Once upon a time, about a decade or two ago, I remember a teacher commenting that there are two different schools of spiritual development: the way of Truth and the way of Love. Ultimately, they meet in the same place, but traditions, teachers, and practitioners have tended to espouse and emphasize one or the other across different cultures and time periods.
Generally, it is not particularly valuable to categorize people and practices. Sustaining any polarity such as “Love vs. Truth” misses much awareness about the process of spiritual inquiry and growth. Instead, I would like to use this duality as a jumping off point, to help clarify several common sources of confusion about “spiritual love” that I observe in students and clients.
In this short article, which could expand to volumes, I offer insight on the challenges (and messes) that arise in the practice of spiritual love. My goal is to help you navigate the conundrums of love that arise every day, on all scales, from personal to planetary.
Circling in the same circle
If you have worked with me, or followed my offerings, you might wonder where I fall in my orientation towards the way of “love” or “truth” that I mentioned above. In all of my work, I emphasize a heart-centered — rather than conceptual — approach to the understanding of reality and working out your own sovereign life path.
Yet if you asked me to choose a “side,” I would say that I come first and foremost from the school of Truth. That distinction, however, has significant nuance. The spiritual “truth” that I emphasize is not intellectual or psychological. I would describe “truth” as pure awareness of the nature of reality that is received directly into your consciousness — not from a book, person, or any other intermediary.
Spiritual ideas, descriptions, ideologies, beliefs, and assorted thought forms are transient, partial, and generally limiting. Of course, they often have good temporary uses. They are pointers towards something much greater that can only be accessed through direct awareness. There is a lot of wisdom in the old saying to not “mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.”
Unfortunately, fixation on ideas and practices originally only intended for training is very common amongst spiritual practitioners. And it leads many to get soulfully stuck. Or never effectively address re-occurring life problems at their core. Some spend many lifetimes devoted to a tradition or set of beliefs. They fail to separate the temporal thought forms from direct awareness of what is ultimately beyond the constructs of time and space. In essence, many practice “spiritual” thought forms rather than transcendence of those thought forms.
My observation is that when people get stuck, rather than more deeply examining how and why they got stuck, they are inclined to swing the pendulum of their practice to the other side.
Swinging the pendulum from one side to the other still keeps you attached to the same cord, just with a different viewpoint. It is easy to believe that you are seeing something fundamentally new, even though you are looking at the same construct from a different angle. It is like walking in a big circle. Many different points of view, but ultimately you end up in the same place.
The limits of “love” in practice
You can walk in a big circle of stuckness in your thought forms (a.k.a. searching for the idea of truth, liberation, and awakening). And just as powerfully, you can circle in a plethora of distortions in the practice of love as a spiritual tool and path.
Love as a spiritual practice gets just as confusing and limiting as mental contemplation of spiritual concepts. And often much more messy in life. Why?
I observe three key reasons for difficulties with the spiritual practice of “love.” First, people conflate spiritual love with emotional love. Second, there are piles and piles of (unconscious) beliefs around what love requires, expects, needs, or wants. Third, many act without well-developed discernment and boundaries.
These three aspects are not inseparable. Usually it is a combination of two (e.g., emotional love + beliefs; beliefs without discernment) that initiate the big life messes. A mess can take many forms, from the malicious to genuinely good intentions gone awry. Love-related messes are not necessarily just personal either. They can become cultural, national, international, and planetary. People take a lot of actions in the name of love, on many scales.
Emotional love or spiritual love?
The confusion around emotional and spiritual love is rampant in contemporary culture. In part, this is because many spiritual marketers are looking to create “look good, feel good” experiences to advertise as part of their prescribed soul work. This makes good sense — it is much easier to sell something that is “fun,” “easy,” and “joyful,” than something that requires dedication, hard work, and deep contemplation. Truly knowing and comprehending the nature of spiritual love is generally in the latter category (a deep and long process of reflection and inquiry).
In contrast, the right combination of elements can produce the biochemistry of physical/emotional love in much shorter order. Comes quick, goes quick — but that setup accommodates the preferences of mass culture. Even if you are not so deeply embedded in mainstream society, there are many ways that large-scale orientations seep into awareness, expectations, and the availability of choices in soul work.
What I am calling spiritual love is not even something that is necessarily “felt.” I would describe spiritual love more precisely as a state of awareness that spontaneously gives rise to a heart-emanating experience. Most of the ways that we describe (emotional) “love” don’t really apply. Sometimes the attempt to translate spiritual love into language of physical love creates distortion in the essence of the awareness/experience.
Particularly, spiritual love is not personal. It does not originate from a person, and is not directed to another person. It can be shared and experienced in the space within/between two people, but spiritual love (in and of itself) does not have conditions, boundaries, and desires.
The last part of the previous sentence is where the troubles usually start.
How do you relate — and even function — in the world while practicing spiritual love?
Too often, the beliefs, expectations, and projections of emotional love quickly become overlaid or intertwined with spiritual love. And so the mess begins.
The wholeness of spiritual love
To truly embody transpersonal or non-personal love — what I am calling spiritual love — a depth of inner wholeness is required. You don’t just throw out all of your emotional, psychological, physical, professional, legal, etc. best practices in the context of spiritual love. To the contrary. Those are clarified, heightened, and deeply essential to maintain a clear, safe, and powerful container to embody spiritual love on a planet filled with discord, extraction, disturbance, and fragmented souls/psyches.
Embodying spiritual love is not a bliss trip. It requires clear recognition of the whole (person, situation, place) and simultaneous consideration of many levels of awareness. Only with your own inner wholeness, insight, and patient compassion can you discern what to say and what to do, if action is required. Perhaps non-engagement and empowered Stillness are the most powerful form of spiritual love that can be offered. Artistry, depth of purpose, and inner fortitude are the hallmarks of mature spiritual love.
In this regard, the practice of spiritual love generally calls upon you to be the adult in the room — a room often filled with spiritual/emotional/psychological children of various physical ages. Bill Plotkin, an eminent teacher of soulcraft and experienced psychologist, once suggested that about 85% of the US adult population was functioning at the psycho-spiritual level of early to mid adolescence. My experience largely agrees with his assessment.
Therefore, your expression of spiritual love in the world will rarely find a partner of equal maturity. Also, many people (unconsciously) feel safe acting out their unresolved issues with a spiritually mature, patient, whole, and kind person. So the bar of boundaries gets raised even higher in these situations, both personally and professionally.
Not fun or easy is it?
Back to what I pointed out earlier — it is easier to market the merits of emotional love, and apply a lofty spiritual label to it. Emotional love draws a lot of energy, which is in contrast to the stillness, equanimity, and timelessness of spiritual love. Can you see why people get more excited about emotional love — and more confused — about experiencing and sustaining spiritual love?
Big picture clarity and wholeness-based boundaries are core to the practice of love of all types. It is may seem paradoxical to talk about boundaries and spiritual love, but boundaries-in-practice are essential here too. Really, you ask? Isn’t spiritual love vast and immutable?
Yes. The boundaries of which I speak are not on the source, origin, or flow of spiritual love, but upon the space in which it is embodied. It gets very tricky to describe this, without appearing to self-contradict. I do suggest that you contemplate these observations, and experience them for yourself in practice; the meaning will only be truly apparent beyond the concepts. Remember what I said about not mistaking the pointer for actual whole truth.
Embodied spiritual love occurs in situations or between people. As I said before, the other party is not necessarily going to receive or recognize your offering of love. That’s rather irrelevant; it is the offering or expression of love, not the reaction or reception, that matters. Again, very distinct from shared emotional love. You can share spiritual love without a recipient. (That is a very significant point to contemplate.)
Spiritual love: floating all boats higher
That being said, sharing spiritual love does not suggest that the other party can do or say whatever they want.
Part of embodying spiritual love is love for All, and that includes you. If you do not include respect, kindness, and regard for yourself in a situation, then you participate in degrading the Whole. Each situation is unique and has its own boundaries, depending upon the participants and context.
Here’s an example, with details simplified. In my husband’s company, an employee’s child suffered a serious, life-threatening injury and was hospitalized. We had love and sadness for everyone involved, both child and parent. We wished to support them in this difficult time. We did not really have a personal relationship with anyone involved, but could embrace them in spiritual love with intentions for the best for all beings.
However, at the same time, we are employers with a company to run and other employees. We initially created space for the employee to grapple with the tragedy. But this could not be open-ended: someone had to do her job and indefinitely paying her (providing energy) when she was not meeting her part of the agreement was not sustainable. It was an energy drain on many people to support that imbalance. Without anger or judgment, and with great compassion for the difficulty of the situation, we presented options and requirements for her to continue employment. We could love everyone involved, but at the same time, we could not allow detriment to the whole (clients, employees, our livelihood) to occur in the process.
Spiritual love is not embodied at the expense of anyone else. Self-sacrifice is held as a virtue in many cultures and religions. It is deeply coded with beliefs and gender expectations. I would like to suggest, while there are times and places of temporary self-sacrifice for the benefit of the whole, in general, self-sacrifice is a form of culturally-valued energy extraction. Self sacrifice is not a sustainable system of relationship or wholeness-based expression of love (emotional or spiritual).
It is far better to float all boats higher, rather than elevate one while another sinks.
There are so many contexts, so many variations, and so many levels of understanding that can be received in the practice of spiritual truth and love. Each day, each event, each person, and each situation can offer a new teaching and empowerment to express yourself at a more clear and deep level of inner wholeness.
The embodiment of spiritual love is an endless practice and there is no graduation — only greater nuance and challenge. There are continually opportunities to grow, mature, and receive feedback. In this way, embodying spiritual love is one of the easiest and most available forms of genuine spiritual practice and soul work. The way of truth is in the paradox of practicing love.