It’s February, and I’m thinking about love. We pay particular attention to love around about the 14th of February, and whether this is because St. Valentine secretly married soldiers to their loves against the will of Claudius, or because the church needed to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia which happened on February 15, much of the world takes a moment, and perhaps buys a Hallmark card and chocolates and flowers, to celebrate love.
But what is love? What are we celebrating? Love has been categorized in many ways, called by many different words. Every year in February my Facebook friend Patti posts a list of the Egyptian words for love from Ahdaf Soueif’s book The Map of Love:
'hubb' is love,
'ishq' is love that entwines two people together,
'shaghaf' is love that nests in the chambers of the heart,
'hayam' is love that wanders the earth,
'teeh' is love in which you lose yourself,
'walah' is love that carries sorrow in it,
'sababah' is love that exudes from your pores,
'hawa' is love that shares its name with 'air' and with 'falling'
'gharam' is love that is willing to pay the price
These are all beautiful expressions of love, compared to our measly one word which is supposed to encapsulate it all.
My father has always been a fan of the writings of C.S. Lewis who wrote, among other things, a book entitled The Four Loves. Here he expounds on love as classified by the Greek:
‘storge’ is affection or familial love
‘philia’ is friendship
‘eros’ is erotic love (this is the one getting all the attention this month)
‘agape’ is unconditional love or charity
In Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras we find the word ‘maitri’, which is translated as loving-kindness or friendliness, in sutra 1.33:
By cultivating attitudes of loving-kindness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and equanimity toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.
The four virtues here, although not all translated as ‘love’, are different ways in which we can spread love to others. We are directed to show loving-kindness toward the happy — so when you see someone who is happy, be friendly towards them, instead of responding with negativity, envy, or bitterness. When we come across the unhappy, respond to them with compassion. As we are reminded by the stories of Avalokitesvara, compassion has two parts: there is the witness of the sorrow, and there is the action of trying to alleviate that pain, of doing something to help. Our response to a virtuous person is to delight in them. At first glance, this feels somewhat like the first virtue (maitri), but embedded in this is an idea that the noble qualities in the other’s virtuous heart could be a model for us to strive towards. So instead of feeling judged but another’s virtue, be challenged to be better by it. And when we come across a wicked person, disregard them, or respond with equanimity. Remember that we have all at times acted or thought unkindly and hurt others. Responding with equanimity is showing that person an unconditional love or charity.
The thing that I appreciate about Patañjali’s directives here is that these are not just descriptions of how one might feel, but are challenges to action. Don’t just feel love, but act it out in your life. And don’t just live out your love with those you like, but with all people: the happy, the unhappy, the virtuous, and the wicked. In doing so, you will begin to change the world into a more loving place by first and foremost making yourself into a more calm, peaceful, and loving person. Spread love not by feeling mushy feelings, or by buying more things, but by becoming loving.
No matter where the tradition comes from, what better way is there to celebrate Valentine’s Day than that?