verse from the Buddha:
“Having roamed all directions with my mind,
I have not found anywhere one dearer than myself,
Self is likewise dear to everyone,
He who loves himself could never harm another.” (S.i,75)
The Buddha clearly shows that the basis for loving others is to love ourselves. But how would loving ourselves mean that we then love others more? The answer is clear from the third line. When we recognise that we want to be happy and that we do not want to suffer, that we wish to take care of ourselves and protect ourselves, we can understand that this is the case for all living beings. However, if we do not develop this understanding within ourselves, we will not be able to extend love to others. The Buddha leaves no doubt in his last line: If we love ourselves, we are unable to cause harm to those around us. When we cannot care for our friends and family, it is not helpful to beat ourselves up inside and to feel guilty about not being there for them. We should instead concentrate on replenishing our energy, taking care of ourselves, loving ourselves, so that we may be there for our loved ones in a more profound and deep way, truly relating to them as humans who desire happiness and who want to end suffering. This is our foundation.