There is perhaps no other term, concept or emotion that has been so thoroughly woven into the fabric of human life and existence than Love. A close second is Death, but that is the topic for a whole another blog. It has been felt by everybody at some point in their life. It is the #1 tag on Instagram and has been used over 2.2 billion times. Countless authors, poets, writers, singers, painters, and artists have captured some part of its essence in every conceivable format and media. Most of us use the word at least once a day, often multiple. People have ended their lives for it. It can cause one to experience utter bliss or utter misery and everything in between. It is the one force that transcends religion and belief systems. It has led to wars and millions of deaths in such sagas as Helen of Troy and Cleopatra. Even the very gods have fought and destroyed for it as evidenced in Hinduism, Greek mythology, and others. It has even been said that ‘all is fair in love (and war)’ which means even God’s own edicts, as delivered by religion, can be suspended, or at least temporarily ignored. It causes strangers to come together and become lovers and partners, if only for a while. Love has also caused some of the most cruel and hateful things to be said and done by humans. It has caused people to suffer the range of negative emotions from anger and hate to sadness and depression. It has been said it is the single most powerful force in the universe and that God himself (or herself, or itself) is Love.
But what is Love? Haddaway offered an explanation in this song. Countless books have been written on it and a quick search on Amazon brings up over 80,000+ results. Typing ‘Love’ into Google brings up 15,470,000,000 results. Shops have clothing, furnishings, or decorations with the word on them. Generally speaking, it is described as an intense feeling of affection for somebody or something. But there are many nuanced dimensions in what exactly affection means. For example, there is the kind of affection a mother feels for her child or a daughter towards her father. Then there is the feeling of affection shared between lovers that is different that the previous example. Love also has many entanglements with things like lust (sexual), pleasure (food, wine, location, etc.), intellectual (reading, coding, etc.), artistic (dancing, painting, etc.) and almost every other part of life. “I love _______” can mean many, many different things based on context, nuance, and circumstances. Love is also an emotion that is brought on by many inputs just like any other emotion. But for something that is so powerful and all encompassing, it also has an ebb and flow and follows the law of impermanence thought one part of it actually is exempt (we will explore that a bit later). Love can also cause endless amount of powerful negative emotions and can cause one to suffer the entirety of their lifetime. Ask anybody who has lost a loved one to disease or untimely death and the suffering is etched on their face in an instant. Love also creates attachment and entanglement that can last for varying amount of time. Generally speaking, we can say love has some qualities that are common across humanity and is multi-dimensional as follows.
Affection or deep caring for somebody or something based on kinship or acquired ties. Examples here are the love for family or the love for a pet.
Attraction or magnetism based on sexual desire. This ranges from lust to affection depending on the pre and post act of sex.
Love for an intellectual or artistic pursuit such as reading, video games, painting, dancing etc.
Love for nature which is the simple act of being one with the mountain, forest, or ocean.
Etheric love that is a deep affection or euphoria for something that is not immediately tangible. The feeling one gets on a bright spring morning or when they wake up and just love life without any boundaries. Love of God also falls in this definition.
Love in the context of benevolence. Somebody who contributes to an orphanage or animal shelter feels deep love towards those that benefit from the contribution.
Love of attachment for a possession or material object. The love one has for a car or collection of stamps.
Tough Love- A situation where one commits an act that outwardly seems bad or negative but is done because of love. A father forces the son to move out of the house and get a job so he can learn to stand on his own.
There are so many definitions, permutations and dimensions to this single word that it is impossible to put it in a box and say, ‘this is love’. But we can explore the cause and effects of love and come to an understanding of why something so beautiful and powerful can also create such horror and negativity. In fact, love is probably the best manifestation of the Asian concept of the Ying and Yang.
“I am in love with this guy, he is the one”. “She is amazing, and I love her to the moon and back” (Pluto is much farther than the moon so why not Pluto, but I digress). Throughout my life, I have heard some combination of these words from family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, and everybody between. They have always been delivered with such a beautiful glow of exuberance and a “glow” from the speaker that one cannot help but be moved by them and somewhat envious. But, as I got older, I also saw the other side of this which was the inevitable breakup or the suffering of the effect of The Impermanence Curve on their love. The latter is probably one of the main things that kept me from long-term relationships and marriage for most of my life. As an outsider, seeing the utter pain and suffering of the inevitable breakup made me realize the short-term exuberance of love was not worth the longer-lasting suffering that came. Some 50% of marriages today end in varying ugly ways and I suspect another 49% are at or far below the happiness quotient that was expected when getting married. While I think marriage is one of the most useless constructs of man, I only bring it up here as most marriages, at least in western societies, begin with a surge of love. Even from my earliest days of my parents attempting to get me married (common in Indian culture), I always wondered why so many fail, either directly or one or both people living in some level of unhappiness. It is only in my 40s that I slowly began to realize what I am able to articulate fully now which is that almost all love, or what people think is love, is check listed or transactional. What I mean by this is that the person who is the target of one’s love checks many of the boxes on a check list. Looks, career, wealth, family, age, perceived compatibility, want kids, location, accent, etc., the list is nearly endless but enough of the boxes get checked to get into a relationship. As time passes, this attraction grows into love and typically ends in a long-term relationship or marriage. Obviously, the Indian concept of arranged (deranged as I call it) marriage does not fall into this but that is a topic for the marriage blog. But, over time, the inevitable plateau arrives and then the subsequent descent which is why such a significant percentage of relationships end or devolve into misery. This is because the many boxes that were checked were done at a moment in time and love grew in a short period of time where most of the boxes remained checked. But as is inevitable given impermanence and changes in a person as they evolve and change over time, boxes begin to get unchecked as time progresses and hence the love that was created based on a snapshot of time also begins to fade or worse, transforms to its opposite of anger and hate. Sure, many do not get as far as hate but almost nobody has the same level of engagement, excitement, and love as was there in the beginning. The fact is that love, no matter how strong or deep, based on a checklist created in a snapshot of time, cannot survive the inevitable changes that come to both people over time. And every single being evolves over time and many not in ways that checks any boxes on your ever-changing list. In fact, most of us evolve in ways we would not have dreamed of years prior. Yes, people still stay together for kids, mutual care, or a myriad of other reasons but that is not the same as staying together based on the checklist-based love which created the relationship to begin with. We can conclude that (transactional) love is not an unconditional, transcendent emotion that unites two individuals in lifelong harmony despite all differences and in the face of increasing incompatibility.
A different version of transactional love is the feeling one has for inanimate objects or experiences not based on a living being. This type of love is typically based on a craving that is at some point fulfilled. The longer one must wait for fulfillment, the stronger the love. But this type of love follows The Impermanence Curve almost perfectly; there is a sharp rise after fulfillment, a plateau, and then the inevitable fall. That is because this type of love stems from more from the mind and intellect rather than from oneself. Therefore, as is inevitable, the mind either gets bored or the laws of diminishing returns take over. Think of the first car you bought, that trendy dress, the iPhone 10, or Rolex. All were amazing at first and you could not stop fawning over it and thinking about it all the time. But, as time went along, the next shiny thing took over and the former object of your adoration just became another possession. I still remember the very first car my parents got me during my 2nd year of college. It was a dark blue Mitsubishi Precis (rebadged Hyundai Excel), small hatchback that was perfect for a college student. I knew every inch of that car in detail and to this day I can remember gazing at things like the dashboard, the swept headlights or dark blue mats with love, fondness, and attachment. I cleaned that car every week for a few months to polished perfection and was gutted when it got the first scratch. But, by my 2nd year of ownership, much of that went away though I still do have a soft spot for that car in my emotion bank. Look at your own life and see how many things were once your most prized possession and full of your love’s attention but now are either just gone or sitting in a drawer somewhere. Something from recent memory is this pair of shoes I gave away to charity after 21 years of owning it. They were a pair of very comfortable slip-on shoes that I had bought in Spain in 2000 when I was living in Madrid. I still remember walking on a side street off Plaza Mayor and seeing them for the first time. The deep red hue really caught my attention, and I was sold. I wore them to countless dinners and parties and almost always getting a comment on how good they looked. But, in recent years, I wore them less and less and they just became a fond memory when I would see them in the shoe closet. So, I finally decided to give them away, though the attachment of memory made the act difficult.
There is another dimension of love we all experience and one that stays with us through the entirety of our lifetime. This is the love we feel for our parents or children and survives no matter how much strain is put on the relationship. People who have not talked to their parents for years, the reason being irrelevant, still harbor a deep love for them at either the conscious or unconscious level or both. While there are obvious biological reasons for this, the real reason is that we are able to accept that person just as who they are without any checklist and despite boxes of negativity they may check. This type of love is also felt by many for different aspects of nature where a person feels “oneness” with the mountains or ocean despite things that they dislike being present; even on the gloomiest of days, I love the ocean just as it is. Pets are another example of this kind of unbiased love where no matter what the dog or cat does, there is always only love from the owner. This type of love can be described by many words such as unconditional or infinite and has the following characteristics.
Complete Acceptance: We accept the target of love exactly as they are, without any conditions or expectations attached. There is no good or bad or wishing they were somehow “better” in some aspect. Yes, we see aspects that we do not like, but they are not engaged or used to modify the level of love.
Unconditional: There are no conditions attached and the intensity or range of love is not affected based on conditional changes or modifications. This is significant because instead of loving somebody’s qualities we love them in their entirety.
Selfless: There are no expectations for something in return for this kind of love, not even reciprocation of love itself. We just love them just because and nothing else. A mother’s love towards her children or some people of faith’s love towards their God are examples of this.
There are certain things that must happen for a person to evolve to the level of Universal Love and transcend love based on a checklist. The term ‘falling in love’ has a very deep meaning and mandate that escapes most as it has become just a term like saying ‘how are you doing?’ has replaced ‘hello’. To truly love, something must fall from you and that being our default impulse to love based on our biases and limited view of life tainted by the ego and identities. We must drop our system of judgement, remove our lenses of memory, pause our emotion engine, engage our Equanimity processor, and learn to look at something just as it is and not what we would like for it to be. If we can begin to do this in a conscious manner, universal love will begin to blossom in everything that you do and all that you interact with. This will set the stage for an incredible transformation from engaging in temporary and destructive conditional love to a more lasting universal love. We need to transform from temporarily loving select people or things to becoming a loving being. This is also the exact same path one needs to follow from chasing happiness as a goal to becoming a person who is blissful by their very nature. From an intellectual standpoint, this is a very difficult mindset change because it requires you to love a stranger the same as you would your child. But love was never to be a passenger of the intellect and hence it is safe to simply suspend any intellectual conflicts you see here. To be honest, I have the same unanswered questions at the intellectual level. Such as how I can love somebody who has been nasty or cruel to me or to somebody close to me? Or that we should love a murderer the same as we do our spouse? The ONLY answer I have been able to find is Karma but that is a discussion for what will probably be my longest blog. 😊 For now, I can existentially feel universal love and that trumps any intellectual conflicts or questions I have. And THAT is the biggest difference is that becoming loving means you just love everyone and everything unconditionally and in the same loving manner.
I was at a party in London sometime in the mid-2000s and was speaking to a close friend who had just had a massive breakup after being with her partner for many years. She was surprisingly calm and she said to me “Bharat, I love him but am no longer in love with him”. The profoundness of that statement only struck me full on here in 2022 because what she was saying without realizing it is that the checklist-love was gone but the universal love, developed over the years, was still there. She still cared for his wellbeing and condition but no longer felt that short-term love for the items in the checklist he had met. Universal is the kind of love that we should all strive for and what offers a way out from the craving and aversion cycles that we create from entanglement with life itself. It is the kind of love that is immune to impermanence and thus reduces or help eliminate the craving/aversion cycle. I truly believe that every one of us can evolve to become beacons of Universal love, but it will take conscious effort and realization of unity with all. We have all the tools needed to do so inside of us and only need to put them to use. And ultimately walking down this path means you love a chair, car, worm, leaf, shoes, dog, murderer, rock, sewage, trees, sand, clouds, beer, a rapist, and the entirety of creation the same as you would your child or even yourself. And it is at this point, God truly IS love and you reach unity with that from which we began.