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How to Love: Legendary Zen Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on Mastering the Art of “Interbeing”

“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.”

What does love mean, exactly? We have applied to it our finest definitions; we have examined its psychology and outlined it in philosophical frameworks; we have even devised a mathematical formula for attaining it. And yet anyone who has ever taken this wholehearted leap of faith knows that love remains a mystery — perhaps the mystery of the human experience.

Learning to meet this mystery with the full realness of our being — to show up for it with absolute clarity of intention — is the dance of life.

That’s what legendary Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh (b. October 11, 1926) explores in How to Love (public library) — a slim, simply worded collection of his immeasurably wise insights on the most complex and most rewarding human potentiality.

Indeed, in accordance with the general praxis of Buddhist teachings, Nhat Hanh delivers distilled infusions of clarity, using elementary language and metaphor to address the most elemental concerns of the soul. To receive his teachings one must make an active commitment not to succumb to the Western pathology of cynicism, our flawed self-protection mechanism that readily dismisses anything sincere and true as simplistic or naïve — even if, or precisely because, we know that all real truth and sincerity are simple by virtue of being true and sincere.

Thich Nhat Hanh

At the heart of Nhat Hanh’s teachings is the idea that “understanding is love’s other name” — that to love another means to fully understand his or her suffering. (“Suffering” sounds rather dramatic, but in Buddhism it refers to any source of profound dissatisfaction — be it physical or psychoemotional or spiritual.) Understanding, after all, is what everybody needs — but even if we grasp this on a theoretical level, we habitually get too caught in the smallness of our fixations to be able to offer such expansive understanding. He illustrates this mismatch of scales with an apt metaphor:

If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform.

Illustration from Hug Me by Simona Ciraolo

The question then becomes how to grow our own hearts, which begins with a commitment to understand and bear witness to our own suffering:

When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love. That’s why to love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness.

Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love.

And yet because love is a learned “dynamic interaction,” we form our patterns of understanding — and misunderstanding — early in life, by osmosis and imitation rather than conscious creation. Echoing what Western developmental psychology knows about the role of “positivity resonance” in learning love, Nhat Hanh writes:

If our parents didn’t love and understand each other, how are we to know what love looks like? … The most precious inheritance that parents can give their children is their own happiness. Our parents may be able to leave us money, houses, and land, but they may not be happy people. If we have happy parents, we have received the richest inheritance of all.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

Nhat Hanh points out the crucial difference between infatuation, which replaces any real understanding of the other with a fantasy of who he or she can be for us, and true love:

Often, we get crushes on others not because we truly love and understand them, but to distract ourselves from our suffering. When we learn to love and understand ourselves and have true compassion for ourselves, then we can truly love and understand another person.

Out of this incomplete understanding of ourselves spring our illusory infatuations, which Nhat Hanh captures with equal parts wisdom and wit:

Sometimes we feel empty; we feel a vacuum, a great lack of something. We don’t know the cause; it’s very vague, but that feeling of being empty inside is very strong. We expect and hope for something much better so we’ll feel less alone, less empty. The desire to understand ourselves and to understand life is a deep thirst. There’s also the deep thirst to be loved and to love. We are ready to love and be loved. It’s very natural. But because we feel empty, we try to find an object of our love. Sometimes we haven’t had the time to understand ourselves, yet we’ve already found the object of our love. When we realize that all our hopes and expectations of course can’t be fulfilled by that person, we continue to feel empty. You want to find something, but you don’t know what to search for. In everyone there’s a continuous desire and expectation; deep inside, you still expect something better to happen. That is why you check your email many times a day!

Illustration from The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, Shel Silverstein’s minimalist allegory of true love

Real, truthful love, he argues, is rooted in four elements — loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity — fostering which lends love “the element of holiness.” The first of them addresses this dialogic relationship between our own suffering and our capacity to fully understand our loved ones:

The essence of loving kindness is being able to offer happiness. You can be the sunshine for another person. You can’t offer happiness until you have it for yourself. So build a home inside by accepting yourself and learning to love and heal yourself. Learn how to practice mindfulness in such a way that you can create moments of happiness and joy for your own nourishment. Then you have something to offer the other person.

[…]

If you have enough understanding and love, then every moment — whether it’s spent making breakfast, driving the car, watering the garden, or doing anything else in your day — can be a moment of joy.

This interrelatedness of self and other is manifested in the fourth element as well, equanimity, the Sanskrit word for which — upeksha — is also translated as “inclusiveness” and “nondiscrimination”:

In a deep relationship, there’s no longer a boundary between you and the other person. You are her and she is you. Your suffering is her suffering. Your understanding of your own suffering helps your loved one to suffer less. Suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters. What happens to your loved one happens to you. What happens to you happens to your loved one.

[…]

In true love, there’s no more separation or discrimination. His happiness is your happiness. Your suffering is his suffering. You can no longer say, “That’s your problem.”

Supplementing the four core elements are also the subsidiary elements of trust and respect, the currency of love’s deep mutuality:

When you love someone, you have to have trust and confidence. Love without trust is not yet love. Of course, first you have to have trust, respect, and confidence in yourself. Trust that you have a good and compassionate nature. You are part of the universe; you are made of stars. When you look at your loved one, you see that he is also made of stars and carries eternity inside. Looking in this way, we naturally feel reverence. True love cannot be without trust and respect for oneself and for the other person.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown

The essential mechanism for establishing such trust and respect is listening — something so frequently extolled by Western psychologists, therapists, and sage grandparents that we’ve developed a special immunity to hearing it. And yet when Nhat Hanh reframes this obvious insight with the gentle elegance of his poetics, it somehow bypasses the rational cynicism of the jaded modern mind and registers directly in the soul:

To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love. To know how to love someone, we have to understand them. To understand, we need to listen.

[…]

When you love someone, you should have the capacity to bring relief and help him to suffer less. This is an art. If you don’t understand the roots of his suffering, you can’t help, just as a doctor can’t help heal your illness if she doesn’t know the cause. You need to understand the cause of your loved one’s suffering in order to help bring relief.

[…]

The more you understand, the more you love; the more you love, the more you understand. They are two sides of one reality. The mind of love and the mind of understanding are the same.

Echoing legendary Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki’s memorable aphorism that “the ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow,” Nhat Hanh considers how the notion of the separate, egoic “I” interrupts the dialogic flow of understanding — the “interbeing,” to use his wonderfully poetic and wonderfully precise term, that is love:

Often, when we say, “I love you” we focus mostly on the idea of the “I” who is doing the loving and less on the quality of the love that’s being offered. This is because we are caught by the idea of self. We think we have a self. But there is no such thing as an individual separate self. A flower is made only of non-flower elements, such as chlorophyll, sunlight, and water. If we were to remove all the non-flower elements from the flower, there would be no flower left. A flower cannot be by herself alone. A flower can only inter-be with all of us… Humans are like this too. We can’t exist by ourselves alone. We can only inter-be. I am made only of non-me elements, such as the Earth, the sun, parents, and ancestors. In a relationship, if you can see the nature of interbeing between you and the other person, you can see that his suffering is your own suffering, and your happiness is his own happiness. With this way of seeing, you speak and act differently. This in itself can relieve so much suffering.

The remainder of How to Love explores the simple, profoundly transformative daily practices of love and understanding, which apply not only to romantic relationships but to all forms of “interbeing.” Complement it with John Steinbeck’s exquisite letter of advice on love to his teenage son and Susan Sontag’s lifetime of reflections on the subject, then revisit the great D.T. Suzuki on how Zen can help us cultivate our character.

BP

Does Your Dog Really Love You and What Does That Really Mean? A Journey in Cognitive Science and Moral Philosophy

“Our inability to read dogs’ emotions well probably begins with our inability to understand our own emotions well.”

Does Your Dog Really Love You and What Does That Really Mean? A Journey in Cognitive Science and Moral Philosophy

That humans love their dogs is a fundamental fact of our animal heart, as indisputable and irrepealable as gravity — just look at Lord Byron’s leaden eulogy for his beloved dog. But whether our dogs “love” us and what that really means is a question that hurls the human heart into perennial restlessness, oscillating between absolute, arrogant certainty and endless, insecure doubt. Its answer hints at the elemental nature of all emotion, at the central puzzlement of consciousness, at the very meaning of love, and at the unnerving fact that we can never fully know the inner life of another, be they human or other animal.

That question is what cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, explores in a chapter of her altogether fascinating book Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond (public library).

Horowitz notes that, both in her lab and while observing dogs in the urban wild, she constantly sees behaviors from which we instinctively infer human-like emotions — curiosity when a dog faces a dancing robot, surprise when a hidden researcher emerges from behind a door — and yet she is frequently asked whether dogs are really capable of the most sweeping human emotions: love, anger, ennui. Are we right to imagine “If I could I would bite every sorrow until it fled” into a beloved dog’s mental monologue? Framing these questions as “a testament to both the ardor of our interest in our dogs, and our uncertainty about the dog’s experience,” Horowitz writes:

As our own days may be colored with anxiety, anticipation, or foreboding — are dogs’ days so colored? As we respond to events and people with empathy, sarcasm, or incredulity — do dogs tend toward such sentiments?

Many of these questions boil down to whether dogs have feelings or emotions at all. But of course they do. Look at it adaptively: emotions are messaging to the muscles and response system to circumvent the closed-door discussions between the sensory organs and brain. I see a tiger; I know that tigers are predators and this one is coming toward me . . . and Hey!, chimes the brain emotively, Be afraid! Run!

Look at it neurologically: the areas of human brains that are active when we feel, sigh, yearn, and despair are also found in dogs’ brains.

Look at it behaviorally: though we are not always great at naming which behavior indicates what emotion (as we will shortly see), the wide array of different behaviors and postures of dogs tells us about their internal states.

Look at it sensibly. The alternative to having emotions — having undifferentiated experience — defies reason, defies Darwin, defies continuity. Human emotions did not emerge mysteriously and fully formed out of unfeeling automata. Keep in mind that the last popular advocate of the latter belief, Descartes, lived in a time when bloodletting was still considered salubrious.

Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog

But while the question of whether dogs feel is a fossil of hubristic medievalism, the question of what and how dogs feel remains just on the cusp of our ability to answer — for our answers are mired in our own projections. After all, the qualia of any conscious experience is singular to the consciousness having it and impenetrable to other consciousnesses — Nina Simone serenaded the impossibility of precisely knowing the qualia of another human animal when she sang “I wish you could know what it means to be me,” let alone the qualia of a non-human animal.

And yet we presume to easily read a dog’s feeling states. A century and a half after Darwin wrote that “man himself cannot express love and humility by external signs, so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous body, and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master,” Horowitz pulls into question the plainness of emotional inferences drawn from behavioral cues. Having previously written beautifully about how a walk with her own dog ignited an awareness of the myriad different ways of experiencing the same reality, she considers the difference between description and emotional diagnosis:

As shorthand, it makes good sense to me to use emotional terms to describe what I’m seeing. In the lab, I would more likely say, The dog’s head extends forward, leading the body by an extra half-step; the ears are perked into their full height (read: curiosity). A dog jumps back, preparing the body for escape; a “rurf” sound slips out (surprise). Retreating, the dog’s body shrinks down and back (anxiety); on approach, a dog pulls away her head, lifts her paw, curls her lip (disgust); with a high, loosely wagging tail, the dog leaps with two or four legs and attempts to lick every nearby face, dog or human (delight).

I don’t use those shorthand words as my first descriptions of what they are doing — because I hesitate to assume that a dog’s experience of what looks like curiosity or delight is precisely like mine. While the similarities across mammalian brains make it highly likely that all mammals have diverse emotional experiences, we all also have very different lived experiences, based on, for humans, our cultures, where we live, and the people we meet. So, too, for dogs. My own guess is that, planted into a dog’s body, we wouldn’t recognize the feelings we’re flooded with as being just like our own. But that there are feelings, I’ve no doubt.

In this way, I inhabit the territory between the presumptive granting of subjective experience just like humans — and complete denial of any experience. Not presuming to know the dog’s subjective experience is not at all the same as denying them any experience at all.

Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog

Paradoxically, she points out, denial has been the crucible of the scientific study of animal consciousness — with strikingly cruel consequences that gnaw at the foundations of morality:

Without definitive evidence of an animal’s fear of pain, researchers say, how can we be sure that the animal feels fear — or pain — at all?

Weirdly, most of the history of medical and psychiatric research has also seemed not to doubt the reality of animals’ feelings. In fact, it presumes feelings in its very premise. To prove the efficacy of an anti-anxiety drug for humans, the drug first has to be roundly vetted on an “animal model”: essentially, lab animals have to be made anxious, then given the test, and have their anxiety dissipate (while no other ill effects arise). A history of this kind of thinking is written between the lines of every medical study using animals: they are so similar to us, thus they are a good model for humans.

[…]

Should someone make the claim to me that a dog definitely can’t be “depressed,” or benefit from anti-depression medication, I’ll take their hand and walk them back in time. Several decades ago, depression research took a step forward with the development of the “learned helplessness” model, made famous by Martin Seligman. He and his colleague came up with a scheme to see if helplessness could be induced by circumstance. Brace yourself: it involved dogs.

In a passage difficult to read without growing heavy-hearted and fiery with anger, Horowitz goes on to summarize the classic behavioral psychology study — an experiment that involved thirty-two “adult mongrel dogs” who never smelled the outdoor air and lived enslaved in the lab, where they were strapped down and assaulted by electric shocks and 70-decibel noise until they “learned” that they were utterly helpless. Horowitz confesses in a footnote that she had to read the study in three harrowing sittings, punctuated by slamming her computer shut and leaving the room. (Her own lab keeps no live animals, though there are two stuffed toy-dogs, both affectionately named by the researchers. Volunteer subjects come from the “real” world, including one human-canine duo who traveled 210 miles to participate in a 30-minute study.) She reflects on the grim morale of Seligman’s study:

Dogs were shocked, driven to depression and passivity and impotence, to prove that we could feel passivity and impotent in depression. Dogs are still widely used in medical research, make no mistake: this is happening now. Also now. And again.

[…]

To watch struggling animals without working to relieve their struggle demonstrates the great dissociation we condone with animals. Our society’s attitude toward animals is thus mismatched. We grant them feelings when it suits our testing needs, but grant them no feelings when it would not suit our testing needs. The human behavior in these test settings — electrocuting; near-drowning — is considered animal cruelty anywhere outside of the test setting.

So why is the question of animal emotions still posed? We are trapped on the far reaches of the pendulum’s swing: either assuming dogs are entirely unlike us or assuming dogs are just like us. As wrongheaded as it is to presume dogs to be unfeeling, it is no more correct to presumptively grant them a humanlike emotional life. (Nor must it be somewhere in-between: for all we know, dogs’ emotional experience is far more elaborate than ours.) We glance at dogs and conclude we know what they’re feeling, but our haste to make such conjecture on little evidence — and inability to read a dog’s emotions when they are displayed — is profound.

Curiously, while we are poor readers of a dog’s emotions, dogs seem to be excellent readers of ours. One of the fascinating findings of Horowitz’s lab is that the familiar “guilty look” we so often perceive in dogs — tail tucked, head lowered, eyebrows slightly knit — is not an indication of a dog’s guilt over a misbehavior but of having registered that the owner is angry or about to get angry, independent of whether or not the dog has done something guilt-worthy. Similarly, Horowitz’s lab found that what classic behavioral studies of fairness perception — one dog is given more treats, another fewer — have interpreted as “jealousy” is simply a dog’s “reasonable refusal to work for nothing.” Her experiment also illuminates the lovely eternal optimism of the dog’s nature:

Against expectation, they preferred to hang out with the unfair person. Again, it seems like they are motivated less by the kinds of feelings of unfairness or jealousy that humans have than by pure optimism that maybe this time, some of those treats will be tossed their way…

Lurking beneath all the ambiguity, affect-blindness, and projection is a testament to the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s assertion that “understanding is love’s other name.” Horowitz considers the intimate crux of our difficulty in discerning dogs’ emotions:

Our inability to read dogs’ emotions well probably begins with our inability to understand our own emotions well. Though perfectly accessible to us — and only to us, truly — our society is constantly putting us to work to “get in touch with” our emotions. And that’s when they are right there for the touching. Given our difficulty, it’s no wonder we are ill-equipped to figure out the emotions of the four-legged creature beside us. So we default to granting dogs emotions, but of the most human sort. We assume dogs are not only in the room with us, but sharing a kind of hive mind with humans.

[…]

Does your dog love you? Watch them, and you tell me.

Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog

Caroline Paul, writing about another beloved four-legged species of companion, summed up the central paradox of human-pet emotional understanding — and of any emotional understanding — perfectly: “You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better.”

Complement the thoroughly wonderful and revelatory Our Dogs, Ourselves with artist Maria Kalman’s illustrated love letter to dogs and John Homans’s beautiful and bittersweet canine-inspired meditation on love, loss, and the art of presence, then revisit Horowitz on how dogs actually “see” the world through smell and what they can teach us about accessing the hidden layers of reality.

BP

Love, Pain, and Growth: The Forgotten Philosopher, Poet, and Pioneering LGBT Rights Activist Edward Carpenter on How to Survive the Agony of Falling in Love

“Self-consciousness is fatal to love. The self-conscious lover never ‘arrives.’”

Love, Pain, and Growth: The Forgotten Philosopher, Poet, and Pioneering LGBT Rights Activist Edward Carpenter on How to Survive the Agony of Falling in Love

“Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility,” James Baldwin reflected in his final interview. “An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her superb meditation on the dignity of love. Both the danger and the responsibility of love lie in this refining of truth, which is at bottom a refining of self, for we are the sum total of the truths by which we live. In love — in the beauty and brutality of it — we can come completely undone. But we can also make and remake ourselves. From our formative attachments to our great loves, relationship is the seedbed of our becoming, the laboratory of our self-invention and reinvention.

Nearly a century before Rich and Baldwin, the English philosopher, poet, and early LGBT rights activist Edward Carpenter (August 29, 1844–June 28, 1929) examined this eternal question of how we grow and refine ourselves through the turbulent process of love in his uncommonly insightful 1912 book The Drama of Love and Death: A Study of Human Evolution and Transfiguration (public library).

A correspondent of Gandhi’s and a close friend of the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize, who also believed that “relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance” — Carpenter was one of the first Western thinkers to incorporate ancient Eastern philosophy into his moral universe. Entwined in mutual admiration with Walt Whitman, he went on to influence writers like D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster.

Carpenter composed his treatise on love two decades after he met his own great love, George Merrill, at the ripe age of fifty. They would spend the remainder of life together. Several months after Merrill’s death, Carpenter suffered a paralytic stroke. He died a year later and was buried next to his beloved.

Edward Carpenter, 1900

Our first experience of great love, Carpenter observes, always shocks and unsteadies us, for universal as the experience may be, it “cannot very well be described in advance, or put into terms of reasonable and well-conducted words.” (In that sense, perhaps, love shares a great deal with loss — we can never prepare for either, and each snatches the reins of our psyche to govern us on its own non-negotiable terms.) He paints the delicious and disorienting madness familiar to anyone who has ever fallen in love:

To feel — for instance — one’s whole internal economy in process of being melted out and removed to a distance, as it were into the keeping of some one else, is in itself a strange physiological or psychological experience… To lose consciousness never for a moment of the painful void so created — a void and a hunger which permeates all the arteries and organs, and every cranny of the body and the mind, and which seems to rob the organism of its strength, sometimes even to threaten it with ruin; to forego all interest in life, except in one thing — and that thing a person; to be aware, on the other hand, with strange elation and joy, that this new person or presence is infusing itself into one’s most intimate being — pervading all the channels, with promise [of] new life to every minutest cell, and causing 25 wonderful upheavals and transformations in tissue and fluids; to find in the mind all objects of perception to be changed and different from what they were before; and to be dimly conscious that the reason why they are so is because the background and constitution of the perceiving mind is itself changed — that, as it were, there is another person beholding them as well as oneself– all this defies description in words, or any possibility of exact statement beforehand; and yet the actual fact when it arrives is overwhelming in solid force and reality. If, besides, to the insurgence of these strange emotions we add — in the earliest stages of love at least — their bewildering fluctuation, from the deeps of vain longing and desire to the confident and ecstatic heights of expectation or fulfilment — the very joys of heaven and pangs of hell in swift and tantalizing alternation — the whole new experience is so extraordinary, so unrelated to ordinary work-a-day life, that to recite it is often only to raise a smile of dismissal of the subject — as it were into the land of dreams.

And yet, as we have indicated, the thing, whatever it is, is certainly by no means insubstantial and unreal. Nothing seems indeed more certain than that in this strange revolution in the relations of two people to each other — called “falling in love” — and behind all the illusions connected with it, something is happening, something very real, very important.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being.

Carpenter then makes an astute point that remains thoroughly countercultural in the context of our rather limited and limiting romantic mythologies: He argues that whatever the outcome of a great love, whatever its duration, it is still a triumph and a transformation to be celebrated.

In Figuring, reflecting on Margaret Fuller’s remark at the end of a significant love affair that “the union of two natures for a time is so great,” I wrote:

Are we to despair or rejoice over the fact that even the greatest loves exist only ‘for a time’? The time scales are elastic, contracting and expanding with the depth and magnitude of each love, but they are always finite — like books, like lives, like the universe itself. The triumph of love is in the courage and integrity with which we inhabit the transcendent transience that binds two people for the time it binds them, before letting go with equal courage and integrity.

I find such consonant consolation in Carpenter’s words:

The falling-in-love may be reciprocal, or it may be onesided; it may be successful, or it may be unsuccessful; it may be only a surface indication of other and very different events; but anyhow, deep down in the sub-conscious world, something is happening. It may be that two unseen and only dimly suspected existences are becoming really and permanently united; it may be that for a certain period, or (what perhaps comes to the same thing) that to a certain depth, they are transfusing and profoundly modifying each other; it may be that the mingling of elements and the transformation is taking place almost entirely in one person, and only to a slight degree or hardly at all in the other; yet in all these cases — beneath the illusions, the misapprehensions, the mirage and the maya, the surface satisfactions and the internal disappointments — something very real is happening, an important growth and evolution is taking place.

Noting that understanding this bewildering phenomenon, having even the slightest sense of “the points of the compass by which to steer over this exceedingly troubled sea,” is an operative imperative for any human being’s personal maturation, Carpenter adds:

Love is concerned with growth and evolution. It is — though as yet hardly acknowledged in that connection — a root-factor of ordinary human growth; for in so far as it is a hunger of the individual, the satisfaction of that hunger is necessary for individual growth — necessary (in its various forms) for physical, mental and spiritual nourishment, for health, mental energy, large affectional capacity, and so forth. And it is — though this too is not sufficiently acknowledged — a root-factor of the Evolution process. For in so far as it represents and gives rise to the union of two beings in a new form, it plainly represents a step in Evolution, and plainly suggests that the direction of that step will somehow depend upon the character and quality of the love concerned.

Illustration from An ABZ of Love

One of our greatest misunderstandings about love, and mispractices of it, is the tendency to focus on only those aspects of the other that rivet us most intensely — only the physical in an attraction dominated by lust, only the mental in an intellectual crush, only the emotional in a romantic infatuation. Cautioning against such fragmentary simulacra of love, Carpenter writes:

Love is a complex of human relations — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and so forth — all more or less necessary. And though seldom realized complete, it is felt, and feels itself, to be imperfect without some representation of every side. To limit it to the expression of one particular aspect would be totally inadequate, if not absurd and impossible. A merely physical love, for instance, on the sexual plane, is an absurdity, a dead letter — the enjoyment and fruition of the physical depending so much on the feeling expressed, that without the latter there is next to no satisfaction. At best there is merely a negative pleasure, a relief, arising from the solution of a previous state of corporeal tension. And in such cases intercourse is easily followed by depression and disappointment. For if there is not enough of the more subtle and durable elements in love, to remain after the physical has been satisfied, and to hold the two parties close together, why, the last state may well be worse than the first!

But equally absurd is any attempt to limit, for instance, to the mental plane, and to make love a matter of affectionate letter-writing merely, or of concordant views on political economy; or again, to confine it to the emotional plane, and the region of more or less sloppy sentiment; or to the spiritual, with a somewhat lofty contempt of the material — in which case it tends… to become too like trying to paint a picture without the use of pigments.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

He notes the necessary complementarity of these elements in a truly satisfying love — a simple and rather obvious point, yet one to which we so readily turn a willfully blind eye when governed by a strong attraction:

The physical is desirable, for many very obvious reasons — including corporeal needs and health, and perhaps especially because it acts in the way of removal of barriers, and so opens the path to other intimacies. The mental is desirable, to give form and outline to the relation; the emotional, to provide the something to be expressed; and the spiritual to give permanence and absolute solidity to the whole structure.

More than a century before the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh asserted that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” Carpenter argues that love is not merely an internal state — it is also an outward practice, to be mastered and refined by engaging every aspect of oneself and the beloved:

Love has its two sides — its instantaneous inner side, and its complex outer side of innumerable detail. In consciousness it tends to appear in a flash — simple, unique, and unchangeable; but in experience it has to be worked out with much labor. All the elements have to come into operation, and to contribute their respective quota to the total result… Love searches the heart, drags every element of the inner nature forward from its lurking-place, gives it definition and shape, and somehow insists on it being represented.

If this holistic satisfaction of the soul is the one leg on which love stands, time is the other. In a sentiment that calls to mind John Steinbeck’s beautiful letter of advice to his lovestruck teenage son — “If it is right, it happens,” the Nobel laureate wrote. “The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.” — Carpenter urges:

For any big relationship plenty of time has to be allowed. Whichever side of the nature — mental, emotional, physical, and so forth — may have happened to take the lead, it must not and cannot monopolize the affair. It must drag the other sides in and give them their place. And this means time, and temporary bewilderment and confusion.

Art by Jennifer Orkin Lewis from Love Found: 50 Classic Poems of Desire, Longing, and Devotion

A century before the Lebanese-American poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran contemplated the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, Carpenter adds:

For the complete action of that creative and organizing force plentiful time must be given; and the two lovers must possess their souls in patience till it has had its full and perfect work… A long foreground of approach, time and tact, diffusion of magnetism, mergence in one another, suffering, and even pain — all these must be expected and allowed for — though the best after all, in this as in other things, is often the unexpected and the unprepared.

A century earlier, the philosopher William Godwin had written in his stunning love letters to the philosopher and feminism founding mother Mary Wollstonecraft as the two were forging the first true marriage of equals in the history of letters: “We love… to multiply our consciousness… even at the hazard… of opening new avenues for pain and misery to attack us.” Carpenter examines this most bewildering aspect of the experience — the curious interdependence between love and pain, which seems to be an inevitable function of the growth process love effects:

Love, if worth anything, seems to demand pain and strain in order to prove itself, and is not satisfied with an easy attainment. How indeed should one know the great heights except by the rocks and escarpments? And pain often in some strange way seems to be the measure of love — the measure by which we are assured that love is true and real; and so (which is one of the mysteries) it becomes transformed into a great joy.

[…]

Pain and suffering… have something surely to do with the inner realities of the affair, with the moulding or hammering or welding process whereby union is effected and, in some sense, a new being created. It seems as if when two naked souls approach, or come anywhere near contact with each other, the one inevitably burns or scorches the other. The intense chemistry of the psychic elements produces something like an actual flame. A fresh combination is entered into, profound transformations are effected, strange forces liberated, and a new personality perhaps created; and the accomplishment and evidence of the whole process is by no means only joy, but agony also, even as childbirth is.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

In a passage evocative of Charlotte Brontë’s lament, penned in the grip of an unrequited love, that “when one does not complain… one pays for outward calm with an almost unbearable inner struggle,” Carpenter counsels the love-anguished:

All one can reasonably do is to endure. It is no good making a fuss. In affairs of the heart what we call suffering corresponds to what we call labor or effort in affairs of the body. When you put your shoulder to the cart-wheel you feel the pain and pressure of the effort, but that assures you that you are exercising a force, that something is being done; so suffering of the heart assures you that something is being done in that other and less tangible world. To scold and scowl and blame your loved one is the stupidest thing you can do. And worse than stupid, it is useless. For it can only alienate. Probably that other one is suffering as well as you — possibly more than you, possibly a good deal less. What does it matter? The suffering is there and must be borne; the work, whatever it is, is being done; the transformation is being effected. Do you want your beloved to suffer instead of you, or simply because you are suffering? Or is it Pity you desire rather than Love.

As useless as the protesting and complaining, Carpenter argues, is any effort to put into words the density and magnitude of one’s feelings — an experience this vast must only be expressed in the language of life itself. More than half a century before the German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm published his influential book The Art of Loving, Carpenter writes:

Love is an art… As no mere talk can convey the meaning of a piece of music or a beautiful poem, so no verbal declaration can come anywhere near expressing what the lover wants to say. And for one very good and sufficient reason (among others) — namely, that he does not know himself! Under these circumstances to say anything is almost certainly to say something misleading or false. And the decent lover knows this and holds his tongue. To talk about your devotion is to kill it — moreover, it is to render it banal and suspect in the eyes of your beloved.

Nevertheless though he cannot describe or explain what he wants to say, the lover can feel it — is feeling it all the time; and this feeling, like other feelings, he can express by indirections — by symbols, by actions, by the alphabet of deed and gesture, and all the hieroglyphics of Life and Art.

[…]

Love can only say what it wants by the language of life, action, song, sacrifice, ravishment, death, and the great panorama of creation.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón.

Carpenter insists that in the experience of love, however imperfect and tortuous, we learn more about ourselves and the world than any didactic form can teach us:

Love — even rude and rampant and outrageous love — does more for the moralizing of poor humanity than a hundred thousand Sunday schools. It cleans the little human soul from the clustered lies in which it has nested itself — from the petty conceits and deceits and cowardices and covert meannesses.

In fact, he argues, the teachings of our civilization have been detrimental to our mastery of love. In a sentiment that calls to mind E.E. Cummings’s assertion that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” Carpenter writes of the art of love:

Self-consciousness is fatal to love. The self-conscious lover never ‘arrives.’ … And so too the whole modern period of commercial civilization and Christianity has been fatal to love… They have bred the self-regarding consciousness in the highest degree; and so — though they may have had their uses and their parts to play in the history of mankind, they have been fatal to the communal spirit in society, and they have been fatal to the glad expression of the soul in private life.

Self-consciousness is fatal to love, which is the true expression of the soul.

In the remainder of The Drama of Love and Death, Carpenter goes on to examine what it takes to make love last over the long arc of a shared life, unwearied by friction and unblunted by habit. Complement it with Hannah Arendt on how to love despite the fundamental fear of loss, Rilke on the difficult art of giving space in love, and Jane Welsh Carlyle on loving vs. being in love, then revisit Carpenter’s contemporary Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage.

BP

Loving vs. Being in Love: Jane Welsh Carlyle on Navigating the Heart’s Contradictions

“A passion, like the torrent in the violence of its course, might perhaps too, like the torrent, leave ruin and desolation behind… My love for you… is deep and calm, more like the quiet river, which refreshes and beautifies where it flows.”

Loving vs. Being in Love: Jane Welsh Carlyle on Navigating the Heart’s Contradictions

Like Alice James — the brilliant diarist who lived and wrote in the shadow of her brothers, Henry and William James — Jane Welsh Carlyle (January 14, 1801–April 21, 1866), unpublished and shadowed by her famous husband, was a literary genius whose private letters stand as masterpieces of prose in their own right. Virginia Woolf admired her as “so brilliant, so deeply versed in life and scornful of its humbugs… the most caustic, the most concrete, the most clear-sighted of women.” Charles Dickens considered her a greater storyteller, with a superior talent for observation and character development, than any of the published women novelists of her day. For a time, she was rumored to have authored the pseudonymously published Jane Eyre.

What lent her letters their shimmering intensity of insight was Jane’s uncommon openness to and insight into the complex, often confusing inner workings of the human heart and is maddening contradictions.

Jane Welsh Carlyle (Portrait by Samuel Laurence, 1952)

Shortly after her twentieth birthday, Jane Welsh met Thomas Carlyle — the essayist, mathematician, historian, and philosopher, who was then a struggling young writer of lower social stature, with no stable income and no intellectual achievement to his name, but would later become Scotland’s most esteemed polymath. At first, she spurned his courtship with the adamant insistence — perhaps out of self-knowledge, perhaps out of self-protection and fear — that she is constitutionally incapable of romantic love, uninterested in marriage at the expense of her intellectual ambitions, and would only hurt him if she consented to a relationship. In a letter from early 1823, found in the devastatingly titled I Too Am Here: Selections from the Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle (public library), she pushes him away with equal parts magnanimity toward his needs and uncompromising clarity about hers:

To cause unhappiness to others, above all to those I esteem, and would do anything within my duties and abilities to serve, is the cruelest pain I know — but positively I can not fall in love — and to sacrifice myself out of pity is a degree of generosity of which I am not capable — besides matrimony under any circumstances would interfere shockingly with my plans.

Carlyle, conflicted in his own right at the prospect of getting hurt but besotted nonetheless, plays into this game of push and pull, charging that it is “useless and dangerous” for him to love her and that she has made his “happiness wrecked” by letting him fall in love with her and then rejecting him. Jane responds by insisting that her love for him is true, but not the kind he yearns for. In the last week of summer, she grows even more resolute in her dual pledge that she will never leave him as a friend but will never be with him as a romantic partner:

My Friend I love you — I repeat it tho’ the expression a rash one — all the best feelings of my nature are concerned in loving you — But were you my Brother I would love you the same, were I married to another I would love you the same — and is this sentiment so calm, so delightful — but so unimpassioned enough to recompense the freedom of my heart, enough to reconcile me to the existence of a married woman the hopes and wishes and ambitions of which are all different from mine, the cares and occupations of which are my disgust — Oh no! Your Friend I will be, your truest most devoted friend, while I breathe the breath of life; but your wife! never never!

But then, having issued this most vehement of self-protective disclaimers, she adds:

Write to me and reassure me — for God’s sake reassure me if you can! Your Friendship at this time is almost necessary to my existence. Yet I will resign it cost what it may — will, will resign it if it can only be enjoyed at the risk of your future peace — …

They continued this conflicted dance for more than a year, until it became clear they had to make a choice. In a letter penned in the first days of 1825, a week before Jane’s twenty-fourth birthday, she confronts the abiding question of how you know whether you are in love, as opposed to merely infatuated:

I love you — I have told you so a hundred times; and I should be the most ungrateful, and injudicious of mortals if I did not — but I am not in love with you — that is to say — my love for you is not a passion which overclouds my judgement; and absorbs all my regards for myself and others — it is a simple, honest, serene affection, made up of admiration and sympathy, and better perhaps, to found domestic enjoyment on than any other — In short it is a love which influences, does not make the destiny of a life.

Jane Welsh Carlyle (from the miniature by Kenneth Macleay, painted July 1826)

Jane had two primary reservations about marrying Carlyle: that their differences — of class, of means, of ambitions — were too vast, and that a life of domesticity would keep her from actualizing herself as a writer. Asserting that “the idea of a sacrifice should have no place in a voluntary union,” she suggests that marrying him would be a self-sacrifice — a form of settling for a life smaller than the life she wants. And yet she also acknowledges that her choice is not between marrying him and marrying someone else, but between marrying him and not marrying at all. She writes:

I should have goodsense enough to abate something of my romantic ideal, and to content myself with stopping short on this side idolatry — At all events I will marry no one else — This is all the promise I can or will make. A positive engagement to marry a certain person at a certain time, at all haps and hazards, I have always considered the most ridiculous thing on earth: it is either altogether useless or altogether miserable; if the parties continue faithfully attached to each other it is a mere ceremony — if otherwise it comes a galling fetter riveting them to wretchedness and only to be broken with disgrace.

She presents him with her take-it-or-leave-it proposition: If their love is to endure, it must not be rushed into marriage but allowed to grow organically, its rightness and resilience tested in the garden of time:

Such is the result of my deliberations on this very serious subject. You may approve of it or not; but you cannot either persuade me or convince me out of it — My decisions — when I do decide — are unalterable as the laws of the Medes & Persians — Write instantly and tell me that you are content to leave the event to time and destiny and in the meanwhile to continue my Friend and Guardian which you have so long and so faithfully been — and nothing more

Jane struggles with the choice between her heart’s desire, with its conflicted factions of deep love and vibrating doubt, and what she believes is best for her beloved. Unwilling to err on the side of selfishness, she fears that in asking him to go on with their relationship while she wades through her own uncertainties would keep him from pursuing a relationship with someone else better suited for him and would thus stand between him and his happiness. She articulates her ambivalence with exquisite self-awareness:

It would be more agreeable to etiquette, and perhaps also to prudence, that I should adopt no middle course in an affair such as this — that I should not for another instant encourage an affection I may never reward and a hope I may never fulfill; but cast your heart away from me at once since I cannot embrace the resolution which would give me a right to it for ever. This I would assuredly do if youwere like the generality of lovers, or if it were still in my power to be happy independent of your affection but as it [is] neither etiquette nor prudence can obtain this for me.

Unsure whether she can give him the kind of love and kind of life he wants, Jane places the difficult decision — the choice of whether to part ways or carry forth toward an alluring but uncertain future — into her beloved’s hands. After “a sleepless night, with an aching head, and an aching anxious heart,” she writes:

If there is any change to be made in the terms on which we have so long lived with one another; it must be made by you not me — I cannot make any.

When a hurt and angry Carlyle, no doubt himself sundered by the intensity of love and the fear of its loss, accuses her of insensitively causing him unhappiness by framing the choice before them as so binary, she defends its validity as rooted in the respective realities of their two hearts:

I have refused my immediate, positive assent to your wishes; because our mutual happiness seemed to require that I should refuse it; but for the rest I have not slighted your wishes, on the contrary, I have expressed my willingness to fulfill them, at the expense of every thing but what I deem to be essential to our happiness: and so far from undervaluing you, I have shown you, in declaring I would marry no one else, not only that I esteem you above all the men I have ever seen; but also that I am persuaded I should esteem you above all the men I may ever see — What, then, have you to be hurt or angry at?

Returning to the fear that in choosing to be together, either of them might be settling for a lesser life than their ideal, Jane elects to be a realist rather than a romantic in steering love’s course:

My heart is capable (I feel it is) of a love to which no deprivation would be a sacrifice — a love which would… carry every thought and feeling of my being along with it — But the all-perfect Mortal, who could inspire me with a love so extravagant, is nowhere to be found — exists nowhere but in the Romance of my own imagination! Perhaps it is better for me as it is — A passion, like the torrent in the violence of its course, might perhaps too, like the torrent, leave ruin and desolation behind. In the mean time, I should be very mad, were I to act as if from the influence of such a passion, while my affections are in a state of perfect tranquility. I have already explained to you the nature of my love for you; that it is deep and calm, more like the quiet river, which refreshes and beautifies where it flows, than the torrent which bears down and destroys.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Two years into their relationship, she reminds him how much her feelings have evolved from the initial insistence that she is too closed down to love — strong evidence, though not a perfect guarantee, that they might evolve further still. She writes:

From the change which my sentiments towards you have already undergone, during the period our acquaintance; I have little doubt but, that, in time, I shall be perfectly satisfied with them. One loves you…. in proportion to the ideas and sentiments which are in oneself; according[ly,] as my mind enlarges, and my heart improves, I become capable of comprehending the goodness and greatness which are in you, and my affection for you increases. Not many months ago, I would have said it was impossible that I should ever be your wife; at present I consider this the most probable destiny for me; and in a year or so, perhaps, I shall consider it the only one. “Die Zeit ist noch nicht da!” [“The time is not yet here!”]

With an eye to these sentiments, she maps out the only responsible course forward — they must each endeavor to heal, grow, and refine their separate selves before they can unite their lives:

From what I have said, it is plain (to me, at least), what ought to be the line of our future conduct. Do you what you can to better you external circumstances; always, however, subordinately to your own principles, which I do not ask you to give up, which I should despise you for giving up, whether I approved them or no — While I on the other hand do what I can, subordinately to nothing, to better myself which I am persuaded is the surest way of bringing my wishes to accord with yours. (And let us leave the rest to Fate, satisfied that we have both of us done what lies with [us] for our mutual happiness.)

Jane takes issue with one particular passage of Carlyle’s accusatory letter, in which he narrowed the choices before them as marrying immediately or parting for good. Recognizing in it an insincere and defensive ultimatum based not on his true wishes but on fear and a desire for control in the face of uncertainty, she challenges him:

I will not believe that you have seriously thought of parting from me, of throwing off a heart, which you have taught to lean upon you, till it is no longer sufficient for itself! You could never be so ungenerous! you, who for years have shown and professed for me the most [selfless], most noble affection! How could I part from the only living soul that understands me? I would marry you tomorrow rather! but then,– our parting would indeed need to be brought about by death or some dispensation of uncontrollable Providence — were you to will it, to part would no longer be bitter, the bitterness would be in thinking you unworthy.

If Carlyle were to break things off with her because she stands in the way of his happiness, Jane concedes with “the weight of a millstone” at her heart that she could never begrudge his decision. But she reminds him that he had entered into this courtship willingly, in full awareness of her initial reservations, which she had transparently and repeatedly offered. And so if he has found himself hurt and unhappy, it is on account of unprocessed pain that predates her. In an astute sentiment which the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh would echo nearly two centuries later in his assertion that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” Jane writes:

If indeed your happiness was to suffer from your intercourse with me in our present relation, I would not blame you for discontinuing it; tho’ I should blame you, perhaps, for not examining yourself better before you entered into it — But how can that be? Your present situation is miserable; it must be altered; but is it with reference to me that it must be altered? Is it I who have made it miserable? No! you were as unhappy before we met as ever you have been since: the cause of your unhappiness then must lie in other circumstances of your destiny, which I have no connection with — no real connection, however much I may seem to have, from being frequently associated with them in your mind. It is an alteration in these circumstances which your duty and happiness require from you; and not an alteration in your relation with me.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass

Jane and Thomas did not part ways. Having voiced, faced, and surmounted their respective fears and reservations, they moved closer and closer toward each other in the coming months. They told each other difficult truths. Jane confesses that she had been minimizing her feelings for another man — her engaged former tutor, with whom she knew she could never be but whom she had indeed loved, “once passionately,” even. Imploring Carlyle for forgiveness, she writes:

Woe to me then if your reason be my judge! … Never were you so dear as at this moment when I am in danger of losing your affection or what is still more precious to me your respect.

Jane finds herself “the forlornest, most dispirited of creatures” as she awaits his response. Awash in gladness and relief when an assuring letter from Carlyle finally arrives, she exults:

What is love if it can not make all rough places smooth!

Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle were married on October 17, 1826. Only four people attended the wedding — three of her family and one of his. Although shortly after the ceremony she wrote to a relative that her new husband possessed all the qualities she deemed essential in a mate — “a warm true heart to love me, a towering intellect to command me, and a spirit of fire to be the guiding star-light of my life” — the romantic fantasy soon gave way to the reality of their contrasting natures. For the remaining forty years of Jane’s life — she died considering herself an unrealized woman — they proceeded to have a tortured relationship that syphoned her creative aspiration and relegated her increasingly to the role of her husband’s helpmate. They had no children. Carlyle’s official biographer argued that the relationship was never consummated. Both Thomas and Jane went on to have romantic, though by all evidence not sexual, entanglements with other people — most notably, Jane’s intense relationship with the novelist Geraldine Jewsbury. Jane met Geraldine, as Virginia Woolf would write a century later, with “that uneasy sense that old relationships had shifted and that new ones were forming themselves,” and she became her most significant intimate attachment for the last quarter century of her life.

Complement with the Carlyles’ contemporary Stendhal, writing in the year Jane and Thomas met, on the seven stages of falling in and out of love and the poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran, writing a century later, on the courage to weather love’s uncertainties.

BP

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