Experiments in Love
by Vidya Carolyn Dell’uomo
To beautify this world, we must carry out experiments in love.
It was July 13, 1980, a steamy Sunday afternoon in southern Pennsylvania. Beads of sweat were forming on our brows as we sat in the fragrant meditation hall waiting for Swami Kripalu to speak. Dressed in the traditional saffron-colored clothes of a swami, he was not unsettled by the heat. He had been living at the Kripalu ashram in Pennsylvania for three years, having come from his native India, where he had practiced the science of yoga for nearly three decades. Every Sunday he taught the community in his native language, Gujarati, translated by the head of the ashram, Yogi Amrit Desai. I had arrived early that day, pen and paper in hand, ready to record his wisdom and to let the decades of his spiritual practice illuminate me. Little did I know Swami Kripalu would do more than illuminate. His words would set a fire of spiritual truth in my heart that would sear its way into my personal and professional life in ways I could not imagine.
In his discourse, Swami Kripalu encouraged us to grasp the truth that love is the most potent force of life. Like great teachers before him, he proclaimed love to be the essential prana, or energy, of all spiritual practice. “Even after attaining all the things of this world,” he said, “life will not be worth living even for a moment in the absence of love.”
Conducting experiments in love, he continued, is the most powerful spiritual practice and an act of socially engaged spirituality. His words were rooted not in New Age cliché but in a conviction born from decades of practice and inquiry. He warned that in living a path of love we run the risk of being perceived a “fool” or “too sentimental.” He reminded us, “To love is to suffer. One who cannot tolerate pain cannot travel the path of true love.” The lives of great teachers like Christ; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the Buddha demonstrate that love’s practice in the face of hostility, despair, and even death, is anything but sentimental. As I listened, the seeker and scientist within me became curious about considering love a “science,” and taking up its practice in experiments that would reveal its lessons.
Suspending his teaching between bookends of silence, Swami Kripalu paused and then emphatically resumed, “Spirituality is not within books, nor is it merely within temples or churches It is in our homes. Our close ones are thirsty for love. Break through the barriers of the reservoir of your love.”
Sitting there that day, my heart could not deny these truths, and yet they challenged me. I was being called to integrity. I had been “beautifying the world” by teaching transformational workshops, doing my spiritual practice, serving my clients—but what about my closest relationships? “Understand the power of your love,” he had said. “The first place to conduct experiments is within your family.”
I thought of my father, someone to whom I waited my whole life to speak the words “I love you” and to hear them back. What if I conducted an experiment with him? What if I opened the “reservoir of my love” and wrote my dad a sincere letter disclosing to him my hope for more closeness? Doing so would mean the risk of putting my heart forth and not being understood or received. I was willing to risk this, knowing that in science there is no failure, only learning. And that yes, in matters of love, there is always the possibility of pain.
In merely thinking about my letter, I encountered the fear of rejection, the awkwardness of authenticity, and how easy it is to keep the heart closed and protected. My “love in the family experiment” was already reaping rewards of self-awareness—and the envelope hadn’t even gone into the mail.
I eventually sent the letter. Waited weeks, then months. No response. Disappointment, regret, anger ensued. I witnessed the feelings. I worked with them through yoga, meditation, journaling, softening until both mercy and insight emerged. Reality finally presented itself—there was no way my father was going to write me back. How was he going to respond to me in ways he hadn’t experienced himself? I was expecting a level of engagement from him that was familiar to and valued by me, not him.
I recognized this expectation of like-for-like engagement, having seen it in my couples’ work all the time. When it’s not met, we typically shut down or skeptically move forward. A third option exists, however, that allows it all to be there. This is the experiment of openness—doing our best to stay open and hold both the humanness of discouragement and the heart’s aspirations of love. But it’s easier said than done.
Our mind has a much better time of it when our relationships are either-or. It’s simpler, cleaner, clearer. We either like somebody, or we don’t. We don’t have to ride the swinging door of contradiction between caring for our loved one in one moment, then resenting them the next. But holding both is, in fact, holding what is real. We both love and defend (or offend), at the same time. And it hurts!
But to practice tools that keep the door of our heart oiled versus rusted or slammed shut is what we are called to. It may be yoga, walks in the woods, worship, meditation, therapy, service, prayer, or reflection—anything that quiets the mind, softens the heart’s holdings, and allows the light of insight to occur. These practices allow love to find us and for us to make peace, first with reality, then with ourselves. “Love comes looking for us,” writes Swami Kripalu. “Every living being stands in a stream of love.”
To simply remain open in difficult times is an experiment in love in and of itself, and in the end it may be the hardest of them all. We resist allowing a relationship to remain unclear, grey, undone. We want to fix it. The capacity to stay suspended in the midair of openness is strengthened, however, by two other experiments Swami Kripalu urged for Westerners: patience and surrender.
Swami Kripalu said, “Those who want to plant the seed of love in their heart will have to nourish it with the water of patience. Impatience can be the cause of the destruction of love If we are not patient with our loved ones then how can they be patient with us?”
For some, the swing between patience and impatience is bound in time. We’re too over-scheduled to receive a long-winded loved one. Or we want to neaten up the pain of a breakdown before it has run its course. Sometimes it’s about judgment, wanting another to be “more conscious” (like us!), grow up fast, or fill a need. An experiment in patience will reveal these things. In the instance of my father, my impatience had to do with wanting him to respond in the way I wanted: affectionately, verbally, and immediately.
For those of us in the West, surrender is no easy task. To “let go” in a relationship and do nothing for a while, allowing time, openhandedness, the circumstances of life, and, yes, grace, to converge and guide the way seems antithetical to our enculturated ethos of being “responsible” and in control. But there’s nothing irresponsible about surrender. It can be the wisest and most courageous experiment, especially when a relationship with a loved one is at an impasse, or we need to replenish. (“During struggle, if you feel weak,” said Swami Kripalu, “it is all right to retreat for a while. There may be helplessness in retreating; but there is not an absence of bravery.”) Letting go allows the tides of time and the ebb and flow of faith to do their work. We cannot be certain of the outcomes, but things will change. “Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?” asks the ancient Chinese book of wisdom, the Tao Te Ching.
In the example of my father, a year passed after my letter experiment. I followed it with another experiment, based on the lessons of the first. I extended to him an invitation to Perkins, his favorite pancake place. Dining out, just the two of us, was a first. With syrup soaking into our pancakes, a squeaky leather booth holding us, my father looked at me with tender, Italian eyes and said, “Carole ” (“Here it comes,” I thought. “Here it comes!”) “I’ve been wanting to talk with you about your health insurance.”; It wasn’t hearts and flowers, but it was my father’s way of saying “I love you.” Thanks to my previous experiments, I finally heard it. With delight I blurted back, “I love you too!” He flushed, and proceeded to talk about insurance premiums.
Nearly 15 years after our pancakes at Perkins, while mowing the lawn on a hot June day, my father suddenly died. He was there one moment, gone the next. Just. Like. That. The experiments in love with my dad became, in the end, a preparation for meeting his sudden death with a certain sense of completion. Amid the overwhelming loss, I was consoled by the sweet remembrance of our intimate meal and the love that was expressed. My experiments had taught me how to lift the veil of “my way” and see the treasure of love before me.
On that Sunday in 1980, Swami Kripalu taught me a lesson for life—that “experiments in love” are always available to us, regardless of the status of any relationship. Now, in every workshop I teach, I invite participants to consider an experiment in love. I ask them to close their eyes, imagine a flower, and see it opening, revealing the image of a loved one. Invoking their heart’s wisdom, I ask them to sense an experiment, no matter how small. I remind them of patience, surrender, staying open for lessons that come with no guarantees. No matter what the outcome, our experiments in love create movement in our hearts, evolve the love within and between us, and also prepare us for the inevitable reality of parting.
Vidya Carolyn Dell’uomo is a pioneer of Kripalu’s yoga teacher training, mentoring, and self-discovery programs. She is currently teaching, coaching, and consulting worldwide and working on a book entitled Sitting with Swami Kripalu: Seven Teachings to Last a Lifetime.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of the Kripalu catalog. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.