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What is Love?

Discipline has been defined as a system of techniques for dealing constructively with the pain of problem-solving. Instead of avoiding that pain, we can use the system to solve any of life's problems. Four basic techniques have been distinguished and elaborated:

delaying gratification;
acceptance of responsibility;
dedication to the truth; and

Discipline is a system of techniques, because they are very much interrelated. In a single act, we may use one, two, three or even all of them at the same time and in such a way that they may be indistinguishable from each other.

The strength, energy, motivation and willingness to use the techniques of discipline are provided by love.

In examining love, we are toying with a mystery, attempting to examine the unexaminable or know the unknowable. Love is too large, too deep even to be truly understood or measured or limited within the framework of words. However, consider the following:

"Love is the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's personal and spiritual growth."

Love here is defined as a behaviour in terms of the goal or purpose it is to serve, i.e. personal and spiritual growth. It is also a circular process, for when we have successfully extended our limits, we have grown larger as individuals. The act of extending one's limits implies effort. We cannot extend our limits without exceeding them. Love requires exertion and is not effortless.

Thus the act of loving is an act of self-evolution, even when the purpose of the act is someone else's growth. It is through reaching towards evolution that we evolve. Love of self is included with love for another. Since we are humans, to love humans means to love ourselves as well as others. I am dedicated to my own growth as well as to yours. Indeed, we are incapable of loving others unless we love ourselves, just as we are incapable of teaching our children self-discipline unless we are self-disciplined. We cannot be a source of strength unless we nurture our own strength.

That we have the will to love, distinguishes love as a desire from love as action. Desire alone will not produce action. Will is a desire of sufficient intensity that it is translated into action. Everyone would seem to desire to some extent to be loving, yet many are not in fact loving; so the desire to love is not itself love. Love is an act of will, an intention as well as an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love. We choose to grow. We choose to help others grow.

Falling in love

Of all the misconceptions about love, the most powerful and pervasive is the belief that "falling in love" is love, or at least, one of the manifestations of love. It is a potent misconception because falling in love is subjectively experienced in a very powerful fashion as an experience of love.

However, two problems are immediately apparent:

First, falling in love is specifically a sex-linked erotic experience. We fall in love only when we are consciously or unconsciously sexually motivated.

It is obvious and generally understood that sexual activity and love, while they may occur simultaneously, are often disassociated, because they are separate phenomena. In itself, making love is not an act of love.

Nonetheless, the experience of sexual intercourse and particularly of orgasm (even in masturbation), is an experience also associated with a greater or lesser collapse of ego boundaries and attendant ecstasy. This is not to say that the ecstasy of the orgasmic experience cannot be heightened by sharing it with the one who is beloved; it can.

Secondly, falling in love is invariably temporary. This is not to say that we will cease loving the person with whom we have fallen in love, but it is to say that the feeling of ecstasy and lovingness that characterises the experience of falling in love will always pass.

To consider the nature of the phenomenon of falling in love, we have to examine what psychologists call ego boundaries. These are our individual identities - bounded by our flesh and the limits of our power - not necessarily particularly distinguished, but which isolate us from other members of society and behind which there is a certain loneliness from which we would wish to escape to a condition in which we can be more unified with the world outside of ourselves. The experience of falling in love temporarily allows us this escape. The essence of the phenomenon of falling in love is the sudden collapse of a section of our ego boundaries, permitting us to merge our identity with another person. The sudden release of oneself from oneself, the pouring out of oneself to another and the dramatic release from loneliness that accompanies the collapse of these ego boundaries is experienced ecstatically by most of us. We and our beloved are one! Loneliness is no more!

In some respects, the act of falling love is an act of regression. The experience of merging with the loved one has its echoes from the time when we were merged with our mothers in infancy. Along with the merging, we also re-experience the sense of omnipotence that we had to give up in our journey out of childhood.

Sooner or later, in response to the problems of daily living, individual will reasserts itself. One by one, gradually or suddenly, the ego boundaries snap back into place; gradually or suddenly we fall out of love. Once again we are two separate individuals. At this point, the ties of the relationship are either dissolved or we initiate the work of real loving.

Only when a couple falls out of love, do they begin to really love. Real love does not have its roots in any feeling of love. To the contrary, real love often occurs in a context in which the feeling of love is lacking, when we act lovingly despite the fact that we don't feel loving.

Falling in love is not an act of will. It is not a conscious choice. No matter how open to it or eager for it we may be, the experience may still elude us. Contrarily, the experience may capture us at times when we are definitely not seeking it, when it is inconvenient or undesirable. We are as likely to fall in love with someone with whom we are obviously ill matched as with someone more suitable. This is not to say that the experience of love is immune to discipline. The struggle and suffering of the discipline involved may be enormous. But discipline and will can only control the experience; they cannot create it. We can choose how to respond to the experience of falling in love, but we cannot choose the experience itself.

Falling in love has little to do with positively nurturing one's personal or spiritual development. If we have any purpose in mind when we fall in love, it is to terminate our own loneliness and perhaps ensure this result through marriage.

So what is falling in love, other than a temporary and partial collapse of ego boundaries? Probably, it is a sexually specific phenomenon that is a genetically determined instinctual component of mating behaviour - a configuration of internal sexual drives and external sexual stimuli which serves to increase the probability of sexual pairing and bonding, so as to enhance the survival of the species. It is a trick that our genes pull on our otherwise perceptive minds to hoodwink us or trap us into marriage. Frequently, the trick goes awry one way or another, as when the sexual drives and stimuli are homosexual or when other forces - parental interference, mental illness, conflicting responsibilities or mature self-discipline - supervene to prevent the bonding. On the other hand, without this trick, this illusory and inevitably temporary (it would not be practicable were it not temporary) regression to infantile merging and omnipotence, many of us who are happily or unhappily married today would have retreated in wholehearted terror from the realism of the marriage vows.

The myth of romantic love

To serve as effectively as it does to trap us into marriage, the experience of falling in love probably must have as one of its characteristics the illusion that the experience will last forever. This illusion is fostered in our culture by the commonly held myth of romantic love, which has its origin in our favourite childhood fairy tales wherein the prince and princess, once united, live happily forever after. The myth of romantic love tells us, in effect, that for every young man in the world there is a young woman who was "meant for him" and vice versa. Moreover, the myth implies that there is only one man meant for a woman and only one woman meant for a man and this has been predetermined, usually by the stars! When we meet the person for whom we are intended, recognition comes through the fact that we fall in love. We have met the person for whom all the heavens intended us and, since the match is perfect, we will then be able to satisfy all of each other's needs forever and ever and, therefore live happily forever after in perfect union and harmony. Should it come to pass, however, that we do not satisfy or meet all of each other's needs and friction arises and we fall out of love, then it is clear that a dreadful mistake was made: We misread the stars; we did not hook up with our one and only perfect match; what we thought was love was not real or "true" love, and nothing can be done about the situation except to live unhappily every after or get divorced.

The myth of romantic love is a dreadful lie. Millions of people waste vast amounts of energy desperately and futilely attempting to the make the reality of their lives conform to the unreality of the myth.

Towards real love

Falling in love is not an extension of one's limits or boundaries; it is a partial collapse of them. The extension of one's limits requires effort; falling in love is effortless. Lazy and undisciplined people are as likely to fall in love as energetic and dedicated ones. Once the precious moment of falling in love has passed and the boundaries have snapped back into place, the individual may be disillusioned, but is usually none the larger for the experience. When the limits are extended or stretched, however, they tend to stay stretched. Real love is a permanently self-enlarging experience. Falling in love is not.

Falling in love is very close to real love and is part of the great and mysterious scheme of love.. Indeed, the misconception that falling in love is a type of love is so potent precisely because it contains a grain of truth. The experience of real love also has to do with ego boundaries, since it involves the extension of our limits. Our limits are our ego boundaries. When we extend our limits though love, we do so by reaching out towards the beloved whose growth we wish to nurture. For us to be able to do this, the beloved object must first become beloved to us. In other words, we must be attracted towards, invested in and committed to an object outside of ourselves, beyond the boundaries of ourselves.

Psychologists call this process of attraction, investment and commitment cathexis and say that we cathect the beloved object. When we cathect an object outside of ourselves, we also psychologically incorporate a representation of that object into ourselves.

What transpires in the course of many years of loving, of extending our limits for our cathexes, is a gradual but progressive enlargement of the self, an incorporation within of the world without and a growth, a stretching and a thinning of our ego boundaries. In this way, the more we extend ourselves, the more we love, the more blurred becomes the distinction between the self and the world. We become identified with the world. As our ego boundaries become blurred and thinned, we begin more and more to experience the same sort of feeling of ecstasy that we have when our ego boundaries partially collapse and we "fall in love". Only, instead of having merged temporarily and unrealistically with a single beloved object, we have merged realistically and more permanently with much of the world. A "mystical union" with the entire world may be established. The feeling of ecstasy or bliss associated with this union, while perhaps more gentle and less dramatic than that associated with falling in love, is nonetheless much more stable and lasting and ultimately satisfying. The heights are not suddenly glimpsed and lost again; they are attained forever.

Exploration and Discussion

1. Describe:

(a) Your first "crush";

(b) An experience in which you felt loved by your mother;

(c) An experience of "falling out of love";

(d) Your love for some object or activity;

(e) Early messages you received about sexuality;

(f) An experience in which you felt loved by your father;

(g) An adult who loved you as a child;

(h) Your first date;

(i) An experience of unrequited love;

(j) The myths of romantic love that you grew up with.

2. Without reference to text above, write in your own words a paraphrase of what love is.

3. To see how well you have grasped this idea of love, tick the following statements true or false.

true false
1. Love of self and love of others become indistinguishable.
2. The act of loving is an act of self-evolution.
3. We are incapable of loving others unless we love ourselves.
4. Love becomes real only through exertion.
5. Ego boundaries provide safety.
6. Ego boundaries can create loneliness.
7. The experience of falling in love is an act of regression.
8. The work of loving begins when we fall out of love.
9. Falling in love is very, very close to real love.
10. The more we love, the more blurred becomes our distinction between ourselves and the world.

4. How are you extending yourself to nurture your own personal and spiritual growth?

5. How are you extending yourself to nurture someone else's personal and spiritual growth?

6. Where are you dissatisfied with your present state of loving?

7. What old beliefs about love do you need to give up in order to grow towards true loving?

8. What balancing do you need to do in order to love more effectively?