Love as a Source of Direction
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
Excerpt from “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver
“We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The ability to find wisdom and happiness may depend to a large degree on how successful we are at finding and prioritizing love. Love is not just something to randomly feel and enjoy; it can also offer a source of direction in life if we are able to listen to what it wants from us. If we are fortunate, we can know at the end of our lives that we have been “shaped and fashioned by what we love.”
As Mary Oliver says, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” That sounds so easy, but allowing this most innocent part of us to “love what it loves” can feel dangerous and ultimately counterintuitive, maybe because it means that we must be in touch with our deepest longings and feelings of vulnerability.
How compelling to think that some soft place in our bodies is craving to love what we love, yet we often do not listen but instead let it atrophy. The obstacle may not be our capacity to feel love, but rather our willingness to nurture it sufficiently to allow it to even begin to reach its potential as a guiding and comforting force in our lives. It is helpful to remember that we always have the choice to follow our hearts; our hearts are undoubtedly our best spiritual guide, more reliable than any prescribed doctrine that would presume to show us the way.
Navigating From the Heart
“Listening with my heart, I will find meaning. For just as the eye perceives
light and the ear sound, the heart is the organ of meaning.”
Brother David Steindl-Rast from A Listening Heart
Knowing that love is something that we can access within ourselves and use to guide our behavior has tremendous implications for psychotherapists. Most of us have learned over the years to evoke, lift out, encourage, celebrate and otherwise prioritize meaningful or heartfelt moments in the therapy process. I call this source of guidance for therapists “navigating from the heart.” When we listen with our hearts, the place of love and compassion, we listen and respond in a totally different way than we do if we listen just with our minds.
Navigating from the heart would certainly include a sensitivity to relational moments, especially feelings of love or belonging between the therapist and client. But navigating from the heart is not limited to those times. When clients are exploring their inner world and we are listening wholeheartedly, we also use our hearts to help guide the client to find the words, images or feelings that create meaning for them.
So, if we think about it, love plays a role in all aspects of therapy. Where there are moments of meaning, the heart is also present and responding. One could say about psychotherapy that there is always love in meaning and always meaning in love.
The Broader Experience of Belonging
To see love as limited to the object of love diminishes the experience somehow. Maybe that is because when we feel love there is a sense that we are transformed, that our feelings start with the original object but do not end there. The object serves as a catalyst that transports us to an altogether different state, possibly even deserving to be called a state of grace, where we feel a renewed sense of connection or belonging, not just with the object, but also with ourselves and with the broader world or universe.
The uplifting feelings that result from our moments of belonging in psychotherapy are a major part of what makes the process come alive and feel hopeful, productive and rewarding—both for the therapist and the client. And this uplifting quality has nothing to do with whether a client (or therapist for that matter) would consider themselves “spiritual” and everything to do with the experience itself.
For a more detailed discussion visit “The Spiritual Dimension of Love,” “Love as a Source of Direction” and “Soul of Psychotherapy: Implications for Therapists.”