The first time I went on retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh was in the fall of 2009. It was the beginning of a lengthy break-up process with my live-in boyfriend and I felt lost and ungrounded in many ways. I had been listening to dharma talks by Thay (how Thich Nhat Hanh’s students refer to him, it means teacher in Vietnamese) and reading his books for a couple of years and was really excited to sit with him. It was the beginning of a major turning point in my love life.
On the third day of that retreat Thay gave his famous teaching on true love. He said:
to love is to be there, how can you love if you are not there?
I cried the entire time. I knew deep down that I had not been present in my current relationship. It’s so simple and so profound. Being present for others has to start with ourselves. If we are unable to sit with ourselves, we will not be able to show up for others in a meaningful way.
Since receiving that teaching four years ago I have come to see, time and time again that my presence is such a gift. And I don’t just mean in the physical sense, but truly being there for another person is huge. In a world that moves at such high speeds and with the crazy amount of distractions at every turn, cultivating the ability to be still and present for another person is priceless.
According to Thay’s teaching there are four steps on the Path of True Love. These steps are to be followed in order as each one builds on the next.
- Lovingkindness. This can be translated as brotherhood/sisterhood, engaged community.
- Compassion. Deep listening; healing energy. The power to transform suffering. In true love there is no suffering.
- Joy. Freshness; openness; being truly alive and content.
- Equanimity. Your problems are my problems. This is the highest form of love. Loving a person like this will grow your heart in such a way that it will eventually include all people. Inclusiveness. Non-discrimination.
I wish I had learned about this much earlier in life, but then again, I do believe that we hear what we need to, when we are ready. Because I was so open at the time of that retreat, this teaching resonated with me very deeply. Finally. I had a spiritual guideline for how to love that made sense to me. It is accessible regardless of your beliefs. This teaching has been the cornerstone on my path to heal myself and love in the truest sense of the word.
It is important for me to remember that true love is a practice. Each day I take a few breaths and pause. I come back to myself, to my body, and know that I am home. When I take care of myself in this way I am able to walk on the path of true love. It doesn’t have to be complicated. If I remain open and willing so much is possible.
For a person that felt incredibly damaged beyond repair in the area of love, practicing these teachings has allowed me to heal and welcome a loving partner into my life. I know that I would not be where I am today without them.
Last week on retreat Thay gave this teaching again and it was just as powerful as the first time I heard it. I saw how far I have come and was humbled by how much room there is to grow.
PS. For a deeper look at these teachings I highly recommend Thay’s book, True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart.