By Armin A. Zadeh, MD, PhD
Essentially everything we think and do can be done with love in mind. However, to be aware of this every minute of every day is enormously hard. Unless we were raised to focus on love, it requires extensive training of our brain. That is why Erich Fromm considered love to be an art—and I agree.
To master the art of love, we must remain focused on love and reject competing impulses. Like any demanding skill, it takes considerable time, practice, and focus. Many struggle to learn it well and only a few become expert.
For most of us, it’s easy to stay focused on love when our minds are not challenged by other strong drives. Everybody knows the feeling of wanting to kiss the entire world when something exciting happens, like completing a marathon or having a baby. We typically feel empathetic and generous in these moments because our egotistic drives are satisfied and not competing with the drive to love.
By the same token, it is easier to be loving when our minds are not preoccupied with work problems, how to pay the rent, or other survival challenges, because such worries trigger potentially hostile survival instincts.
Even under the best of circumstances, it requires an enormously disciplined mind and typically years of training to focus on love all the time. As with all brain processes, the practice of loving may be conscious or unconscious. In the learning phase, our active involvement in loving may require conscious effort. Eventually, however, it becomes second nature. We don’t have to identify and reject our egotistic impulses anymore: they lose their power over us, and we are naturally guided by our concern for others.
To some people, being consistently loving comes effortlessly. It is conceivable that such people have inherently less pronounced egotistic and competitive drives that allow their compassionate impulses to prevail. Others may have had parents who taught them in childhood to suppress egotistic thoughts and actions. As a result, these individuals may have learned to prioritize loving without being aware of it.
The challenge of maintaining a focus on love helps explain our fascination with fallingin love. Not only is this state of mind associated with unparalleled elation, but it is entirely effortless! We don’t have to do anything to fall in love. It just happens, often unexpectedly. No wonder we perceive falling in love as magical: we feel totally changed from one moment to another without doing a thing.
Falling in love results from a combination of factors, some inherent and some cultural, triggered by physical and emotional attraction to somebody. Like most human drives, the effects of falling in love come about without our active involvement. And as with most of those other human drives, the sensations associated with falling in love eventually cease: they last only until they have fulfilled their (evolutionary) purpose.
In contrast, actual love does not cease unless we let it. While falling in love is a passive phenomenon, actual love generally requires our active focus on love and our active rejection of competing impulses. This explains why we resist discounting falling in love as mere infatuation and are tempted to equate it with true love. Wouldn’t it be nice if true love were the powerful force seen in the movies, which simply comes over us and lasts forever?
Love is indeed an amazing and powerful force, but we don’t get it for free. Like most great things in life, we have to earn it, by training our minds to reject competing impulses. Our drive to love seems to be the default setting of our mind. If we remove egotistic impulses, love will take their place. The cliché of loving from the bottom of your heart holds true in the sense that you find love if you remove all the other stuff.
Armin A. Zadeh, MD, PhD,is the author of The Forgotten Art of Love. He is a professor at Johns Hopkins University with doctoral degrees in medicine and philosophy as well as a Master’s Degree in public health. As a cardiologist and a scientist, Dr. Zadeh knows, from first-hand experience, about the close relationship between heart disease and the state of the mind. Visit www.theforgottenartoflove.com.