Love is multivalent.
As with qualia, a term some philosophers use to refer to individual instances of subjective, conscious experience, “the ways things seem to us” (Dennett), how a glass of wine tastes, what the particular richness of a crimson velvet dress in a Singer Sargent painting or Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander evokes in you or in me, there’s likely no way to know if love means the same thing to each of us. It may well be ethically preferable to have as many kinds of love as there are instances of its expression, be that to celebrate and respect a person or object we love in her individuality, to more fully cherish the details and differences, or to awaken our minds and hearts to the nuances of what it can feel like to be in the world, to refine our emotional palette through practice as we do with taste buds, each next sip of wine or pu’erh or Himalayan pink salt shifting ever so slightly the weights in our neural network, sharpening our perceptive capacities as we interact and engage.
But love is also the word known to all men.* An indelible universal. So recognizable that it feels like a crime to utter it prematurely, that it must preserve its status as sacred and rare to carry with it the power of discrimination, of choosing the partner who can promise transcendence, to betoken the uniqueness of a connection and conjure the mild guilt and embarrassment of not being able to say I love you in return. Or to mark the milestone of a phase shift, when it suddenly feels unnatural not to end a phone call by saying I love you, and from whence, ever forward, there is no phone call or parting that does not end with an expression of love.
I don’t think I’m overthinking things if I think through the various types of love that are actively shaping my own experience on this March 10, 2018. It’s hard to expose writing about love to the public: I fear criticism, fear exposure, would prefer to stay safe behind the abstractions of technology and math, prefer to be seen amidst the pantheon of men rather than degraded to tabloid femininity. But my writing habits have gone slack and pudgy, and, as productivity gurus or psychological hackers like Ryan Holiday or Tim Ferriss or Patrycja Slawuta or Nir Eyal would say, I need to make it easy to get started again so it becomes impossible to rationalize an excuse. This is what’s on my mind and in my heart. I’ll brave the exposure as a means of getting back on track.
What follows, then, is a sample of the kinds of love that currently shape how I live in the world. How beautiful that they may be like water around me: Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere. This list is far from exhaustive, but I’ll give until I’m too exhausted to give any more.
Metta (loving kindness)
People frequently ask what kind of meditation I practice (and teach, as I’ve started leading a (very small!) meditation group at work). The question makes me uncomfortable because I feel it exposes me as a dilettante for not aligning myself with a particular school. I guess my standard style falls under the general rubric of mindfulness, as I’ve learned most of the techniques in yoga classes and do things like alternate restrictions on breathing across nostrils (pranayama), slow my breath cycles to 30 seconds in and 30 seconds out (it’s pretty cool to do one breath per minute), focus my attention on sensations in one local part of my body (like my second toe on my right foot), or scan my body for tension from the top of my head down to the bottom of the soles of my feet. Sometimes I repeat mantras (which I believe is transcendental meditation, although I have to admit I don’t really know what that means). Very infrequently I visualize beings and try to imagine myself being like them. Often when I meditate before writing in the morning, all I end up doing is composing and playing around with ideas in my head. I like doing walking meditations and focusing on all the sensations around me. Or eating meditations, where I pay attention to each bite. I’ve had moments where I’ve completely failed to meditate because I am unravelled by the intensity of an emotional situation. I have yet to fully incorporate meditation into stressful situations, but am getting better at it with each passing day and year. I love how the characters in Dune turn to their breath for mastery in each moment, blue eyes emanating excellence.
One technique I cherish in particular is metta meditation. Metta is normally translated as loving kindness. Don’t let the awkwardness of the term turn you away from its salutatory power. The foundation of metta is to wish well being in the world, where well being means being free from suffering. The tradition characterizes the state of being free from suffering as being safe, happy, healthy, and full of ease. As opposed to wishing for safety, happiness, healthfulness, and peace in general, the practice bids us to direct attention towards various people who cause different kinds of emotions in us. The progression I’ve learned is:
- Direct metta towards yourself, saying “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be full of ease.”
- Direct metta towards someone you love, saying “May (s)he be safe. May (s)he be happy. May (s)he be healthy. May (s)he be full of ease.”
- Direct metta towards a mentor or teacher who is helping you.
- Direct metta towards someone completely neutral.
- Direct metta towards someone you don’t like or you are having a hard time with.
- Direct metta towards all beings.
My emotions tend to evolve in predictable ways when I practice metta. The first act of love and kindness towards myself feels like a mere formalism, with the exception of “may I be full of ease.” Ease is meaningful because it signals relief from the familiar dialogue of anxiety and self-hatred. In the latest Tim Ferriss podcast, Buddhist practioner and meditation teacher Jack Kornfield comments on the fact that self-flagellation is a Western endemic: the Dalai Lama found the concept completely illogical when he first heard of it! Kornfield powerfully and astutely shows how we can even come to love our self-hatred as a thinking tool that served as protector and shield in the past, but that ossifies into a useless habit when we gain the strength and wisdom to move beyond it. A bit like celibacy in the Catholic church, which played an economic function in distribution of wealth in feudal societies but has since come to be an ideological restriction repressing natural sexuality and leading to abuse and sex scandals.
The joy of metta starts in the movement from self to lover and teacher. I love taking the time to focus on the man I love, to reflect on areas where he may not be happy or thriving and to think about what I might do to bring about greater well being. I love visualizing him and reliving particular moments. I love basking in the warmth and glow of gratitude towards my mentors, finding I often return to the same few people who have patiently accompanied me through so the repetitions of the same mistakes and same dialogues again and again and again. I love deepening my awareness of the humanity that is always around us by focusing my neutral metta at a homeless person I crossed on the street or a stranger who smiled slightly when we passed by one another or someone who sat next to me at a basketball game or a colleague I don’t spend enough time with. Most importantly, I love how my shoulders relax and ease enters naturally when I direct wishes of well being towards someone I am struggling with. I find this simple act of wishing someone who has hurt me–or perhaps who has done nothing wrong except be a catalyst for feelings of self-hatred as I grapple with my own mistakes (anger is a very rare emotion for me, as I transform it into guilt and self-recrimination)–almost instantaneously rewrites my interpretation of what the other’s motives and intentions may have been, and enables me to see him or her from a place of charity and compassion. The possibility of negativity washes away into equanimity. It feels like the way I want to live. I have always felt immense calm embodying a sense of self as unified with everyone and everything else, self not only as species consciousness but as world consciousness, incidentally caught in the limitations of subjectivity. Morality feels different when we move from the utilitarian principles of negative liberty, where our actions may be unfettered unless and until they harm another, to recognizing that others are also us. The golden rule becomes tautological, reciprocal. Wishing well being for another is the same as wishing it for ourselves. This feeling of love is always available. It is a way of being with and in oneself that connects oneself to everyone and everything. It is always there, if we choose to look.
What I’ve learned while writing this is that my deepest and purest act of metta towards myself occurs when I love those I am struggling with.
Loving, not liking
My violin teacher at Stanford, Anthony Doheny, had an immensely positive impact on my life. It was with him that I learned that music is a conversation without words, a back and forth where you listen to the dynamics and speed and cadences of your partner and imitate, with variation and difference, to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. That the fusion of two people truly playing together, truly communicating, can compensate for any lack in technical virtuosity and rigor; sure, it would have been even better if I took the time to master the difficult sixteenth note passages, but I played with Tony with a different mindset than available before. I played with him.
And our conversation was about more than just music. Tony would pay attention to my emotions and my state of being, and play the piano part of the Brahms violin sonata in d minor just a tad bit louder when he recognized I had demons to exorcise. He knew his playing louder would inspire me to express more, would increase my catharsis, because we were indeed conversing and not just playing separately. He knew why I played; that, at my age, I wasn’t looking for technical mastery, but for expression and joy, for a place to focus my attention while creating music, for a focused reprieve from the pain of my day to day.
One day I walked in and was complaining about a woman in my graduate program I didn’t like much. As standard, my attention focused nearly exclusively on the things I didn’t have, on my failures and shortcomings, on the people who didn’t like me, rather than on all the people who love me and respond well to me, the positive things in my life. His advice was wonderful: “you don’t have to like everyone,” he said, “but you do have to love everyone.”
I can’t write about this in the particular. It’s too private. I’ve dated men of many ages, shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and degrees of emotional availability. People have judged my relationships; I have suffered because I followed my somewhat unorthodox heart but wanted to nonetheless be approved and rewarded as if I followed standard social conventions. That didn’t work. I’m still friends with many former partners, which makes me enormously happy. I’ve messed up bad a few times and have had moments of incredible compassion when I’ve come to experience for myself, in a subsequent relationship, some emotional state I had put a former partner through in the past. When possible, I’ve reached out to apologize and express my compassion. I’ve grown. I laugh at all the shit I did in the past to these poor men who stuck with me for god knows what reason. When I was young, it look me a long time to say I love you. I wanted to mean it. I wanted it to look like it does in fairy tales. The older I get, the more freely I love. The word is not cheapened, but its scope is expanded. I no longer believe in “the one”; I’ve loved too many times and different partners have introduced me to different aspects of myself and stimulated growth in different ways. I believe what I seek–or at least have sought–from relationships lies in the sparse air atop Maslow’s hierarchy (oh those naïve visions of martyrdom as some form of transcendence!). I am gradually learning to temper my yearnings. The purpose of tragedies, after all, is to provide a fictional, protected space to exercise and exorcise surging emotions; they’re not good handbooks for living. Hours and hours and hours of draining emotional energy have been spent coming to learn that lesson.
Another one I don’t want to write about. I’ll share a few things I find philosophically interesting.
I love how Kamala, the sexual mentor in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, teaches the protagonist that what’s unique about sex is that it’s an act where the best way for a woman to give is to take. Too much focus on the other will never lead to an orgasm. There needs to be some willingness to take and to take care of oneself, and yet this is often best achieved by the ability to satisfy and stimulate the other. That’s why there’s such a difference between great sex and making love and just passive receipt of physical pleasure.
I love how Jean-Luc Marion defines what he calls the erotic phenomenon, where one’s sense of self becomes totally relative to the imagined physical and psychological situation of the other. Where phenomenology cracks at the seams and the center of gravity shifts to be entangled with what we imagine and experience as the presence of a lover. How magical.
I’m not the first person to say that my most powerful and purely joyful sexual experiences have resulted in an experience of focused synesthetic attention and flow. My psychology has been all over the map depending on the man, but the moments I cherish most are those that offer a rescinding of the ego and an aware becoming of movement and sensation. That’s not animalistic. It’s quite spiritual.
Love for colleagues and students
In Plato’s Symposium, the character Phaedrus commented on the power of male sexuality to improve bravery in the military. The argument is that a soldier in love with a fellow soldier would be spurred to incredible feats of bravery and self-sacrifice to protect the loved one. We see the same in Homer’s Iliad, where Patroclus sacrifices himself to protect Achilles; it’s never made explicit that the two are lovers but there are enough clues to lead us to believe that’s the case.
Our culture is quite different from that of the ancient Greeks. Most militaries have a vastly different stance towards homosexuality. I’m not even sure where to start in commenting on potential erotic relationships between colleagues in the age of Harvey Weinstein, Travis Kalanick, and Donald Trump. And it’s not what I want to comment on either. I want to comment on an act of love that is about supporting the growth and expansion of younger colleagues and students.
As I prioritize my activities at the beginning of each work week, I ask myself what I can do to provide a platform for achievement for others in my company and what activities are best carried out on my own. My colleague Jason Silver has inspired me here by his strong and selfless example. It feels good to achieve, to set ever higher goals and do what it takes to accomplish them; there’s a sense of satisfaction that arises from setting an example for others. But it feels 65809090432 times better to enable others to achieve and grow. For me, then, loving my colleagues is synonymous with a style of leadership, and with careful craftsmanship. A leader needs to shape opportunities or goals for junior colleagues that can at once push them beyond the familiar, but are scoped tightly enough to enable achievement in a reasonably short period of time. The sense of satisfaction that results is marvelous. When I look back on professional accomplishments, what sticks out are others’ wins, not my own.
I’ll close this section with a note I sent to my female colleagues in honor of international women’s day:
Recently, my dear friend John Alber wrote me a note to tell me I have been given an immensely wonderful gift, the gift of responsibility, the gift of being able to marry strength with vulnerability, power with pain, competitive spirit and striving for excellence with deep, deep compassion for all other beings, as all other beings are myself. At 33, without children of my own, the example I can set is to be a beacon of possibility for so many women in the world; for our teammates here at integrate.ai as for the thousands of young girls I’ve met and worked to set an example for since joining integrate.ai last year. I am often overwhelmed by this responsibility, and amazed that, somehow, the universe has granted me this gift. I’m coming to accept it, and the willingness to do so is galvanized by the awareness that it is by revealing and sharing our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, our love, that we can give real strength to others.
Love for those who have died
I have yet to lose someone whose death would tear me asunder. I have been fortunate. My father had a heart attack last January. He is just fine, but it was the first time I had to sit on the plane for six hours, from New York to San Francisco, not knowing if he’d be alive on the other side. I still remember the afternoon with acute clarity, remember running the bath water in my tub in my Brooklyn apartment, remember how the faucet had these little acid pockmarks on it, which, in my memory’s eye, become associated with rusty water even though the water was never rusty, remember my mother calling as I drew the bath, calling from Paris hysterical to tell me I had to go to the airport immediately because he was all alone, remember the determination, how easy it is to act when we need to, how easy to drop everything and execute even though only a small fraction of our mind is there, remember calling my friend Yaro and asking him to stay and take care of my father, remember the sensation of relief and humor when he was ok. I have relived what it felt like to be on the plane, not knowing if he’d be alive on the other side, many times; it orients me, prioritizes what matters, shows me how deeply I love my father. It would shake me deeply to lose him, as it would shake me to lose my mother or my brother.
The loss I’ve experienced at losing a few lovers has also felt like they have died. It elicits a wailing mourning like Italian widows with shoulders bent over graves, a mourning that incapacitates and dampens the rest of the world behind a curtain of emotion. I can do nothing but restlessly wander around the city. Aimless days etched with loss. But they are still alive, and I hold back the desires to reach out and express how frequently I think about them. These are loves of omission. I take solace in directing metta their way and recognizing that to reach out would be more about myself than about them.
My love for my late grandfather, who died 2 years ago, and aunt Leslie, who recently died from pancreatic cancer, expresses itself in vivid images and memories. The images are always joyful. I see them dancing, I see them smiling, the energy they have emitted into the world is full of lessons of the preciousness of daily acts of kindness. I don’t think of them every day, but when I do they pop up with the vividness of Proust’s childhood after biting into the Madeleine and they are so terribly present it’s as if I were just with them yesterday. The difference is that they won’t be there tomorrow, that the dinner table conversation won’t ever be quite the same. I don’t understand why the Christian church required an imagined future life as a place to recover and find lost ones again. There is much more palpable and tangible hope in seeing traits of the dead alive in their children, alive in how the world is different because they acted in it.
Love as practice
There are many more kinds of love, each mapping to the different kinds of relationships we can enter into and the way these relationships engage and challenge the ever-evolving way of being we call the self. At the root of all of it, I believe, is our essence as social beings. Each kind of love is a mode of being created in conjunction with and connection to another, a style of action that seeks fusion rather than difference, even though sometimes–most times–the act of love is to step back and enable the difference rather than imposing interpretation or control.
The act of love I extend towards myself in writing like this is one of abandonment, of hoping that things that feel meaningful to me won’t be ridiculed by others. My experience has shown that expressions of vulnerability empower. Should this attempt to get back into writing empower one other person, it will have been time well spent.
*”Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. . . . What is that word known to all men? I am quiet here alone. Sad too. Touch, touch me.” People think of James Joyce as esoteric and impenetrable. Are you fucking kidding me? This language pulses. He offers a simplicity underneath all the complexity.
I struggled to find a good image to represent this post! Tons of bad ones, including many photos of tattoos with the Greek word agape–love for God and all beings–all over people’s bodies. I decided to go with this fresco of a banquet at a tomb in the catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter in the Via Labicana in Rome. I don’t have a great reason why.