There is this noble idea of universal unconditional love, that we should love not only those who love us, but even those who hate us, that we should love everyone without distinction. It’s very easy to hate someone, but to love can be extremely challenging, especially when that person is difficult to tolerate.
This idea of loving everyone sounds good in theory. That is, we can understand it intellectually. Put to put it into practice, to live it, to embody it, is something altogether different.
There are people in this world who are filled with hatred, who commit violence, who steal and so on. There are people who are selfish and inconsiderate, judgmental, mean-spirited or simply obnoxious. How do we love those people?
It’s a very challenging thing for many to even consider, let alone to attempt. The idea of loving everyone, including your enemies, sounds very noble, but for many people it also feels impossible.
I remember someone asking this question once to some spiritual teacher (I forget who), and the reply was that the objective is to love everyone, but you don’t have to like everyone. In other words, you don’t have to agree with their beliefs or opinions, or condone their behavior. You don’t even have to associate with them. But there’s still room for love if we can understand what it truly means to love.
And when I talk about love in this context, obviously we’re not talking about an affectionate expression of love. I’m not talking in terms of friendship or anything of that sort. I’m not suggesting that we express our love in the way we might with a romantic partner, by offering ourselves in selfless service, because it’s likely the other person is going to take advantage of you, walk all over you, abuse you, perhaps even kill you. So again, this is not to suggest that we excuse their behavior or condone it or appease it.
The love I’m talking about is that deep universal love. It’s the recognition of our contentedness with one another, that we are of the same essence at the core of our being. All the other stuff is on the surface. The beliefs and opinions, the behavior and so on, all of that exists only at the surface. What I’m talking about is the ability to see beneath all of that to the very core of the other.
Now, I think that many people can understand this intellectually, but to actually live from that space of love, which extends to all living beings, takes much more than mere intellect. It requires going much deeper.
So people say, “I’m trying to love everyone, but it seems so difficult.” Well, the problem here is that we’re trying, which is to say that we’re making an effort, trying to force something which doesn’t feel authentic. And love can’t be forced. It must arise spontaneously. Otherwise it isn’t authentic. So the question isn’t how to force it but how to allow that arising to happen naturally?
Love is something that does flow naturally without effort. That’s the very nature of love. But when it doesn’t flow like this, it’s because something is in the way. And we need to try to understand this.
I would say forget all about trying to love everyone. In fact, shift your focus away from this idea completely. Instead, simply try to understand others. And from understanding, love will arise naturally.
So begin by recognizing that every person in this world was once a child. And initially every child is innocent, with a profound propensity for love and affection. But what happens to a child that causes that innocence to be snuffed out? What causes that child to become filled with bitterness and hatred and all sorts of destructive beliefs and ideologies and selfish behavior? This is what we need to try and understand.
And in some sense we need to understand that every person is a child. Don’t let the body fool you. We tend to think there are children and there are adults, as if these are two distinctly different things. The reality is that we’re all children. Just look at how childish we behave even as adults. And I think that once we understand this, we can begin to respond to others the way you might with a child, which means to have a little more sensitivity.
When we meet someone who is mean-spirited or inconsiderate or rude, it’s easy to simply see what’s on the surface and nothing more, to simply observe that some people are good and others evil. But it’s not as simple as that. There is so much going on beneath the surface that we don’t comprehend. And we need to try and understand what is behind that persons attitude and behavior. Not to assume that some people are simply bad or evil or unkind, but that there’s a reason why they’ve come to be this way.
If you observe people who are genuinely happy, they’re the kindest people you’ll meet. Have you ever met someone who was genuinely happy, who was also cruel? And have you ever met someone who was cruel who wasn’t deeply unhappy?
So when we meet someone who is cruel, rather than focusing only on their cruelty, can we look a little bit deeper. Can we recognize that beneath the surface, this person is deeply unhappy. And that unhappiness could be arising from fear or frustration, or a sense of worthlessness, powerlessness, a sense of not being loved or not being worthy of love. Something is going on inside of them that we aren’t seeing. Something in their life has created a disturbance in them. We may not know exactly what, but it’s clear that there is something. We could speculate that perhaps they were abused or neglected or whatever the case may be. We can imagine that this sweet innocent child was at some point corrupted, that their inner joy and kindness was snuffed out.
And when we realize this, if we truly realize this, how can we not have compassion? How can we not feel empathy? We may accuse them of being cold-hearted, but where is the warmth in our own heart?
This person has grown up to believe that the world is a dark, cruel and hostile place, that there is no kindness, no love, no compassion. And we can confirm that belief for them or negate it, depending on how we respond.
It may be that they’ve never experienced true compassion, true understanding, from anyone. And it may be the very thing they need in order to encourage them to reawaken their own loving kindness. It may be what they need to experience in order to change in a positive direction. So how do we respond then? Is it possible to respond with loving kindness?
Now I’m not saying that this is the best course of action for every situation. Every situation is unique, so you have to use you’re own discernment. In some cases gentleness may be very effective. In other cases you may have to be firm and assertive, even defensive if the person’s behavior is violent. And sometimes the best action is to to simply walk away, to distance yourself.
So the outward response is always going to be different. There’s no concise formula that applies to every situation. But the inward response is the same.
In every situation, regardless of the action we take, we should seek to understand. We should try to see beneath the surface, to understand where that person’s behavior is arising from.
And from understanding comes compassion, which is an expression of that universal all-pervasive love. So the more understanding we have, the more deeply we can love, even those who have made themselves our enemy.