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The Ascent of Love

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 07/25/2004
Location: Headlands Institute
In Topics: Emotion

“When it comes to love, and especially to love’s necessarily erotic nature, we have to shake our heads and admit that love can be so compelling, so strong, so confusing, that it may be beyond our powers to bring it into line with our highest spiritual aspirations…”As many of you probably know, for the last several months, through our study of Emptiness, Buddhist Psychology, and Dalai Lama's book "Destructive Emotions," we've been thinking about the many ways our practice is the practice of working with our emotions. Not that we are fixated on emotion, or overly interested in it as a topic. But we can't help but notice that all day long thoughts and feelings arise in us, and that these thoughts and feelings are always associated with each other; all thoughts have some feelings that go with them, and all feelings produce thinking of some sort. It becomes difficult to tell the difference between thought and feeling, and in fact Buddhist psychology does not make any important distinction between them. They are both types of "phenomena of consciousness." So, whether we are very emotional people, or people who are seemingly less given to and less interested in emotion, there is no denying the centrality of emotion in the moment to moment experience of our living. And it may be that what the Buddha means by "awakening" isn't some rarified mystical vision of life that would remove us from ordinary human intercourse, but instead a deeper fuller and clearer engagement with our feelings, and with the connections we make with others through our feelings.

There's no doubt that our emotions are often problematical. It's no wonder we'd like to deny them, or go on to other "more important" things. Emotions are so often compelling, messy, shameful, unsophisticated. How much we're pushed around by anger, desire, shame, jealousy, and so on. To protect ourselves, we try to push all that down, deny it, reduce its importance. But this doesn't work very well. For practice, the method is always to face what we are feeling, to know it as it is, and to develop through our sitting practice, little by little, the ability to appreciate honestly what we are feeling and to be able to let go of it appropriately and naturally – not to be victimized by our feelings, but to be attentive to them, to uncover and appreciate and clarify them more and more.

Personally, I do not believe that the awakened person is one who transcends ordinary human emotion. The awakened person is still capable of anger, desire, jealousy, and so on. He or she knows these feelings and respects them; and in knowing these feelings intimately and without shame or confusion, connects warmly and sympathetically with others who also have such feelings. But the awakened person is far less victimized or pushed around by such feelings. He or she is able to patiently bear feelings and appreciate them not so much as self expression or self reference but rather as the unfolding of human reality, and therefore to have enough spaciousness of experience to avoid being compelled too much by feelings. In addition, I would say that the awakened person is one who has a greater flexibility and a greater range of human feeling than the rest of us. For he or she allows feelings to come and go in response to conditions, and experiences not only the normal range of feelings but also, with some frequency, feelings like compassion, equanimity, joy, gratitude, love, aesthetic appreciation, wonder, awe – emotions that any of us are also capable of feeling, but probably feel less frequently. So I have been thinking that the awakened person is a deeply feeling person, and that allowing and living within the free and natural flow of human feeling is the main practice of an awakened person.

This is all by way of summary and introduction to what I want to address today, the most troublesome and wonderful of all human emotions, love, especially erotic love. We can have a fairly believable conversation about emotions and how to work with them so as to make them more beautiful and reduce their destructive power. But when it comes to love, and especially to love's necessarily erotic nature, we have to shake our heads and admit that love can be so compelling, so strong, so confusing, that it may be beyond our powers to bring it into line with our highest spiritual aspirations. As I often mention, Buddha decided at the beginning of his practice that it was going to be too difficult to do what he was trying to do without giving up erotic love altogether. In trying to do full on spiritual practice while remaining involved in erotic relationships we are attempting to do what the Buddha considered beyond his powers! I say this not to dismiss the possibility of our success but just to add a bit of realism to our expectations, which ought to be modest. In any case, there is something wonderful about the attempt. And it seems necessary, no matter how well we do with it. It is definitely impossible and inadvisable to limit serious spiritual practice to people who have given up intimate loving relationships.

Human culture is full of examples of the effort to ennoble erotic love, so that it retains its power and its beauty and yet sheds those aspects that lead so often to pain, jealousy, violence, hatred, exclusivity, neediness and craziness. I have always thought it astute of Freud to have considered that erotic love was at the heart of almost all human emotion and motivation, and therefore also at the root of so many of our neuroses and deep human problems. While his view is perhaps a bit one dimensional, it is also deep. So this is something for us to consider seriously. Because if our path is the bodhisattva path, built on a foundation of wisdom and compassion, and if we are really trying to love sentient beings, and to be concerned – viscerally, passionately, and as selflessly as possible – for others- then probably we can't abandon or transcend erotic love. Even if we are celibate, we need to have real passion, real warmth, for others, and if we are not celibate, we need to find a way to love one person, or one family, without the exclusivity, possessiveness, and neediness that always leads to dissatisfaction, hatred, and anger, and to extend that love to others, finally even to everyone. This is an ideal, I know, but spiritual practice is always idealistic, a hike toward the horizon of the ideal. One never arrives at the horizon, which remains exactly the same distance ahead no matter how far we go.

If you want to learn about suffering, love. Loving is the best way to find out about suffering. So we're not looking for a way to eliminate suffering from love, and I don't think we'd want to do that, or could do that. Compassion means to suffer with another. How could we actually care about someone if we are unwilling to suffer? But it would be good, and it would be in accord with the path of awakening, to find a way to love that doesn't make more suffering, or make the sort of virulent suffering that love gone wrong so easily erupts into.

On my recent trip abroad I had a chance to finish a wonderful book that brings up this question, Martha Nussbaum's "Upheavals of Thought: the Intelligence of Emotions," a tremendous treatise, really, about emotions, and how they have been understood and worked with throughout the history of Western thought. Martha Nussbaum is an extraordinary thinker, full of warmth and a down to earth personal perspective, and at the same time a master of four of five different intellectual fields, through which she courses easily. The last section of this great book takes up the question of erotic love and reviews the various attempts to perform what she calls "the ascent of love," that is, the purification of erotic love, the lifting of it toward its highest human expression, purifying it of its smallness and painfulness. She discusses in her final two or three hundred pages Plato, Spinoza, Augustine, Dante, Emily Bronte, Mahler (one of her heroes), Walt Whitman, Proust, and Joyce, and analyzes in critical detail their views of love.

In the context of our practice, we can note two extremes in the way we approach the question of love. On the one hand, we make love rarified and abstract. We love humanity, we vow to "save all sentient beings," and we really feeling that we are doing this, while in reality we are removing ourselves from any real contact with others. I think this is a real danger in intense spiritual practice, this impulse to leave the ordinary world of fleshly needy human beings- one's self included- behind, and take refuge in God or enlightenment. To me this isn't actually taking refuge in God or enlightenment- at any rate what I'd consider God or enlightenment. It's an escape into abstraction, a flight from rather than an immersion in the actual present moment of our living. In Zen we call this "the cave of emptiness." Being caught by emptiness. It's all too common, especially for people who take up spiritual practice as a way to cope with tremendous emotional pain. This probably includes to one extent or another all of us, since to be human, to have grown up in a human family with parents in an imperfect world, is to have automatically been emotionally scarred to one degree or another.

At the other extreme, one could so psychologize one's practice that it becomes entirely self-referential and one's very focused on one's need for relationship and warmth and love and so on but in reality it's all about me, my fulfillment, my friendships and romances, and there's really not much actual love involved because there isn't much ability to see and experience that another person is actually that – another person – which is to say, unknowable, immense.

For us the hope is and the journey is to avoid both these pitfalls and to be able to remain engaged on a basic grounded human level with others who we know as others, and yet at the same time identify with, recognizing that self and other is a constant negotiation or conversation, and that we are most fundamentally that conversation, and can never be separate from it. This is how I understand the Buddha's teaching of non-self : that we are as the Lotus sutra says, "only a Buddha and a Buddha," co-creating each other with the whole universe on each occasion. We are not separate, nor are we the same.

There is a deep and I would say confused tradition in the West of the holiness and transcendence of erotic passion. This tradition begins in Judaism and early Christianity, develops through the Renaissance with the chivalrous tradition of courtly love, goes through the Romantics who sexualized it (in our recent culture the Beats were followers of the Romantics). In the Christian tradition the excessive and chaste love of Jesus is a passion without boundary that justifies almost anything, including seeking or causing death, as a love offering. You see a similar feeling among some of the Sufi and Hindu poets whose intoxication with God is infectious. There is something beautiful in all these traditions, but the flaw in them, as far as I can see, is that there such a totalization of the feeling of love that it swallows up actual people, burning up the individual in love's conflagration.

It's easier probably to love all sentient beings, or God, or humanity or love itself, than it is to love one person, or even one's self. In our practice, which allows and seems to encourage down to earth committed relationships and family life for even the most committed practitioners, we are gifted with the supreme challenge of practicing the ascent of love in a very personal and everyday way. We join together human being to human being- "body to body, mind to mind, true nature to true nature," as one version of our wedding ceremony puts it. It's never easy but I think it is possible for two people to join together in this way and help each other grow truly as human beings through the path of shared daily living. I have found this to be a tremendous practice, a beautiful basis for the development of compassion and loving kindness toward everyone: if compassion is my commitment as a priest and a practitioner then how can I not begin at home, and this means mostly noticing when I am not compassionate and loving, and how that is. In my very real and daily encounters with my family members I often don't live up to my highest aspirations, but I always try to pay attention, and to be honest and present with what I am actually feeling and how I am actually behaving. There are beautiful moments of real love and appreciation of course, many of them, but there are also times of annoyance, anger, confusion, resentment. These seem necessary and real: the full picture seems to require them. They sweeten the pot.

In the final analysis, as Martha Nussbaum points out at the end of her book, with her discussion of Joyce's Ulysses, the ascent of love depends also on love's descent: while we hold high ideals and aspirations, and work all the time to purify ourselves of narrowness and destructive emotions, we also recognize our ordinariness and celebrate it. To be a human being is to be messy, smelly, and flawed as well as noble and spiritual. And this is perfection: our very imperfection can't ever be dispensed with. When you reflect on it long enough you see how radically this is so. It's the nature of rupa, flesh, to be corrupted, to return to the earth. And it's the nature of mind to rise up, returning to heaven. Yet body and mind are not two substances, they are one flow. Only within our conceptual world do they appear as separate. Only in the conceptual world is there an opposition between perfection and imperfection, between love and resentment. When we sit in zazen we demonstrate this directly and train in it: rooted in the body, on the earth, held on our seats by gravity, we also rise up, feeling the lightness of the upper torso as our spirit lifts us with a light touch. For a little while we can let go of concepts and simply experience love without anything extra.

This poem of Galway Kinnel's was in a late July 2004 edition of the New Yorker:


When I was twenty the one true
free spirit I had heard of was Shelly,
Shelly, who wrote tracts advocating
atheism, free love, the emancipation
of women, the abolition of wealth and class,
and poems on the bliss of romantic love,
Shelly, who I learned later, perhaps
almost too late, remarried Harriet,
then pregnant with their second child,
and a few months later ran off with Mary,
already pregnant herself, bringing
with them Mary's stepsister Claire,
who very likely also became his lover,

and in this malaise a trios, which Shelly
had imagined would be "a paradise of exiles,"
they lived, along with the specter of Harriet,
who drowned herself in the Serpentine,
and of Mary's half sister Fanny,
who killed herself, maybe for unrequited
love of Shelly, and with the spirits
of adored but often neglected
children conceived incidentally
in the pursuit of Eros – Harriet's
Ianthe and Charles, denied to Shelly
and consigned to foster parents; Mary's
Clara, dead at one; her Willmouse,
Shelly's favorite, dead at three; Elena,
the baby in Naples, almost surely
Shelly's own, whom he "adopted"
and then left behind, dead at one and a half;
Allegra, Claire's daughter by Byron,
whom Byron sent off to the convent
at Bagnacavallo at four, dead at five –

and those days before I knew
any of this, I thought I followed Shelly,
who thought he was following radiant desire.

® 2004, Norman Fischer