More Shades of Gray
There is a common tendency of human beings to see things in in terms of black or white—trying to simplify life to create the illusion that we understand things and are in control. But things are rarely simple—life comes to us much more in the form of complexity and continuums; and further, life is always changing. So it’s important to look beyond our tendency to see things as black or white, and instead be aware that life comes in many shades of gray. This is particularly true in spiritual practice where we can easily get lost in confusion, especially where we don’t see the subtle shades of gray in our own feelings and behavior.
Personal Love and Big Love
It is difficult to talk about personal love because it comes in many different shades. There is the love of a parent to a child, the love between friends, romantic love, sexual love, and others. Personal love always involves intense good feelings, and often a sense of connectedness. In some cases, particularly in romantic love, there is an accompanying flow of chemicals, like dopamine and endorphins, which contribute to a very rosy view. But of course, as the initial glow subsides, so does the flow of chemicals, and we can go from “roses, roses,” to “thorns, thorns.”
Personal love is always based on attachment to our feelings. In other words, it’s predicated on the emotion-based belief that without this particular person I can’t be happy. This form of clinging includes the enjoyment we get when we’re with the person, as well as the angst we feel when we think of losing the person. But is attachment really love? Is it love when what we love is the idea of the person, and what we believe they can give us, and not the actual person? Is it love when what we love is the feeling of love and not the actual person? Is it love when we believe we can’t live or be happy without the person? Isn’t this much closer to neediness and fear than it is to love?
It’s important to acknowledge that most of us will have—or want—personal love. This is normal, and there’s nothing wrong with it. We just need to see it for what it is. Now let’s compare personal love to Big Love, that is, the love that is our true nature. One quality of Big Love is that it is all embracing—it includes everyone and everything. Just like the sun’s rays shine on everyone equally, regardless of good or bad, the experience of Big Love is not directed toward just one person. Nor does it ask for something in return. In personal love there is always the expectation that we’ll get something—attention, security, emotional gratification, pleasure, and on and on. There is an unspoken bargain—you give me what I want or I won’t give you what you want. But in Big Love there are no expectations of reward; the love is given freely—freely in the most literal sense.
Big Love is also not personal—that is, it is not exactly about me. There is not the thought that I am loving, or that my love deserves merit. The only way to put this is Big Love simply is. This is why we say that Big Love is the natural state of our Being when our personal needs, agendas and fears no longer block it.
Where the shades of gray appear is in the experience of connectedness that is common to both personal love and Big Love. But once we have enough tastes of Big Love it gets easier to see the difference—the connectedness of personal love is very small and subjective, always directed toward another person; whereas the sense of connectedness in Big Love is more global and inclusive. Personal love certainly feels good and can be enjoyed, but it isn’t the same as the state of being that is revealed when our fears and stories and agendas drop away—where we experience the freedom of just being, and where the love includes everyone and everything. Again, we can still enjoy and appreciate personal love, as long as we understand what it actually is; and as long as we can remain open to the bigger love that is our true nature. The question is: how long will we go on living a life where Big Love is not a real part? How long will we settle for just the pleasure of personal love?
Letting Go and Letting Be
“Letting go” is one of the most popular phrases in spiritual practice. It is even common in everyday usage. Basically, letting go means that we can, and should, drop something that is not good for us, such as a harmful attitude, or a burdensome emotion. Often the advice to “let something go” is well-intentioned, and certainly we can occasionally unburden ourselves by just letting go. But, usually the things we can simply let go of are very small. For example, if the Yankees, which are my favorite baseball team, lose a game, although I might get upset it is still fairly easy to shrug it off and not wallow in disappointment. However, when it comes to deep-seated emotions or deeply-conditioned attitudes, the idea of letting go is more wishful thinking than a realistic possibility.
If we could simply just let go of things we don’t like or that we found unhelpful, we would already be quite happy! Just think about the last time you were really angry at someone. If someone said to you, “Just let go of your anger”—how easy would it be to do that? Trying to let go is, in a subtle way, the same as trying to get rid of the things we don’t like, especially the thoughts and feelings we find difficult to feel. We’re seeing them as the enemy, and wanting life to be different.
Letting be may sound similar, but it is actually quite different. Letting be means we don’t try to drop it (let it go), nor do we try to alter it, or force ourselves to accept it. Rather we simply acknowledge what’s there, and say Yes to it, which means that we’re willing to feel it, just as it is. We don’t have to like it, nor, on the other hand, do we have to view it as an obstacle or an enemy—we just have to be willing to experience exactly what our life is right now. Interestingly, when we can truly let something be, it will often “let go” on its own, without an effort to make that happen. In fact, the effort to make it happen—the attempt to let go—will often guarantee the opposite.
Please remember, the ego mind will consistently try to pervert our best practice intentions. The point is to not get caught in the ego’s tendency toward black or white thinking, where we tend to remain confused. When we are more precise in our observations, we can get an inward feel for the subtle shades of gray between black and white, between personal love and Big Love, between letting go and letting be.