How do we define love?

23 February 2017 - Inspiration

“Nothing is mysterious, no human relation,” writes American writer Susan Sontag. “Except for love.”

We spend our lives trying to define love because doing so gives us a semblance of purpose and reason. If we don’t know what love is, then how do we know if we have felt it or want it?

Perhaps the answer to that question doesn’t lie within a single definition, but in being able to appreciate the depth and beauty of any situation we are in. There may be as much love in courage and understanding, as there is in loneliness and pain. Love, in all its mystery, can be found anywhere and in any form. We just have to look for it.

Here, we share quotes from writers and philosophers who have described love in its various forms.

1. Thich Nhat Hanh (Zen teacher) on understanding, from How to Love

“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love. To know how to love someone, we have to understand them. To understand, we need to listen.

You can ask, “Dear one, do you think that I understand you enough? Please tell me your difficulties, your suffering, and your deepest wishes.” Then the other person has an opportunity to open their heart.”

2. Rumi (poet and theologian, 1207-1273) and Osho (spiritual teacher, 1931-1990) on loneliness and the interconnectedness of life and beauty

“Do not feel lonely, the entire universe is inside you.” — Rumi

“Go inwards. Find your inner space, and suddenly, you will find an explosion of light, of beauty, of ecstasy – as if suddenly thousands of roses have blossomed within you and you are full of their fragrance.” — Osho

3. Jeanette Winterson (writer) on courage and vulnerability

“You don’t fall in love like you fall in a hole. You fall like falling through space. It’s like you jump off your own private planet to visit someone else’s planet. And when you get there it all looks different: the flowers, the animals, the colours people wear.

It is a big surprise falling in love because you thought you had everything just right on your own planet, and that was true, in a way, but then somebody signalled to you across space and the only way you could visit was to take a giant jump.

Away you go, falling into someone else’s orbit and after a while you might decide to pull your two planets together and call it home. And you can bring your dog. Or your cat. Your goldfish, hamster, collection of stones, all your odd socks. (The ones you lost, including the holes, are on the new planet you found.) And you can bring your friends to visit. And read your favourite stories to each other. And the falling was really the big jump that you had to make to be with someone you don’t want to be without. That’s it.

PS You have to be brave.”

4. Rainer Maria Rilke (poet and novelist, 1875-1926) and Seamus Heaney (poet, 1939-2013) on solitude

“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.” — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

“The true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge.” — Seamus Heaney

5. Paul Ferrini (writer) on self-love

“You demonstrate love by giving it unconditionally to yourself. And as you do, you attract others into your life who are able to love you without conditions.”

6. Martin Heidegger (philosopher, 1889-1976) and Jean-Paul Sartre (philosopher and novelist, 1905-1980) on the self and transformation

“Why is love rich beyond human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp? Because we become what we love and yet remain ourselves.” — Martin Heidegger, Letters: 1925–1975

“I am mastering my love for you and turning it inwards as a constituent element of myself.” — Jean-Paul Sartre, Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone De Beauvoir, 1926-1939

7. Susan Sontag (writer, 1933-2004) on heartbreak and recovery, from As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks 1964 - 1980

“I still have that victory of feeling—of really loving for the first time—even though it has ended in defeat.

It is an honorable defeat. I risked everything—I gave all that I had—for the first time. If I was naïve enough to imagine that it must work between us, because of the immensity and certainty of my feeling, it was an honorable naïveté and nothing to be ashamed of.

It will be a long labor of recovery. I must give up my love, I must give up my dream, without building up a wall again that prevented me from feeling fully until I met C.

[In the margin] I don’t want to learn anything from the failure of this love.

(What I could learn is to become cynical or guarded or even more afraid of loving than I was before.) I don’t want to learn anything. I don’t want to draw any conclusions.

Let me go on being naked. Let it hurt. But let me survive.”

8. Maggie Nelson (writer) on friendship and shared pain, from Bluets

“Often in exhaustion I lay my head down on [my friend’s] lap in her wheelchair and tell her how much I love her, that I’m so sorry she is in so much pain, pain I can witness and imagine but that I do not know. She says, if anyone knows this pain besides me, it is you…

This is generous, for to be close to her pain has always felt like a privilege to me, even though pain could be defined as that which we typically aim to avoid. Perhaps this is because she remains so generous within hers, and because she has never held any hierarchy of grief, either before her accident or after, which seems to me nothing less than a form of enlightenment.”

9. Adrienne Rich (poet and essayist, 1929-2012) on struggle, growth and possibility in the human relationship, from On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 

An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love”—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation. It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity. It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you. It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.”

We leave you with author Neil Gaiman’s poem, Dark Sonnet. He describes love with searing honesty and vulnerability, revealing, what is at times terrifying to admit, our need for each other.

Dark Sonnet

I don’t think that I’ve been in love as such
although I liked a few folk pretty well
Love must be vaster than my smiles or touch
for brave men died and empires rose and fell
for love, girls follow boys to foreign lands
and men have followed women into hell
In plays and poems someone understands
there’s something makes us more than blood and bone
And more than biological demands for me love’s like the wind unseen, unknown
I see the trees are bending where it’s been
I know that it leaves wreckage where it’s blown
I really don’t know what I love you means
I think it means don’t leave me here alone 

How do you define love? We’d love to hear from you (and we’re not just saying it—our favourite thing about this is being able to connect with our readers, so go on and email us at!

- The Mindful Company Team