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I'm new to the concept of Buddhism, and am failing to understand perhaps something very basic. I understand that one is not expected to hold anything close or dear as it is impermanent and could change at any moment so how does one love another person? How does one become close to another person. As I understand it, a relationship would just consist of two people who aren't that close to one another.

"Therefore hold nothing dear, for separation from the dear is painful" - this seems to suggest that you should build a wall around yourself and separate yourself from potentially wonderful feelings just because they could cause pain, and pain is bad.

I think pain is a part of life; denying that pain, or ignoring it is not part of a healthy life. I think of this concept of Buddhism similar to "don't smell the flowers because you may prick yourself on a thorn" thus denying yourself of the delights found in the smell and also the growth / knowledge from the pain of the thorn prick. Both of which you can learn and grow from.

Am I missing something here?

  • Consider the Nonduality Tag. – user2341 Sep 2 '15 at 23:26
  • It's so difficult to choose one answer to this question! – user3791372 Sep 6 '15 at 23:12
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    I am no expert myself, but I believe the point is not to avoid the impermanent, but rather not to cling to it. To recognize its impermanence and be prepared to let it go when the time comes. – Luke Sep 7 '15 at 10:49
  • I believe the main point here is that you confuse pain with suffering. Buddhism is not about avoiding pain, but more about terminating sufffering, which is kind of trashing around trying to avoid pain, usually making things worse. – Hans-Peter Störr Jun 21 '17 at 4:59
  • I find myself returning to this video by Thich Nhat Hahn on romantic love and true love. TNH speaks of true love, which is not exclusive, but rather increasingly inclusive as our practice and experience of reality grows. He also mentions four characteristics of true love, which I believe are similar or commensurate with the four divine abodes/four heavenly homes/brahmaviharas. – Carl G Jan 24 '18 at 18:19

11 Answers 11

25

It depends which Buddhism we are talking about:

Both Theravada and Mahayana, including Zen, would consider romantic love a disease of the mind, a kind of pathological obsession. Theravada would offer the more universal emotion of metta instead -- the loving-kindness, although in Theravada it is usually applied as an antidote against hatred, for the benefit of one who experiences it. Most schools of Mahayana would sincerely rejoice in the selfless aspect of love. In Mahayana one is supposed to sacrifice one's interests for the benefit of others. Dropping one's ego is Mahayana's path to Enlightenment.

In Vajrayana schools though, emotions, including romantic love, are considered a form of energy that can be put to use, or at least accepted as part of the given. Vajrayana perspective would more likely align with your "pain is part of life" and "might as well enjoy the flower" conjectures. With one caveat though: Vajrayana would still appreciate the inherent fakeness of love, the mechanical nature of which comes from a match of partners' stereotypes and preconceptions. So even if a Vajrayana practitioner could play with the fire both in context of its ego-melting properties as well as for pleasure, they would not take it one-sidedly as an untrained run-of-the-mill person would do.

EDIT: what I meant by "Vajrayana practitioner ... would not take it one-sidedly" -- I meant that Vajrayana view includes both sacred and illusory aspects of love. In Vajrayana we are trained to see things from all the sides at the same time. Love is both sacred and a giant trick, as far as Vajrayana is concerned.

The predominant Buddhist sentiment here is that being disappointed/disenchanted (="sober") is a helluva lot healthier state than the state of intoxication by an object of mind. While Vajrayana is 100% aligned with this most fundamental of Buddhist principles, we do allow ourselves to get drunk, both metaphorically with love, and occasionally even literally - while staying fully accountable for the consequences - a trait of the universal adult.

  • Apparently, the Romans had over 20 different words for the different types of love, and I think that's where translations fail. Love / respect for everyone is not the same as special partnership types of love felt in a close relationship between say mother and daughter nor the different type of love between husband and wife. I think it's only 'fake' in the sense it isn't concrete, not able to be touched. We make the feelings up. Can't people grow together from the love of a relationship? Or is buddhism just saying, ignore the love because it's only an emotion? – user3791372 Sep 3 '15 at 1:23
  • I don't understand the "one-sidedly" reference to an untrained person. – user3791372 Sep 3 '15 at 1:23
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    Selfless love can be difficult to comprehend, because romantic love expects a certain degree of selfishness towards one's family. Most people can't stomach partnering with someone who feels even nearly equally for one's family and others. There's a 19th century Indian poet, Bharathi who fed a flock of birds with some grain saved for his starving family by his wife, because he felt the hunger of the birds with their smaller stomachs was greater than the humans'. His family didn't like that at all, his wife left with the kids. – Buddho Sep 3 '15 at 5:00
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Do buddhists fall in love?

yes, certainly they do.

I'm new to the concept of Buddhism, and am failing to understand perhaps something very basic. I understand that one is not expected to hold anything close or dear as it is impermanent and could change at any moment so how does one love another person?

First, not all buddhists are fully and exclusively devoted to Buddhism, to it's fulfillment. This means that most buddhists live much like any other non-buddhist. They engage in all kinds of affairs of daily life, including work, marriage and so on. Others, like monks, likely renunciate romance in favor of their practice.

With that distinction in mind, we need some care when applying a teaching of the Buddha originally directed to someone fully devoted to the path, to a person who does not have the same commitment, disposition, preparation, etc. Otherwise, this could lead to something like taking a person who does jogging as someone who is (or should be) following a training program of an olympic coach (and worse, criticizing that person's performance on olympic standards).

"Romance" and passion are looked upon with caution, as they manifest quite explicitly strong craving and attachment. These are keywords of things buddhists often try in their mind to dodge. In the west, "romance" is a package of fantasies: find someone who is the source of one's happiness, the idea that the desire for each other is long lasting (or forever lasting), and often an implicit sense of ownership from both sides finds itself in as well....and all other things everyone knows are silly or unrealistic or simply unhealthy (say, from a psychological/therapeutic point of view).

On the other hand, an hypothetical/stereotypical non-monk buddhist may still have a companion and cherish that companionship. And their relationship might as well be called a loving one (the kind that is commonly said to be healthy: actively caring for their well being), even if lacking the aforementioned fantasies and delusions of romance, which are often born from our neurosis and fears.

The attitude this hypothetical buddhist would put an effort to have towards the companionship would be of focusing more on virtuous behaviors (of respect, kindness, faithfulness, honesty, etc) and relinquishing the blameful ones (jealously, dishonesty, disrespect, etc), bringing to peace strong unbalanced feelings. That is a good life, and according to Buddhism, one that may lead to a destination with less suffering.

In many traditions, "destination with less suffering" is what many buddhists look for when they do not set their current lives to shoot for nirvana. It's also how the Buddha "sold" buddha-dhamma in the pali suttas: if you don't feel like you can bear the dedication for nirvana right now, at least become a "good person": abandon most of the bad behaviors tied to greed, hatred and delusion in order to have less suffering in the future (and perhaps, find yourself in a position to finally go for it). That's a gist of his teaching: extinguish suffering, or at least lessen suffering.

"Therefore hold nothing dear, for separation from the dear is painful" - this seems to suggest that you should build a wall around yourself

The quote above is a strong statement about our desires and the nature of the objects we desire. It's an ultimate diagnostic of our condition, and an ultimate solution. But the actual method the Buddha proposed is not much building a wall between oneself and everybody/everything else (though a wall analogy can make some sense if it refers to seclusion from unwholesome states). It's about understanding these things in such a deep way that a natural dispassion towards them is developed -- like an adult who does not crave for child toys.

... and separate yourself from potentially wonderful feelings just because they could cause pain, and pain is bad.

It's not about separating ourselves from potentially "wonderful feelings". It's about having a deep understanding and appreciation for how these things are unable to provide everlasting shelter, and how feeble and really not that "wonderful" these "feelings" are -- when compared to other things, specially.

I think pain is a part of life; denying that pain, or ignoring it is not part of a healthy life. I think of this concept of Buddhism similar to "don't smell the flowers because you may prick yourself on a thorn" thus denying yourself of the delights found in the smell and also the growth / knowledge from the pain of the thorn prick. Both of which you can learn and grow from.

Buddhism is reasonably in agreement that "pain is part of life", and never "denies pain" or ignores it: suffering is a prime subject of study in Buddhism and, among many things, has been put in perspective how it supports the development in the buddhist path (SN 12.23) -- that is, suffering ends up being the reason for looking for an answer.

Pain and pleasure are part of our world. Fully embracing them as some sort of life ideology makes sense if one believes it will lead to either the same things (more pleasure and more pain, and this might be regarded as ok) or it will lead to a better existence -- e.g. one with less suffering.

In that case, if one believes one's life will lead to the same things in the future, and one is fine with it, Buddhism might not be much appealing.

However, if one hopes one's life/death will lead, eventually, to the permanent cessation of suffering, and a higher kind of happiness, then at least one can appreciate what the Buddha and the other ascetics of his time were trying to do. Many of them just did not believe this was the proper method for reaching this goal. Namely, that living a normal life delighting in pleasures of the senses and just trying to take a few lessons from the pain would lead to permanent cessation of suffering after this life (it could be said is somewhat in the direction, but it's not enough). In case of Nirvana as the ultimate destiny, the Buddha had an explanation for why this method is bogus and can't work. In few words: craving, in particular, for impermanent things as expedient for something permanent.

If one accepts all "these things around" as impermanent, than one is forced to accept that they cannot provide everlasting happiness. Thus, the idea that we can reach permanent happiness and escape from suffering by relying on "wonderful feelings" or delighting ourselves on mundane experiences of pleasure can be refuted.

This eagerness to have random experiences to fuel "wonderful feelings" into our senses, ultimately, ends up perceived as a distraction that seem to have no end, even though the feelings and experiences themselves do have an end, either exhausting themselves or becoming stressed by the sudden inability to get satisfied. Thus, any surprise on our part when facing changes around us are an indication of expectations disagreeing with reality -- in essence, delusion.

However, that does not mean buddhists should be cold and void as rocks. There are pleasures that are praised by the Buddha ("wonderful feelings" worthy of being cultivated), but all of them have a much lesser risk for craving (than sensual pleasures), and have a much better potential to help one out on a more sustained, healthier, wiser, pleasing life. So, it really depends what you refer to as "wonderful feelings", since these are scrutinized in detail in buddhism, where some are seeing as helpful, and some are not. Ultimately though (and the aspect you bring of buddhism is about the ultimate condition of things), they are still not the final answer since they are impermanent, even though they might be important to be cultivated -- to move towards a life with less suffering, or in order to fulfill the path.

Finally, it's worthy to note that there are many subtleties and important distinctions for a range of feelings and emotions in Buddhism, and these are very technical. For example, if one reads a buddhist text with the word "feeling" in it (translating vedanā), without proper background the reader's interpretation is likely to be off.

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    This answer echoes the sentiment I had, which may not serve as a full answer: Lay Buddhists don't have an obligation to follow the path this much or that much, but the teachings are helpful nonetheless, and moreso when one practises meditation. – Anthony Sep 5 '15 at 0:49
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All beings "fall in love" as a result of desire (Tanha) and attachment in our mind. Desire is caused by not transcending the true nature of our experience (Avijja). The Buddhist path is to eradicate Avijja which causes endless mental and physical suffering.

Pemato jayati soko
pemato jayati bhayam
pemato vippamuttassa
natthi soko kuto bhayam.

Endearment begets sorrow,
endearment begets fear.
For him who is free from endearment
there is no sorrow; how can there be fear for him?

-- Dhammapada Verse 213:

Therefore the term you use is correct; we "fall" in love blindly because we don't see the true nature of things. So the person who follows the buddha dhamma (a Buddhist) falls in love as long as the right skills are gained to realize the true nature of things we experience (Yathā-bhūta-ñāna-dassana).

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    How can we fall in love if there's to be no desire because it is considered bad? And the verse as quoted supports my question, "you can't have endearment because it'd lead to sorrow", therefore sans endearment, sans love? – user3791372 Sep 3 '15 at 5:05
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It's true that a partner in love can make one happy, no doubt. That love can be liberating, deep and precious. The downside, is that, this happiness is not permanent or lasting. It will disappear again and one will experience suffering as a result.

What Buddhism teaches, is that if one would like to achieve a permanent happiness then one should not look for it in conditioned existence (samsara), because it cannot be found in a world that is impermanent.

To achieve lasting and permanent happiness one must realize Nibbana, the unconditioned, unborn and uncaused state.

Nibbana is not subject to incessant arising and falling away, thus it is stable, secure and permanent.

  • Apparently the Buddha did NOT say "Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well." But if he had, it would be just as true. (And we would not have to argue over whether he said it or not.) – user2341 Sep 2 '15 at 23:24
  • I disagree regardless of whether it was said or not, not all things that have a beginning can have an ending and this can be a cause of pain. Some questions will remain answered not creating an ending. – user3791372 Sep 3 '15 at 1:14
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    Also, I think, just because it will disappear doesn't mean that it shouldn't be experienced? For example, the death of a loved one doesn't mean the love for that person has to stop, does it? – user3791372 Sep 3 '15 at 1:38
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    @user3791372, I think the notion of "shouldn't be experienced" doesn't capture the Buddhist perspective. Falling in love happens, whether I want it to or not. Loss of the one I love happens, whether I want it to or not. Life happens, whether I want it to or not. So, really, what's up with all this wanting and not-wanting? – Dan Bryant Sep 3 '15 at 21:23
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    @nocomprende, My understanding is that Nibbana is permanent in the sense that it lacks the quality of impermanence that is associated with all conditioned things. This is because it is unconditioned (though 'because' is a bit misleading here.) When a fire truly burns out, there is nothing left behind to rekindle the flame. Nothing can cause permanent happiness to come about; practice can reveal that it was never something that needed causing. – Dan Bryant Sep 8 '15 at 17:34
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Buddhism is not about ignoring, denying or suppressing any feelings, it's about seeing them objectively- as feelings that have nothing to do with the self, states that simply arise and cease in the mind and nothing more. There is nothing unhealthy about this, in fact I think it is more unhealthy to obsess over strong emotions, crave for them to be returned and become blind with jealousy and rage when they aren't. People commit murder for these reasons. An extreme example, but I would argue that sure, if one wants to indulge in pleasures and are ok with the impermanence and risks, fine, it's your call. But people who are are devoted buddhists can develop into very genuinely selfless and compassionate beings and whether or not you believe in karma and rebirth, the world could use more selflessness and compassion and less craving and entitlement. Just because it's normal and natural doesn't mean it's healthy.

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    Re: "feelings that have nothing to do with the self..." reminds me of how Einstein explained Radio: "It is like there is this long cat, and when you are pulling his tail in New York, he is meowing in Los Angeles. Radio is just like this, except there is no cat." (my emphasis) Life is like this, except there is no self. – user2341 Sep 7 '15 at 21:45
  • Good point. The OP probably also confuses pain with suffering, which are quite different animals, since one can experience pain without suffering. Suffering is kind of trashing around trying to avoid pain, usually making things worse. – Hans-Peter Störr Jun 21 '17 at 4:50
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Modern neuroscience is catching up with Buddhism in this department it appears. Scientists have found romantic love activates the same addictive parts of the brain as cocaine. One journalist calls it the "terrifying neuroscience of romance," perhaps because to fault romance in our present culture is heresy, but equally science is the Oracle on the mountain top that no one dares argue with.

Romantic love arises to a great degree out of fear. There's a sense of loneliness in this world felt by most, that romance attempts to eliminate. Most people call their partners a witness to their life, a shoulder to lean on, a companion on the journey etc. When one perceives life as harsh and lonely, then a partner is a wise investment for success and comfort. However it's only a temporary relief from the perceived solitary nature of existence, which will arise like sobriety, eventually to harsh the mellow.

The old habit of seeing the world as separate from the self will also intrude upon family life and cause disharmony between the couple. It's inevitable, because such lonely attitudes honor the egotic self. Bickering divorces are purely a result of both partners formerly in love, now pulling at each other for their "rights".

Thus, Buddhism likens romantic love to an addiction, an attachment, and a danger.

It's natural to feel intoxicated with cocaine, but it's not wise to seek out the addiction.

However, love isn't solely about addiction. It can also be about selflessness, sacrifice and self-improvement—but in a statistical sampling of love, this would be a minority. This is the raison d'être for the Vajrayana school's point of view, of romance as a valid path to enlightenment. It's like the medical uses of cocaine, which needs to be administered by experts: it's easy to get it wrong, as the cases of those addicted to oxycodone show.

  • Very interesting - but what about parental or sibling love which is born into rather than the love in a new relationship which is created? And, maybe slightly off-topic, what about poly relationships involving more than one person where the concept of love may be different to a traditional monogamous relationship? – user3791372 Sep 3 '15 at 5:29
  • Blood relations are only different that one is born into it, there is no choice, so the required escape velocity is much higher. Still, parents disown sons and siblings don't talk to each other for decades. It again comes down to perception, since we view blood relations as stronger we don't break them as often. Though in reality legal requirements for divorce are much tougher than cutting someone out of an inheritance, yet divorces are more common. In ancient times when economic and social conditions made it harder to be a single woman, divorces were less common. Nothing to do with love. – Buddho Sep 3 '15 at 6:12
  • Poly relationships are also about seeking comfort from fear and loneliness - albeit in in the arms of many rather than one. It can be about bacchanalian sense pleasures, but it can also be about romantic love of the kind already described. Selfless love is quite different from all of this, it is obviously about wanting nothing out of the relationship for oneself. But that would be too crude a summary - selfless love can be very nuanced and subtle, and may not look like love at all. It's called fierce compassion by some, like a parent kicking out a prodigal son for his own good. – Buddho Sep 3 '15 at 6:19
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Above all, Buddhists teach not to obstruct one's own emotion... rather to accept and observe it.

So don't let the idea of what an Arhat (a real Buddhist) would do to obstruct your own heart because if one does so... it will create even more karma. The behavior of a Buddha is not merely emulated but is the product of moral discipline, meditation, contemplation, and concentration. Merely copying a Buddha's results will only result in frustration--not being more Buddhist or closer to the goal.

Now, to answer your question: a real Buddhist aka an Arhat on his way to Buddahood, does not fall in love. They simply cannot generate such a tremendous amount of ignorance and greed.

They may still develop an appreciation for someone, a preference for someone but they do not develop the romantic obsession known commonly as love.

As for a practicing Buddhist... depending on what their goal is, be it Enlightenment in this very lifetime or just enough merit to improve their current life and be reborn in a better place, the answer is different. Obviously, romantic life is frequently a waste of time and a cause of suffering and bad karma. A marriage of purpose and unity is far superior compared to "falling in love." Anyway, if "falling in love", an unfortunate phenomenon, does happen to oneself, it is best not to repress it or exaggerate it but rather one should go along with it and use it as a metta meditation and eventually integrating upekkha meditation into it, all the while creating as few of The Three Poisons as one can (via naturally avoiding craving), maintaining one's practice.

  • I hope I am not nit-picking in saying this, but I do not agree with your statement that, "The behavior of a Buddha is not merely emulated but is the product of moral discipline, meditation, contemplation, and concentration." I would say that it is not the result of anything done, but is a different order of comprehension entirely. It would be like saying that the view from the top of a cliff is the result of making a rope ladder. No, the view is there already. The method of getting there is not the point, like the idea of the boat you abandon at the other shore. Too much emphasis on method. – user2341 Sep 7 '15 at 21:38
  • Hmm.. Im not understanding but to use your analogy i am saying that making the rope ladder, anchoring it and using it is what gets one to the top. Visualizing the great view from the top (emulating the result) will not bring one to the top. – Ahmed Sep 7 '15 at 21:40
  • OK, I am perhaps pedantic on this point, so I was only saying that the method seems to get ensconced. One could reach the top by walking, or climbing, or using a balloon, or a glider or a helicopter, learning to levitate, etc. The point is the different perspective, not how you get there. Maybe it is just my teaching preference. I can't imagine getting to the perspective of a Buddha by practicing anything. Something has to come like lightning and change one's perspective. It takes a lot of work to build an airplane, thus discipline etc, but those are not the point of the exercise. – user2341 Sep 7 '15 at 22:01
  • Whatever method one uses, whatever process, even if it happens from a non Buddhist practice, i only sought to illustrate that we should not seek to copy cat a static idea of what Awakening is but actually walk on Buddhas road of discovery and experimentation. – Ahmed Sep 7 '15 at 22:10
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My friend, you are mistaken, what is nowadays considered falling in love only causes suffering, people want to feel loved because they think that will make them happy, that naturally creates suffering since they go through life seeking love as they think it will make them happy, when you are free, you only have love to give, this is what makes us truly happy, you don't just love your partner: you love everyone.

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I understand that one is not expected to hold anything close or dear as it is impermanent and could change at any moment so how does one love another person?

Leaving aside "love" for a moment, Buddhism teaches that conditioned things are impermanent and dissatisfactory.

For example you might have a nice evening out with someone, however that evening won't last. You might marry the person hoping for a repeat of the experience but most of life isn't like that. If you become attached to a specific experience you'll be disappointed: because experiences don't last; and because temporary experiences can't be permanently satisfying.

Back to the subject of love, then, there are various types of people and various types of love:

  • Love someone, get married, don't find that satisfying, get divorced
  • Love someone, get married, don't find that satisfying, stay married
  • Love someone, don't get married, don't find that satisfying...

There are other forms of love, other than romantic/sexual love:

  • The love of parents for their children and vice versa
  • Loving a teacher
  • Loving a friend
  • Loving a neighbour

If you do want to marry, there is some advice on how to choose a marriage partner.

"Therefore hold nothing dear, for separation from the dear is painful" - this seems to suggest that you should build a wall around yourself and separate yourself from potentially wonderful feelings just because they could cause pain, and pain is bad.

I don't think it means "build a wall". It means that when you see someone you should understand that they will change (e.g. they'll go away, become sick, maybe get angry sometimes, die), that whatever you experience now will change, that it would be unskillful (unhappy-making) to become attached to something (or to someone or to some experience) in the expectation or hope that it will never change.

I think pain is a part of life; denying that pain, or ignoring it is not part of a healthy life.

Addiction (e.g. addiction to alcohol) is also part of life. It's addictive, a) because it's enjoyable b) the enjoyment isn't permanent, it fades c) therefore if you crave (or thirst for or become attached to) that enjoyment then you'll try to repeat (and drink again or drink continuously, therefore becoming alcoholic). The fact that it's "part of life" doesn't make it "healthy". The same is true for other addictions to apparently-pleasurable-however-impermanent things.

Both of which you can learn and grow from. Am I missing something here?

Well, two things.

The first is that you might be arguing that it's good to burn your hand on the hot stove: because you learn from that, i.e. you learn that it hurts and that it damages your hand and that you shouldn't burn your hand on the hot stove!

Slightly more subtly, you might learn the trick to how to hold a hot coal in your hand without getting burned: you have to hold it lightly without grasping it, without becoming attached to it. Similarly it may be possible to love without becoming attached, without getting burned. This type (these several types) of unselfish love are called the brahma-viharas (see here and here for some further explanation), of which perhaps the most famous is "compassion" a.k.a. "Mettā".

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"Therefore hold nothing dear, for separation from the dear is painful".

There are many ways to look at the same thing in the Buddha's teaching. It can be very hard to keep up a good practice when with another person. I have really struggled with being married and trying to keep a continuous practice but were else would I get so much opportunity to practice so much patience?

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In modern society, problems with love are the greatest cause of suffering. The Buddha did not have to deal with this vast form of suffering because his students were seeking Enlightenment. We now know that that greatest suffering comes from having experienced emotional or physical abuse during childhood. All infants fall in love with their parents. If his or her parents do not respond appropriately to this love, then the child will suffer debilitating low self-esteem, depression, or some other mental disorder. When practicing the Brahmavihara, self-love is practiced first. This is the only hint in Theravadin Buddhism that I have found that indicates a lack of self-love might be a problem. If you want to know more about the love of infants and parenting, I suggest the writings of the past Maria Legerstee. Just for the record, I have practiced traditional mindfulness meditation for more than 50 years.

  • +1 "When practicing the Brahmavihara, self-love is practiced first" – Andrei Volkov May 18 '18 at 15:30

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