Book notes: “How to Love” by Thich Nhat Hanh

Aleksandra Smelianska
5 min readMay 21, 2020

“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.”

How to Love” is a book on mindfulness in relationships by Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and peace activist. It is a part of a short series of his books called “Mindfulness Essentials” which provides the essentials of mindfulness practice to sustaining and nurturing love and happiness.

But first, why a book about love? Do we need to learn how to love?

The research of various psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, anthropologists, and educators shows that like we “learn” to be human, we also learn to love. Love is a “learned response, a learned emotion”. But as Leo F. Buscaglia mentions in his book “Love: What Life Is All About”, most of us continue to behave as though love is not learned but lies dormant in each human being, we expect the skill of it will magically bestow itself upon us.

“Love is a learned, emotional reaction. It is a response to a learned group of stimuli and behaviors. Like all learned behavior, it is [affected] by the interaction of the learner with his environment, the person’s learning ability, and the type and strength of the reinforcers present; that is, which people respond, how they respond and to what degree they respond, to his expressed love.”

While it’s in our nature for people to love and be loved, it can be a complicated path. Most of the knowledge that we’ve got about how to be in relationships comes from our families. As children, we experienced how our families related to us and observed how they related to each other. We learned which emotions can be expressed and in which ways. We learned strategies to get the attention and love we needed, or how to hide our feelings.

“If our parents didn’t love and understand each other, how are we to know what love looks like? … The most precious inheritance that parents can give their children is their own happiness. Our parents may be able to leave us money, houses, and land, but they may not be happy people. If we have happy parents, we have received the richest inheritance of all.”

Loving and being loved are not “givens.” This book guides us on how to show up for it with absolute clarity of intention, how mindfulness can transform our relationships and happiness.

According to Thich Nhat Hanh, real, truthful love is rooted in four elements — loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. If we learn ways to practice love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, we will know how to heal anger, sorrow, insecurity, sadness, hatred, loneliness, and unhealthy attachments.


The first aspect of love is maitri, the intention, and ability to offer happiness. To develop that ability, we have to look deeply in order to see and understand the needs, aspirations, and suffering of the one you love.

At the heart of Nhat Hanh’s teachings is the idea that “understanding is love’s other name”.

To know how to love someone, we have to understand them. To understand, we need to listen. The more you understand, the more you love; the more you love, the more you understand.

Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person.

To be able to offer happiness, we should have happiness within. When you’re happy, you become capable of loving both yourself and others.

The essence of loving kindness is being able to offer happiness. We can’t offer happiness until we have it for ourselves. We need to practice mindfulness and learn to love and heal ourselves, to create moments of happiness and joy for ourselves. Only then we can offer it to the other person.

When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love. That’s why to love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness.


The second aspect of true love is karuna, or compassion. Compassion contains deep concern, when you know the other person is suffering, so you listen deeply to her to be able to touch her pain.

When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited. We can’t accept or tolerate others and demand that they change. But when our hearts expand…we accept others as they are and then they have a chance to transform.

With compassion come trust and respect. The essential mechanism for establishing such trust and respect is listening. Deep listening and loving speech are key ways of showing love.


The third element of true love is mudita, joy. True love always brings joy to ourselves and to the one we love. When you know how to generate joy, that nourishes you and nourishes the other person.

If you have understanding and love, then every moment — whether it’s spent making breakfast, driving the car, watering the garden or doing anything else in your day — can be a moment of joy.


The fourth element of true love is upeksha, which means equanimity, inclusiveness, nondiscrimination. Upeksha has the mark called “the wisdom of equality,” the ability to see everyone as equal, not discriminating between ourselves and others.

For example, in a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love, and to understand both sides. We let go of all prejudice and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others. We have to put ourselves “into the other person’s skin” and become one with him if we want to understand and truly love him. When that happens, there is no “self” and no “other.”

In a deep relationship, there’s no longer a boundary between you and the other person. Suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters. What happens to your loved one happens to you. What happens to you happens to your loved one. In true love, there’s no more separation or discrimination.

When you love someone, you have to have trust and confidence, love without trust is not yet love. Of course, first you have to have trust, respect, and confidence in yourself. True love cannot be without trust and respect for oneself and for the other person.

This is a beautiful little book on how to love positively, communicate lovingly, and effectively, the importance of learning how to listen and experience the suffering of others. When we become mindful, we become capable of deeper compassion and empathy and that’s the foundation stone of building a loving life and real intimacy.