What Love Requires

First published in Fellowship, Vol. 60, No.11-12, Nov/Dec 1994.


Can humanity change fundamentally? Can we stop inflicting such unnecessary damage upon each other and upon the Earth? If essential change is not possible, if we continue along the path we are on, then I think there is no hope for us or future generations. But how? How can we bring about a genuinely new way of living? First, we must cut through all that we have been told about how we should change, and see for ourselves how we must change. I have to examine my current way of living for myself. So I begin by taking the time to take a look; at what is going on around me: the weather, the animals, the behavior of people, my behavior; at what is going on inside me: my breaths, my beating heart, my gurgling stomach, my aches and pains, my thoughts, my feelings.

This one act is astonishing in its effect because it is more common that I do not stop and take a look. It is more common that I charge forward automatically, allowing fixed patterns to be my unconscious guides. Fixed ideas can take any form, they can be leftist, they can be rightist, they can be moderate, they can be liberal or conservative, they can be hawkish or dovish. In their most extreme forms, these fixed ideas create rigid ideology, of whatever stripe. Fixed ideas prevent me from seeing things as they are. With fixed ideas in my head I mold the world to my view of it instead of letting the world break in and surprise me. With fixed habits in my behavior I act in ways inappropriate to current circumstances.

Fixed patterns inhabit our brains at a very deep level. At the deepest level, we order the world to be able to function in it. The pen I am writing with, the chair I am sitting in, the words I am using to communicate with you are particular fixed orderings of matter-energy. These fixed patterns are very useful. They make sense out of a bombardment of complex information. They make it possible to move around.

However, once the world has been ordered a particular way, it is difficult to "see" it any other way. Try to look at a chair and see anything but a chair. Try not to recognize a familiar word. Of course chairs and words are very useful, but "chair" is merely one ordering of the world. That is not the world; that is the world as I make it.

This is useful when dealing with some aspects of the world, like finding a chair to sit in. It is not useful in politics. It is not useful in an intimate relationship. It is deadly. A person is more complicated than a chair. Living beings confound my fixed patterns. Yet I often approach people and other living beings with my fixed patterns well out in front of me, as a defense against surprise.

We carry on holding fixed ideas about each other. We think we have each other all figured out. Then one day my spouse leaves me. Then it hits me like a slap in the face; I didn't know this person. I assumed I knew this person. What I knew was my own collection of images of the person. I developed fixed ideas, and continued to treat the person as if they were the same as my image of them. But they grew and changed. I did not bother to observe that they were growing and changing. I feel safer and more secure sticking with my own limited view. But in the end it is a disaster because they grow so far away from me that one day the reality of the person and the falsity of my image are so far apart that there is no possibility of reconciliation.

So it goes all over the world. We get fixed ideas about each other. We get fixed ideas about other nations. We get fixed ideas about our leaders: We see them as enemies or allies, as fools or as saviors, as freedom fighters or devils. We see the world in ways that serve our own interests, and convince ourselves that we are seeing the world as it is.

The most tenacious set of fixed ideas is the one I call "me." My self, or my self-image, is the deep, mostly unconscious ideas that I hold to regarding my own person. But like my other fixed ideas, my self image, positive or negative, is inadequate. It is several steps, if not years, behind the living, breathing person who I am.

When I take the time to take a look, my fixed ideas begin to crumble. If, for instance, I take some time to look at my breath, to feel the rise and fall of my chest, to sense the contraction of muscles, to listen to the rush of air, one of the things I realize is that the breath itself is different from my awareness of the breath. My awareness of the breath, which is all I know of the breath, is not the breath itself. What do I know about this breath? I will never know it. This breath is gone before I can even ask the question. I have an impression, a set of sensations, an awareness of this breath. But the actual breath goes before. I do not know the breath. I know only my image of the breath.

Likewise, I do not know you and I do not know myself. I know my impression of you. I know my impression of myself. Sometimes the two might bear close resemblance. But which brings me life, the breath I know or the actual breath? And which is alive, the "you" I know, or the actual you? The "me" I know, or the actual me? The "world" I know, or the actual world?

Although I can never know the breath, or you in your reality; by stopping for a while and looking and listening, I can at least see that all of my knowledge, of myself, of the people around me, of the world, is limited; that the living world is ultimately unknowable. I can see that what I call "you" is actually my image of you. I can know that you are a living person who is much more than I can ever know. I can know that I am at best only approaching you, never knowing you completely. I can know that in essence you are unfathomable mystery, to be revealed in partial glimpses at unexpected times.

The moment of accepting that you are forever beyond my comprehension is a moment of deep love. It is a moment of immense possibility. I am closer to you then than ever I am when I think I know you. If I love you, I will welcome the times when all my assumptions and beliefs are blown to pieces by the reality of you. The less often this happens, the more shocking and painful it is. Part of the commitment of love, then, is daily to allow you to destroy my image of you. Time after time after time, my images die that reality might live. And such is my commitment to all that is.

All of this springs from taking the time to stop and look and listen and feel, admitting all sensations into consciousness; not blocking anything, not clinging to anything; not imposing my will, not submitting to my mind. Some of what surfaces can be difficult to bear. The disintegration of my self image can be frightening. If my goal is simply personal happiness, I will not get far because I will avoid unhappy or frightening thoughts and feelings and experiences. I will screen out whatever contradicts my image of myself. I need some strong motivation to take a close look at my life and the world around me.

That motivation has come, for me, from touching pain. That motivation has come from living among people who are homeless. It has come from being in a war zone. It has come from watching my friends separate and divorce, leaving bewildered children. It has come from knowing victims of murder and rape. It has come from seeing first-hand the unspeakable damage that we inflict on one another and on the planet that gives us so much beauty and life. It has come from realizing my own capacity for violence. It comes from wanting all the needless suffering to cease. It comes from love. There will always be pain, that is part of being alive. But there is so much pain unnecessarily inflicted, so much damage done.

Because of that, I want to look with open eyes, to take the time to understand to the best of my ability what life is, to move beyond my own limited view of things. But now I know that all views are limited. Limited views and fixed ideas make sense out of the world. To move beyond my limited view, I must at times live without knowing exactly where I am, or who I am, or who you are, or where we are going. I must learn to live without knowing. To unleash myself, the vital person behind my self image, I must lose my self. I must live ahead of my understanding, just as the breath precedes my awareness of the breath. That letting go is fearful indeed, but that is what love requires.

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