June 7, 2013


What is love, actually?

I wonder if (like the relationship between pain and suffering I wrote about in an earlier post), love is the physical attraction the body experiences (and which is likely strongly conditioned by the mind’s structure), and the ‘in-love’-ness that poets write about is what the mind does further with this physical sensation? In other words, I propose here, romantic love is a delusion (avidyā, or moha), or (as others have written) a form of insanity. It can feel pretty good, though, and no doubt this has a lot to do with its persistence! If I use the term ‘love’ unadorned, I might be referring to the sort that characterises some Mother–son relationships, universal compassion, or something else. I will try to be clear about this.

Thinking about love popped into my mind after I came across this book while scanning Amazon: Dr Tallis is hardly the first to think of love as an illness; this notion was first recorded on papyrus, and the unrequited form of the same ‘illness’ has been the mainstay of writers for centuries, and has been refined/abstracted endlessly; ‘courtly’ love, is just one example.

No one can talk about romantic love without addressing its evil twin, ‘heartbreak‘. Aren’t these images fascinating? And the entire country and western genre would simply disappear if “she done me wrong” evaporated, somehow. In my experience, though, heartbreak is always the result of unrealistic expectations (or complete fantasies!) that are projected onto the other.

In other words, heartbreak in my experience (and I stress that this is just one person’s perspective on the complex subject) occurs when I want something very much and want the other person to want the same thing as well—disappointment is the result when a naïve expectation is not met by the other. When I was 17 I loved a girl with all my heart; at the time I knew the strength of my feeling for her were greater than hers for me, but the experience of being with her was delicious and nourishing. Nonetheless (and this is part of the Disney ‘structuring’ myth too; I will return to this below) I decided to try to win her over. She was studying to be a classical ballet dancer and she was everything desirable.

At the root of my experience of love is physical attraction: I’m not talking here about sex but rather those aspects of the other that command attention and have a certain aesthetic dimension. This is the mind’s structure (or arrangement) that I referred to above. Can you see into your own mind and clearly understand what is aesthetic, to you? I doubt it. To get an idea of what I’m talking about just look through a mixed gallery of photographs of people’s faces: two-dimensional representations of human beings you have never met nor likely to, yet some attract; others repel; yet others do not move you at all. And when your eyes meet the eyes of another in a room full of others who are exactly the same as we are (according to all who teach spiritual work) nonetheless this one seems to jump out at you. One’s attention is directed, or (this is my experience) drawn.

Having reflected on this I feel that the core of physical attraction for me is alignments, geometry, planes, shapes, and then the way all of these elements move and present themselves, and all this before any conversation. And a conversation can immediately revise these projections, too, as we have all experienced.

The girl I am talking about left her boyfriend and we spent around a year together. And I became aware that the pleasure I derived from our relating in its various forms was not matched by her pleasure in return or in equal measure: it seemed pleasant, and ‘nice’ perhaps, but definitely not moving for her in any deep way. She found my way of thinking interesting; we talked endlessly. And at the end of the year she went back to the boyfriend; for her this was a much more problematic relationship but also much more satisfying for her sexually. Not the greatest thing to hear, but real. That she went back to her boyfriend I experienced as heartbreaking; I had to accept this—and she wanted to be friends, because she could talk to me and not him.

But I also recall clearly lying on my back looking up at the sky in Centennial Park with my motorbike behind me: I had a moment of stunning realisation. The fact that I projected my feelings and their meanings and significances onto this person did not mean that she needed to respond in recognition of this, in any way. She felt about me the way she felt, for her reasons, physical and mental. I realised then that so many of the conventional ideas about love are structured so strongly by the myths, writing, poetry, legends and films of our culture. (I refer here to “meeting the one”; falling in love”, and “being happy ever after”. If only.)

I believe that the heartache of love is simply expectations that are not met or matched/felt by the other. This is a kind of ‘dissonance of the heart’. The mind wants what it wants so strongly, no? But the heart has its own knowing and its own wants too, that the mind “knows nothing of”**. And I have been in a situation where there was an equality of those feelings and projections, but in my experience these are relatively momentary phenomena, and that the exigencies of daily life condition these in time. We can grow together or apart. I feel now that living in the moment rather than interacting with the world via a model of it means that I see love in a different way to most.

Heartache is experienced when thinking/feeling the past, and hoping for one’s true love is a fantasy of the future. Neither are present. Alternatively, the frustration might come from wanting reality to be different to what it is. Good luck with that.

Physical attraction is only experienced in the present, as is sex (the act, not the thought). And when I listen to someone talking about a loved one (or a hoped-to-be loved one!), again it’s clear that this process is not in the present. And I suspect that the next time you reflect on heartbreak, you will be reflecting on the past. That’s where it belongs!

But the intoxication of experiencing the love attraction is profound, and moves us at the deepest levels of our being and why we remain open to it. I realise that these reflections are a truly pale facsimile of what really happens when we experience romantic love. Please accept the limitations of words and the skills of this author.

**Blaise Pascal

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