Gimme Shelter

My dog passed away recently.  For my partner and me, it was devastating. We’d poured so much love and attention on Friday for more than 15 years. Even though it was clear for months his end was nearing, we felt a tremendous loss when he finally left us. It was like there was a hole in our lives:  not just a hole in our daily routines of walking and feeding and caring for him, but a hole in our hearts, where we’d held our love for him. Where was that love now that he was gone?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. That love doesn’t just disappear. Of course, it’s tied to our memories, but it’s also an energy that we have available to us, at times buried more or less deeply, and can choose to draw upon more often.

Dogs are easy to love, of course, even if they’re difficult, as Friday was (he bit; I have scars).  We project all sorts of ideas and assumptions onto these unwitting creatures, and then fall in love with them. People generally are more resistant to our projections. (If dogs could speak, and complain, and make their own choices, they might not be as easily lovable.)

Since love comes from a feeling of understanding, empathy and connection, projected or not, then we have the ability to love many more beings in our lives than our pets.

In the 1990s, psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron famously developed the 36 questions they declared would lead people to fall in love. The idea was that if two people ask one another a list of increasingly personal questions, they will develop enough understanding and empathy for one another, and will feel sufficiently seen and understood, that intimacy and love develop naturally.

Outside a clinical setting we can’t often ask all those questions of other people, but just like we make assumptions about what our pets are thinking or feeling, and therefore empathize and imagine they understand us, we can choose to make assumptions about other beings that allow us to empathize and even feel love for them, too. Or, as often happens, we can choose, consciously or not, to assume the worst about someone, and thereby develop animosity toward them. If we pay attention, it can be amazing how often we’re making those negative assumptions, and the angst it causes us.

We can choose to do the opposite. Buddhists long ago created a loving-kindness meditation practice designed to bring up feelings of love by deliberately directing our wishes of well-being to others. Psychologists have studied its impact and find that such meditations, or the simple practice of reflecting at the end of every day on the most positive interactions you had with other people, actually has positive physical effects on our bodies, similar to those created by feelings of love. That love doesn’t have to be everlasting. It can be a fleeting feeling – what Barbara Fredrickson, a research psychologist at the University of North Carolina describes as “that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being,” much like you might share with your pet, or someone else’s pet, or a close friend, or even, sometimes, a stranger. That feeling, writes Fredrickson, in her illuminating book Love 2.0, is “perhaps the most essential emotional experience for thriving and health.”

We can do that at any time. We don’t have to be meditating, making lists or engaging in formal practices. It’s a choice we have in every moment.

When I was in Maine last summer with my dog Friday, shortly before he passed, I heard the Rolling Stones singing Gimme Shelter on a local radio show.  It got stuck in my head, as old pop songs do, so I decided to look up the words, since I had never really been able to understand them. I realized it’s a powerful anti-war song, and concludes with the reminder that we always have a choice between war and love.

Here are the full lyrics, and here’s the chorus:

War, children
It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away
War, children
It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away

Until the last refrain, which becomes:

I tell you love, sister
It's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away
It's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away
It's just a kiss away, (kiss away kiss away)

I still miss Friday terribly, and those feelings of love (and also sadness) well up in my heart whenever I look at his pictures.  But it’s helpful to know that those feelings don’t disappear with his mortal life. I feel a bit of them every time my neighbor’s dog Molly comes bounding up our stoop and lets me pet her.  And I try to consciously conjure them, through loving-kindness meditations or just conscious choice, when I go running in the park and encounter people who I might otherwise ignore, fear or even just find annoying. (It takes less effort, of course, with cute babies and puppies.)

The point is not that that we shouldn’t feel loss, but that we can also draw on and transform and direct the love we have felt, and always have capacity to feel, in many directions. That love can give us shelter.  We have a choice.

Love and Activism

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A few years ago I was on a nonprofit leadership training retreat, when everyone had to go around the circle and declare their “purpose.” This was the sort of exercise I dreaded, so I scrambled to come up with something plausible I could say that wouldn’t be too embarrassing. Then I heard one of the retreat leaders announce that her purpose was “love.”

My eyes widened and it took all the energy I could muster to keep from rolling them. “Love?” I thought. “Really? And this is a professional leadership training?”

It’s easy to be cynical about the word “love.” It’s exploited to sell products and convince us we need lots of self-improvement to be worthy of it. In Hollywood movies or on TV, it’s mostly young beautiful women who find it (the movies are much more forgiving to men), prompting the rest of us to feel we should rush out and buy whatever we can be duped into thinking might allow us to make ourselves over into that image. The obsessive focus on the self that creates actually leads to the opposite of love: self-consciousness and self-loathing, as well as a cramped and defensive view of everyone else.

The popular view of nonromantic love, meanwhile, is the perfect immediate family, consisting of mother, father and several children, all happy, attractive, posing perfectly for their envy-inducing snapshot on Facebook.

I’ve since gotten to know that retreat leader better, and I don’t think she meant any of those things. I think she was talking about a far more expansive, and healthy, understanding of love, one that leads to the opposite of self-consciousness, narcissism, and envy; one that instead helps dissolve the boundaries between ourselves and the world around us, opening up greater possibilities for engagement, and for joy.

The research psychologist Barbara Fredrickson calls this “positivity resonance.” Fredrickson is a professor at the University of North Carolina and a leading researcher in the study of positive emotions. Her book, Love 2.0, offers an intriguing and I think really useful look at the whole concept of love: what it means, when it occurs, and the powerful physical and psychological effects it has on us – and its potential to connect us to a much broader range of people in the world.

Not surprisingly, Fredrickson finds that love is nothing like what we see in the movies. It’s not something you fall into or have unconditionally or need to find from that one special someone you’re searching for. It doesn’t require commitment or long-term bonding or even shared values, although those things can help create conditions that encourage it. But in itself, love is an often fleeting feeling you can have when you connect with almost anyone, including a complete stranger, under the right circumstances. It has a powerful impact on our bodies and our health, and literally synchronizes people as their brain functions mirror one another’s. Studies show the experience of this sort of love actually creates a broader perspective and understanding, of ourselves, of the other person, and of everything around us. What’s more, its quantity is unlimited; it’s an emotion we can develop and increase, regardless of our current relationship or family circumstances.

Obviously, this isn’t specifically romantic love, although that’s one form of it. But the kind of love I’m talking about doesn’t depend on finding any one perfect “soulmate” somewhere out there in the universe. It’s simply, as Fredrickson defines it, “that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being, and is “perhaps the most essential emotional experience for thriving and health.”

What I like about this view is that it so clearly corresponds with actual human experience, and defies the silly cultural expectations that love be everlasting, unconditional, or limited to one person at a time. Rather, just as we experience it, love is an ever-shifting emotion that comes and goes, arises and fades away. It’s not exclusive. It’s not a unique feeling you reserve for one partner, or for immediate family or friends.

Positivity resonance is literally a “back and forth reverberation of positive energy.” Indeed, brain imaging studies done by Princeton professor Uri Hasson have shown that connection between two people actually creates synchronized changes in both people’s biochemistry. Hasson and his colleagues have shown that parts of people’s brains literally into sync during emotional moments – what Hasson calls “brain-to-brain coupling.” It’s how we understand each other.

The impact of this emotion on our bodies is astonishing. Love or positivity resonance strengthens the vagus nerve, which reaches from the brain down through the body to the abdomen, and touches most major organs along the way. The vagus nerve plays a key role in the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates the body’s stress level. A strong vagus nerve, or high vagal “tone,” as its measured, means the parasympathetic nervous system is working effectively to reduce the negative impact of stress on the body — slowing your heart rate after a frightening experience, for example. Scientists view vagal tone as a reflection of the strength of the immune system; a strong vagal tone make us more resistant to a broad range of diseases, including heart failure, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, and even some cancers.

Love also affects our bodies by increasing levels of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin has long been known to be critical to mother-child bonding and sexual connection, but it’s also been found to increase during much more subtle emotional and social interactions. Oxytocin triggers the release of serotonin, which leads to increased feelings of happiness and reduces levels of stress. (Most anti-depressant medication similarly tries to increase the brain’s serotonin levels.)

The encouraging thing about all this is that it’s largely within our control. Increasing this sort of love is ultimately about letting yourself be open to it. Sure, there are formal practices designed to induce loving feelings, like lovingkindness meditations, or reflecting at the end of every day on the most positive interactions you had with other people, which can be very effective. (Fredrickson has studied these practices and finds that if done over time, they actually increase vagal tone.) So, too, can simply increasing awareness of the positive impact true connections can have.

Daily interactions, with colleagues at work or neighbors in the dog park, for example, can take on a new meaning. Instead of merely awkward small talk by the water-cooler or bleary-eyed encounters picking up dog poop in the morning, they become opportunities for increasing positivity resonance and better health.

Positivity resonance can support social activism as well. Instead of focusing only on achieving a particular outcome, which may be elusive, the possibility of connecting in a real way with others doing the same thing –- and experiencing the same frustrations — can give our advocacy work a whole other purpose.

This sort of “love” can help counter the burnout advocates so often feel in another way, too. Focusing on the problems of the world and seeing few easy solutions can quickly lead to pessimism, despair and depression. Focusing on positive feelings for those who you might benefit, on the other hand — what lovingkindness meditation does — can really lift the spirit.

Meditations on love and kindness or positive interactions with neighbors, colleagues or clients won’t stop wars or save the planet or directly help those suffering the consequences of those disasters. But if practiced regularly and sincerely, they can renew our sense of hope by changing how we feel towards other people, including those most harmed by the world’s problems. And that can help keep us motivated to do what we can to help.