A few months ago, I picked up a small book by Thic Nhat Hanh titled How to Love. I can’t remember where I bought it or who I was with. All I remember is my vision tunneling onto the book without explanation. I picked it up and bought it for $10. In the moment, I did not know how meaningful this little book would be in my journey to self-love and loving others, despite the telling title. I often think that my brain sends messages to my body without my heart knowing why. Buying the book felt robotic. I didn’t feel strongly about it in the moment but I bought it anyway. I have not perfected how to love myself or others. I don’t think I ever will but this little book has empowered me to spend all the time in the world exploring it.
The book sat on my coffee table for a long time before I picked it up started reading and meditating on it. SIDENOTE: I literally had no idea how to meditate. At first I was like why am I not floating on air right now and coming face to face with spiritual goddesses and shit? I created an altar with candles that symbolized healing, abundance and positive energy (I bought the “positive energy” candle 5 years ago at a garage sale in Denver and again, it’s purpose has become evident now and validates my hoarding tendencies even more which is dangerous). I also light a candle with a Selena Quintanilla image to remind that I’m a mothafuckin’ queen. I read a couple of pages of my How to Love book and think about how it speaks to me. Then, I breathe and commit to showing more compassion or bringing people more joy, whatever the passage in the book is preaching. I do a little yoga on my mat, breathe in love and breathe out hate and anger. So basically, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing but I call it meditation because what else would it be?
The first passage in Thicht Nhat Hanh’s book is “Heart Like a River.” He explains that when our heart expands like a river, we are able to accept a person’s shortcomings and expand our heart enough to help them evolve and transform. “When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change,” he explains. We go on to suffer because of this. I read this passage and I remembered the times in my life where my heart was so small, I did not seek to understand. I suffered. I thought about the people in my life who love me like a river, who accept me for who I am and see the best in me and I felt joy. I want to make others feel the way my cousin Crystal and my best friend Emily make me feel. I want to be a breath of fresh air for others. I want to bring others joy, love and understanding.
And so, I’ve been working on expanding my heart by practicing what Thicht Nhat Hanh describes as the four elements of love – loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. There is a challenge here though. The most difficult part of this process has been finding a balance between being compassionate and naming behaviors and actions I find unacceptable in my life. What are my boundaries? Is there a point where I no longer accept? How much will I accept into my life? How much will I make space for? How much is too much compassion or too much empathy? There are two quotes that have helped guide me in the decisions I make regarding how I love and I how I expect to be loved. These two quotes have helped me practice expanding my heart for others without jeopardizing myself or others. They are quotes I’ve seen posted on social media. They are quotes that have been passed down for centuries in many different ways, through many different stories and by many different people from all walks of life. They are quotes my grandmother and my mother have said to me throughout my life but only now am I mindfully choosing to make these values present in my everyday life.
If you are experiencing a difficult relationship with yourself or a loved one, it might be a good time to evaluate how you want to love and be loved. My only piece of advice would be to navigate this journey carefully. For me, embodying the four elements of love does not mean forgetting the importance of boundaries or loving ourselves. I hope these two quotes can guide you in your journey to creating a healthy relationship with yourself and with others.
The first: “Treat others the way you wish to be treated.”
For the past five years within the first week of school, I’ve begun uttering the phrase “Treat others …” and almost 100 percent of my second-graders join me without prompting and say “…the way you wish to be treated.” As elementary school teachers, many of us find books, videos, activities, team-builders and crafts in our efforts to define and explain this golden rule and give our students a better understanding of how to show respect. As an adult, I have recommitted to this golden rule. I want to love the way I wish to be loved. I am going to treat others the way I wish to be treated. This has helped me make choices about conversations I want to have with loved ones and conversations I am not willing to have. It has helped me decide if a conflict is worth bringing up or if it isn’t. For example, if a loved one does something that upsets me or irritates me, I will choose to accept it and let it go or I will choose to talk about it. If it is battle I would not be willing to fight or put energy into then I am not going to bring it up. I am practicing how to speak up for myself and still be understanding and compassionate. This is a level of self-love I have never experienced.
The second: “The way you treat yourself sets the standards for others. ”
Throughout the last couple of years, I’ve been working day in and day out on building a better relationship with myself and rediscovering the things that make me who I am. I’ve been completely invested in the idea that I cannot love the way I want to love if I don’t have a strong foundation of love for myself. There are many indicators that my self-love has evolved throughout the last couple of years but a few weeks ago, I realized my self-love had evolved beyond what I ever imagined. I realized that it has evolved into loving myself enough to practice speaking up for myself a little better, setting boundaries with loved ones, advocating for my needs, grounding myself in my confidence and not settling for anything less than what I believe I deserve. For a long time, I forgot how I wanted to be treated. I lost myself in my friendships and relationships to the point that I couldn’t strongly verbalize what I needed, because I was hardly giving myself what I needed. Why practice self-love? The way you treat yourself and love yourself teaches others. Set those standards high.