01.02.2005

On Love - by Louisa Harding

In seeking to understand and experience love, we transcend our isolation and, as Louisa Harding, says "swim in an infinite ocean".

How curious it is that in the English language we use one simple word, "love", to say so many different and complex things.

Sometimes, we use the word lightly and casually in our everyday life, to say how much we love an activity, or a comfy old pair of jeans, or a favourite food we can't live without.

Then, at other times, we all use the word "love" to describe feelings so vast and powerful that inevitably all words fall short, all attempts to verbally capture our experience are futile before we even begin. At those times - perhaps when we're "in love" with someone, or when we hold our first child, or dance like a dervish in rapture at the world, or feel the simple bliss of being - at those times, the swelling tenderness that rises in our hearts we describe simply as "love".

That one overworked word has to span every feeling of warmth and connection we humans have, from everyday fondness to sublime devotion, from sober care to exuberant bliss. Encompassing everything from the simple enjoyment of day-to-day things, to rapturous closeness and communion with our beloved ones - this is the infinite spectrum of love.

Attempts have been made in other cultures and times to differentiate between types of love, to clarify what kind of love it is we feel in certain contexts, and thus get beyond possible ambiguities of meaning. Thousands of years ago, in ancient Greece, that bright young fellow Plato outlined in his Symposium three different types of love which he described as Agape, Philia and Eros.

Agape he saw as the apex of all love, selfless, spiritual love. It is the love that gives to others, and forms the basis of altruism.
Philia was fraternal love, communal love, and friendship.

Eros was, of course, sexual love driven by desire, the kind of love that got Adam and Eve booted out of their garden at short notice, without time to even pack a spare set of fig-leaves. As the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden makes evident, Eros has long been seen in many traditions as a lesser form of love than Agape or Philia. The tradition of Tantra is an obvious exception to this rule, embracing as it does, erotic love as a means to divine expression and union.

Plato's three categories of love might be useful tools for classifying which kind of love is which, but only if we assume that Eros, Agape and Philia are separate categories, and not, in fact, part of a continuum of love where all three might be present in a love relationship at the one time.

But in modern day English, that one humble word "love" must cover all occasions, from the everyday to the sublime, and herein lies a golden clue as to a deeper truth about love. The great gift of there being this one and only, all-purpose, one-size-fits-all word to convey our connection with something or someone is this: it tells us a radical thing about love, namely that all love is Love, that all love is sublime, even the "ordinary" everyday stuff.

It tells us what visionaries and spiritual teachers down the centuries have been trying to get through to us, with varying degrees of success: all love is sacred - whether erotic, fraternal, spiritual, or all of the above! As the renegade stargazer Galileo reminded his Catholic prosecutors when they took offence at his sacrilegious suggestion that the earth revolved around the sun: "Either everything is sacred, or nothing at all is." Several hundred years later, with a respectful nod to Galileo's insight, we might say: Either all love is sacred, or no love at all is sacred.

Whatever love we sincerely feel, however humble or exalted its object, it is sublime and holy in its own right. This is possibly what the English Romantic poet John Keats meant when he spoke of "the holiness of the heart's affections", or what Hindu culture hints at with its exquisite phrase, "the heart within the heart", from which all truly felt love springs.

Love is the opening of our heart to allow something or someone into our world of care and connection. It is the embracing of another - be it a thing, a place, or a being outside of us - and the welcoming of them into our heart as part of ourselves, with all that that entails. At its best, love is a celebration of another's essence, a rejoicing at the simple, stunning fact of their existence. Love can make us fall silent with tenderness and awe when, through the prism of our heart, another's essential self refracts into beams of radiant light and we see them in their fullness.

When we love - be it person, place, humanity, the cosmos - we are building connections, weaving the web of holy affections that make us who we are. The heart is the transmitter and receiver of this love, and it is both ruthless and reliable in the truthfulness of its messages. The heart cannot lie, so the saying goes. We speak "from the heart" when we speak sincerely. We talk about "knowing in our heart of hearts" whether something is true or not. We have "heart to heart" talks when we speak freely and deeply with someone.

Whereas metaphorically the head is the instrument or seat of ideas, analysis, and pulling things apart, the heart is our quiet route back to wholeness, with its capacity to feel, to synthesise, and draw together into union what previously had been disparate parts. Many traditions ascribe to these two different approaches, head and heart, the complementary qualities of masculine and feminine, thinking and feeling, ego and soul. The American writer and philosopher Ken Wilber, who has spent many years studying wisdom traditions of the world so as to find the thread of a "perennial philosophy" running through them all, says that the heart (and with it, love) is central to all spiritual traditions.

He writes, "In the traditions, Spirit is found in neither Heaven nor in Earth, but in the Heart."

Heaven, in this context, means the world of ideas, logic, concepts and symbols, while Earth relates to the manifest and material world, the physical body, the concrete and tangible earthy realm. Ken Wilber says that the wisdom traditions agree on the profound fruitfulness of blending these two realms, and that the way to do this is through love. The "meeting place" where it happens is the sacred halfway point between the two, the heart: "The Heart has always been seen as the union point of Heaven and Earth, the point that Earth grounded Heaven and Heaven exalted the Earth. Neither Heaven nor Earth alone could capture Spirit; only the balance of the two found in the Heart could lead to the secret door beyond death and mortality and pain."

Love is the ultimate transpersonal experience. That is, by its very nature, it softens our rigid sense of self and opens us to the realisation that we are much greater and more permeable than our sometimes tight walls of selfhood suggest. The Buddhist writer and teacher, the late Alan Watts, used to describe modern Western people as believing themselves to be nothing more than "skin-encased egos". As an image of isolation and spiritlessness, this says it all. But love blasts that illusion of separation sky high and, at least some of the time, draws us out of our egos, beckoning us out to swim in an infinite ocean.

Ken Wilber describes this experience succinctly and beautifully: "Love is the time-honoured way to transcend the separate self sense and leap into the sublime." Both humbling and ennobling, love relieves us of the agonising sensation of existential isolation and imprisonment in our heads, and sets us free in our hearts to experience an expanded, sometimes boundless, sense of our greater self. St Francis of Assisi's most famous prayer ends with the insight that: "It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life". It is in the losing of our limited sense of self that we are liberated into a transcendent love. In the Bhagavad Gita it is written: "He is forever free who has broken out of the ego cage of I and mine to be united with the lord of Love."

Love carries the spark of our spiritual aspiration, our longing for ultimate wholeness and meaning. But very often we ask that only one person deliver this to us, as our romantic partner for instance, or our deeply loved child, which creates a great pressure of expectation. In love we look for (and often find) something far greater than our egos, something transformative that reveals to us a luminous reality previously obscured. We break out of the prison of our "skin-encased egos", and see beyond the partialness of our lives to that which is universal and limitless.

Mystics for millennia have been journeying to this enlightened state, via meditation, prayer, and contemplation of what the famous mystic and poet Rumi called the infinite Beloved. Most of us experience the initial opening of our heart in the presence of a slightly more finite beloved - be it a lover, friend, family member, or place - and can then become overly attached to that person or location as our means of transcendence.

But mystical wisdom tells us that all life is the Infinite Beloved, and that a wide-open heart greets every moment and every manifestation of life as a rapturous lover would greet their beloved. There is no need to grasp onto those people or things we feel open our hearts. Wisdom traditions and mystics the world over give us comforting, empowering advice about this. There are many ways to open our hearts, they tell us, and many practices developed by visionaries and meditators to throw open the window of our heart regardless of whether we are "in love" with anyone or anything specifically.

They tell us there is a universe full of "significant others" to inspire our love and lead us back to the ultimate Beloved: the rose outside the window, a warm cat stretching in a pocket of sunshine, a stranger crossing the street, a cool summer breeze blowing through trees. We can be in love with everything in general, rather than only with someone or something in particular.

Falling in love then, in a mystical sense, is falling into a quiet, transformative rapture at being. It is a return to our noblest nature and most expanded state, and an invitation to those around us to do the same. Infinitely more than a commodity to be bought or sold, or a set of mental principles by which to live, love is, above all, a way of being.

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