Love in Buddhism is the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness and includes the willingness to help bring about that happiness if possible, and not just sit back and hope someone else will help. It is universal, extending to everyone, not just those we like or those we are close to, but to strangers and even those we don't like. This kind of universal love, then, is unbiased: it’s free of attachment, repulsion and indifference. That’s because it is based on realizing that everyone is the same in that they want to be happy and not unhappy. They may behave and think in destructive ways that cause them unhappiness. But that is because they are confused and simply don't know what would bring them happiness.
So, we base our love on thinking of all others simply as persons who want to be happy, just as we do. We don't base our love on what they do in general, and certainly not on whether or not they are nice to us or love us back. Because we have no expectations and no biases, our unconditional love is a calm state of mind; it doesn't cloud our minds with any irrational thought or behavior based on attachment.
The emotional tone of our love is a feeling of connectedness with everyone and a feeling of gratitude. The sense of connectedness and gratitude comes from realizing that everything we consume or make use of comes from the work of others. If it weren’t for the hard work of others, where would get the products we use, the raw materials to make those products, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the electricity and water in our homes, the information on the Internet, and so on? People even help us indirectly by creating the market that stimulates others to manufacture the products we buy.
The stronger we feel this sense of connectedness and gratitude, the more secure and happier we feel. This is related to the hormone oxytocin – the hormone involved in the bonding between mother and newborn. Once we generate this warm, happy feeling, we extend it in our meditation, first to ourselves, since if we don't wish for ourselves to be happy, why would we wish anyone else to be happy. We then extend it to increasingly broader groups, until it encompasses everyone.
At each step, our love contains three thoughts:
- How wonderful it would be if others were happy and had the causes for happiness.
- May they be happy, which means, “I really wish they were happy.”
- “May I be able to bring them happiness.”
When we think of bringing others the causes of happiness, we need to identify first the causes for their unhappiness. If they are hungry, we don't simply wish that they have enough to eat; but we realize that even if they are happy after a meal, they may overeat with junk food and become obese. So, we also wish them to have emotional balance, contentment and self-control with their eating habits. The same thing in terms of money, material goods and so on. We think of long-term sustainable happiness, rather than just short-term fulfillment of a material need.
- Calm down by focusing on the breath.
- Think of how everything you consume and make use of depends on others.
- Focus on the feeling of connectedness with all others and a deep sense of gratitude.
- Notice how this makes you feel warmer, more secure and happier.
- Focus on yourself and note that often you feel unhappy.
- Think: How wonderful it would be if I were happy and had the causes for happiness; may I be happy; may I develop the causes that will bring me more happiness, not just superficial short-term happiness, but long-term happiness. You can even think of specific things that would make you a happier person – emotional balance and stability, a calm clear mind, more understanding, being better able to relate to others, etc.
- [Optional: Imagine yourself being filled with warm yellow light, representing this warm happiness.]
- Then do the same with someone you like and extend it to a few people you like.
- [Optional: Imagine that warm yellow light radiating out from you and filling the person.]
- Then people you just encounter in your life that you don't have much relation with, like the clerk at the check-out counter at the store, or the bus driver.
- Then people you don’t like.
- Then all three groups together.
- Then extend that love to everyone in your city, your country, the whole world.
Unbiased, universal love, then, is a complex emotion, combining a feeling of connectedness with everyone and a sense of gratitude at how they have contributed directly or indirectly to your well-being in life. It is a calm, warm emotional state, without attachment, repulsion or indifference, and with no favorites or those you feel alienated from. It is unconditional and extends to everyone, no matter how they behave, since it is also based on understanding the equality of everyone in equally wanting to be happy and never to be unhappy. It also does not expect anything in return. It also isn't a passive feeling but leads to doing whatever you can to help others gain not just the short-term happiness of being free of material needs, but the long-term sustainable happiness of being free of disturbing emotions and confused thoughts.