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5. When We Fall in Love

There is no fear if the heart is uncontaminated
and the mind is free from ill-will.
Seeing beyond good and evil, one is awake.

Dhammapada verse 39

I have been asked to talk about falling in love. The way I want to approach this topic is from a consideration of love as that which happens in our heart when all fear falls away. Perfect love is the absence of the heart-contraction experienced as fear. Now, can we contemplate this absence as presence?

Love as Undivided Attention

What does it feel like to be loved? What does it feel like to be loving – as it is happening? To receive love from another is to receive somebody’s undivided attention. They’re not preoccupied with anybody or anything else; they have forgotten themselves and are wholeheartedly attending to us. There’s a tremendous beauty, richness and fullness in so receiving the heart of another.

If we were to consider the experience of our own undivided attention directed inwards, we would come upon ‘one-pointedness’, the essence of formal meditation. Cultivating this one-pointedness is our samadhi practice. In samadhi we experience a sense of profound beauty and fullness, an incomparable aliveness directly related to the quality of attention involved. However, as important as the cultivation of this unified inner state may be, this evening’s question is about the same undivided heart-quality directed outwards, towards another person.

It’s natural that we want to know the truth about love. It is such a mysterious and unfathomable experience, and yet our hearts yearn to fathom it. Various objects and situations can draw us into this state of being undivided. If we’ve consciously experienced our ability to offer such attention, we know how it feels in the company of another individual, but we might also have experienced it unexpectedly on a mountaintop or alone out on the ocean. There might also have been occasions when we felt lifted into an altogether different reality through proximity to a particular individual who has fully realised the heart’s capacity for being loving. Simply being in their company might have induced us into a state of love that we had not known before. In these various ways it happens that conditions sometimes conspire to free us from fear; and when fear ceases, when for some magical reason fear is not happening, love is.

Having become aware through personal experience of this tremendous quality of undivided attention, it becomes possible for us to enquire into how, where and when attention becomes divided. Our attention is usually divided, and we soon recognise how difficult it is not to be divided – not to be taking sides for and against our experience. It’s not easy to make ourselves be loving; in fact we can’t do it; ‘I’ can’t make myself be loving. Being loving happens. However, we can, through developing an interest, direct ourselves towards an awareness of the divided state; we can investigate it and become familiar with its dynamic. As we make this investigation, we start to find that we can undo the compulsion to be divided. Accordingly, as we are freed from the compulsion to be divided in our lives, we begin to realise the heart’s capacity to live free from fear. Slowly but surely we once again uncover the natural ability to be loving, and in doing so we emerge from reactivity into responsible living.

The Wound of Separateness

To say that we uncover a natural ability might make it sound like being divided is all wrong. It was not all wrong. In childhood we grew gradually from a state of undifferentiated identification with our parents and the sensual world into a perception of separateness, or relative selfhood. The child development theorists describe how an individuated sense of being a separate somebody is constellated by about the age of seven. By that stage a personality of sorts, an ego, has become established together with the perception of ‘me’ and ‘you’ and ‘the world out there’. Along with these perceptions come all ‘my’ desires; from the age of seven onwards there’s a lot more substance to the demanding of a child. Accompanying this developing ego, there’s ‘my’ ability to say no to ‘you’ when you want something from ‘me’; there’s more solidity, and the ideas of ‘my rights’ and ‘my boundaries’ develop.

This development of ‘my way’ is natural and necessary for us as humans. But it is very useful to understand how, as this momentum increases, there’s a diminishing capacity for abiding in the happiness of the undifferentiated state – the state of simply being at one with what is happening. The pleasure and freedom of ‘at-one-ment’ that we knew as children become less and less accessible to us as we grow up.

Then as we approach early adolescence we start to look for ways to escape the discomfort of this perceived separateness, with its agonies of loneliness and dividedness. And, not surprisingly, around this time we have our first experience of falling in love. Something happens, we don’t quite know what it is, but we become incredibly interested in somebody else – and it’s not mum or dad! It’s magical, it’s frightening, and there’s an excitement and enthusiasm that promises to free us from all our unhappiness.

So we have fallen in love, but we are still carrying the wound of separateness that occurred in childhood. That wound means that there’s no longer the opportunity simply to be one with life. Now we find that there’s ‘me’ and ‘you’ as well as the ‘world’. When we fall in love there is the first major disturbance of our separate identity, and the first hint of the task ahead of us: as if out of instinct we passionately desire to return to at-one-ment. ‘How do I return to that beautiful state I used to be in, where there wasn’t a care in the world? I feel obstructed, I feel cut off, I feel only half alive…’

In presenting this particular perspective on falling in love, I am not saying that this is all there is to it. This is one pathway of contemplation into an important and complex area of our lives. Falling in love can appear extremely attractive to a person at one time yet terrifying at another. What is called for is a way in which we can ask the most challenging questions of our hearts while feeling free and able to listen to the response.

Initially it might appear that by following our passionate desires we will get what we want; and what we want after all is to be happy. We think that by following our desire to be happy we will become happy. We believe that there is such a thing as true happiness and that falling in love is a way to get it. Most of these beliefs and thoughts are totally unconscious at the time.

The difficulty which we encounter during these initial efforts is that, as we follow the impulse to gratify desire, the momentum of ‘my way’ increases. ‘I’ feel more and more that ‘I’ must have that which ‘I’ long for. With this comes a corresponding intensification of the fear of not getting the object of my desire. The increase in force of the compulsion of ‘my way’ gives rise to an absolutely equal increase in the fear of not getting my way. With the increase in the force of the fear of not getting ‘my way’ there is the painfully diminished capacity for simply being loving.

Tragically for us, we don’t notice this happening. All we know is that the passionate longing is increasing and that we feel trapped. It is rare that we receive the kind companionship of others who would guide us through our adolescent struggles to wisdom. Hope for true love and lasting meaning increases yet the clouds of loneliness roll in and our hearts grow cold.

Our life continues to unfold in myriad ways. But now we’ve got this divided consciousness – we believe strongly in right and wrong and good and bad. We have the ability to make judgments about how things should and shouldn’t be, and about how I should and shouldn’t be. And it doesn’t stop. Years go by; the momentum of it all seems to increase, and yet there is still this inkling that somehow this business of love is terribly important. We write poetry about it, sing songs about it and from time to time we experience something that we call ‘falling in love’. Yet we are not freed from our increasingly chaotic dividedness.

In fact everything about us becomes divided, even our professional lives. We talk about ‘being at work’; there’s who we are at home and there’s who we are at work. Even if you’re a professional meditator, a monk or a nun, there can be dividedness. I hear people talk about ‘the real practice’, which means there must be the unreal practice. The real practice, they say, is when we’re meditating. They say that when we’re doing ‘the real practice’ – that is when we’re on retreat – there are no problems. As soon as we start talking and relating to others, doing work and so on, then we get all these problems. But if there is our real practice and our unreal practice, then we are living in a state of fragmentation; relationships, talking to people and being at work appear as obstructions to well-being. Who is responsible for that division? Where does the idea of real practice and unreal practice exist? In our divided minds, in our divided hearts.

Sometimes we’re sitting in meditation and the mind is not how we want it to be. Perhaps we’re filled with longing for intimacy that is causing an inner struggle as we sit there on our cushion. If we look carefully, we’ll find that there is a voice that says, ‘It shouldn’t be this way, I shouldn’t be like this.’ Where does that division of what should or shouldn’t be exist? It exists in our own divided minds, our own divided hearts. We are the ones who are setting conditions up against each other. We need to know this.

Falling in Love

It’s possible that if there is an absence of love in our lives, we try with our divided minds to become more loving. We think of our unloving characteristics as things that we have to ‘fix’. However, when we look at what is – without any sense that it should be some other way – we can sense this very tendency to divide ourselves off from what is. If we approach our lives in this way, cultivating undivided attention to the present moment, we are capable of being loving in each moment.

If we live this way, and one day a person appears, and that special magic happens whereby fear falls away and the beauty that we call loving manifests, then maybe we won’t divide our hearts and minds and start struggling to hold on to this experience. Maybe we won’t spoil it; we will be loving, we will delight in and be strengthened and even transformed by the intensity of that experience. The intensity of that beauty and that joy has the power to transform the habit of selfishness. The momentum of ‘my way’ can be dissolved, by the radiant warmth of love with all of its intensity and all of its enthusiasm and all of its beauty, undenied.

However, for most of us, most of the time, this spontaneous capacity for loving is not the reality that we live with. We find that we are not able to abide as that loving reality, and so it is that we fall in love. What happens then, when we fall in love? The intensity and enthusiasm of that moment when fear falls away and when the natural, undivided state becomes conscious, turns our lives upside down. From the point of view of ‘me’, from the unawakened personality’s perspective, that enthusiasm is totally threatening; it feels like it could shatter me. It becomes intolerable – we can’t sleep, can’t eat and feel we’re being driven mad. If we’re not suitably prepared for such intensity then the very pleasure of loving itself triggers the habit to grasp and contract. The pleasure is so beautiful that I feel I can’t help but want it to last. The momentum of ‘my way’ is thus expressed as a default mechanism of narrowing attention. Instead of opening in wonder at the beauty of the experience and simply being it, we default to the momentum of ‘my way’, to the ‘How can I have it?’

Pointing this out is not to judge that momentum, but to help us consider it and recognise it as a habit. To try and grasp at pleasure is not an obligation, it’s a habit; it’s a choice that we make, and therefore we can also choose to exercise the heart’s ability to inhibit that contraction.

When we contract around desire, grasping its object, thinking, ‘I want to make this pleasure last,’ we condition the arising of the exactly equal and opposite experience of ‘I’m afraid it won’t last.’ These two experiences, of wanting the pleasure to last, and fearing that it won’t, go together, like the front and back of the hand. We can’t have one without the other. The sadness of this situation is that by grasping the desire to make it last we lose the loving. We lose the loving in its pure, natural form; the contracted heart no longer has the capacity to contain our enthusiasm and so it leaps out and lands on the other person.

This is the subjective experience as the open-hearted beautiful state is lost. Because of the habit of desire and the consequent fear, the heart-energy leaps out and lands on the object – whether it’s a thing in a shop that we feel we must have, or another person, or an ideal, or a state of mind. Assuming that it’s another person, the consequence of this leaping-out is the thought, ‘I can’t live without you.’ And that’s true; ‘I’ can’t live without ‘you’, because I don’t have my heart anymore; you’ve got half of it at least, so I’ll do anything to have you – that’s what the heart feels and what the mind tends to believe.

The unawakened personality cannot live without the other, for it feels like death, though from the perspective of the awakened personality all this would be seen as a state of diminished responsibility. Now, to say this is not to diminish the experience; we all have the experience and we all have to learn from it. But we should also recognise that in this experience we betray ourselves and project our hearts’ passion and enthusiasm onto another object or another person. Subsequently we have to suffer the consequences of having betrayed ourselves. Believing that, ‘I cannot simply trust my own heart’s capacity for loving, so I will project it onto you and expect you to carry it for me,’ we fall in love. This is losing ourselves, and there’s an intoxication in this experience. If we make a contract with each other – two unawakened personalities deciding to collude with this delusion – then, when the two of us get together in equally deluded states, it can feel like one whole.

Love and Transformation

Often I am asked whether it is possible to deepen practice in the context of a committed relationship. My hesitation to say much about this is not because of a view that progress on the path towards realisation can only be furthered in the context of monastic life; such fixed views scare me. But since I don’t have the experience of living in relationship with one other person with any degree of long-term commitment, I can’t presume to know. Just as I wouldn’t rely on someone without many years experience to teach me how to live the celibate renunciate life, I don’t wish to instruct others how to live their lives as householders, only to encourage asking questions of themselves. I believe that all of us, whatever our lifestyle commitment, can use every situation we find ourselves in to deepen practice.

One thing I have heard from some who view their partnership as practice is that there is as much, if not more, to learn from falling out of love as there is to learn from falling in love. What is essential is commitment and interest in going beyond the initial high. I have heard various lay teachers, who know about this business from their own experience, that inevitably every relationship reaches the point where at least one of the partners feels, ‘I made the wrong choice.’ And it is precisely at that point that the relationship becomes really interesting as an aspect of spiritual practice.

There are ways of contemplating the dynamic of being loving so that we can prepare ourselves to benefit from our susceptibility to falling in love. As the possibility of the Way dawns on us, we can start to see that it is wisdom that calls us to prepare ourselves for such wild encounters with life. Experiences such as falling in love appear threatening, at least on some level – they don’t just threaten to destroy our ego, our subjective personality (they do that for sure); they also threaten to ruin our lives. If you’re a monk or a nun and you fall in love, and you’re not prepared for it, the consequences can be very difficult. Similarly, if you’re married and you fall in love with someone other than the one with whom you have made a commitment, the consequences can also be very difficult. But we can prepare ourselves, so that we don’t have to be afraid of it happening; we don’t have to be afraid of the intensity.

If we contemplate in this manner, we can ask ourselves, do I want to be able to withstand the tension that arises as a consequence of an as-yet-unawakened relationship with my own heart-capacity? When we fall in love, what’s really taking place is that we are challenged to own up to the consequences of our limited way of engaging with experience. We feel like saying, ‘I can’t handle it, I can’t handle this,’ but we can decide to handle it, to say ‘I’m interested in learning to handle this; I’m interested in learning to handle all of my heart’s enthusiasm for life; I’m interested in being loving, fully, purifying the heart’s capacity for being loving.’ If we’ve investigated and considered this matter, and then decide to exercise this choice, we are already preparing ourselves, so that when the passion arises, fear, contraction and limitation is not the default, but instead an interest in the reality which is unfolding takes its place. We’re interested and enthusiastic because we see the potential that such energy has for dissolving the rigidity of our frozen hearts. It feels impossible from one perspective, for sure; from the perspective of the ego, it’s definitely impossible; but from the perspective of facing the Way, it’s a profound power for transformation, and it does not have to become an obstruction. It can deepen our commitment to being free to live all of our life as it comes to us and goes from us, without fear.



© 2005 Aruna Publications