Prema – Universal Love
There are a lot of things that make a good teacher. They have to know their subject; they should be able to communicate that knowledge to their students; they need to live up to the standards they seek to place on the children; ideally they should undertake some form of ongoing study themselves. This last one ensures they keep mentally nimble and that they understand what it’s like to struggle with new and unfamiliar skills and concepts.
And there are other useful talents – organisational skills, collegiality, tact, knowing when to be firm and when to be lenient, a sense of humour. All of these and more are attributes of a good teacher.
But when I was a teacher of young children, the Headmaster of the school used to remind us frequently that there was a single essential key that was at the heart of education. And that was love.
A teacher should love teaching. And they should love what they are teaching. An English teaching should love language, poetry, writing, grammar; a science teacher should be excited to see a chemical reaction and the refraction of light.
And my old Headmaster would also say that the absolutely crucial factor in the education of children was the meeting of the teacher and the pupil; and that love had to be the key element in that meeting.
The flow of love between the teacher and the student allowed everything else to flow as well. If love was there then all the practical parts of teaching were enhanced and made to flow much more easily - lesson planning, delivery of the curriculum, classroom management, interactions with the parents. In my experience that affection and respect in the classroom - that love - certainly allowed real education to happen.
And beyond the world of education and teaching love is the secret sauce that, in a very practical way, lets everything flow more easily and harmoniously. If love is the key when teacher and pupil meet, it is also a key in any other meeting. Love makes the world go round.
What guidance does Sanskrit give us to help discover the true meaning of love? What does Sanskrit say about love that can help us make it real in our lives and in the lives of others?
The Sanskrit word for pure, universal love is prema. Let’s take a closer look at prema. The various meanings associated with prema include joy, completion, affection, kindness and delight. And all these attributes flow with pure universal love. Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? Yes, and no.
Prema, being pure and universal, is present everywhere, throughout all time and in all circumstances. This gladness and kindness and joy are ever present. Something universal and pure doesn’t only show up in some places and at some times but is absent at other times and in other places.
When a parent looks at a newborn baby, when a young couple commits to a lifelong relationship, when a soaring piece of exquisite music captures your heart and takes you to another plain of being, all these are examples of prema. But they are the easy ones. It is easy to see pure universal love in moments of transcendent happiness.
But what about when the music is discordant, or when a colleague undermines you at work, or when a relationship turns out not to be lifelong? Or when you miss an important meeting. Where is the experience of prema then?
When I was teaching I found that the eager pupils, the supportive colleagues, and friendly parents made it easy for me to give and receive prema, universal love. But sometimes, you will be amazed to hear, the children were not so wonderful, there were times of stress when the staff was not so harmonious, and the occasional parent took issue with something that happened on my watch.
Did the prema take a break? Did the universal joy, kindness and love suddenly find it had to be somewhere else? Did universal love suddenly become not so universal?
Not according to the teachings of the wisdom tradition. Even when circumstances make it appear that universal love and joy are covered by unpleasant or unhappy events, prema is still there. Pure universal love never goes away. It never sleeps, it is never hiding. It is ever accessible, always available. It is always at our elbow to lend a hand, give support and fill us with the energy needed to see every situation through to a beautiful successful end. Even in those situations where we might believe otherwise.
Sometimes, in those moments and circumstances that test our faith, it just needs a little clarity and, yes, work, to see and experience it.
Here is something practical to help open the door to the experience of prema.
There is a basic fact of the universe which many of my wise teachers were at pains to emphasise, and that is the simple fact of abundance. In fact, one of the most obvious aspects of the nature of the universe is that it is endlessly abundant. The gravity that keeps everyone on the earth never runs out. The air is always available at the nostrils of everyone about to take a breath. Water falls from the skies. Food actually does grow on trees! Plant a single wheat seed and a stalk weighed down with a hundred seeds appears.
And going beyond the physical abundance of the universe, we can have ready access to knowledge, friendship and strength. You can, the wise tell us, receive anything you want from this ever abundant universe. All of these things and more are freely available to all who want them. You just have to be willing to approach their attainment in a practical and effective way.
And the first principle we need to remember if we want to receive this abundance, is to give first. To receive the experience of universal abundant love, the trick is first to give love. To open our hearts first. We give our love, our support, our joy to others first. We make others glad. We do things that will make the world beautiful and complete for others first. And then the doors will open for us as well. And the wonderful thing is we don’t have to worry about that flow back to us. The abundant beneficent universe looks after that. We take care of others, and the universe takes care of us.
Every day at school. I used to follow this practice in a very special way. One of my wise teachers advised me to see each child in my class as a pure and universal being. He said that I should do this every day as a matter of spiritual discipline. I followed this advice and made sure that every day I took a moment with every boy and girl in my class to acknowledge this fundamental truth, that he or she were a universal pure being.
The result? A flow of prema, universal love, often despite surface behaviours. And the flow went both ways. I felt the same love which flowed out to the children. And another lovely result is a wonderful deep relationship that I still have with those children who have grown into fine and admirable young men and women.
So here is the practical path to experiencing prema all the time.
First, consciously, humbly and gratefully connect with prema when it is obvious and easy – think of that joyful family celebration, that warm meet up with old friends, that inspiring music, that ibeautiful walk in nature. Feel the prema, the pure universal love. Feel that flow that binds you to those you love.
Next, you can widen your experience of prema. Acknowledge that same universal love at other times, when life is ordinary, when nothing special is happening. On the commute to work, let your love flow. When doing the weekly grocery shopping, let your love flow. When dealing with those business emails, let your heart open and let your love flow. For no reason other than that prema is there and the flow is healthful for everyone.
Make this a habit and then, if tragedy or hurt strike, you will find you have developed a habit of letting your love flow. This is a strong, resilient state of being. In fact this is true strength. This ready access to prema renders you powerful, confident and awake. It is a state that can stand you in good stead when the going gets tough. And, in those stormy times not only you will benefit. You may find that you can be the vehicle whereby prema, pure universal love, soothes and heals and brings strength and peace to all who need it.