Wednesday, January 26, 2011


“Let yourself be drawn by the pull of what you really love.” – Rumi

Let’s talk about love. In this season of Valentine’s Day, when flower growers and chocolate makers have their best month of the year, hearts and minds turn to the mystery of love. On one hand love is just a four letter word, and on the other hand love is a Pandora’s Box of pleasure and pain packed tighter than a clown car. Love is a cluster of conflicting experiences; a cacophony, a harmony, an indeterminate blur. Love doesn’t hold still long enough for anyone to get a good look at it. Love is a crime scene where every witness gives a different description, everyone is a victim and the police are on strike.

In English, all of this chaos gets saddled with one word – love. In our longing to understand all of the disparate experiences gathered under the banner of love, let’s leave English behind and turn instead to ancient Greek. The Greeks had three words for love: eros, philia and agape.

Eros is sexual or biological attraction. It is love not born of the soul or the mind or the heart. It is what Joseph Campbell calls “the zeal of the organs for each other.” In eros there is no choice – it chooses you. It wells up out of the bio-chemical ooze and takes you over – body, mind and soul. And here’s the tricky part. It’s not personal – in fact, it doesn’t really matter who the other person is. In many ways, eros doesn’t want to know. The less talk the better.

Eros is the love of possession. Eros wants to own what it sees. James Joyce calls it pornographic love, all craving and no connection. The object of your love is just that, an object. It is about power and control. It is, in the end, a fundamentally solitary experience void of any real bond. The other person is just an actor in your private drama. If she sprains an ankle and her understudy steps in – no problem.

Philia is love of a higher or nobler order. Philia is the kind of love we have for our families, our friends, our country or our tribe. It is the feeling of belonging to something, that feeling of kindness and acceptance and warmth. It is the love that soldiers have for each other in battle. It is the love that team members have for each other in victory as well as defeat. It is priceless to know that somewhere in this crazy world there is a place where you are welcomed, where you are understood, with no need to defend or explain yourself. I remember the first time I was in the Netherlands, where my parents emigrated from eight years before I was born. Walking down the street in Amsterdam, surrounded by a crowd of Amsterdamers on their way to work, all of those tall, blond people, I suddenly felt a deep and unexpected sense of belonging. Even though I was in a strange land and couldn’t understand most of what they were saying, I felt it in my bones. I was home.

Agape is a third type of love. Unlike eros with its impersonal, physical craving and philia with its heart-felt camaraderie, agape is a decision. It is the decision to work for the good of the other without any expectation of anything in return. Rooted in free will, agape is choosing to treat others with kindness, compassion and love regardless of how you feel. It’s easy to love when you feel like loving. But can you be kind when you are hurt, angry or afraid?

It should be clear by now that our experience of love bears many strains. In romantic or marital love there is, ideally anyway, a synthesis of eros, philia and agape. We retain the sexual energy of eros without its impersonal possessiveness. In fact, in romantic love, it matters a great deal who the other person is – it is a very specific and unique individual that we fall in love with. They become your tribe, so philia is in full bloom. Your lover is your best friend. And as you enjoy the sometimes calm, sometimes stormy waves of eros and philia, it is agape that holds it all together, the conscious commitment to be kind, respectful, compassionate, supportive and above all selfless. This only works, by the way, if you partner agrees to the same deal.

Agape can also expand to become universal love, boundless love, love for all. It’s what Jesus and Buddha and all of the great spiritual teachers are talking about. When Jesus asked us to “love our enemies” he was not asking us to like them. He was just suggesting a baseline of kindness, humility, compassion and understanding despite our feelings. Attempting to put Jesus’ teachings into practice, Gandhi showed that remaining firm in the stance of non-violence requires monumental courage and will power – you have to override millennia of conditioned response mechanisms to fight back – yet in the end loving one’s enemies is a power far greater than any weapon. And Buddha taught that as we train ourselves to overcome our instinctual viciousness we must include ourselves on the list of those worthy of unconditional love. “If your compassion does not include yourself,” he said, “it is incomplete.”

Ultimately, love is not a feeling, love is what we do. We become what we love, and what we love becomes us. Our work, our dharma, our service, becomes a channel through which love enters the world. The way we garden, the way we cook, the way we create the spaces we live in, the way we serve others, the way we talk, walk, sing and dance, all of it is a manifestation of love. “Work,” wrote Kahlil Gibran, “is love made visible.”

Real love is never about possession. Possession is rooted in fear. Where there is fear there cannot be love, and where there is love there cannot be fear. Love is complete faith and trust that no matter how disheveled and incoherent things may appear, beneath the surface there is a deep and abiding order. Love is a message. As sunlight draws the rose out of the soil, from seed to full bloom, so too love draws us out of our indeterminate nature and toward the fullest realization of our deepest potential.

Beyond the grasp of our intellect and beyond the horizon of our limited vision is a vast and infinite source that nourishes and sustains all that we see. Whether you call it God or not is of secondary importance. Of primary importance is the fact that we live and breathe and have our being there – it is what we are. And when we love, we allow our authentic being to well up through the rickety structure of our so-called life, the carefully constructed fa├žade our ego builds to cage us in. In the end, our longing for love is a longing for transcendence, to know once and for all that we are more than this, more than our bodies and minds and thoughts and fears, more than our shabby pile of things, more than our proudest accomplishments, more even than our deepest dreams and visions. Like a blinding noonday sun, love washes away all of the shadows and leaves us bathed in the light of unity, the nameless knowing that we are not lost, not forgotten, not insignificant, and that we are held in a timeless embrace where all is forgiven, all is exalted, all is well. Let us give this gift to each other. Let us love.