from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 28 August 2011

the art and confusions of love

I'm woken this morning at five by a squirrel chattering somewhere nearby (outside!). There's a light breeze on my face through the open window. Cloud-shadows come and go across the blinds. From somewhere I can hear a buzzard, and wood pigeon. It's Sunday, so we don't need to leap out of bed at 5.45.

Not that that makes much difference as I can't go back to sleep. My thoughts default, on this early morning, as they do a lot at the moment, to love – its meaning, purpose, complexity, demands and gifts; and the responsibilities it brings with it. Learning to love is such a big journey; because of course the exploration of love is also the search for wholeness and meaning. I have written much on this before in various books and articles, and am working (theoretically anyway) at the moment on a book on love and consciousness. One of the Jungians – and it may have been Jung himself – spoke of the impulse to love as being misguidedly seen as a search for personal happiness, but actually its purpose is to teach us of wholeness.

Sitting at the top of the meadow by the treeline on a handmade bench in the sun prior to meditation, I'm pointing something out to The Man, and a wood fritillary butterfly lands, and stays, on my hand. This is a tiny moment of grace; and I think again about love and the small-huge gifts of grace it brings.

I'm convinced that we need to be willing to put ourselves open-heartedly in the crucible of love, over and over. With all its demands and responsibilities and the grief and pain and brokenness and mistakenness it will bring us as well as the joy, love is an essential spiritual path, if we are doing it to learn and grow rather than simply to feel good and be loved.

Love is not, as we like to think, something cosy and reassuring (though it can be that too). Love is an act, and an active verb, which concerns itself with growth, with affirmation, and with wanting the best for another, extending ourselves past the narrow kickback range of egotism, as we support their and our own search for meaning, wherever it takes them and us in relation to each other – even apart.

And of course that is the ideal; something to do with unconditional and un-self-interested love: seeing the Other as they are, and supporting them in being that with no regard as to whether we like it or not.

And yet that doesn't mean we don't have limits, nor responsibilities to ourselves and our needs and our journey too, of course. There's something here about if we can't love ourselves we also can't really love another. I no longer confuse being loving with being always unselfish, as my Catholic upbringing would have me believe. This can be a great manipulation, a great avoidance of responsibility, a 'selflessness' that means I consistently ignore my own wellbeing, integrity and authentic life for the sake of another – which makes the other feel indebted, dependent, claustrophobic, resentful.

So what does it mean if my daughter, whom I love to the extent that I would do almost anything for her, even die, wants something from me that I don't feel I can reasonably give and keep giving without cost to my sense of fairness and justice, and therefore something of my integrity? What if my partner needs loving in a way I can't do it without compromising something of my essential nature? What if a friend needs me to support her in what I see as a lie?

What if my heart often doesn't behave as I'd like it to, neat and corralled and clear about black and white, but breaks out wildly, chasing the flight of a bird through a summer sky? If that enriches my life and another's or others', but goes against conventional mores, is that wrong?

Of course there's a lot of confusion in us all about what love is or isn't. Erich Fromm in The Art Of Loving makes a stab at a list of types of love:
  • brotherly love (mature love between equals)
  • motherly love (the protective sort which nurtures the vulnerable)
  • erotic love, which smashes the ego-boundaries and gives us the taste of union that we all crave but that cannot belong to or with a human other, and that can be intensely creative but brings us over and over to a crossroads where we either follow the intensity which may burn us and itself out, or 'settle for' something less intense without that huge buzz, that incredible high that is so rarely experienced elsewhere in our materialistic culture
  • self-love, which is a healthy self-regard, and not the same at all as self-seeking love 
  • and finally there's what Fromm calls the love of God, which by any other name is that deep transpersonal existential urge for transcendence, for union, for moving beyond the separative confines of the ego, experienced for instance perhaps through mutual deep love or intimacy with another as a doorway; through creative expression; through hearing sublime music/dancing/art/poetry; in meditation; in moments of huge risk in, say, mountain-climbing or in facing tragedy; through relationship with the natural world. This one takes us out of ourselves and our petty egoic concerns; give us a taste of the transpersonal, the transcendent.
But love, of course, is never black and white. Love doesn't have neat borders and intractable rules. I can know, with Fromm, that there are some basic categories of love; and I also know that there are many many subtle sub-divisions and much flux between the categories, and just when you think you've pinned it down it emerges somewhere else in an unexpected form and teaches you something new. And that – that – is exactly one of its joys.

It seems to me we need a new category that includes the whole world, its interconnectedness, and is practised and fine-tuned in our most intimate relationships.

This is my thinking, and it's notional – but what about an experiment in love that brings all these separate categories above together, if only in moments, in our human and most intimate relationship with our significant other, and mutually: brotherly, motherly, erotic (eros meaning alive, vital, passionately mutually creative), self-love and transpersonal love, a magnetic exchange in a 'mature' love based on a commitment to exploring being true to oneself, in honesty and openness, in creativity, mutual respect, 'nurturing and protecting each other's solitude' as Rilke has it, caring and wisdom for a purpose other than simply self-gratification and that extends to our attitude to the world, because there we have it: ultimately love is a choice, an attitude, an intention, and is always about enlargement.

Ask me in a couple of lifetimes hence how I'm doing with it.


  1. I was impressed by your simple statement about love and choice on Facebook and followed you here. I love the byline beneath the blog title! And I enjoyed reading this post on the art and confusions of love.

    When I have attempted to marshall my thoughts on the subject of love I have always found myself entering deep into that great 'cloud of unknowing' that must gather whenever we attempt to collate and corral the numinous and ineffable. I remain as passionate, committed and engaged in age as in younger years. But my curiosity about love the noun is all but exhausted and now, as a cheerful unbeliever with a younger partner and three young kids, I'm simply nourished by the practicing of the verb.

  2. Thank you, Dick. And I really liked your last sentence in your comment!

  3. Raised in the land of the 'Wee Frees', Love was hard to know and understand, especially since to really understand and feel love you have to go within and love yourself first. The Kirk made relationships and any intimacy a sin and #self love' was selfish and wrong. Women were dirty and children weren't to be heard. I found my release in landscape, growing up by the sea on Mull, and it has taken me all my life to learn to love people and forgive myself.
    But Meditation, once you reach that place, is love. For me.


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