One of my favorite practices, or prayer, is to imagine placing the world within my heart and feel the love that infuses everything—every bird and butterfly, the trees and the ocean, the chipmunks that have just reappeared in the garden after their hibernation, the bleary-eyed child waiting for the school bus I pass on my morning walk. Everything, every dream, every cloud passing, is infused with love, is an expression of love. Love is the source of all that exists, is all that exists. This primary mystical awareness is stamped into my soul and consciousness, following me throughout the day, and especially in the early hours of the morning, when prayer takes me, when the world of thoughts has faded away and the heart’s presence is all that matters.
Scientists may tell us that our universe began thirteen billion years ago with the Big Bang, when from an infinitely hot and dense single point matter came into existence. But mystics know a different truth: how from the unborn and undying emptiness, existence is constantly being created as a flow of light and love that then becomes physical form. And this love remains, the foundation, the essence of everything—every particle and every star. It is the primary energy, power, presence within the created world. And it is our divine nature, always evolving and changing within our body and soul, even as it remains constant.
In today’s world we associate love with personal relationships. We seek for it in a lover, experience it through the tenderness of a mother’s touch. We often associate it with passion, desire, or sex, even though its essence is quite different. I never knew love in my own childhood, never heard the word “I love you.” I don’t think my parents even knew that it existed. Instead it was a cold middle-class childhood of boarding school and cold baths, endless sports on muddy fields. But in my late teens love came calling, singing out its name, drawing me deep within the heart.
Love calls to us in many different ways. As Rumi says:
sultan, saint, pickpocket
love has everyone by the ear
dragging us to God by secret ways
While most people seek for love in the tangle of human relationships, I first experienced love and the longing for love sitting at the feet of my teacher, a white-haired Russian woman who had just come back from India where she had been trained by a Sufi master. In her small room beside the train tracks in North London this invisible essence was present, tangible. This is what was awakened in me through the simple practice of sitting at the feet of my teacher and meditating on the heart, following the ancient Sufi tradition of divine love, the secret of secrets.
Love speaks to our soul and to our body. Love includes all the senses—taste and touch, smell, sight, and sound. Love by its very nature includes everything. It can be found anywhere, because it is everywhere. The mystic uncovers the simple secret: that in truth love flows through everything—sweet, tender, aching, knowing, as well as dark and passionate. And as this primal energy, this greatest power, awakens within us, within our heart, our soul—always it draws us deeper into its own mystery, into the secret of oneness, what the Sufis call the unity of being.
My own journey took me from formlessness to form. As an intense young man when I first met my teacher, I only looked for love within the heart in deep meditation. But then I fell in love and was awakened to the beauty of a woman, to the feminine side of love and longing. I had been drawn into this mystery by the eyes of a woman and a longing in my heart. The tangle of her hair, the softness of her body, had taken and taught me what spiritual texts could not. Divine love is a spiritual and physical experience, and in a woman the two are united, body and soul. The Indian poet and princess Mirabai knew this secret. She was in love with Krishna, her “Dark Lord,” and she left her palace to dance before him in the jungle. She had experienced the soul’s rapture with her Dark Lord, and speaks of the body’s “hidden treasures”:
O friend, understand: the body
is like the ocean,
rich with hidden treasures.
Open your innermost chamber and light its lamp.
Within the body are gardens,
rare flowers, the inner Music;
within the body a lake of bliss,
on it the white soul-swans take their joy.
And in the body, a vast market—
go there, trade,
sell yourself for a profit you can’t spend.
Mira says, her Lord is beyond praising.
Allow her to dwell near your feet.
In her words of rapture are one of the deepest mysteries of the feminine: how in her body are “gardens, rare flowers, and the inner Music.” This is not just erotic imagery, but alludes to the secret of creation, and the beauty and wonder that belong to this essential substance. Without this quality of the feminine there would be no joy, the magic of life would not be present. Colors and fragrances would fade into dull, grey days.
And now, as an old man, I find this secret of creation all around me. It walks with me beside the bay in the early morning, as I follow the quails scurrying down the path, the baby rabbits hopping out of sight, the coyotes stalking in a nearby field, or the glimpse of a river otter, its nose just above the water. And in the depths of the night I know this love both in the emptiness and the world of forms.
I was born a stranger to love, did not know its meaning, even its existence. Over twenty years passed in a greyed-out world before desire for Truth took me to love. And now, all that is really left a lifetime later seems to be this quality of love that sustains me. After so long a journey—often tired, longing just to rest—I return to love. Or love returns. And this love includes everything. It belongs not just to a human relationship, or to an inner relationship with God; it is a love that is everything, that flows through all that exists—sweet, tender, aching, knowing. Or just a simple presence within the heart, a soft warmth that sometimes brings bliss.
And love is free, a gift to each of us. Even if it costs blood and a broken heart, it is still free. Love is life speaking to its beloved and the beloved speaking to life. And in that conversation so many things can happen, so many miracles can be born—the small unsuspected miracles that we often do not notice, like a moment of sunlight through the clouds, a flower blossoming from the sprout of a seed, a smile from a stranger. This world is steeped in this divine quality that is waiting to be born, to be brought into existence, to be loved into being. And just to be a part of it is enough, is a story that sings in the heart.
Yes, the world is full of discord and suffering, tears and blood, the bomb falling on a marketplace, the mother whose starving child is dying in her arms. This pain is real. And I do not attempt to understand how this is all born from love, is an expression of love. I do remember once when I was deeply praying for those suffering a still voice came into my heart saying “You think I do not love these people?” But how all suffering belongs to God and is also an expression of divine love is a mystery my mind cannot grasp, even if my heart has been taken to places where only this deeper oneness is real.
And so, when I wake in the night and pray for the world, I am especially drawn to places of darkness and pain, to war and injustice, those fighting or demonstrating for freedom, those without food or shelter. And in my heart I also feel the Earth being torn apart—species and wild beauty lost. Through it all the love remains, the one constant, the only true solace, the deeper knowing of our divine nature: that we are all born from love and will return to love.
This journey has taken me from formlessness to form, to life’s unending multiplicity, beautiful, numinous, and most ordinary. And then back into the infinite emptiness of the beyond. Love cries and often my heart feels broken. I sense that love is really all we have to give, and the meaning behind every experience that touches the soul. Love is life’s greatest gift and our greatest gift back to life. And especially at this time, life, the Earth, is calling out to be loved, to be held in the heart, so that this thread of love that is present throughout creation can support it in its crisis, so that a new story for humanity and the Earth can begin to be woven into the fabric of existence.
So again in the night, in the empty hours after midnight, traditionally known as the “Hour of God” or “the Night Prayer,” when prayers are especially powerful, I turn my attention to the Earth and the heart, to the flow of love that comes from the beyond into existence, knowing only that this is a mystery to which I belong, felt in the tender touch of a loved one as well as the vast spaces where stars are born.