An Instagram-Era Take on Love & Compassion

Reviewing: How to Be Loving by Danielle LaPorte (book and companion journal)

How to Be Loving is a series of offerings by Danielle LaPorte that includes a book, companion journal, and card deck. I chose to review the book and journal, and I have to be honest—it was a bit of a slog. However, I do think LaPorte’s work will speak to a particular audience, and perhaps even be profoundly healing for the right person. I wouldn’t describe the book as the best out there on compassion and love in a spiritual sense, but it may bring some of these ideas to an audience who needs to hear them. In that sense, it’s a decent introduction.

I first encountered LaPorte through her earlier book, the Desire Map, which introduces the concept of “core desired feelings” as an alternative to goals. I still use this tool today, so I was intrigued by the positioning of this book as a next step or an even more evolved perspective. LaPorte describes coming to the theme of love through a shift from “what do I want to feel?” to “what do I want to embody?” As emotions are rather ephemeral and difficult to control, she transitioned into a focus on embodying love, which she places at the center of spirituality—a view I very much share.

However, there’s also a certain vagueness in her approach to spirituality. I was unsettled by the use of New Age tropes (e.g. capitalizing random words like Love or Divine) and by how she presents things as simple metaphysical fact that are in fact culturally relative, from her understanding of how the divine is structured to a misstatement that “most energy practices” use the chakra system (while bodily energy centers are a common understanding, chakras in particular come from various Hindu lineages, and she describes a version of those systems popularized in the US).

LaPorte’s language can be a bit Instagrammy, and though she gives nods to anti-capitalism and feminism, she’s also carefully apolitical. She talks an awful lot about Love and Light, and the fact that she has to explain several times that she doesn’t intend to advocate spiritual bypassing makes me wonder why she didn’t simply shift some of the language. While her teachings themselves aren’t generally harmful, it’s important to acknowledge that similar ideas are used in harmful ways, and the beginning reader could use a little more guidance.

Her insights are most relevant to an individual healing context, blending philosophizing on what it means to be loving with suggested practices to cultivate a more loving life. A lot of the content focuses on letting hurts go, cultivating compassion, and connecting with divine in a blend of psychological technique, generalized application of wisdom traditions, and a sprinkling of New Age language. Interpersonal relationships and collective action are mentioned offhand, but aren’t really the focus.

Given the book’s relatively short length and the casual language, I was surprised by how slow-going it was for me! While some sentences struck me as worth a pull quote, at times it was a little like reading a bunch of catchy phrases all smushed together. It was certainly not the worst case of this I’ve seen in a spiritual book, and at times it does feel like a profound point is building, but there’s not really time taken to persuade a reader or fully lay out the nuances of a theme. I found myself frequently thinking “oh yeah, that’s a really important insight… I’m glad I have direct experience or study outside this book so that I really understand it!” A lot of chapters are packed in and yet despite this broad coverage, the language sometimes feels repetitive.

LaPorte’s style is direct and conversational, addressing the reader with advice for what to do and what not to do. She includes some little examples from her life, but not a lot of in-depth storytelling. I think this may have been part of my struggle, as an associative thinker—I was missing the emotional resonance I get from a good story, and could’ve used more metaphors to ground the ideas. LaPorte relies instead on hypothetical examples that assume the reader’s context, and these will apply best to 20-something women who are at least to some extent active participants in mainstream culture and perhaps have a history with more toxic forms of spirituality.

While real world systemic issues are mentioned several times, I would’ve like to have seen more substantive inclusion of these challenges in the context of recommended practices. LaPorte frequently states the heart is naturally inclusive and that the goal is truly universal love, but by focusing purely on individual practices we miss out on how to apply such an approach when resources are scarce and members of a community are experiencing systemic oppression.

Don’t get me wrong—I do think a lot of the insights in this book are important for a specific audience! The content itself also has a broader appeal, but the presentation of it may be tough to get past. I think if I had read this book any earlier, I would’ve dropped pretty quickly into judgment of LaPorte’s lifestyle and privilege. Folks who’ve experienced major marginalization may find parts offensive or just irrelevant.

LaPorte’s take on spirituality is heavy on personal responsibility in a way that won’t make as much sense for those whose cultures and lives are more communal, and some of her guidance just wouldn’t resonate outside of her own cultural context. For example an admonition to avoid re-hashing our old stories makes a lot of sense in a psychological context, but in cultures that prioritize talking story as a mode of relationship, a different approach might be warranted.

I’ll assume best intentions here, but nonetheless there are some yellow flags, particularly in how LaPorte suggests accepting abusive behavior in our lives and focusing on unconditional love, without a strong suggestion to also set boundaries and create space. LaPorte describes boundaries as a developmental stage on the path to acceptance, which could be quite alarming in some contexts. The reader may be able to discern proper application, but I still get nervous when I read about, for example, a societal responsibility to become “un-triggerable.” Certainly releasing attachment can be healthy, but what of collective responsibility to stop perpetrating harm?

I also wish there had been a little more introduction to LaPorte’s own spiritual context, or perhaps some in-depth interviews with spiritual advisors. While LaPorte’s advice comes across as a peer who’s recently realized “oh! This is the thing!” and I didn’t find that style to work well without strongly compelling stories to ground the information and build trust. She presents a structure for the nature of divinity that not all readers will want to take on faith, without much contextualization of how she sees things.

LaPorte does blend in a ton of quotes from spiritual teachers and explains concepts from different traditions, but you’ll need to have your own familiarity of the context of these traditions (and do your own follow-up research, of course, since LaPorte herself is explaining and simplifying them from an outside lens). It’s worth noting some of the folks she does quote are popular guru-type teachers who may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and the specificity of religious teachings is absent from her quick summaries.

All of this said, most of the core concepts, if I take the most generous interpretation, are solid pieces of guidance. LaPorte blends a lot of important bits of wisdom around working with the ego and the heart, releasing attachment to the stories around our pain, and reclaiming personal power. She speaks directly to the way personal development, healing journeys, and a social justice focus can turn into their own forms of self-harm in a way that I found somewhat relatable despite our very different approaches to spirituality.

I worry that some of what she says could easily be co-opted into spiritual bypassing, but the writing itself speaks to the very real need for a more loving approach to justice. I disagree that struggle itself is a problem, and would argue that a loving struggle is absolutely possible, but if you read this book next to authors like Resmaa Menakem and adrienne maree brown, you’ll see some resonance between her approach and their treatments of “dirty pain” and cancel culture, respectively. LaPorte’s take could be especially useful for those struggling with a lot of fear, self-judgment, and anger.

I find especially useful the deceptively simple concept of identifying and working with an “antidote” to whatever brings you pain and struggle as a practice in counterbalancing (for example, rest if you’re feeling overworked). I also appreciated the chapter on “Tools for Heart Centering” and how it presents quite a few different practices such as prayer, contemplation, mindfulness, and stillness that you can weave together in simple, accessible ways.

The companion journal provides space for the reader to reflect on some of the ideas presented in the book, but I’d view it more as a standalone. Some of the concepts in the book I’d most want to personally reflect on aren’t included, and a lot of the prompts you could go a completely different direction with, without the context of the book.

LaPorte provides shorter explanations of some her key points around self-compassion, working with emotions, and pursuing spiritual transformations alongside the prompts. Most of the prompts themselves are very open-ended (for example: “my shadow self is…” or “I want to embody…”) Many focus on what would happen / how you would feel if you made a change, while others focus on awareness of what you currently see / feel / experience or on listing things out for your own reference (such as “low vibe” and “high vibe” emotions).

This approach will work well for creative thinkers and visualizers, and those who can take an esoteric approach fairly naturally—accessing, for example, what the heart wants to tell you simply by feeling into it and writing. If this idea is foreign to how your brain operates, though, I would skip the journal and instead just read that book and keep a simple notebook of questions you have, what feels most uncomfortable to you right now, emotions you struggle with, etc.

The journal provides a good amount of context for what it is, and I actually think LaPorte’s writing style is a little more suited to this shorter, gift-book sort of format. So if you’re into open-ended prompts and would appreciate this “loosely guided” journal style, it might be a good addition to your collection.

ARC provided through NetGalley. Purchases using the above link support me, as well as local bookstores!

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