I grew up an only child in suburban Los Gatos, California. One of my closest friends, Maria, came from a large, warm, rambunctious Chilean family. I envied the love that seemed to surround her. Maria’s most cherished possession was her bicycle. She rode it everywhere and took very good care of it. She had such a passion for that bike that she learned everything about how it worked and what it needed, and eventually got a job repairing bikes for other people. The love she felt for her bike made it glow—made it seem like the most desirable object on earth.
I wanted that same feeling. In fact, I wanted to feel even more of it than she did. I figured that if I bought a better bike than hers, my bike would glow even more. So I begged my mom to buy me one that was top-of-the line. But somehow the glow eluded me. I rarely rode it, and its presence in my garage began to feel vaguely reproachful, a thorn in my side. I almost came to hate it. In my mind, this was definitely the bike’s fault.
One day, Maria’s beloved bike was stolen. She borrowed mine and rode it everywhere. To my amazement, it began to have the same magical glow I had so envied in her old bike. Naturally, I wanted it back. But once I got it, I still didn’t really feel like riding it, and it soon resumed its accusatory sulk in my garage. It refused to glow for me.
A lot of people approach looking for love as I approached bike shopping. We want a top-of-the-line model. We have a list of desirable qualities and imagine that the glow of desire will arise when we find someone who possesses those qualities. If love is absent from our lives, we may believe it is because we have not yet encountered someone sufficiently lovable. We are expecting our love to be activated by the object of desire.
My bike didn’t satisfy me because a bike was not what I truly wanted. It was a symbol of what I found so enviable in my friend: the way she was so rich in love that even inanimate objects were animated by it. She had a power to connect to her world that I seemed to lack. I imagined I could attain that inner state by imitating its outward form. A burgeoning spiritual materialism was at play: I tried to make a physical possession the source of my love, rather than finding the source in the love itself.
Our knee-jerk reaction to desire is to focus all our efforts on obtaining whatever it is we think we want. While that is happening, we experience the feeling of desire and the object of desire as inseparable. Had you asked me, “What is the true nature of your desire?” I would have responded, “I want a bike.” So long as we are in hot pursuit of the object, it appears as simple as that. Rather than feeling the pure burn of desire, we get caught in what the Buddha called tanha, in craving the object of our desire, believing we must have it to be happy. Tanha translates roughly to “thirst.” We think we are thirsting for an object—for the person or the bike. But what we actually desire is intimacy—the hydration of direct experience saturating our cells.
We believe that love is to be found within another person. But, in truth, love is found in the animating quality of our attention. In Buddhist practice, we discover that mindful attention can reveal a deeper truth in whatever object we are paying attention to. The same is true in romantic love. When we use our attention to touch and open the deeper truth in a person, we not only catalyze the experience of love, we become love. The source of love is revealed to be within us; we no longer have to go looking for it somewhere outside.
What made any bike that Maria possessed seem so desirable was the very love she lavished on it. The glow was not in the bike itself, but in her relationship to it. Like bicycles, people become more desirable when we are attentive to them. Their most lovable qualities reveal themselves to us only after we have begun to love them. Loving is the polish. Loving draws out their Buddha-nature. Anything and anyone we cherish and care for comes alive with the glow of our attention.