What is more unreal than the perceptions of a normal person in love, who is carried into rapture and expansion of being by his own very exaggerations? —Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death (it won a Pulitzer Prize back in the 1970's)
Over the years I have occasionally encountered statements, in Psychology books and Dharma books, to the effect that the state of falling in love, or of being in love with another person romantically, is a kind of insanity—a temporary "hormone high" which distorts our perceptions, especially with regard to the other person, into a state of manic delusion. When we are in love, we see the love object as indescribably beautiful, wonderful, and perfect, a glorious miracle; we glorify them and place them way up high on a pedestal. Being in love becomes practically religious, like a form of Bhakti Yoga, worshipping the Divine in the form of one's lover. The main evidence put forth by the authorities that being in love is insanity or delusion is that, in addition to rampant irrationality, mania, and sometimes even delirium, this state does not last. Eventually, the hormones return to their former levels and the glorious exaltation, etc., fades away; and one returns to a more contracted, more mundane, more "normal" state. (I think it was Freud who defined romantic love as "overestimation of the sex object.") After one's hormones and one's attitude have returned to "normal," the beloved appears significantly less glorious and miraculous, and is removed from the pedestal of adoration. Sometimes this is sufficient to end the relationship, or at least ruin it; although in some fortunate cases the feeling of being "in" love is replaced by a more stable form of love which is less dependent upon mating instincts and hormone levels.
So anyway, recently I was reading an anthology of Dhamma discourses and I encountered a statement made by a Western nun of the Ajahn Chah tradition along these same lines—falling in love temporarily blinds us to the faults of another person…and thus it is a kind of delusion. She gave as a similar example the state of many pet fanciers—you know, people who dote on their cat or dog or boa constrictor as though it were their own child. They consider that dumb little animal to be beautiful, wonderful, and perfect.
I can think of another kind of "in love" that more closely resembles romance than a deep love for one's golden retriever, and that is new parents' love for their baby. The baby is perceived as an adorable little miracle, and a very valid excuse for euphoria, with that euphoria helping them to maintain their enthusiasm through countless diaper changes and through those nights when the baby just won't stop crying and fussing. This kind of "in love" is also influenced by hormones, and is another manifestation of the reproductive instincts which ensure that we replicate our DNA sequences. Love for pets may be just a pale shadow, a kind of displaced reproductive instinct, directed toward an adorable little non-human animal instead of toward one's own adorable little human animal offspring. I'm not sure why the nun didn't mention this kind of love. Maybe it would be just too extreme for a woman to belittle a mother's love for her baby. Maybe it was seen as a little too politically incorrect. Maybe she just didn't think of it. I don't know. It doesn't matter.
But even for a nun to be belittling romantic love (and love for pets) struck me as somewhat extreme, considering that women, in general, tend to make love more central to their "life story" than men do, and to value love more than men do. (I think it was Lord Byron who said that the first time a woman falls in love, she falls in love with a man, but every time after that she falls in love with Love itself.) It seems that men are more likely to make a love relationship more a "setting" for their life, with their career, or their lifelong "exploration of the unknown," or whatever, being more of a central theme. Yet I am a man, and I have been deeply, madly in love before, and I can say from personal experience that it is one of the most glorious experiences that a mere earthling can know.
It seems to me that there is some confusion, or maybe some superficial thinking, involved in this wholesale dismissal of romantic love, with various elements of it being tossed together salad-wise and considered to be a single thing. Being romantically "in love" can be separated into several different ingredients, although for the sake of convenience I'll divide it up into three: the actual love, the hormone high, and other, emotional factors which may or may not be essential to being "in love," but which usually come along for the ride—desire, attachment, obsession, jealousy, etc. Some of this last may be summed up in the lyrics of a pop song from the 1970's: "You're walking in the rain and the snow, and there's no place to go, and you're feeling like a part of you is dying, and you're looking for the answer in her eyes…."
First of all, the actual love. What love really is, in the highest, most spiritual sense, its fundamental essence, is not a feeling or emotion. It is contained as an element in emotional, instinctual attitudes which are called love, and it is such a powerful experience that it can easily inspire some very intense feelings and emotions, but real love itself is not an emotion. The essence of love, simply stated, is acceptance. Another way of explaining it is that love is non-separation, the absence of barriers, the deconstruction of Pink Floyd's wall, unity. It is more an experience of "us" than of "me and that other person." So instinctive emotions that are called "love" really do contain an element of spiritual love, the essence of acceptance and non-separation. In fact, any open-hearted acceptance—regardless of whether it's for a sex object, a baby, a puppy, a boa constrictor, a forest, a flower, a starry sky, a smiling little old lady on a bus, salsa dancing, beer, one's favorite golf club, whatever—to the extent that it involves acceptance and knocked-down barriers, to that very extent it is genuine Love. I suspect that the only way to be without any genuine love at all would be to be an unconscious robot, or just dead.
And the thing is, the experience of being madly in love involves more open-hearted acceptance than does the ordinary human condition, even though, admittedly, it is filtered through a mating instinct and is not "pure." Some spiritual traditions have even incorporated a sublimated and refined sort of romantic love, or eros, into the yoga of devotion. In Hinduism, for example, the attitude of lover for beloved is an acceptable approach to God or guru, with one of the archetypes being the love between Radha and Krishna. Anyone familiar with the biography of Ammachi, "the Hugging Saint," may have noticed that, as a teenage girl, she was obsessively, deliriously in love with Lord Krishna. In Christian yogic traditions also there is considerable emphasis on the theme of being a bride of Christ. Catholic nuns consider Jesus to be their lawful husband, and some great female saints felt very romantic about that. William James was of the opinion, for instance, that St. Theresa of Avila spent most of her life engaged in "an amatory flirtation" with God. Furthermore, since the Latin word for "soul," anima, is grammatically in the feminine gender, even men can speak and write of their soul as a bride being ravished by Christ on her wedding night. St. John of the Cross, an extremely advanced meditation master, wrote some remarkably erotic poetry along these very lines; and his favorite part of the Bible was the Song of Songs.
My king was lying on his couch, and my perfume filled the air with fragrance.
My lover has the scent of myrrh as he lies upon my breasts.
My lover is like the wild flowers that bloom in the vineyards at Engedi.
(—the Bible, Song 1:12-14)
I'm unaware of this romantic approach being followed in Theravada, however, except maybe for some lustful monks practicing diligently in order someday to acquire a harem of celestial nymphs. Plus I suppose there are some sexually frustrated nuns out there with the unofficial hots for some great Dhamma Master, maybe even for the Buddha himself.
Even setting aside the overtly religious versions of eros, "spiritual eroticism," or "Tantra," it is still true that real, live sexual love, steamy romance, can be a very mind-expanding experience, a spiritual epiphany. Quietly, deeply gazing into your lover's eyes as a form of meditation, wholeheartedly blessing each other again and again, sharing what is deep within you and practicing radical honesty, openness, and vulnerability with another person, "worshipping God" through your beloved, in the form of your beloved, can be a powerful vehicle toward Awakening, if one has the courage and maturity to manage it. For that matter, with the right attitude, any experience can become a means to Awakening. And the deeper and more intense the experience, the better. Dare to live dangerously. So what if falling in love is a hormone high. So what if it doesn't last. No phenomenon in this world lasts, including the most exalted meditative states. Many people have experienced their first spiritual awakening as a result of taking psychedelic, "consciousness-expanding" drugs; the use of such drugs, or "sacred medicines," can be a valid spiritual practice. So, why can't a hormone be a sacred medicine? In either case, the trick is to learn and develop from the experience without becoming dependent upon the medicine.
Is the "normal" state of relative contraction and alienation more sane than being ecstatically in love with a sexual partner? Well, many celibate monastics would like to think so! So would some intellectual walking heads without much development of their heart. But the actual situation may be the other way round—it may be that, ecstatically seeing another being as glorious, beautiful, wonderful, and perfect is infinitely more sane than seeing that being as a pathetic, dysfunctional mess, even if one can easily work up plenty of reasons for the latter judgement. It may be that being "madly" in love doesn't so much blind us to another's faults as to prevent us from artificially conjuring up those faults in the first place.
Consider little sparrows hopping around in the yard. The greedy, hostile little bastards are continually fighting and squabbling…but they're still perfect little miracles. Sparrows are supposed to fight and squabble. It's their nature. By fighting and squabbling they are fulfilling their nature, and are perfectly being beautiful, miraculous little hostile sparrows. Small children are in a similar state—if they behave badly, they have the excuse of being small children, and are easily forgivable. They're just little kids and don't know any better. They're simply behaving in accordance with their nature. So even if they squabble and cry and destroy things, they can still be wonderful and beautiful. But when we grow up, even though most of us are still children in a sense, our excuses, and our miraculousness, get taken away from us. What in any other being might be seen as a spontaneous act in accordance with its nature, in us is seen as a "fault." But whether we are a divine miracle or a dysfunctional mess who is "at fault" all depends upon how you choose to look at the situation. It all depends on how open your mind and your heart is.
So, if you live in fear and anxiety and remorse, so what? If you come too soon, or are afraid to come, so what! If you have crooked teeth or are fifty pounds overweight, so what? If you have some deep, dark secret that fills you with shame, and which you are chronically scared half to death that someone will find out about, so that you lie to cover your tracks, so what! You are still beautiful, wonderful, and miraculous, even if everyone around you, and even you yourself, are too closed off and alienated to see it. The wiser you are, the less "at fault" anyone is.
Love itself, the fundamental essence of non-separation, is clearly not a problem. Also, the ecstatic expansion of being in love is not necessarily a problem, not directly anyway. The problem, the spiritual obstacle, consists of anything we can't be mindful of—although more conservatively and less radically, in this particular case, it consists primarily of the aforementioned accompanying mental states such as emotional attachment and addiction, possessive lust, obsession, jealousy, and so on, plus the virtual guarantee of misery by depending upon someone else or something else for one's own happiness. And some of this may be the inevitable flip side of the coin of being ecstatically, expansively in love. In which case it is ours to decide whether the positive advantages are worth also accepting and dealing with the negative obstacles.
It is true that romantic love, "overestimation of the sex object," is very much conditioned by human animal reproductive instincts, and is very conditional, and thus tends not to be very "pure." Then again, it is also true that the purest, most unconditional form of love that an ordinary worldling can know is also much conditioned by reproductive instincts, and that is a mother's love for her children. Romantic love often takes the form of attraction to a fine specimen, with a proviso of "I love you and think you're wonderful so long as you are faithful to me and treat me right"; but a loving mother loves her children no matter what, whether they are beautiful or ugly, healthy or sickly, intelligent or stupid, good or bad. (A father's love tends to be somewhat more conditional than this.) Yet even a mother's love is based on the condition that the child is her child. In order for love to be completely unconditional and completely "pure," it would have to be universal, for everyone and everything, no matter what; and that, presumably, would imply Full Enlightenment, with no separating walls at all, and thus no "me." Nevertheless, even the steamiest erotic love contains an element of real love.
Love, regardless of what form it takes, regardless of who or what it is for (a sex object, a baby, a snake, fighting, revenge, golf clubs, whatever), to the extent that it involves real, open acceptance, involves tapping into what has no beginning and no end, tapping into "the heart of God." Love, truly, is more real than "we" are. "We" are Maya, illusion; but what Love really is, its essence, is not Maya. Love is Reality.
So, my advice, my suggestion, is to love, even fall madly in love. Love dangerously. Love so intensely that you feel you may die, that your heart may explode from overdose of sheer rapture. It's truly a glorious and glorifying experience. But keep your eyes open, be alert, don't forget Dharma, don't get totally lost in the romantic drama. You can live more openly and intensely, and you can learn one heck of a lot from it. Then, when you have had enough, and can see that the positives and negatives balance out in the long run, then be celibate. It may be easier to love the whole world if you're celibate. Then again, it may not.
Krishna and Radha
At the risk of appearing outrageously sentimental, I include here some results of a little experiment in which children between four and eight years old were asked the question, "What does love mean?" (Found in my email inbox via Paul Lowe's inspirational mailing list)
"When my grandmother got arthur-itis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore… So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthur-itis too. That's love."
(Rebecca - age 8)
"When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth."
(Billy - age 4)
"Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other."
(Karl - age 5)
"Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs."
(Chrissy - age 6)
"Love is what makes you smile when you're tired."
(Terri - age 4)
"Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is OK."
(Danny - age 8)
"Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and just listen."
(Bobby - age 7)
"If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate."
(Nikka - age 6)
"Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it every day."
(Noelle - age 7)
"Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well."
(Tommy - age 6)
"During my piano recital, I was on a stage and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me and saw my mummy waving and smiling. She was the only one doing that. I wasn't scared anymore."
(Cindy - age 8)
"My mommy loves me more than anybody. You don't see anyone else kissing me to sleep at night."
(Clare - age 6)
"Love is when Mommy gives Daddy the best piece of chicken."
(Elaine - age 5)
"Love is when Mommy sees Daddy smelly and sweaty and still says he is handsomer than Robert Redford."
(Chris - age 7)
"Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day."
(Mary Ann - age 4)
"I know my older sister loves me because she gives me all her old clothes and has to go out and buy new ones."
(Lauren - age 4)
"When you love somebody, your eyelashes go up and down and little stars come out of you."
(Karen - age 7)
"Love is when Mommy sees Daddy on the toilet and she doesn't think it's gross."
(Mark - age 6)
"You really shouldn't say 'I love you' unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget."
(Jessica - age 8)
And the final one:
The winner was a four year old child whose next door neighbor was an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman's yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there. When his Mother asked what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy said, 'Nothing, I just helped him cry.'