We Are Love
At the Universalist Recovery Church meetings, we talk a lot about love. Not long ago, we concluded that our essential nature is love. That’s not a unique idea. Many religious traditions endorse that belief, especially those comfortable with mysticism.
Sufism, which is the mystical branch of Islam, is all about love. Called “lovers of God,” Sufis often speak about the blissful union between us and the divine, one that is better than the most intimate oneness between a lover and her beloved. 
Before we were born, no separation existed between us and God. With birth, we lose the memory of that oneness. For the Sufi, our task in life is to recall that eternal state, to remember “that there is nothing other than God.”  Our true self, our essential essence, knows we are one with God.
Christianity contains a similar message. The Catholic priest, Richard Rohr, writes that love is who we are. For instance, the biblical teaching that we were created in the image of God means that “we were created by a loving God to be love in the world.” At our core, he continues, our “True Self is love itself.”  We are love.
We find this idea in New Age mysticism, as well. Talking about A Course in Miracles, Marianne Williamson writes, “Love is the essential existential fact. It is our ultimate reality and our purpose on earth.”  Similar to the teachings of Sufism, A Course in Miracles teaches that when we are born, we become separated from the divine love. Over time, we forget that love exists. The purpose of life is to become aware of, and to express, the love that lies at our center.
Blocks to Love
How do we return to that blissful state of oneness, to the awareness of our true nature?
One of our Universalist Recovery Church members talks about the “blocks to love.” The Sufi mystic, Rumi, spoke of removing “barriers.” “Your task,” he wrote, “is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
Love is there. We need only let it flow in and flow out. Returning to that essential oneness is that easy. And that hard.
Sometimes we think we can make ourselves love through the force of our will. But this is like trying to succeed at life by fighting, trying to mow over whatever gets in our way. This might seem satisfying in the moment. Some people love the rush of vanquishing an enemy. It makes us feel strong, powerful, and we enjoy the fruits of victory.
Such happiness never lasts, however, for whatever we turn into our enemy will fight back, whether it be another person or our own fear. That which we hate will return. Our longing, fear, and anger will imprison us. Fighting does not get us what we truly want.
That is because what we truly want, underneath all our lusting and our posturing, is love. We want to be seen, known, and accepted, just as we are. We want to be cared for. For this to happen, we must give up our battles and yield. After all, the nature of love is not aggression and resistance, but kindness and openness. At least, these are the characteristics of “true love.”
According to Thich Nhat Hanh, true love contains four qualities: maitri, which is the desire and ability to offer happiness to others; karuna, which is the desire and ability to lighten the burdens of others and transform their suffering; mudita, which is the capacity to bring joy to ourselves and others; and upeksha, which means “equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimination, evenmindedness, or letting go.” 
This kind of love is our natural state. It is who we were born to be and what we have forgotten we knew.
That’s because, once we come into this world, life starts teaching us how to fear. Disappointments and abandoment bring us pain, and we experience suffering.
Of course, as our Universalist Recovery Church members pointed out a few weeks ago, suffering might make us miserable, but without it, we would not remember how to love. “Suffering helps remove some of the blocks to love,” one member said. But before we can remember our essential nature, before we can return to love, we must go through the pain.
What We Fear
So maybe the fear we learn as a child is a good thing. After all, it causes us endless amounts of pain and suffering. Besides, fear motivates us to work, care for loved ones, protect them, build shelter. Because we live in human bodies, we fear that which threatens to harm those bodies.
What kinds of things threaten us?
Most of us worry about hunger, sadness, loneliness, discomfort, shame, failure, betrayal, ridicule, death, the ten thousand things. The list of what frightens us could go on for pages. Ultimately, though, we fear the future, because the future might bring loss. In our fear, we do everything we can think of to convince ourselves we’re safe: we cling, we control, we grasp for wealth and power, we judge, we punish, we hate, we cringe, we lash out, and we hide. We live a lie, and we forget how to love.
The core reason we fear, though, is because we identify with a separate, illusory self. This is often called the ego. I’m not talking here about the healthy self that helps us navigate the world with competence and serenity. The ego that gets in our way is the frightened part of ourselves that believes this earth is all we have, that thinks we must scrabble to the top, that lusts for wealth, and that longs to leave a legacy of power and greatness when we die in the hopes this will bring us immortality. Our ego can’t bear the thought that one day we must die.
This ego, our false self, is a block to love. Giving up this false self means giving up all the things of the world we think will keep us safe from harm. Like the addict who discovers that the drug he once thought was his salvation is now his jailer, so the one who awakens finds that the trappings of the world are just that: entrapments. They imprison us.
To become free, we must surrender to God. We must annihilate ourselves. In our anxiety, we resist this. As Vaughan-Lee points out, the ego will not readily relinquish “its notion of supremacy.” 
How many of us are excited about turning “our will and our lives over to the care of God,” as the third step in Alcoholics Anonymous encourages us to do? We dismiss the possibility outright. We don’t want to lose the luxuries and distractions of our life. Our possessions define us, and our heart aches when lose them. Even if we decide the path of renunciation is worthwhile, we still cling to that one last thing. Perhaps it is a necklace or a stone, a belief or a dream. Let us keep at least a dollar or, if nothing else, at least our dignity. Must everything disappear?
Yonah and the Baal Shem Tov
I wouldn’t know. Although I try to travel a spiritual path, I have a long way to go before I reach a state of surrender as deep and as complete as what Vaughan-Lee describes.
Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if he were right. After all, though Islam is based on the idea of surrender, it is not the only religion that teaches us such a thing. Jesus spoke of donating everything to the poor and following God, of gaining heaven by giving up the world. To find enlightenment, Buddha renounced his family, his home, and his power as a prince. Hassidic Jews follow the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov who encouraged his disciples to sacrifice everything to gain the truth of the Torah that is our salvation.
Once upon a time, the Baal Shem Tov offered a young householder named Yonah the opportunity to fulfill his dream of learning the Torah. To do so, the man had to give up everything he owned, leave his wife, Devorah, and their children, and study with the Baal Shem Tov for three years. Yonah’s wife encouraged him to do so, but his father-in-law chastised him for even thinking of leaving his family. After all, the young man had an obligation to take care of them.
Not knowing what to do, Yonah returned to speak with the Baal Shem Tov. The master affirmed that supporting one’s family was a mitzvah, a good deed. Many householders support Torah scholars, which was also a mitzvah.
Freedom from “Me and Mine”
Yet Yonah decided his wife was right. He and Devorah gave to the teacher all their money, then signed over to him their home and all their belongings. The Baal Shem Tov did not leave the family destitute, though. The purpose of giving up our ego is not to starve ourselves nor to watch our children starve. So the Baal Shem Tov gave Devorah the right to live in the house with her children and grow crops on the land. Therefore, she was able to support her family while her husband studied.
Three years later, after Yonah had become a great teacher himself, he returned home and resumed his work as a tinsmith and his obligations as a householder.
Yet, according to the story, by taking the couple’s possessions, the Baal Shem Tov gave them a gift. He freed them “from the corrosive influence of ‘me and mine,’ of ego and ownership.” 
The spiritual life requires renunciation and surrender. It calls us to let go of all we have. That’s because our lust for ownership, our clinging to “me and mine,” our attempts to assure our worldly survival are blocks to love.
Trusting in God
At the same time, we have bodies. If we are not to die, our basic needs must be met. Earning a living so we can provide for the mystics and itinerant teachers of the world, or so we can donate to charity or support a spiritual community, is, according to the Baal Shem Tov, a calling “even higher than [that of] Torah scholars.” [Buxbaum 60].
Even so, the Baal Shem Tov teaches that we cannot truly enjoy what we have been given until we are brave enough to let it go. But how do we become so courageous?
In Christianity, we trust God to provide for us. Muslims surrender everything to God’s will. Buddhists and Hindus talk of karma. Tara Brach teaches about radical acceptance. No one suggests we give up chopping wood and carrying water, which is a Buddhist way of describing the daily activities that support a life. What makes a life of industry a block to love is not that we have a job or care for a family, but rather that we treat our possessions as an extension of ourselves and allow our fear to keep us from being generous with what we have.
It sounds easy to trust in God and stop identifying with the things we own, but it’s not. Figuring out how to work while also holding this physical existence lightly is hard. So is trusting the universe to provide. That’s why, when we refuse to let go of what we own, the universe will often take it from us.
Suffering Can Teach Us to Love
I would never presume to tell someone else that her suffering is a gift from the universe. In the hospital where I work, I see horrible pain and misery.
Recently, for instance, I learned about a disease that causes our blood vessels to calcify, hardening them so blood doesn’t flow properly. Then our skin starts to break down. We develop sores that won’t heal. The pain is excruciating, and there is no cure. I can’t imagine finding joy in the midst of such anguish.
Natural disasters, too, bring enormous suffering. People die, everything the survivors own is swept away, entire neighborhoods are wiped out. Humans also do great harm. Whether they rule over families or countries, tyrants sow suffering with cruelty, indifference, torture, and war. How can I tell someone who has survived such torment that they should let go of their fear and see their suffering as a gift?
Yet we can find gifts in our own suffering. As one of our church members said, “We need suffering in order to love.”
Acceptance and Letting Go
The potential exists for us to emerge from suffering with more bitterness, anger, and hate than before. Hopefully, though, we will tap into that loving essence that lies within us, and our compassion will grow. Through suffering, we can learn to offer the true love Thich Nhat Hanh mentioned. We can wish well for others, bring them joy, and lighten their burdens. Though suffering, we may discover that we can survive even terrible things. This helps us develop equanimity, lose some of our fear, learn to let go.
So what do we do?
Last week we talked about Pema Chödrön’s teaching that we start where we are. In other words, we accept ourselves the way we are in this moment. By accepting ourselves, we allow the seeds of change to sprout.
By such acceptance, we also release our blocks and barriers to love. Instead of fighting against them or trying to dismantle them, we befriend them. We notice them, greet them, and release them. We allow them to rise up and fade away.
The Love that Is Our True Self
Starting where we are means honoring our fear. When it gets in our way, we don’t try to convince ourselves we’re being ridiculous. Maybe our fear has little basis in reality, but it has a lot of basis in our history, in the stories we tell ourselves. Fear gives us information. If we listen to what our fear is telling us, then we can soothe it. We can remind that scared part of ourselves that all is well, and all will be well. We can invite our fear to relax.
In this way, we can release other blocks to love, such as our lust, our clinging, our anger, our pride. If we honor what arises without judging or shaming ourselves, if we can help our wounded hearts to feel accepted and nurtured, we can begin to open up. Our fears will fade away. This is how we learn to love ourselves. It is how we begin to feel the touch of the Beloved, the Divine One, the God to whom we belong. This is how we learn to offer to others the kind of love Thich Nhat Hanh talked about, the love that lives within our true self.
Our essential nature is love. We just need to remove the blocks that keep it from shining.
In faith and fondness,
- Vaughan-Lee, Llewellyn. Love Is a Fire : The Sufi’s Mystical Journey Home, Point Reyes Station, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 2012, 1.
- Ibid 144.
- Rohr, Richard, “’The Greatest of These Is Love,’” St. Anthony Messenger, June 25, 2018, https://blog.franciscanmedia.org/sam/the-greatest-of-these-is-love, accessed 8/14/20.
- Hanh, Thich Nhat, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, New York: Broadway Books, 1998,170-174.
- Williamson, Marianne, Return to Love, New York: HarperOne, 1996.
- Vaughn-Lee 7.
- Buxbaum, Yitzhak, The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov, New York: Continuum, 2005, 61.
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved