What is Love?
This article is taken from a talk given in London in 2013
When I was invited to speak here I asked myself, “What would I like to talk about?” True love! It’s a topic I’ve been interested in for some time and may someday write a book about. Do we need another book about love? Well, we’ll see.
We can look at what it is and isn’t. Let’s talk about what love is. What do you think? I am just as interested in your ideas as I am in my own, maybe even more, because I already know my own.
Who wants to hazard a definition?
Yes, very good, I agree! Do the rest of you? It’s something you do. That was something I realized early on in my quest: love is something you do, not something that happens to you. Many people believe that love is something that should happen to them, so they are waiting for something to run them over like a truck, as opposed to creating it, generating it, making it happen.
All right – “unconditional”, we’ll put it over on this side…It’s an ideal, isn’t it? Ideally, we want it but if we’re talking about human beings…I would say generally speaking love is not 100% unconditional, would you agree with me? Anybody not agree?
It is unconditional with babies, yes.
So we’ll say unconditional with babies and not with everyone else.
(Audience member makes suggestion)
Good! A balance of give and take, does everybody agree with that?
All right, any thoughts about what it isn’t? One-sided? Okay, good.
How about ownership? If you love somebody does that mean you own them?
(Audience says, “No!!”)
Many people think so.
Well, that’s a very good point, yes. Very good point! You can love somebody even if they do not love you back. You can have one sided love in the sense that you can love someone who isn’t able to love you back, or just doesn’t for whatever reason. Do you think you can do that happily?
(Audience expresses conflicting views on this)
I actually think you can love somebody one-sidedly. I’ll give you an example. I have a family member who is physically incapacitated and largely mentally incapacitated as well. She still has a sense of humor, which is great. At this point she is not in a position to contribute a whole lot to our relationship, but I still love her.
Love includes wanting the best for the other person, yes. That brings up a really interesting point. Just the other day before I came here a friend said something to me that made me realize another whole aspect of love. He was talking about his daughter. No one in their family likes his daughter’s husband. He realized, “What kind of love is it when you say to somebody, “I like you, but I don’t like your mate?” That really doesn’t quite make it. He realized that in order to truly love his daughter, he had to love his son-in-law, or at the least accept and respect him.
There is a difference between the love that comes very easily to you and love you have to consciously create. Or is there? For sure, it feels different to start with. When you spontaneously love somebody, you are so congruent or so in tune that it’s just effortless to love that person. And sometimes it’s an act of will. Somebody you love marries someone you don’t particularly like. What are you going to do about that? You can be mean and stingy, or you can say, “OK, as an act of will, I’m going to see what I can enjoy about this person. What can I appreciate about this person?” Take them in and love them in spite of all reason not to do so. Which would be a much more generous thing to do, wouldn’t it?
Yes, it can be very hard!
(Audience participant asks question)
Yes, if their personal style is different, or they are not earning as much money as you think they should, you can have all sorts of reasons for not liking people who come into your life in this sort of way. The fact remains that this person you care about chose this other person, and if you want to maintain good contact with the one you really care about, it behooves you to accept the one you aren’t so crazy about. They might stay together or they may not, but if you are in there trying to drive a wedge, you are going to lose the one you love. And that happens all the time. It was starting to happen in my friend’s family. The parents didn’t like the son-in-law, and so they were seeing less and less of their daughter, and they didn’t want to see less of their daughter. That’s just one example; it can happen with other sorts of relationships as well as marriages.
There is something to be said for consciously loving. Consciously, it’s something we do with the people that we choose to have in our lives, but also consciously as an act of will, loving people that we wouldn’t otherwise love. Exercising our love muscles, if you will.
Now, there is something I would call a vibration factor. In the subject of Applied Metapsychology, we have something called the Emotional Scale. The idea of the Emotional Scale is a spectrum of emotions and they shade into each other. There is also, we might say, a vibration that goes with each one. The lower emotions of apathy, grief, fear, those are heavy, slow vibrations. That is generally the way they feel, sending or receiving. As you get up toward the middle – anger, resentment, ambivalence, complacency – the vibration gets a little faster, not as heavy and slow as the lower ones. And when you get up to the higher ones like enthusiasm, elation and bliss, it’s a very light, high vibration.
I read a great book, called the Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment and that’s what got me interested in looking at the different emotional levels in terms of vibration. To put it in an Applied Metapsychology frame of reference, if you are really far down on the Emotional Scale, vibrating slowly, you’re not doing so hot. We might say that you are not very conscious and things happen so fast you can’t do anything about it. The cup falls off the table and it hits the floor – it just happens before you can get there. But when you are high on the Emotional Scale, feeling bright and alert and vibrating very fast, you can see it start to fall, and sometimes catch it before it hits the floor. The cup’s speed didn’t change; it’s you vibrating faster, if you will.
OK, So how does that relate to love?
The higher and lighter and faster we vibrate, the better chance we have of seeing each other, actually observing and understanding each other.
One of the aims of Applied Metapsychology is to enable a person to not only be higher on the Emotional Scale, but also more mobile, because we certainly don’t want to be stuck down there in fear, grief and apathy, that’s no fun at all, or stuck in anger, that’s not any fun either. There’s no such thing as being stuck at the top, that would be nice, but there’s no such thing. If we are very able, we actually are more mobile in the sense that we respond to our environment in an appropriate way. If we lose someone we love, we feel sad; there would be something wrong with us if we didn’t. If we cannot feel sadness when we lose somebody, there’s something out of whack! But it’s also good to be able to be resilient and feel that pure sadness, and then move back up again, to be able to move up and down.
Even anger can be a positive emotion if you are putting it to good use. You see something and you say, “This is not right; we can do something about this,” and you can actually use that anger energy to get something done, instead of just splattering it all over people who are innocent bystanders.
I think this has something to do with the subject of love. What kind of shape are we in? How able are we to just be there, to be present in the moment, to be mindful, to observe the other person and see how they are doing in this present moment? Carl Rogers coined a term he called “unconditional positive regard”.
I would say that that is what we all really want – unconditional positive regard – and we want it all the time!
(Audience laughs and agrees)
In fact human beings are involved in their own lives, and can’t often give us that, can they? Not all the time; not as much as we’d like to have.
Hopefully, there’s enough affection, acceptance, and good communication in a relationship so that it carries us over the rough spots. Obviously, the better shape we are in the better job we are going to do of loving, and that’s one of the things that keeps me interested in personal growth and Applied Metapsychology. What is human potential? How good can it get? Interchange of loving communication is one of the great reasons to be alive. So I’m interested in all the things that can strengthen that or diminish it. Many of the things that diminish or tarnish love: traumatic experiences, upsets, misunderstandings, problems and confusions, things we regret having said or done, stuck ideas we have that don’t really work in life, those are things that we know how to address so effectively with this subject of Applied Metapsychology.
So that is one purpose to make use of Traumatic Incident Reduction (TIR, a part of the larger subject of Applied Metapsychology) and Applied Metapsychology as a whole, to be the best we can be at both giving and receiving love. That includes romantic love, friends, children, family, groups, other species, you name it.
All right, time to move on to some grizzly stuff, so brace yourselves!
Looking at what love isn’t, is NOT.
There are a number of things I’ve identified. One that’s really horrible is what I would call a negativity contest. Both people say, “Well, I have more aches and pains than you do,” or “I work harder than you do,” or “I have it harder than you do.” Friends or spouses can get into that. You can hear them! People having a contest to see who has the most horrible stuff in their lives! It seems to be a fairly easy pattern to fall into for some people.
I see this rings a bell with some of you. It’s not a really positive thing to be doing, is it? Who’s going to “win”? “I’m going to win because I have more aches and pains?” “I win because I have a more horrible life than you?” I don’t think so! But it’s a very interesting game that human beings play, that we can observe. The good thing about observing it, is that we can decide: “This is not what I actually want to do!”
Another pattern I call the seesaw phenomenon, is [drawing]…you have a log or a stone there, and you have the board resting on top of the stone, and one person is sitting on the seesaw down there, and one’s up here, and they are trading places, which would be a balance thing; however, one is up and one is down. They are taking turns, with just one of them being up at a time and the other one down. You can see this in a dysfunctional relationship, and I’m not saying this is true of all dysfunctional relationships; there seem to be different styles of dysfunctionality. This is just one type.
There is a sane way of taking turns. Richard Bach, who wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull writes that he and his wife made an agreement that they would take turns: if one of them was really down, the other one had to be up for the other, until that one healed from what they were going through. They would take turns listening to each other and being there for each other. I thought this was a good way of doing it, and it was a very conscious decision on their part.
Harville Hendricks, who wrote Getting the Love You Want, suggests to couples that they take turns. He suggests alternate days, “Now it’s your day to let down your hair and say what’s on your mind, and I’ll listen to you, then tomorrow I get to say what’s on my mind, and you listen to me.” That seems a little mechanical to me, but it could work. I haven’t heard any feedback from anyone who has tried that. This see-saw mechanism I am describing is not like either of these examples. Rather than a conscious strategy for a couple or any two people to adopt, it is a destructive pattern that repeats.
How this works is, A is down, B is up. A will pick and pick and pick and pick at B, with negative, critical remarks or insinuations until A gets B to drop down the Emotional Scale, whereupon B goes up the Scale. In this particular type of dysfunctional relationship, whoever’s down throws barbs at whoever’s up, until the one in the “up” position drops down. As one sinks down on the Emotional Scale, the other one gets happy! That’s what is sick about it. There is something seriously wrong there. Have you ever observed that? It’s an interesting phenomenon; I invite you to observe it. That is one of the worst aspects of human relationships that I have been able to distinguish.
Anything of that sort that is being called “love”… Well, think about it. You might want to watch the classic movie that all too horribly depicts this at work, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Then again, you might not.
All right, how many people have read Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People?
He posits three levels of relationship. As we look at these we can see that they relate well to the Emotional Scale and to the idea of different vibrations at different levels. The bottom in Covey’s model is Dependent, where the two are leaning on each other. In extreme cases, you see that a couple have closed themselves off together, shut themselves off from the world. You may exist for one of them as a friend till the other one of the pair comes along and then it’s as if you cease to exist. They have their own little bubble. Every couple tends to be like that when they are first in love, they are all lovey-dovey and obnoxious, but eventually they broaden their attention back out again and invite other people into their space.
Others never get beyond the closed in stage. So that’s the lowest level, Dependent, where two people are leaning in on each other.
Next higher in this model we find Independent. These people are saying, “I’m OK by myself; I don’t need you.” That’s actually a better place for relationships to be, in the sense that each has a sense of identity that is not dependent on the other, but it can be a little less than lovey-dovey if both people are asserting their rights.
The top level is called Interdependent, and that’s where each person can stand on their own; neither has to lean on the other, yet they are in a real relationship to each other. Each feels their own survival enhanced in relationship to the other. As Robert Kyosaki, author and lecturer, puts it, they are “orbiting in love.” They are circling around each other, but not caved in on the other person, and they are not saying, “I’m going to do my thing and to heck with you.”
They are caring and concerned, not stopping each other from stretching out and going into new territory. What do you think bout that idea? And how do we get there, right?
I’m very enthusiastic on the subject of Applied Metapsychology, because it’s the best thing I’ve found for getting us where we want to go.
OK, so let’s go back on the subject of what love is.
Would you say, acceptance, tolerance, things like that?
How many people saw Don Juan DeMarco? Very interesting, weird movie. I recommend it. The movie tells us:
“There are four questions of value in life…
What is sacred?
Of what is the spirit made?
What is worth living for, and
What is worth dying for?
The answer to each is the same. Only love.” – Don Juan De Marco.
The main character, this absolutely irresistible person. really sees each person, really recognizes each person; he’s right there with whomever he’s with, and he just makes them melt. Very charming.
Of course he is talking about the real thing here: mindful, perceptive, open, receiving and contributing, accepting, fully present love. That can only come (in real life anyway and on any kind of sustainable basis) from someone who has done the work to be in that place. Worth doing? Oh, I think so!
Another thing I understood about the subject of love came from a colleague. One time and I said, “What is it about co-dependency!? Codependency is bad, we know that, but, then, on the other hand, altruism is supposed to be good! You are supposed to be nice to people and be loving and kind. If you sacrifice yourself for the good of somebody else, you are admired. So how do you tell the difference? What’s the difference between being altruistic, and a good person, and being co-dependent?” Having thought about that for a minute he then said something that has been very useful to me, so I want to share it with you. He said, “When it stops feeling like unconditional love. That’s when you have crossed the line.”
That is really it! Because if you love somebody, you are usually wanting to make an effort for them: to be kind to them, to be interested in their well-being, interested in their happiness. If somebody I loved asks me to do something, I ask myself, “Can I do this thing?” Usually if I can, I am willing, but maybe “Can I?’ is not quite the right question. If it’s one of those things where you say, “Well, I could do this, but that means I can’t do this other thing I want to do,” and the willingness isn’t really there, we may be better off saying no to that request. We can say, “I love you, and I’m willing to do other things for you, but I’m not willing to do this particular thing.” It just sounds like normal healthy boundaries, but for me it was a brave new thought!
Yes, where do we draw the line? With our spouses and brothers and sisters, and friends, and parents as they get older sometimes. It almost sounds too cold, too hard-boiled to say, “What am I willing to do and what am I not willing to do?” If we do that though, we can absolutely do what we are willing to do, and we can cleanly say no to the things we aren’t willing to do.
That’s another reason I’m fond of Applied Metapsychology, because part of the work we do is looking at the different domains of life, the self domain, and the intimates domain, which includes family, and then wider groups, humankind, other species. If we look at our domains and study them, then we can realize, “Hang on, all my energy is going into this one piece of my life and I’m neglecting all these other things, and it’s not going so hot.” It’s just a model, a way of thinking about life, but I find it very useful in terms of trying to get some balance across all of your domains and relationships.
If we aren’t loving ourselves, then we are kind of hollow in the middle, and what we have to give is less high quality than if we are congruent in ourselves and caring about ourselves, then we can generate more love going out.
That’s a really good observation. If we are not being ourselves and not taking care of ourselves, how can we expect someone else to relate to us in a positive way?
If we exercise our certainty of self and our ability to be present, not only for others, but for ourselves, we are going to be better at loving people. Another thing someone said to me not long ago that seems so perfectly obvious, and it may be obvious to you, but I don’t ever remember ever having heard it said before. She said that if we are in a loving relationship long enough, and it could be a romantic relationship, or one with our child, or a good friend, but she was particularly thinking about a marriage, there are times you are going to hate that person. And I thought, “Yeah, that’s true actually!”
As we talked about it we were both thinking that people should be taught this in school! It’s pretty vital information. The common thought process goes like this: “Oh no, I married this person and I hate them! That means that we must get divorced, or at the very least that there’s something terribly wrong here.” Instead of drawing that conclusion, you could realize that it’s just normal, it’s inevitable. Then you can say, “Well this is just one of those times. This too shall pass and it isn’t anything I need to take drastic action on.” I thought that was brilliant. If people don’t know that, they can make themselves and others very unhappy and can make big mistakes.
As you see, we’re back to our desire for fairy tale love. I’ll have more to say about that in the book. For now, I’ll leave you with one more thought.
Sam Keane wrote a book called Passionate Life: Stages of Loving and in that book, he basically said that we are already connected. We fight and fight to be connected; we try and struggle and strain, and we exert effort to connect with each other, but really we are all connected already. It’s just an illusion that we’re not. So instead of trying so hard we can just relax and let it in, because it’s already there. Isn’t that a cheerful thought? That is our natural state, being able to have and enjoy that connection. If there is something in the way of our having it, well, we know what to do about that, don’t we? – Traumatic Incident Reduction and all the rest of Applied Metapsychology. It is a very good path and a great adventure.