As humans, we need love. We want connection with others. But that doesn’t mean we are simply passive vessels for love, waiting to be filled up by another. Each of us is innately capable of what I call “real love,” which is the title of my new book, Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection. We may have assumptions and mythologies about love, which may have been transmitted to us by family conditioning, culture or our own relationship histories. (Usually, it’s a combination of all those factors and more.) But we can become creative storytellers, and learn to regard, think about, and speak about love with a new narrative. It is possible for us all to experience love—share love, receive love, both within ourselves, with others, and with life itself.

To begin telling this new story, the following are six ways to rethink our definition of love, and start to open up a more expansive and harmonious understanding and experience of all it can be.

6 Ways to Rethink Our Definition of Love

1. Love is something you deserve unconditionally.

In pop culture, the idea of someone trying to “win” another over is one of the most common plot points across media. This makes us think about relationships and connection—and love—as a kind of victory, a result of a transaction.

But the bottom line is that we are all worthy of love, and there is nothing we should do to “deserve” love. It is a right. What’s more is that love doesn’t have to come from another person; it can come from within. Self-love doesn’t mean it should feel natural to celebrate our every thought and action, but it’s a subtle result of paying attention more sensitively to our experience. And that’s something we can feel from within.

2. Love is a power that cuts through self-destructive stories.

Whether or not we are aware of it, we all tell ourselves stories—about ourselves, our relationships, experiences, thoughts and emotions. One mistake at work can turn into I’m a terrible employee, leading you to find all the evidence to support your story. We’re wired that way: Stories give us something to hold on to; they provide understanding and meaning. But they can be just that: stories we’ve made up.

Love is a strength we can cultivate as a way to change these stories and, ultimately, our lives. When we approach our experiences from a place of love, we strengthen ourselves with acceptance and wisdom. And that authentic strength helps us release the power of the stories we’ve merely been holding on to.

3. Loving others can require letting go.

With love, one of the most nourishing actions we can take is letting go. We can give space to difficulties, and let others feel and experience what they will. We can provide our care and support, but without strings attached. We simply allow, and accept things to be as they are.

This is love as generosity of the spirit, a freely given gift that is not demanding from the recipient of their healing, their instant behavior change, or anything that’s not in our control. Both mindfulness and love demonstrate what it really means—experientially, not intellectually—to be present, to release our assumptions, judgments, attachments to the past or desires to control the future

4. Accepting difficult situations is a form of love.

In other words, mindfulness itself is a form of love, which relates deeply to the idea of letting go. By paying attention to what is—whether in our own lives, the lives of those we care about, or in the relationships with our loved ones—we simply create space for things to be. Ultimately, we cannot control the outcomes of anything, and so by paying attention (rather than trying to control), we practice compassionate, open awareness and acceptance. With mindfulness, we can see more clearly, and this clarity of experience is one of the most freeing aspects of real love.

5. Love is not a scarce commodity.

In Buddhism, there is a term for the feeling of happiness that we can cultivate in response to someone else’s good fortune; it is known as “sympathetic joy.” Sympathetic joy can be easy—like the time our beloved family member gets a call that her blood test results came back normal. We feel relief and happiness at the good fortune of someone we love.

However, sympathetic joy can also be difficult—such as the times we try and practice celebrating the wins of those who have successes we may want. Practicing sympathetic joy in these contexts is profound: We realize that success, good fortune, happiness—whatever the “good” thing might be—are not scarce commodities, but available to all of us.

Similarly, love is infinitely available, within each of us for ourselves and for others. When we recognize this, we can approach love from a place of innate wholeness, rather than hunger. And that wholeness allows us to give, receive, experience and understand love with more richness and freedom.

6. Love can disarm hate.

Activist Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, set out to organize a group that promotes fair labor standards for nannies, caregivers and housekeepers in the United States. In a recent article, Poo said, “I believe that love is the most powerful force for change in the world.… You can change policy, but you also change relationships and people in the process.”

And biggest of all, love can change your relationship to your experience by opening your eyes to see things more flexibly, expansively, freely. Approaching the world from a place of love—no matter how filled with anger and hatred it can be—can shift the dynamic of how we see things.

And from there, we find that love isn’t something we’re waiting for, but something we can choose to express, any moment, every day.

Experience the Magic of our New Bodhi Love + Devotion Boxes

Bodhi Love Box

Bodhi Devotion Box

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About the author

Sharon Salzberg is a central figure in the field of meditation, a world-renowned teacher and New York Times best-selling author. She has played a crucial role in bringing meditation and mindfulness practices to the West and into mainstream culture since 1974, when she first began teaching. She is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of 10 books, including New York Times best-seller Real Happiness, her seminal work Lovingkindness and her forthcoming release by Flatiron Books, Real Love. Renowned for her down-to-earth teaching style, Salzberg offers a secular, modern approach to Buddhist teachings, making them instantly accessible. She is a regular columnist for On Being, a contributor to Huffington Post, and the host of her own podcast, The Metta Hour.