When I was 19, I sat on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building with a girl I was dating. Her scented head rested on my shoulder as she murmured ‘I love you.’
She turned her big eyes towards me and my chest clenched.
‘Don’t say that,’ I said.
‘Why not? Do you not love me?’ Her eyes quivered.
Here I had a choice. I could say what she clearly wanted to hear or I could speak my truth.
‘I don’t know. I mean, I don’t even know what love is. It’s a word, right? But what does it mean? If you watch John Hughes movies, which I do, then Love is some romantic ideal. But that can’t be it? I definitely have feelings for you, but I don’t know if it’s love. Or even if what I consider ‘love’ and you consider ‘love’ are the same thing. It’s a sensitive subject and I would want to make sure that we’re on the same page.’
I spoke my truth! The date ended moments later.
The breathwork practice itself resonated with me, the language around ‘self-love’ did not. It immediately summoned images of bubbles baths, candles, and affirmations scribbled frantically on post-its and left around the house. It also called up exhortations to ask for a raise, know my value, hold powerful boundaries.
These were fine, but didn’t feel particularly loving. It felt as if these images belonged more to the worlds of ‘self-care’ or ‘self-respect’ than self-love. As I got further along in my work with the breath and began teaching workshops, my own lack of clarity around ‘self-love,’ and ‘love’ in general became challenging. How could I claim to teach a practice that cultivated ‘self-love’ if I had only a vague notion of what it meant?
So, finally, I undertook an investigation of ‘love.’ I read ecstatic poetry and found ‘Love’ often substituted for ‘The Divine.’ I read an entire book by the philosopher Sam Keen called To Love and Be Loved that dissected Love into its various species and components. This was all very interesting and gave me smart things to say when people asked me about ‘love,’ but none of it felt embodied.
I now ‘knew’ about love and self-love at a cognitive level, but had not internalized that knowledge experientially.
That changed during a Vision Quest I participated in to mark my 40th birthday. The experience revolved around three days of fasting and solo time in the wilderness. On the third night, we were to enact a ritual called The Vigil.
Just before sunset, I set up a ring of stones and made my camp inside of it. From dusk until sunrise, my task was to stay inside the circle and remain awake. I could do whatever I needed to do to stay awake. Dance, sing, rattle, do calisthenics, pray. Whatever needed to happen to allow me to make it through the night.
After a couple of hours during which I tried mightily to gaze at the stars and summon up a sense of wonder, I felt miserable. It was cold. I had heartburn due to acid reflux after three days of fasting. Battling the elements, everything from blistering heat to pouring rain, had sapped my energy. I just wanted this experience to be over.
But I had to make it through the night.
So I picked up my rattle and started shaking it in a rather desultory way.
Since I was already rattling, I might as well get up and move around to warm myself up.
And once I was up, I might as well rattle a bit more energetically.
Soon I found myself rattling with gusto and doing a kind of demented two-step around my circle.
Then I started humming. A few minutes later, the humming transformed into words.
The words held the core of the experience I’d had over the past three days. Even as I sang, I felt that these words were a message from whatever part of me is connected to Something Greater to the part of me that sat on the steps with that girl when I was 19, rendered incoherent by my confusion about love.
Let Love In (I sang, highly aware that I sounded like a goober)
Let It In.
Love holds everything together.
Love is everything.
Let Love In.
And so on.
The song (which, thankfully, will never be sung again) summoned a vision of billions upon billions of particles, specks of energy, stretching above, below, and all around. Love, quite simply, held the whole universe together.
Love is the basic connective tissue of the universe.
As the image came to me, I felt its truth reverberating at the deepest levels of my being and all around me. It made sense.
If love is, at base level, a connective energy, then ‘self-love’ implies a deep sense of connection to all parts of the self, even and especially those parts that lurk in the shadows. True self-love requires deep self exploration and acceptance to foster a powerful connection.
When we express ‘love’ for another person, the sentiment is not merely romantic. When uttered authentically, at a soul level, the phrase ‘I love you’ communicates a deep appreciation for the beloved in all of their beauty, mess, woundedness, and complexity. It means ‘I see you, and I feel deeply connected to every part of you.’
Working to cultivate more ‘love’ or ‘self-love’ means working to find ever deeper connections with self, other, and universe. To become more and more aware of the intrinsic interconnectedness of all things. To become more conscious of the power of love to hold it all together.
And with this new understanding. . .I sure am glad that I didn’t say ‘I love you’ to the girl on the Capitol Steps.