Wednesday, January 18, 2017

why it's important to bask in love

I recently learned of a crazy concept: basking in love. Yes, I realise it sounds like the title of one of those self-help books we love to hate or some a cappella song sung on the final day of a new-age life-coaching retreat. And it’s fine if those are your things, but despite the flaky intonations of the name, basking in love is a full-on, rather radical activity (at least by today’s standards) that, like any form of meditation, can make a significant mental and emotional impact on your life. I discovered basking in love because I needed a daily practice in maintaining not just self-love (an abstract term if there ever was one) but more an awareness of that self-love. In today’s world, we’re so quick to adopt a conscious sense of fear as a primal instinct for survival; I believe doing the same with love can empower us to be brighter, lighter, happier people.

Simply put, basking in love means making a conscious effort (aka taking actual time) to acknowledge and sit with the various instances of love in your life. This includes love felt for yourself, love you give to others, to pets, even to inanimate objects, as well as love received from others (and fine, pets, unless it’s a cat, because trying to interpret affection from a cat as love is futile, exhausting, and inevitably soul crushing; you’re better off with a lizard). Considering how much time we spend basking in ‘likes’ and re-tweets as forms of validation, this concept of basking in the good, old-fashioned form of love makes sense but here’s the catch: it ain’t easy. Consider the metaphor about growing up in the internet age and learning how to use a typewriter; you know how it works, as in how to type to make words, but the logic of why you’d do it when there is another faster, more instantaneous way completely throws you off and you return to the easier one because you like quick results. And we know quicker is not always necessarily better.

The activity of basking, while simple, requires a little checklist, however, once you do it a few times, it becomes second nature. You must consider: 1) the connections you share with others, including our tendency to try to quantify friendship in certain terms, i.e. ‘considering what my friends do for me, do I do enough for them?’ Instead, take the time to simply appreciate, rather than analyse, your friend connections; 2) your connection with yourself, from how you love yourself (do you ‘treat yo-self’ from time to time or are you constantly consciously aware of love within yourself?) to how you allow yourself to be loved by others; 3) what the word ‘love’ means to you and, despite how the love we have for another person is a very different type of love than the one we have for, say, Sriracha sauce, both types are valid because together, they define us as loving beings.

Why is it important to understand yourself as a loving being? Because that’s where shit goes wrong in life—if you don’t love yourself, you can’t love others, and as socialised humans we need that love (for more on this, see ‘The Brain in Love’ study by Helen Fisher—good stuff) so when it’s missing, we have to start way at the beginning in order to get it.

Here’s what the journey went like for me. Rewind to my childhood. My parents faced it when it came to being fed and clothed, but growing up Catholic in a shitty American suburb (recently called 'the most unhappy place in America') with typical American values that place self-love on the same shelf as conceit, there weren't a whole lot of opportunities to value the things that made me different. Add to that colourful mix of things I had to suppress the fact that I am gay, and you're left with a kid whose upbeat attitude and humorous approach to life attracted friends, but which, at the same time, existed chiefly to keep them at a safe distance while he figured out just what about him they actually liked.

Occasionally, I’d be bold and commend myself for having finished a school project or personal creative pursuit just to elicit a reaction, and my mother never disappointed, dishing out the same "I love me, who do you love?" as though I’d crossed a line by giving myself the praise and acclaim that would normally come from another person. Unconditional encouragement was never a strong tenet of my parents' parenting methods. What they didn't understand they resisted; what they couldn't explain, they avoided; so when my interests began to fulfil both categories, branding me something of an outcast in their eyes, their only response was to robotically push me to do the things the other boys did, go to the places the other boys went, essentially putting a lead-lined cap on the quirks and unusual urges I found myself naturally embodying.

I evolved into a 'closet creative,' locking myself in my bedroom for extremely tense, surreptitious periods of writing, drawing, painting, making jewellery, and experimenting with all modes of expression in order to give the raw, creative force inside of me free reign to manifest itself in every form and medium possible. I’d skip soccer practice to hide out in our local Jo-Ann Fabrics, reading the labels on the backs of paints and glazes, imagining one day I would spread them across a canvas and create something with the power to show the world that there was so much more to this skinny kid dressed in shin guards and Umbros. In the years before identifying as a writer, I saw my future self as this omni-creative being, simultaneously playing the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera while maintaining a lucrative painting and writing career on the side and doing television interviews in which my opinions were as coveted as Oprah’s. A therapist would look at this scenario and see it for exactly what it was: a textbook case of an under-loved kid screaming to be noticed, pining for approval through any avenue he or she could get it.

Unless you grew up in some progressive hippie commune or a culturally and intellectually-inclined country like the Netherlands, you probably know exactly what I mean to some degree because you've been there too. And, like me, you probably took this behaviour with you all your life. Through university, your first job, your relationships with others and--most importantly--your relationship with yourself. For the latter, it’s that voice inside constantly shouting many versions of, "Love me! Love me!" which causes you to double down with frustration as you answer, "How? How?" Or maybe it's just a general presence of unhappiness, constantly agitated by anxiety, which is really just the logical part of you shouting, "Hey, you know you can fix this!" but the attempts to fix yourself are futile.
That’s when therapy came in. How it all played out is a different story for a different article, but I will say over many years and many therapists, I learned two things: 1) unlike other medical professionals the therapist cannot do the work for you, so ask for tools as you go along and be prepared to do the work; 2) expect many unpleasant truths and operate with the understanding that they may have defined you up to that point, but they don’t have to anymore.

Once I identified the source of my unhappiness as not feeling loved, I had to accept this reality in order to heal from it—and difficult doesn’t even begin to describe how that went. From the outset, my life is awesome. I have an amazing group of friends, a full fridge, and all my creature comforts are, for the most part, satisfied. I could even confidently say I love myself. What went crazy balls with me was that, despite the love I had coming at me from all directions, the love I was employing toward myself was conditional, weak, and dependent on the validation and approval of others. Inside, I was still that little boy hiding his dreams and talents and aspirations from the world, as I once had from my parents. I pursued my dreams and succeeded in many ways, but never once did I take a moment to break the habit of hiding my satisfaction and happiness with myself; never once did I say something to the effect of, "I did well because I did what I wanted to do, and that makes me great." Rather, I would await this kind of reaction from others, depending on it for vital validation. When I didn't get it, I’d want it even more. Now I’m not only aware of the various forms of love in my life, I also know their purpose in defining me as both a unique person and a loving being.

So I bask. Sometimes I do it in the morning, sometimes at night; sometimes at home in a comfy chair, sometimes on the tube with my favourite song playing. Sometimes once a day, sometimes 17 times. The only method to follow is to think about the many different forms of love present in your life, from the profound to the subtle, and give them each extra consideration. Feel your personal connection to love in all its forms. For me, a typical session could include love I receive from my friends, love I have for Fleetwood Mac songs, love for my writing and improv comedy talents, even love I have for that damn Sriracha sauce. I give an important, shining moment to every moment of love that comes my way, and each time I do it I feel a very justified moment of peace.

There’s more—a consciousness filled with active love does a body good! In the same way that learning a new language creates new neural pathways, this new way of thinking does the same, expanding your capacity to regard yourself and fulfilling that innate need for identity. Think of it as retraining your brain to function more effectively, sending the anxiety, frustration, heaviness, sadness, whatever plagues you to the back seat so you can be in charge of your own happiness. For me, this means being able to take compliments from myself and know they are true without third-party validation. Hearing such things as "You are so weird" come up when listening to a Christmas song in June I take as "You are so unique" and that feels good. The anxiety I once had while doing the activities I claim to love has basically diminished. No longer am I ashamed of what I like, what appeals to me, what turns me on, or what I find interesting. Anxiety, in general, tends to subside as the positivity gained from an awareness of love is fostered.

Like any exercise, the more you do it, the better it works. Basking in love is a practical, mindful way of maintaining a high, peaceful, and fulfilling quality of life, regardless of what you’ve had to recover from to get there. Sometimes it will help mend a bad day, and sometimes it will enhance a great day. What remains constant is your conscious pursuit of happiness, and when you think about it, what's the point of life if not happiness?