What is real love?

Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, shares her thoughts on authentic love


What is real love?

If you look in a dictionary, you will find love defined as ‘intense affection’, ‘romance’, ‘adoration’, ‘strong attachment’, and ‘personal attraction’. 

What we often don’t realize is that we can choose to redefine love. We can recognize that the pop songs and romantic comedies we are used to give us a version of love that perpetuates a great number of myths about who we are, and what we need to be happy. But despite this, we can explore an infinite world of possibilities to experience love in a more real and essential way—for ourselves, for friends, family members and romantic partners and even for life itself.

Real love is being curious, listening, knowing how and when to expand our perspective. The bottom line is that love is a verb, not only a noun, and it is something we can cultivate by being more connected to our experiences in our lives, moment to moment. Real love is authentic connection, without artifice, hypocrisy or pretense it is seeing and being seen. Often lurking within each of us is the idea that love is something to be found elsewhere, a shiny object that we have to search for—and then cling to—once we find it.

In reality, love is so many things—and it is always dynamic and experiential. What if we thought of love not so much as an object, but more as an ability, a capacity within us. Then it wouldn’t be seen as though in the hands of someone else to deliver unto us, nor as though in the hands of someone else to take away from us. Certainly other people may enliven and enrich our sense of love, others may threaten it… but the capacity resides within us. It is ours.

In this way, real love reminds us that nothing need fix us or complete us, precisely because it challenges the belief that we need fixing or that we are not whole. Rather than seeing the positive charge of love by fixating on the frenetic instability of seeking, looking, finding, clinging, we can be with ourselves in each moment, and see what’s right in front of us. The present moment—and whatever we are feeling in it—is complete.

Just to take one common myth, the kind we need to challenge in exploring love: there is a popular adage these days that we must love ourselves fully before we can love another. But I believe I have known many who are loving and supportive of others though they don’t give themselves enough attention and care.

If we are not including ourselves in the field of cultivating love and compassion, we may be offering love from a place of hunger rather than abundance. We may be trying to fill a hole by giving others’ love, or we may simply have trouble receiving the love that others want to give back to us. In either case, it is important to include ourselves, but cultivating love for ourselves might not be best viewed this as a task we need to complete before we can move on.

Real love then is the authentic connection we can feel towards ourselves, another, and life itself when we practice paying attention in a different way – more fully present rather than distracted, more complete rather than fragmented, more mindful rather than holding onto old ideas about ourselves or others. It is a heart space rather than a mandate for particular action, e.g. we wish someone to have happiness and peace, we don’t resolve necessarily to have Christmas dinner with them. Or perhaps any dinner at all.

We can love someone, realize our lives are inextricably interwoven, that all are connected, without in any way liking them, or deciding its ok to include them in our activities.

Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection by Sharon Salzberg, £14.99, published by Bluebird, is out now.