Sunday, February 5, 2012

What is Love?

Love. Of all the mysteries that enchant us, love may be the one most sought after. On earth we have elevated love in art and song and at other times used the word love in such a sloppy manner that it has come to mean almost everything and nothing at all. The word we use for the enormous power has been known to shape wars and history, create national scandals, justify crimes of passion, turn strong men and women into weaklings, and make fools out of kings. And perhaps because of these same things we are embarrassed by love. We blush when we talk about love, we feel weakened when in it, ashamed we have fallen, and reluctant to admit to it.

But what is love, really? And what does it have to do with stress free living? Everything! Most of the issues I encounter daily as a psychotherapist can be downsized to the most over discussed, under experienced and misunderstood word in the human language, love. Clients ask me: "How can I love myself more?" "How can we have a more loving relationship?" "How can I heal from this failed love affair?" "If he loves me, why does he betray me with endless sexual affairs?" “Why am I afraid to love?” "Am I in love or am I in an addiction?” When I ask outright, “What is love?” clients stop dead in their tracks. Though desperate in their search for it, they have trouble defining that which they are looking for. The search for love too often results in loneliness, anxiety, depression, low self esteem, physical and emotional distress of all kinds.

What I can tell you is that love is real. It is alive. I knew this as a child and I know it again now. To get to an understanding of what real love is we must first know what love is not. This is important because living in fictitious love means less time being in love. To be sure, love is not co-dependency, sex, or romance addiction. These are the illusions modeled to us to self medicate trauma, fear and fill our loneliness. Nor is love a mere feeling, behavior, thought, or biochemical response. It is not a role, it cannot be earned, learned or bought. It is not dependent on an object and it is not limited. And, love is not a relationship. You don’t have to tell someone who’s suffering from a relationship gone bad that relationship and love are not the same thing. Almost every relationship problem is a love disorder problem. Not that love is the problem, but because love has been lost or denied, twisted, distorted, perverted or betrayed.

Love is a word that we have given to the enormous, passionate, alive, on fire power that is in us around us, above us and below us. In truth, we are in love already and we do not need an object of love to know that. Love is everywhere! There is no need to search for it. It is right at our fingertips and we need only plug into it. Love is home. Some say it runs the universe. Some call it God. Science is now confirming what the mystics and poets have been telling us all along. Love is the heartbeat of the universe, a resonance we can measure. An energy, there is no end to its supply. Love is free and available to all and everyone. Love does not care what you look like, what you believe, whether you are married or single or in a relationship at all. It couldn’t care less whether you are prince or pauper, sinner or saint. We are intended to be in service of love. And if you consider it, all human suffering results from denial or resistance to this responsibility.

Love is power and in fact there is growing scientific evidence to back up the claim that love is good for your emotional and physical well-being. And there is growing scientific evidence that some of the things we pass off as love are bad for your health, too.

According to C. Norman Shealy, M.D. and Caroline Myss, Ph.D., love of others and being loved are key factors in improving the immune system, adding to life expectancy and creating overall happiness. Their research shows that even bad habits like overeating and smoking have less of an impact on those who have loving support systems. A research project conducted by James House at the University of Michigan Research Center clearly demonstrated that doing good deeds pays off. Those people who did volunteer work on a regular basis and who interacted with others in a caring and compassionate manner, dramatically increased life expectancy, and overall vitality.

At Harvard University, a well known experiment conducted by psychologist David McClelland found an increase in an anti-body that helps ward off respiratory infections, immunoglobulin-A (IGA), can be generated simply by watching a film of Mother Teresa working amongst India’s sick and impoverished.

People “in love” have fewer colds. The unconditional love that pet owners receive from their animals helps lessen depression. In one study of Israeli men, high cholesterol and high blood pressure were less important to health than the quality of love in their marriages. Individuals who have close intimacy with others have higher IGA antibodies and less serious illness. Children whose parents love them unconditionally thrive, have good esteem and more zest for life.

E motional health is improved as well. Studies have shown over and over again that caring about others induces feelings of warmth, calm, and happiness, which significantly reduces depression. In fact, a study by Allan Luks found that 90 percent of a group of volunteers reported a “high” from their experience.

Love is the most cost-effective medical insurance policy and the cheapest medicine there is. And there is no end to its supply. In fact, the more love you put out, the more it generates. And it attracts love to itself. It generates joy, happiness, serenity, esteem, vibrancy, kindness, appreciation, respect, laughter, generosity, tolerance, tenderness, open-mindedness, respect, care, affection, goodness, service, appreciation, compassion, awe, wonder, bliss, trust… all of which have been proven scientifically to be good for your health.

Love may be a transcendent mystery and a healing power that can reduce stress, but it is also a down to earth experience. Though love is not a relationship, relationships are the way we step love down to earth. Love is perfect. Humans are not. On some days it feels like a bad joke. We have the ability to know an elevated love yet we are trapped in wounded egos and bodies or distorted cultural programs that prevent us from achieving it. Keeping our hearts open to love, remaining vulnerable, is our greatest task. We started out open and had every intention of harnessing love and putting it into life. But most of us, in a moment of intimacy or trauma, got hurt or felt betrayed. We felt a pain in our heart and our heart began to recoil. It just happened. We are all a bit love disabled, veterans of an invisible war we did not know we were in. Too much of our life is lost to safeguarding, calculating, planning, projecting, searching, or waiting for love. And then death arrives.

When you lose someone important to you, or realize that your own death is impending, you may understand that your life has been a dream, a play that you have written and produced. All the things you made important were not important after all. What you thought was reality was a dream. In the face of death you realize that the pleasures of the material world felt good but they did not assure love. At that magic moment, you recognize that a you will not be remembered for how much wealth you have accumulated, how many sexual encounters you have had, how much you have accomplished, how much you have pleased others, but how much love you have put into life. Surrendering, your heart opens. Facing death you lay down your arms and discover that love is in you, around you, above you and below you. You remember.

Excerpts from newly released Love’s Way: The Union of Body, Ego, Soul and Spirit, by Dr. Brenda Schaeffer, Hazelden, Center City, MN, 2001. This and her best seller, Is It Love or Is It Addiction?, are available at your local bookstore, or by calling1-888-987-6129. Brenda Schaeffer, D.Min., licensed psychologist, author and certified addiction specialist, is an experienced therapist, teacher and international speaker. She has a private practice in Eden Prairie, MN. She can be reached by calling 952-903-9215 or via email:

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