Before I begin the post about agape love, Happy Mothers Day to everyone. A wonderful event of serendipity ( see The Curious Case of Serendipity post ) happened to me the other day. As I was internet surfing, I stumbled on Stanford University’s free online course called Love as a Force for Social Justice . The class is taught by Anne Firth Murray. She has done amazing work, such as, creating the Global Fund for Women, which supports local organizations around the world doing work for the well being of women. In 2005, she was one of 1000 women nominated for the Nobel Prize. She is a fantastic professor, very knowledgeable, yet, humble despite her vast experience in social justice work. She designed the course in a brilliant manner with the core theme of agape love as a foundation for personal transformation, transformation of relationships with the world and others, positive social action, change and community building. She explores agape love through different religious and spiritual traditions, relational dynamics between people (early stages of romantic love versus affiliative companionate love later in the relationship), neuroscience of love and ethical systems of thought, such as. nonviolence as a form of social transformation. Anne Firth Murray discusses application of agape love in different areas, such as business world, health care, and educational institutions. She interviews different scholars on these topics so that as a student you hear multiple perspectives on topics. She also discusses phenomenon, opposite of agape love: violence, hatred and apathy. We are seeing plenty of this in our current times. That is why her class is so relevant.
I emailed Anne (she prefers being called Anne) to ask her for permission to write posts about some of the topics she discusses. She graciously gave me permission and I will add all bibliographical references to her class. I am also hoping to interview her next month about the application of agape love in social justice. This post is on agape love, the unconditional love that God shows for the world articulated in numerous religious and spiritual traditions, that couples may have for each other, parents have for their children, and teacher may demonstrate in their passion for teaching new ideas to transform hearts and minds. Agape love may be witnessed in healers practicing their art and science of alleviating suffering in human beings or creative artists, actors, writers, musicians who relentlessly develop their passion projects. I am a believer in agape love. Are we called to learn about and practice agape love as human beings? Yes. Is it easy? Absolutely not. It is easier to show agape love more for some people than others. On certain days, it is easier to practice agape love more than on other stressful days. Great spiritual masters seem to have perfected this practice of agape love towards all, with nonreactivity and yogic mind set. On the other hand, I struggle with it. I am a regular person and not a highly spiritually evolved person. The essential and radical act of agape love is tough and it requires great strength, humility, equanimity, self-reflection and courage.
Great spiritual saints, like Peace Pilgrim stated ( see Message of Peace Pilgrim) that love is a spiritual law of the universe: intentions, actions marinated in selfless love and service multiply, resonate, amplify exponentially. According to Peace Pilgrim, movements, intentions and actions filled with hatred , evil and fear will wither and die out because it is not in alignment with the fundamental spiritual law of love. Some state it is an universal spiritual law, like laws of gravity, electricity and magnetism which govern the material world. .Anne picked Dr. Frances Andrews book (1992), The Art and Practice of Loving, as the textbook for the class. Dr. Andrews (1992) makes a key point that agape love can be demonstrated in seemingly ordinary actions, such as cooking a meal, gardening, or meditating, as well as, extraordinary actions, like nonviolence movement led by Gandhi in India and Dr. Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement. I also agree with Dr. Andrews’s key question that if loving, referred to as heart wisdom, is a critical aspect of the human condition, why do we not have manuals or more literature on the fundamental ways of how to love deeply and profoundly, especially when faced with obstacles, such as, experiences of betrayal. It is astonishing that we seem to have detailed manuals with diagrams and step by step directions in everything else on the planet. Manuals for constructing furniture, repairing plumbing systems, coloring hair, applying nail polish, installing all kinds of gadgets, such as, i-phones, hair dryers, ovens and manuals to keep our computers safe and running. We seem to be more worried about matters of the digital world than the human heart, a sacred space (in my opinion).
Dr. Fran Grace
Dr. Fran Grace, professor of religious studies and founder of the meditation program at University of Redlands, beautifully defines love in her book, The Power of Love: A Transformed Heart Changes the World. Dr. Grace (2018, 2019) writes the following about love in her book:
“Love is self-respecting and self-giving. Love is humble and open-hearted. Love is unconditional and nonselective. Love endures all things. Love moves from an inner strength and walks by way of an inner light. Love knows that whatever is done to another is done to oneself: whatever is given and returns to the giver. Love is determined: it finds the opportunity in each obstacle. Love augments the positive: it believes the best. Love is swayed neither by praise nor blame; it treats them as one and the same. Love transcends time… Love lives in the land of “win/win” and “both/and”. Love sees eyes of the heart: it knows the whole and values each part.” (p.xxx).
Dr. Grace (2018, 2019) writes in her book’s introduction about Swami Vivekanada , a great Indian spiritual master, Hindu monk, chief discipline of the great Indian mystic saint, Sri RamaKrishna. In Swami Vivekanda’s famous speech to the Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Chicago in 1893, he addressed the crowds “Sisters and Brothers of America” and outlined the spiritual law of love that governs the Universe. Dr. Grace summarizes one of Swami Vivekananda’s main points which is supremacy of self-less love (Agape love) and that this highest form of love seeks no personal reward. Dr. Grace summarizes Swami Vivekananda’s words , “love unselfishly for love’s sake”. Swami Vivekananda introduced Hindu philosophy of vedanta, yoga and interfaith awareness to the western world.
His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet
His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, one of my favorite spiritual teachers makes critical points about the human condition: we are born for love regardless of our national origin, gender, political, cultural and theistic or nontheistic spiritual belief systems, 2. we learn how to love in childhood, 3, we all want happiness. He is so right on all three points. The Class “Love as a Force of Social Justice” has a segment where Dr. Paul Harrison, a Buddhist scholar talks about the paradoxical nature of Buddhism, which is concerned about pervasive nature of suffering, but, also search for happiness in the human condition. It is interesting to note that His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s point about learning to love in early life is supported by psychological and neuroscience research, which delineates the idea that we learn to love in childhood, especially in our relationship with our primary care-giver. Attachment theory researchers, John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, reported findings that a secure attachment with primary caregiver is a template for healthy relationships that a person may develop through out the life span. Having a secure attachment likely enhances the infant to learn to trust rather than mistrust, according to Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages. If one learns to trust oneself and selective others, his or her life has amazing possibilities.
Dr. Dan Siegel, developed the paradigm of interpersonal neurobiology, which suggests that the external environment and relationships in the child’s world impact the child’s neural wiring and brain structure and function. However, being the optimist, I am a believer that love can be learned at any age through encounters of loving experience with others. This is also supported by brain plasticity which is the idea that brain is capable of rewiring and learning through out the lifespan.
THE MIGHTY CALL OF AGAPE LOVE
I agree with Dr. Andrews that loving is a practice: using love to transform the raw experience of life. Although, there is evidence that infant temperaments are predisposed to be biologically determined at birth, I believe that practitioner of love learns to love, find things to love, and transforms the world they live in with love towards self and others. Like the rippling effect of happiness, I believe love has a rippling effect, starts with one person and pervades his or her surroundings. Research shows practices of love, meditating on a loving God (religious act) or act of peaceful and loving breathing (secular act), change the body and the mind (see Practices of Love on the Brain) In contrast to love, long term hateful and angry mindsets are not good for the mind, body or spirit. Research findings by Staicu and Cutov, (2010) indicate relationship between anger, hatred and hostility and poor cardiovascular health, hypertension, diabetes, bulimic behaviors, driving mishaps and alcohol use in teenagers. An angry response is related to changes in cardiac, immune and respiratory systems. The carrier of anger is hurt by the toxic effects of the anger more than the person he or she is angry about. The Buddha stated that “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. Additionally, this class on Love as a Force of Social Justice makes the point that when we engage in violent behaviors towards others, it not just hurts others, but it also is an act of violence against self.
Many different religious and spiritual traditions discuss God’s agape love (Unconditional Love) and Divine Grace (His free Gifts of Love which are undeserved). Agape Love is mind-boggling. God equally loves you and your worst enemy the same way. Jesus Christ, the God-man, washed the feet of both Judas Ischariot and John. Judas identified Christ with a kiss to betray him to His enemies for thirty shillings. John is described as the one whom Christ loved. Yet Christ gave His life for both Judas and John. Incomprehensible.
According to Dr. Bloom’s article, there is discussion of “Buddhas to be” (Bodhisattvas) who are on the path of enlightenment, but, along their spiritual paths, they develop deep compassion for people and instead of pursuing their own enlightenment, they devote their energy in helping and guiding other people gravitate towards enlightenment . That is the most selfless thing ever. In the class, Love as a Force for Social Justice, Dr. Paul Harrison discussed the concept of interbeing in Buddhism where spiritual advancement means realizing that there is no difference between self and others. Dr. Harrison explains that a bodhisattva’s practice of compassion towards others is not separate from himself or herself. The bodhisattva does not see the difference between self and others. His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet argues that love and compassion is not just based on the heart but grounded also in reason so that regardless of someone else’s behaviors, one must demonstrate loving kindness.
In Hinduism, the four paths of yoga or union with the Divine include bhakti yoga, karma yoga, jnana yoga and raga yoga. Bhakti yoga is the path of loving devotion and service to the Divine. Karma yoga is selfless action which surrenders results to the Divine One with no personal benefit. Jnana yoga is intellectual pursuit of the Divine Source, soul and union with Divine. Raja yoga is based on meditation, self control and developing the yogic mind. Interestingly, a very wise aunt of mine told me her view that bhakti yoga has to be the basis for all other yogas because only when one loves a practice, one can pursue it.
Acts of Agape Love in Life.
Now the fascinating question that Anne poses in her class is to have students do an intentional act of agape in their lives each week and write a reflective discussion of this for class assignment. I find that it is easy to do acts of agape love for people you like and love. It is challenging to do agape love for the enemy, “the other” who has hurt me. There, I stumble and struggle. I find it very difficult to break bread with the enemy. I am also reminded of Pastor Rick Warren’s statement that “hurt people hurt others” and hurt people need agape love the most. In the class, there is a section where His Holiness the Dalai Lama states in his precise and brilliant comment on human nature that it is “foolish compassion” to show loving kindness just for loved ones and not the enemy. In contrast to foolish compassion, His Holiness the Dalai Lama states that the wise compassion is for the friend and foe. When I read this, I laughed internally rather foolishly as I recognize myself as a practitioner of foolish compassion. I guess in all honesty, I am a practitioner of foolish compassion. But one thing that helped me take one tiny step away from foolish compassion to wise compassion in this class is the conclusion that compassion for the enemy does not mean breaking bread with the enemy. I can wish for my enemy’s happiness, and pray that God Bless bless him or her abundantly. I wish for good things to come into the life of my enemy. I hope that they are so ecstatic and delirious with joy in life that they do not bother me ever again or cross paths with me.;). Again, please note that I am a regular person writing about agape love, not a spiritual master.
This also ties into the forgiveness cycle discussed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu where he talks about steps of forgiveness: 1. tell the story, 2. work out your feelings, 3.make the conscious decision to let go of the anger, frustration towards the person who hurt you and 4. release the relationship or resume it. Please see Truth and Reconciliation Commission as model of social change in South Africa led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
As I celebrate mother’s day, I am reminded of the profound line ,”I have loved you at your darkest”, in the Bible, Romans 5: 8.. As a faith based person, I interpret this as God’s unconditional love where He has loved me in my joyous moments, feasts of celebration and dances of victory, but, also in the darkest and deepest valleys of my life. As my dear friend states, God does not need sleep, food or rest. He is always in action and He hears our cries even in the night, when no one else is awake. That is God’s unconditional love for me and the world. Even though I am imperfect in so many ways, the King of Kings loves me. That is wondrous and brings me much joy. That is agape love.
I wonder if the ultimate test in relationships and the world is whether we can love each other (agape love) at our darkest, especially those people we see as the “other”. The pandemic is about as dark as it gets: death, destruction, acts of hatred and violence, and deep division. It is easy to love when all is good and feasts abound. It is hard when in seasons of famine, drought, darkness, scarcity, sickness, turmoil and suffering. Perhaps a step in agape love for the “others” is to recognize our humanity, see something of our selves in others and to wish the “other” as much happiness and love as we want for ourselves. As the champion of wise compassion, His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet states that we all need love and wish for happiness.
Despite the darkness of the pandemic, the power of agape love is not to be underestimated either. Agape love is healing, resilient, gentle yet strong, gets into the wounds and binds them with grace and lights up human souls. Agape love creates fertile ground for difficult conversations between opposing camps and peace agreements to form. It makes the impossible possible, such as “Davids” of the world are victorious against the “Goliaths”. Dr. Grace describes agape love as powerful as it springs from the heart and soul and creates change as it resonates with people. She distinguishes agape love as powerful, but not forceful. The power of agape love is that it is in alignment with universal law. So Agape love abounds and is self-generative. There does not seem to have a need for external pressure or force to propel it .