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Falling in Love

NORMAN FISCHER on sex, family, love and liberation.

There is nothing more miraculous to me than the experience of looking at a baby, especially if the baby is your own, but any baby will do. The perfect fingers and toes, with their tiny precise nails, the intense face with its soulful expression devoid of defensiveness or posturing, the round soft body always alive with motion or utterly in repose: a picture of pristine humanness that delights the eye and heart.

Parents can spend hours gazing at their babies with endless fascination. How could such a creature exist and where could it have come from? How is it that it seems to look exactly like so many different relatives at once? How can its personality be already so clear and at the same time so unformed? The very nature of our lives seems to be called in question by this small person, whose fierce impulse simply to exist makes everything pale by comparison.

To really look at a baby in this way is to feel with immediacy a powerful, selfless, healing love that astonishes you with its purity and warmth. Overcome by it, you easily lose yourself in wonder. This is because the baby evokes an experience of pure human possibility. She, having only recently come up out of emptiness, bears still the marks: pure skin, soft limbs, perfect features; clear and unadulterated karma before the formation of self, with all its messy anxieties and complicated desires.

The same feeling comes over us when we fall in love. The beloved doesn’t appear as simply another person: she is rather the occasion, the location, of something unlimited, a feeling of connection and destiny that dissolves our habitual selfishness and isolation. We are overcome with a warm and enthusiastic feeling that cannot be denied, and that will distract us day and night. We exist in a special zone of delight as a result of this encounter with the unexpected force of love. All songs, soap operas, and most stories feed on whatever memory or longing we have for this feeling.

It seems to me that these experiences (which are always fleeting, though the commitments and consequences that flow from them can last a lifetime) are flashes of enlightenment, or, more exactly, of what is called in Buddhism bodhicitta, the oceanic impulse toward enlightenment not only for ourselves but for all beings.

Unlike anything else we think or experience, bodhicitta is not a creation of ego: we don’t decide to fall in love with our mate or our child; it is something that happens to us willy-nilly, a force of nature whose source is wholly unknown. The sutras call it "unproduced," which is to say, unconditioned, unlimited. We can’t even say it exists, in the ordinary sense of that word (and this is why many people doubt that it exists as anything more than a youthful delusion). It lifts us up, releases us from all that holds us to earth. Love occurs, we now know, although we don’t know what it is. We only know that we have been overcome by it.

Love is generated from twin impulses. Buddhism calls them emptiness and compassion; we could also call them wonder and warmth. Emptiness points to the miraculous nature of phenomena: that things are not what they appear to be; that they are, rather than separate, connected; that they are, rather than fixed and weighted, fluid and light. When we see a baby, when we look at the face of our beloved, we know that the way we’ve been conditioned to perceive the world isn’t right: the world is not a fearful and problematic challenge; it is, instead, a beautiful gift, and we are at its center always.

This comes to us primarily not as a thought or even as an emotion, but as a physical experience so compelling we are overcome with an impulse to merge with another, and through that other, with the whole world. We want to pour ourselves out of ourselves and into the beloved, as if our body were water. Love, then, is quite naturally and positively connected with the sexual. Minds don’t love, nor do hearts. These are abstractions. Whole bodies love, and naturally we want to cuddle, kiss, touch, hold, and feel the literal warmth of the other penetrate our body.

It is a wonderful and a necessary thing to hold your child next to your cheek or heart, to lie down with her at bedtime, kiss good night, perhaps fall asleep together. Such a thing is wonderful for parent, wonderful for child, this big feeling of peaceful security, of belonging and of transcendent warmth. A person can spend a lifetime longing to return to this feeling. In the same way, it is utterly relieving and necessary to fall into the sexual embrace with the beloved, to enter each other with warmth and delight and finally, peaceful release. It takes enormous trust to give yourself in this way, with nothing held back. It’s a form of liberation. There’s no sense of control, reserve or separateness. There’s no one there who could stand aloof.

I am sure that what I am saying here is so, but I also know that it is not what most of us experience most of the time. Sexuality may be the natural expression of a pure and selfless love, but it is also, in the deep economy of human emotion, chameleon-like; according to inner conditions, it takes on many colors. Clearly, the body only seldom operates in the pure service of selflessness. More often the liberative signals that are always potentially present, because we can at any moment fall in love with the whole world, get distorted by confusion of ego. We become conditioned to see sexuality as a replacement for so much else in our lives that we need but are unable to come into contact with. So sexuality becomes, among other things, a way to express a need for power, a way to avoid loneliness, frustration or fear. Probably nothing produces more self-deception, and when sexuality is deeply self-deceptive, it becomes dark and is the source of enormous suffering.

The Buddha respected sexuality very deeply, I think, and saw its potential for disaster. He felt that though the spiritual path naturally and beautifully contains an erotic element, the chances for perversion of the erotic are very great. Because of this he taught the practice of celibacy as the path toward love. In fact I would say that if celibacy is not a loving and warm practice it is not a true celibacy, it is only a justification for a coldness or distance that one naturally prefers, perhaps out of a fear of others. But a true celibate practitioner is free, because he or she is not attached to any one or several particular persons, to develop a universal love and warmth that includes self and everyone, all held in the basket of the Way.


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