I was surprised to learn that “What is love?” was the most searched phrase on Google in 2012. It is one of those questions we can never really answer, but can use to guide our lives, in the sense Rilke suggested of “living the question.”
Asking the question “What is love?” has been a practice of mine for years. I ask it whenever I remember: washing the dishes, sitting at the computer, looking at the sky, and, of course, with other people. The question often brings me back to what is most important. I even come up with new ah-ha answers now and then—before I laugh at myself for imagining I will ever know. The not-knowing itself hints of the mystery of love.
I even used to consider myself a bit of an expert on the subject of love. For a time, I taught a course called “Eros: Beauty and Chaos” in which we explored many definitions of love. For me the one that rang most true was: Seeing the beauty of the other’s soul. I also used to imagine myself as quite a loving person. This is easy to do when things are going our way, by the way.
I loved sensing the sparkle in other people, even when they were grumpy or upset. But, soon enough I learned how little I knew about love. That was about the time, after many years together, my “soulmate,” who I imagined I loved most of all, abruptly left me shortly before our wedding. He cited my lack of empathy and love for him as major reasons; and soon he was with my “compassionate” replacement.
Amidst the devastation of this shock, I became more bewildered than ever about love. He was right. I felt like one of the most unloving people I could imagine! In the traumatic hurt and outrage of heartbreak and what felt like a massive betrayal, I kept asking myself, what happened to my loving nature? What is love, anyway?!
I found no easy answers. But the pain motivated me like little else in my life ever had to dive deep inside to find out. I had been thrown into a crash course not only on love, but on what stands in its way. The well-known advice that we need to love ourselves before we can truly love others stood in my way like a brick wall.
Finding Love in the Midst of Brokenness?
Unfortunately, when we are suffering most, we tend to be the most unforgiving and harsh with ourselves. I faced what seemed like the impossible task of picking up my shattered sense of self. I needed to learn to accept my brokenness, rage, and grief; and to respect these terrible feelings for the amazing teachers they are.
If we can find the heart and the grace to befriend our own suffering— rather than following the instinct to turn away from the hurt in fear and shame —something entirely unexpected happens. The heart begins to birth a deeper love. As I leaned into the mystery of my own craziness and hurt, I began to sense a subtle, precious longing for a deeper love right there in the heart of despair. It was not so much a feeling, as a distinct state of being.
I would not wish this disorienting pain on anyone; it can take years out of your life. But I must admit, coming to terms with my life-long rejection of my own grief and brokenness has taught me more what love means than anything else.
Suffering taught me the difference between love as a “special feeling”—that inevitably turns to hate and to fear—and love as a graced state of being that can connect us with all things. Jungian analyst Helen Luke said: “There is no cure for an inferior kind of love except a greater, more conscious love.”
A greater love radiates like a glowing ember in the ashes of a broken life. It is is enflamed by surrender and by radical acceptance of whatever happens to us—no matter how enraging, scary, humiliating or painful. Although I feel more than ever like a beginner, now I understand why learning to love is the work of a lifetime.
How about you—what have you learned so far about love?
Adapted from “Love and the Mystery of Betrayal” —now available in print and ebook.
A teacher of mine once defined love as “the highest form of appreciation.” That has worked pretty well for me.
Yes, that rings true for me too, Jeff. I feel graced when my heart opens to someone that way.
Hi Sandra. Wonderful article/blog!
I just wanted to mention Love in the bible…No Greater Love than to give your life for another in John, new testament. I named my website after that because of the great sacrifices people made for one another during the great catastrophe that happened in NYC during 911.
Love brings out what is best in us especially at some of the most horrific times in our lives. That is when we are being tested the greatest! And we do it, we pass, we sacrifice and we show love to others, great love.
By the way, one of the most attended movies at this years film festival was AMOUR, (french for LOVE) It was a very interesting film about love and a very different facet of that portrayed in the movie!
Thank you for this Blog! Wonderful Topic!
Your friend, Barb in Arizona
I marveled at how ‘Amour’ expanded ‘no greater love’to include taking the life of your lover — when more than anything you do not want to let her go — in order to release her from horrible suffering. That he acted spontaneously (apparently) to suffocate her, in almost a moment of passion, made me recall how passionate sex contains an element of dying into a blissful, orgasmic uniting. Also reminds me of Rilke saying “dans la mesure ou nous sommes seules, l’amour and la morte se rapprochent.” Thanks for your thoughts, take good care. — Sandra
Love is a transcendent connection that is reflected, one way or another, in the world. This is a big subject, because at one time in my life I was fortunate enough to experience sensual and transcendent love as one. Things change,circumstances change, but love does not change. It takes courage to keep our hearts and eyes open. I’ve read your book, it seems to me that you possess courage.
Thank you,Jim, for sharing your experience and that love does not change. “Love is not love/ which alters when it alteration finds” (Sonnet 116) is a dog-eared bookmark of mine that reminds me as I drift along on the surface of my ever-changing feelings. This is how I know love belongs to my depths, those places I sometimes go in meditation, prayer,inquiry, deep communion with others, nature, my everyday life unfolding. It seems I can only wait and invite or be taken completely by surprise by these openings.
Thankfully so much more than the question and the question also!
Just now – responding to someone I know with a hello smile.
Couple days ago: walking down the road feeling really pissed off and then suddenly falling in love with this stupid tree!
Smiling back,John, lucky tree…and thee!
Seems we are all learning how much ‘afflictions’ hold the raw material for connection. xoS/
Beautiful post, Sandy. Thanks for this blog. One of my favorite quotes is, “Devote your life to proving that love is the greatest thing in the world.” Seems to me that’s just what you’re doing.
To add to your list of definitions . . . how about:
Love is the desire to do good to others and be sincerely happy about their blessings and successes (subtext: no matter how they may have treated you).
Thanks, Elianne, for the visit, quote and definition. It sets the bar high, but as an intention is sweet.
Nice post and yes, not a question that really can be answered. I think of love as an aspect of our true nature, which can certainly be veiled and/or subverted but never totally eradicated. I like the vedantic formulation of sat-chit-ananda (being, consciousness, bliss): the three essential qualities of the manifest universe, interpenetrating all, permeating all, informing all, which we simply and purely recognize when we release the people and the things that we thought would make us happy.
Thank you, Ellen, for this thought —
Those moments of transcendence come like little fairy dust sprinkles, I imagine for everyone, at least that is how they come for me, giving some hope my being could anchor in the realizations they bring that you describe so well.
I have learned that ‘releasing’ is not something we can do, but something that happens to us, almost by grace, but I believe intention helps— sometimes over a very long,humbling, period of time, like a caterpillar maybe, mysteriously transforming.
Be well and happy!
Really enjoyed your insights, Sandra. Thank you.
This is just one perspective I have on romantic love. It is a very strong attraction to another person over which we have little or no control. It just seems to happen. One of our most common words to describe it is to “fall” in love. We are not in control when we fall.
Thank you, Lew, for coming to the site and adding your voice. I don’t know if you ever read “A General Theory of Love”, but it is one of the more intriguing attempts to explain romantic love. Three doctors go about building a strong case for the now almost religiously accepted idea that we are captured by qualities that replicate our relationships with our mothers and fathers. There has to be some truth there, but it reduces the mystery of the phenomenon too much to be the only factor.
“Love and Limerance” takes on the same subject, and does a great job describing the state of “limerance” (being “in love”). The author tells us we need both hope and uncertainty for limerance to last. When either of these two ingredients are gone — i.e., when the other person returns our feelings, the uncertainty disappears — the limerance fades, but may then grow into other forms of love and attachment. In the end, we have to admit we don’t really know though, yes?
Nice post, Sandra, and auspicious beginning. Your list looks like 6 more blog posts. Great luck with your blog.
Hi Sandy, what a lovely way to begin this blogging adventure. Your site looks just great; elegant and inviting. I think the best part of your question is that it caused me to walk around for a day and a half asking myself “What is Love?” Not bad, huh? I mostly know love when I feel it–I don’t trust the words too much. I know that when I put someone else and their needs before mine–consciously–in my actions, that active choice is my starting point. Sounds simple? Never is though. Hence, the state of grace part. Thank you for posing the timeless question. Good luck with your blog! I’ll see you on these pages. Love, Susie
Hi Susie, thank you for showing up with your love.
Greetings Sandra, A much needed subject in our hard cynical world. I feel less idealistic about life then I ever have before, yet there us still a craving for goodness, for doing the right thing. It is so easy to hate and feel anger, a hard slick slope of meanness I find myself going down. I was reminded of the phase “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” in an email from the Charter for compassion. This can be used as a mantra also and really stops me in my tracks once in a while. I also am drawn to the corithians quote. Through a glass darkly… love is the greatest… When I read that I know I do not understand….. And sometimes I just want a dog to love… Anyway thanks for putting your thoughts out there. They are good to read.
Christine, you remind me of the intent to ‘do no harm’, that one stops me often, tough to put into practice, but I like the intention. Gurdjieff used to say learn to love animals first before you start with humans (much more difficult). So, me too, I keep thinking I am getting myself ready for an animal friend. Appreciate your thoughts.
Cupid’s arrow struck me hard when I “fell in love” with my high school sweetheart in 1957. We dated for over a year when she announced on my senior prom night that she decided she would become a nun!
Like this I have spent a lifetime (72 years) trying to make sense out of this strange outcome for I wanted to marry her. In my latter years I have come to realize that I unconsciously projected something of my destiny into that beautiful young lady – a need to consciously realize the “inner marriage”. That destiny desired that I should have an intimate psychological relationship with the World Soul (aka the Holy Spirit) who is also a nun (a virgin)! By the grace of the Eros Self (not Jung’s Logos Self) my latter years have opened me up to an experience of the unio corporalis & the unio mystica – the 2nd & 3rd stages of the coniunctio according to the alchemist Gherard Dornus. From that union I learned how to spell love, i.e., it is a sharp two edged sword called LovE – a word to be read both forwards and backwards; suggesting like this temporal and eternal aspects are involved.
Thus, today LovE for me is about being in relationships that supports reciprocal individuation – be it on the outer level with a stranger, a lover, a friend or a life-long partner or on the inner level with all the images that appear. More could be said. It reminds me of the following.
“The Ideal Psychological Group
Bonds with other people are produced by the Self and these relations are very exactly regulated as to distance and closeness. One might describe this as the social function of the Self. Each person gathers around him his own “soul family,” a group of people not created by accident or by mere egoistic motivation but rather through a deeper, more essential spiritual interest or concern: reciprocal individuation. Whereas relations based merely on projection are characterized by fascination and magical dependence, this kind of relationship, by way of the Self, has something strictly objective, strangely transpersonal about it. It gives rise to a feeling of immediate, timeless “being together.” The usual bond of feeling, says Jung elsewhere, always contains projections that have to be withdrawn if one is to attain to oneself and to objectivity.
‘Objective cognition lies hidden behind the attraction of the emotional relationship; it seems to be the central secret. C.G. Jung, Memories, p. 297.’
In this world created by the Self we meet all those many to whom we belong, whose hearts we touch; here ‘there is no distance, but immediate presence.’ Von Franz, Projection and Re-Collection, p. 177”
This is beautiful, Gregory, I am touched by what you have shared here. Some of us indeed seem to be called by the imagery of the sacred marriage more powerfully than others, certainly I have been. It sounds as if that early blow to this essential longing became a pivot point for the unfolding your inner life all these years. What a powerful connection.
‘Objective cognition lies hidden behind the attraction of the emotional relationship; it seems to be the central secret. —C.G. Jung
What an insight! The objective cognition, “strangely transpersonal” timeless sense of ‘soul family’ names something we sense in certain relationships, but without the language to translate the importance for the life of the soul, we discount and overlook. I have found that the psychological work of withdrawing projections fuels and ultimately nourishes our connection to the fertile silent heart center of soul life where the opposites dissolve/evolve into “a greater Love.” As you say. Wishing you ever sweeter unfolding..
Thank you Sandy for investigating how the broken heart can be a reliable motivator to refine our definitions of love itself. I am reminded of the Einstein quote “Our task must be to free ourselves … by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Now how to bring this into daily life – especially after a betrayal? And how to be truly open to intimate relationship again? What helps me is believing that I have both a human heart, subject to suffering and heartbreak, and a mystical heart, that has the capacity to hold and heal the broken heart, and to ultimately use this experience to point to a place beyond. Which is what you so beautifully write about Sandy, the mystery of the betrayed and broken heart and where it invites us to travel – neither romanticizing or minimizing this path of impact.
Wow, Kaylee, your referring to the ‘two hearts’ reminded me of how important that realization has been for me too. (I even have a chapter on ‘Two Hearts’ in “Mystery of Betrayal”). The broken heart is not the end of the line, although it definitely feels as if it is. I saw what can be missing is faith, the leap of faith that we need during the long, dark days when the suffering seems to block any access to wisdom, healing or love; but is actually burrowing a wider path to the mystic heart. For me, I felt so helpless in the shattering, there was no mystery in sight! That is when I began praying to “increase my faith,” and see now how faith is one of the attributes of the mystery that rejection and pain can nourish.
I came to think the feelings of brokenness were like a huge pile of debris loaded on top of a small fire. For a while it looked as if the fire has been put out, but in time the embers smoke and finally catch. The way you express that the mystical heart has the capacity to heal the broken heart puts it so simply and clearly. Another work in progress, probably for our whole life…
The Road Less Traveled on the Way to the “Matters of the Heart”
In my latter years I have come to embrace the “matters of the heart” from the point of view of the chakra system found in the subtle body (the soul) where the heart chakra is represented as a union of overlapping triangles – one pointed upwards (masculine principle – air, fire, spirit) and the other pointed downwards (feminine principle – earth, water, matter). It is the so-called Seal of Solomon whose outline is hexagonal – a six sided figure – see http://faithisfindingme.wordpress.com/ and like this a new God-Image that goes beyond Jung’s quaternary structure. What needs to happen in order to approach the realm of the Eros Self. See the recently published (2012) Return of the World Soul; Parts I, and II by Dr. Remo Roth – a very deep unio corporalis opus experienced by Dr. Roth who discusses these important matters. It is a rather difficult read because he approaches the subject from the point of view of quantum physics.
For me the essence of the “inner marriage” is to have a process that supports the life of an androgynous nature – what the alchemists referred to as the conscious realization of the hermaphrodite within. A balanced heart is meant – something accomplished by listening to the voices of the lower chakras (matter, earth) as well as those of the upper chakras (spirit, air). The former have been largely neglected in the unfolding of the Christian archetype over the past 2,000 years – thus we have had “the Crusades”, “the Inquisition”, “the child sexual abuse by priests”…
In terms of Jung’s psychological types which consists of four functions (Thinking – Feeling; Intuition – Sensation) my primary way of functioning is through my superior thinking function. Like this feeling is my inferior function which is always at risk of being ignored because as Jung notes “the inferior function is always in the unconscious” and the only way to access the inferior function is through passive (will-less) meditation (no active imagination allowed).
Jung and von Franz’s conclusion is that people tend to marry their typological opposites in order to complement their own types (see CW 17, §§ 324-345, and von Franz, Lectures on Jung’s Typology, p. 4). Their rationale is that individuals marry through an unconscious motivation, to insure that their respective inferior parts would be taken care of by the partner. In this sense, a strongly introverted thinking type would seek out an extraverted feeling type to become “whole,” each using the marriage relationship to avoid owning up to and integrating the inferior part of his or her personality. The fact that such marriages did not go smoothly is what interested Jung.
If the inner house is not in order then its outer expression will be out of order. It’s a “catch 22” and not easily reconciled, thus suffering prevails in “matters of the heart” until one can endure the “ordeal of the Apocalypse of LovE”.
I honor your reflections on the mystery of love and relationship. Any systems or symbols that help us navigate through the inner ‘agonies and ecstasies’ that threaten to overwhelm and consume us with even a smidgen of consciousness deserve our respect and gratitude. You remind me of that wonderful title by Yalom, “Love’s Executioner”. Our earlier understandings of love are consumed in the fire of the suffering love bring. We grieve the loss of that dream, even as deep within, ignite from those embers a new-found, tender warmth for existence.
I’ve always heard that Eskimos have seven words for snow. We wonder why; they wonder how the hell a society could get by without distinguishing clearly distinguishable phenomenon. We love our pets, spouses, cars, kitchen tile, trees, jobs, kids, school, class, books, and a zillion other things, depending on our mood. All good. Far be it from me to deny anyone earthly pleasures. As long as you know that your sense of identity or worth has nothing to do with any of it, it’s fine. Play the game. Get on the roller coaster. But it has nothing to do with what I will call spiritual love. I would go along with the Advaita teachers and say that Love is the experiential awareness that there is not two. Not a lover and a beloved. By this definition, then, one cannot love any THING. Person, plant, pet. No thing. Love is the awareness that that thing isn’t a “not-you.” My opinion. That and a three bucks gets you a coffee at Starbucks.
A beautiful definition, Steve, thanks for sharing it here: “Love is the experiential awareness that there are not two.” Still, how do we account for all that is stirred in us in ‘special’ loves — of child, partner, family, friends, even new acquaintances, strangers with whom we share a vibrational resonance. The “I know and have known you” feeling? Seeing the beauty/God/Divine in another.
May sound like romantic fantasy, or ‘The Course’ would say ego’s replacement for the Holy Spirit, but I wonder and question how much we do not know and understand about the links we have with each other as a family, tribe, species, soul. Must be an intermediate reality ‘subtle body realm’ between ego/material things and expanded God-consciousness, where we connect with subtle senses…better stop, always so much to say about things we can’t ever know!
RE: “How do we account for….?” We are all on paths. I don’t know yours, and can’t answer. What I try to do when I ask questions like yours is find out why I’m asking. If it’s something trippy I want to have fun with… great. I go for it. But the instant I think that finding the answer… the minute I think I NEED an answer… the minute I think finding the answer has ANYTHING to do with ANYTHING in the Eternal… forget it. Knowing stuff like simply does not bring me peace. Temporary relief, AT BEST. Usually, not even that.
Good advice, Steve, the most reliable landing place for me too on so many things is “I do not know”.
But I do know how to make an omelette and prune my roses; I do know how to calm myself with deep breathing (sometimes); I do know when I taste beauty or feel pain. So we do know some things in our humanness.
I don’t know why the question of relationship has been so central in my life, but it has: it is a mystery that engages and calls me, almost as a life purpose. But I can tell you, I mostly feel further away than ever from having answers, and sign myself up as failure on the mission, and maybe that has been the point all along, as you suggest.
Omlettes… useful skill. Roses… eh… can’t relate to so much. RE: The question of relationship. Not sure anyone has that one figured out… so… not too much point in beating yourself up over that. On the other hand (as you suggested that I suggested. I think) this can be a gift, of course. Suggestion: (Even though I NEVER make suggestions) Next time you feel you are a failure, DO IT. Find a comfortable chair, set aside an hour or two days, or whatever, and experience that. Don’t muck around. In the immortal words of Eckhart Tolle: “RESIST NOTHING.”
More good advice, Steve, and I am on it, can’t count the hours/days I have sat with that feeling/sensation! Failure is oddly liberating…
It’s a “Ring of FIRE”
Evol requires that we learn to stop projecting inner demands onto the outer world. Well, it’s what I have learned from my life-long learning experience. Like this one learns how to LovE.
Thanks for adding the wisdom of Johnny Cash to the discussion!
Ever set the intention to become unconditionally loving (even subconsciously)? From a fellow traveler through the dark night of the soul (been broken in relationships several times), you’re on track to being kind to yourself and in turn, to the world. Maybe kindness is the most beautiful form of this thing we call love.
I agree, kindness is what I most in awe of in other people and feel graced when it grows even a little toward myself.. Thank you for your kind words.
Such a humbling intention—to love no matter what—I have had now for decades, it has been strengthened all the more by seeing how many obstacles come up when we are deeply hurt and want to strike back.