Mastering The Art of Loving Is A Lifelong Challenge

Mastering The Art of Loving: A Lifelong Challenge

It is easy to hate, and it is difficult to love.
                          — CONFUCIUS

Can love be learned? In principle, yes, but there are important requirements. Love necessitates a positive, embracing view of ourselves and of life. Fromm claimed that only a person who has reached developmental maturity is truly capable of loving. Such maturity implies self-acceptance and overcoming narcissism.

Like mastering any art, learning to love takes concentration, discipline, and patience. In practice, maintaining a constant focus on love is exceedingly difficult. Try it for five minutes and see. For just five minutes, monitor the thoughts or impulses that arise in your mind.

Whenever your thoughts stray away from your focus on loving, notice it. Did you think about the foot­ball game later today? The errands you have to run? Your job? Going out with friends? Assess whether your thoughts are self-serving or loving, that is, directed at the well-being and happiness of somebody else.

You will probably find that it is very hard to maintain this focus even for this short time. When we realize that mastering the art of loving requires maintaining a focus on love for every waking minute of our day, it becomes very clear what kind of challenge it is.

Attaining Happiness and Deep Contentment

The practice of rejecting egotistic impulses in favor of loving is known to be effective for attaining happi­ness. Some devout followers of religions that teach sim­ilar precepts have achieved a state of deep contentment. In other words, if we manage to maintain control of our self-serving impulses and concentrate on love, we will achieve happiness. Guaranteed.

We have a choice. At any given time, we can set our priorities. We can spend most of our lives focusing on our job to achieve what society defines as success, and maybe we will find some satisfaction. Maybe. Or we can spend our time developing our focus on love, and we will surely attain happiness. Seems like an easy choice. It also means that anybody truly wanting to achieve happiness can do so. We just have to put the effort into it.

Think about this for a moment. There is a proven, guaranteed way to attain lasting happiness. Something anybody can achieve. No tricks. Why isn’t everybody lining up for this? Because the process is hard.

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Contentment results from the way our mind processes thoughts, actions, and events. The same event may elicit very different responses in people. For example, let’s imagine two drivers getting rear-ended in their cars. One jumps out screaming in anger over his damaged property, while the other expresses gratitude that nobody got hurt. A missed putt on a golf course may appear to one person as a personal failure, while another laughs about it as bad luck. We can perceive the same events, and our whole lives, as wonderful or dreadful — it’s our choice. If we want to perceive it as wonderful, however, we may need to work at it.

Focusing On The Well-Being And Happiness Of Another Person.

A critical component of loving is concentration. In loving, our mind is focused on the well-being and happiness of another person. This may be easy at times but difficult when our mind is flooded with competing demands. If I look at my wife with a focus on love, I actively look for ways to improve her day, to take responsibilities off her shoulders, and to make her feel loved. If I look at her without such a focus, my mind may be distracted by thoughts of my work, leisure activities, or something else.

Over the centuries, people have developed various techniques for maintaining a focus on love. The Buddha taught exercises in mindfulness and meditation to improve our focus on everything we do. These practices are effective and still popular today. Another proven method for mastering selflessness is praying. Prayers in most religions involve focusing on love, usually love of God. Prayer serves the same essen­tial purpose as mindfulness training, teaching us to con­trol impulses, and it requires similar hard work to achieve results.

While practices like meditation and prayer improve our focus on love, they typically occupy only a small frac­tion of our days, leaving us exposed to self-serving drives for much of the time.

How can we learn to be mindful of our thoughts and actions all the time? We may do this step by step, starting by spending a few minutes a day trying to achieve a dedicated focus. For example, we may use any downtime during the day, like waiting in line, for mind exercises, which improve our awareness of our thoughts. Some people like to set an alarm every hour to take one minute to focus on love. What we think about during these few minutes may vary, but in general, it involves asking ourselves how we can make life nicer for those around us. These exercises are essentially mindfulness training that is specifically applied to the art of loving.

Any glimpse of awareness of the constant influence of egotistic impulses is a step toward our goal, and we immediately feel its effect. As soon as we reject such an impulse, we feel contentment.

To identify a self-serving drive, we just have to ask ourselves if a particular inclina­tion is directed at helping ourselves or others. For exam­ple, thinking about going to the golf course is serving our drive for pleasure (unless we do it solely to please a friend who asked us to go along). While there is nothing wrong with enjoying a round of golf, we need to realize that the satisfaction is brief.

In contrast, spending time on loving activities, such as visiting our parents, taking the children out, and doing household tasks, is associated with lasting contentment because these activities increase the happiness of others. Obviously, some self-serving impulses are essential to follow, including eating, drinking, and sleeping. Taking time for ourselves for exercise, recuperation, and rest also is critical. We should strive, however, to remain mindful of love all the time.

The Choice: Focusing on Love or Self-Serving Impulses?

Focusing on love requires work, but the dedication pays off. It’s like learning to ride a bicycle: at first, it is hard and requires our full concentration. Once we have mastered the skill, we don’t even have to think about it.

We tend to proceed along the path of least resistance. The lures of instant gratification are tempting. When we feel anger, it is gratifying to release it by swearing or acting out. When we feel aggression, it seems empowering to channel all that energy into acts of violence. When we feel lustful, it is rewarding to engage in sex. Giving in to these impulses is easy, but they bring only short-term satisfaction, and sometimes they endanger our chances of experiencing lasting love.

Self-serving impulses may actually have detrimental rather than self-preserving effects in the long run. When we follow our impulse to eat in excess and to watch TV instead of being physically active, we may put ourselves at risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Egotism is shortsighted, whereas selfless love brings lasting rewards and benefits to the giver as well as the recipient.

Controlling Our Impulses for Aggression or Anger

One of the most significant advancements in human evolution is the ability to envision the long-term conse­quences of our actions. This capacity enables us to control our impulses for aggression or anger: we can weigh the short-term satisfaction they offer against the benefit of longer-term contentment that we derive from focusing on love. Even with this rational ability, however, most of us find it challenging to control our impulses and do not always succeed.

Love is one of many innate impulses. However, our ability to love can be fully developed only if other competing impulses are controlled. Starting in childhood, when we first develop a sense of self (an important milestone in our cognitive growth), most individuals develop egocentric needs that demand satisfaction. While young children also show an inclination toward altruism, this capacity must be encouraged if it is to develop.

To what extent the ability to love grows without parental guidance is unclear. Like most drives and impulses, this capacity varies from person to person. My son, Luca, has Down syndrome. It seems individuals with this genetic makeup tend to be less self-centered and more generous toward others — an observation that may suggest altruism is influenced by genetic factors.

Indeed, there is evidence from evolutionary biology for the existence of gene constellations associated with altruism. Some people find it harder than others to con­trol self-serving impulses. Some individuals, for example, are born with a very competitive drive, and they struggle to control their temper when things are not going their way. Others are more even-tempered and seem to intu­itively gravitate toward suppressing their own interests for the benefit of others. As with most genetic predisposi­tions, however, our innate impulses can be greatly mod­ified by our own intervention and by our environment.

Born With A Heart of Gold?

Karin is an administrative assistant at the hospital where I work. In the ten years I have known her, I have never seen her angry, moody, or anything less than cheerful. She always greets people with a smile and genuinely cares about them. If you are not doing well, she’ll do her best to help you. She seems to have endless energy to help anyone in need. Is Karin just this way because she was born with a heart of gold?

Karin says she wasn’t. Like many of us, she used to be irritable and even lashed out at times. One day, she had a big fight with her daughter over some banality. They did not speak for weeks, and Karin even developed migraines as a result of the stress. Eventually, Karin recognized the absurdity of their actions and apologized to her daugh­ter (even though they were both at fault).

From that day on, Karin decided never to let her anger get control of her again. “Life’s too short for such nonsense,” she said, and she has been focusing on the positive aspects of life ever since. Confronted with the temptation to give in to frustration or sadness, she chooses love of life and people every time.

Mastering The Art of Loving: A Lifelong Challenge

Controlling self-directed impulses is a lifelong challenge. Consciously or not, we are constantly select­ing among many impulses. Driving in heavy traffic, we may feel an impulse to cut in front of another car to get ahead. When our boss reprimands us for no good reason, we may feel aggression and anger.

Through education in childhood, conscious reflection, or experience, we learn that rejecting egotistic impulses is actually more rewarding than yielding to them. The wisdom said to come with age may be attributed in large part to having learned to curb egotism.

To master the art of loving, we must make it the most important thing in life. Love is a delicate flower that needs nurturing and protection to bloom. Lack of attention may easily lead to its demise.

Ultimately, we control how much happiness we attain in life. Loving depends entirely on our state of mind. We may find it much easier to love our partner and children than to extend our love to oth­ers, but — with focus — we can develop affection for all.

©2017 by Armin A. Zadeh. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library.

Article Source

The Forgotten Art of Love: What Love Means and Why It Matters
by Armin A. Zadeh MD PhD

The Forgotten Art of Love: What Love Means and Why It Matters by Armin A. Zadeh MD PhDThis unique and wide-ranging book looks at love’s crucial role in every aspect of human existence, exploring what love has to do with sex, spirituality, society, and the meaning of life; different kinds of love (for our children, for our neighbors); and whether love is a matter of luck or an art that can be mastered. Dr. Zadeh provides a fascinating, empowering guide to enhancing relationships and happiness — concluding with a provocative vision for firmly anchoring love in our society.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book and/or download the Kindle edition.

About the Author

Armin A. Zadeh, MD, PhD, MPHArmin A. Zadeh, MD, PhD, MPH, is a cardiologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University. He has authored more than one hundred scientific articles and is an editor of scholarly books in medicine. The art of medicine requires insights from various disciplines, including biology, psychology, physics, chemistry, and also philosophy. Drawing from his background and experience, Dr. Zadeh has used his skills in the analysis and synthesis of complex data to formulate new concepts and hypotheses on love and to develop a framework to understand — and master — love. Learn more at

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