An Understanding Hidden Beneath the Many Meanings of Love
Summer of Love—this is the headline for a new campaign launched by the Dutch government in partnership with the Dutch sexual health foundation and local health centres.
The campaign was set up to deal with the impact of limited physical contact during the Covid lockdowns, and the subsequent effects on social behaviour. The campaign achieves this by driving five key messages. Namely, ‘come as yourself’, ‘flirt’, ‘party’, ‘have carefree, safe and consensual sex’, and ‘ask for help if needed’.
Although the Summer of Love campaign feels like an important and useful piece of social engineering to get things back to the way they were, I can’t help but think there may be an opportunity being missed here.
Instead of just diving straight back into the way things were, why not use the temporary hiatus on established social and relational norms to really explore whether they are the most healthy constructs a society should be orientated around.
Take physical work culture for example. Look at how the temporary disruption in working at the physical office space has gotten us to explore new norms around the costs and benefits of going remote— where it’s effective, and where it isn’t.
Of course, work and love are very different. But, like work, our interpretation of love is largely driven by the cultural constructs and tightly associated norms of the time. And like work, particular norms are amplified and reinforced because of their benefits.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out why associating love with particular norms around romance, sex and partnership would be in the best interests of the Dutch government and city groups…
Like remote work, there are considerations around what is best for the company, but there are also considerations around what is best for the individual.
Are our contemporary cultural norms and associations with ‘love’ healthy for the individual? Who has explored this deeply? I certainly haven’t.
Why not? Isn’t that curious?
Even as I begin writing about the concept of love I feel some subtle defences arise from deep within my conditioning. As if I am opening a door with a psychological ‘DO NOT ENTER’ sign on it. Wow, this runs deep.
Let’s go into it.
THE WORD LOVE
First of all—and this so obvious it feels trivial to state it—love is a word.
Being a word, all it can do is point and hint. It is the map, not the territory. And this is quite some territory we are entering into. A territory with a thousand different maps.
In saying that, words are still important. The maps carry meaning! They shape our beliefs. Our culture. Our conditioning. And so our world.
The Jesuit priest and spiritual teacher, Anthony de Mello tells a lovely story about a guru who was attempting to explain to a crowd how easily human beings get caught in words. How we live on words, feed on words, rather than reality. One of the men sitting in the crowd stood up and protested; he said, “I don’t agree that words have all that much effect on us.” The guru said, “Sit down you son of a bitch.” The man went livid with rage and said, “You call yourself an enlightened person, a guru, a master, but you ought to be ashamed of yourself!” The guru then said, “Pardon me sir, I was carried away. I really beg your pardon; that was a lapse; I am sorry.” The man finally calmed down. Then the guru said, “It just took a few words to get a whole tempest going within you, and it just took a few words to calm you down, didn’t it?”
Words have their place. Never underestimate the power they hold.
WHAT DOES LOVE MEAN?
Ask yourself that question. What does the word love mean to you? What is it exactly?
Love has so much cultural baggage attached to it that it can feel like the word has lost all meaning. A concept drowned in a sea of memetic association.
On some level, this isn’t surprising, especially with something as significant and yet as ineffable as love. What did we expect? The same goes for god, grace, truth, beauty, sincerity and compassion.
All these concepts point to the most incredible aspects of the human experience. But that’s all these concepts can do—point. And as result, they leave themselves open for interpretation. Cultural hijacking.
And no concept has been hit harder than love—perhaps because of the mysterious yet significant position it occupies on the memetic landscape.
As a result of its significance and stickiness, it has become a primary target of reinterpretation whenever a new cultural power comes to dominate. From the Greeks with many variants of love, the romantic love of the bourgeoisie, the love of country expounded by the nationalists during wartime to the love for a stranger’s photo posted on Instagram…
And of course, the past interpretations of a concept never really die. They hang around in the background, echoing. Couple that with the cultural fragmentation we see in the modern world, and it becomes obvious why love is oversaturated with interpretation.
WHAT LOVE MEANT TO ME GROWING UP
I use the word love in so many different contexts it’s almost dizzying.
I talk about my love for my family. Romantic love. Love for food, country, work or an idea. I talk about love as affection and infatuation. Kindness and obsession. Eros and Storge. Agape and Pragma.
If I look at love carefully though, at the core of my conditioning I can see strong associations with romanticism, attraction, attachment and interpersonal relationship. This makes sense given the western cultural programming I’ve been receiving my whole life. If you are reading this, you probably received this sort of education too.
I was taught that love is Cupid’s message. That it follows fairytale-like plots lines. Love is Titantic, Rom-coms and Beetles songs. Love is Valentine’s Day, red roses and white weddings. That it grows out of a romantic bond between two individuals. That it is passionate and forever after. That sort of thing.
At the root of all this conditioning is the idea that love is an arc that follows a particular set of feelings brought about through a relationship with another.
I can divide these feelings into two broad buckets:
Feelings of Attraction
Feelings of Attachment
Firstly, there is attraction. The Greek’s called it ‘Eros’. Passion.
The feelings here are sensual. There is desire—an intent to pursue pleasure. An openness to affection. A socially acceptable form of infatuation.
When attraction strikes I feel energised, excited and occupied. I find it hard to get her off my mind. An involuntary giving of attention—to the point that sometimes I struggle to sleep. To eat. To focus on anything else but her. It’s ecstasy and yet anxiety. Passion and yet rumination. A high. A drunkenness. A temporary madness. A drug so potent it would be on the federal scheduling system if it weren’t produced internally.
ATTRACTION IN THE BODY & BRAIN
Physiologically, A lot is going on when the fever hits.
Testosterone and oestrogen bias me towards action. Taking a peek under the skull, this action operates in the form of an activation of my brain’s dopamine-reward circuit.
The circuit driving my feelings of pleasure (interpreted by my mind as enjoyment, excitement or ecstasy), as well as my desire to seek more of whatever I perceive to be creating the pleasures. This is why the feeling of ‘falling in love’ is regarded as a natural equivalent of gambling, or taking a stimulant like cocaine.
I don’t want to downplay the experience, but neurologically, there are lots of similarities. The difference really only exists at the level of my preconceptions and expectations. The way I have learnt to interpret the sensations within a particular context.
The dopamine circuit is also responsible for an increase in focus and attention. Hence the narrowing of attraction towards the object of desire. I become hyper-focused on the presence of another. What they are feeling doing and saying. Hanging on to every word, and creating a 700-page novel in my head about what each word could mean.
This is the brain on dopamine. This is my brain on dopamine. Yours too.
At the same time, there is also a heightened release of the hormone, norepinephrine (adrenaline released in the brain). We tend to see adrenaline is as this hormone that is activated in stressful, fight or flight-type situations. That’s true. But when it is released in small doses in combination with dopamine it makes us feel energetic. Vital. Alive! The results can be great, but can also lead to an over-excitation that limits my ability to sleep, reduces my appetite and make me feel nervous, neurotic and uncertain. “Does she like me? She probably thinks I’m weird for adding that extra emoticon. What is she thinking?? God, what was I thinking?! It’s over. I should basically just end it now.” That sort of thing.
A final neurotransmitter involved in this whole ordeal of attraction is serotonin. Neuroscientists still don’t fully understand the full picture of what serotonin is up to. There is consensus, however, that it plays some role in the regulation of social behaviour, mood, memory, appetite, digestion and sexual desire. But beyond that, the details are largely a mystery.
What we do know is that serotonin levels tend to decline during the initial stages of feeling an attraction towards another person. This seems to be in relation to norepinephrine and cortisol (the stress hormone) which help my body deal with the stressful nature of attraction. Again, the cortisol is why my heart races, cheeks flush and I become overwhelmed with emotions of anxiety and passion.
As a result of this heightened stress response (my brain is flooded with norepinephrine and cortisol), I have this drop in serotonin.
What happens when serotonin is low?
Interestingly, very low levels of serotonin is linked to those who suffered from OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder)— an almost maniacal preoccupation with something.
This again makes sense if I think about the overpowering feelings of infatuation that are so common during the initial stages of attraction. Rather than just dopamine activation, low levels of serotonin secretion are what contribute to the maddeningly intrusive and reoccurring thoughts, projections, concerns, hopes and anxieties that are often associated with falling in love. Basically, I am experiencing a mild form of OCD…
So to summarise…
Pleasure is great! But giving power to pleasure makes me dependent on its source. Which means I desire. I fantasize. I crave the pleasure source when it isn’t around. I obsess over it. And to obsess over something that isn’t present cannot be anything more than a preoccupation with memory. With history. With the past. A model on loop. An image constructed in mind and placed on a pedestal. As a result, I lose my sight. I become blind to what is right in front of me.
Through pleasure, infatuation arises and through infatuation I blind myself. I set up shop in a world of delusion.
Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. The highs of a romantic relationship are the best a human can experience. The passion. The euphoria. The ecstasy. All of it.
But let us be honest with ourselves about what is actually going on.
Look at the nature of the experience for yourself. The expectations you architect. The dependence you create on forces you can’t control. The conflict that results. Look at what happens to your brain and your nervous system. Look at your feelings and thoughts.
Is this love?
Perhaps the attraction is just a precursor to love rather than love itself. A stage that we go through in order to arrive at love.
The infatuation gives way to the attachment. A more meaningful bond between me and another. Wholehearted and connected.
THE ATTACHED BRAIN
The dopaminergic response quietens. There is less secretion of norepinephrine and my serotonin system stabilises. The honeymoon phase has come to an end. And as a result, many relationships do too—relationships built purely on the pleasurable feelings that the dopaminergic system is responsible for. Alright. Time to move on.
The departure is normal, and would always be the case if it wasn’t for the secretion of two other hormones that tend to take the reins when my dopaminergic pleasures fade. These are oxytocin and vasopressin, both of which are responsible for deeper forms of bonding and attachment.
Oxytocin plays a particularly important role in the formation of attachment. Often referred to as ‘the love/cuddle hormone’, oxytocin heightens my feelings of security, connectedness and empathy towards another. It is no surprise that the same hormone is most actively secreted during sex, childbirth and breastfeeding.
THE DARK SIDE OF OXYTOCIN
In addition to being the hormone responsible for bonding and attachment, oxytocin may also be one of the core underlying drivers behind ethnocentrism and in-group bias.
In a study published in January 2011 in the journal PNAS, the University of Amsterdam's de Dreu asked Dutch students about their attitudes toward outside groups. He found that oxytocin increased loyalty to fictional characters with Dutch names, but didn't increase warm-and-fuzzy feelings for people with Arab or German names. “People come to view their in-group as more positive given oxytocin," de Dreu said.
“Giving soldiers oxytocin might make them more cooperative towards their comrades, even willing to self-sacrifice," De Dreu said. "But it should [also] make them more likely to launch a preemptive strike against the competing army, with conflict-escalation being the most likely consequence."
Obviously, this doesn’t mean oxytocin is what makes people xenophobic, racist or chauvinistic. Oxytocin doesn’t set the boundary between one’s in-group and out-group. What oxytocin does is dial-up attachment, bonding and protectiveness toward those who are already seen as part of my in-group, while increasing animosity toward those in my existing out-group.
There isn’t a better example of oxytocin’s effects than a mother’s protectiveness towards her child. Nurturing inwardly and yet protective outwardly. Maggie Smith captured the nurturing yet protective nature of a mother nicely in her beautiful poem ‘ Good Bones’.
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
ATTACHMENT, SECURITY & DEPENDENCY
Ethnocentrism and amplified animosity towards an out-group is a problem, but let’s put that aside for a moment and explore the more immediate implications of attachment.
I am attached to you. What does that mean?
Doesn’t that mean that I need you for my security? That I am dependent on you for my happiness? That without you around, I would suffer. I would feel insecure.
Is this true for you? I’m exploring not stating.
If it is true, then as a result of my attachment to you, I experience fear. A fear of loss. Of losing you. A fear of the pain, insecurity and sorrow that I expect to occur when you are gone.
Well, that just won’t do. I can’t afford to lose you. The fear of losing you is too great. And so I need to find ways to keep you around.
This gives birth to motive. To control. To manipulation. To jealously. To envy. To any freedom that would have you move away from me—and of course ‘move away’ here could mean to physically move, but also psychologically in that I find it hard to fit your personal growth into the image I am attached to… You can’t change. That just won’t do either.
All this need for control is built on my fear of loss, which arrives as a result of me being attached to an image of you. An image I have constructed in my mind. A delusion that stops me from seeing you. If I wasn’t blind before I certainly am now.
And of course, the mischief of attachment goes further than my relationship with another. The same problem arises with my attachment to an identity of myself. A nationality. An ideology of how the world works. Or even worse, how it should work..
Is this love?
THE FULL PICTURE
Although I have explored attraction and attachment separately, they are actually deeply connected parts of the same process.
Attraction is pleasurable feelings and the desire to attain more of them. That happens through the mental construction of an image that is then chased. As discussed, in that chasing there is craving and anxiety. Obsession and the need for possession. Out of which, there is attachment. And where there is attachment there must be fear. Fear of loss. A loss of dependence. A loss of security. A loss of identity. Which means there needs to be control. And control blinds us. It resists change. It results in delusion. It creates false expectations. A movement away from what is, to what should be. The birthplace of jealously, anger and hatred.
Is this love? Is attraction and attachment love?
If so, then love is pleasure. Love is desire. Love is craving, obsession and a need for possession. Love is fear. Love is a lack, a motive, a need to control and a failure to do so. Love is anxiety. Love is jealousy, anger and hatred.
Perhaps this is love. A “wild and untamed force” as Paulo Coehlo wrote. It chimes with what James Baldwin said— “Love is a battle. Love is war”. Glory, ecstasy, terror, desperation and sorrow. A form of socially acceptable insanity. “A temporary madness” as Louis de Bernières wrote in Corelli’s Mandolin. A drug that makes us feel so good we get addicted to it.
A FORGOTTEN MEANING OF LOVE
There is another way in which the word love is used. A meaning that isn’t part of our modern mainstream programming, largely because it doesn’t complement western culture or fit neatly into a mechanical view of how the biophysical world works.
Yet, upon seeing the implications of attraction and attachment it becomes quite obvious that there must exist a completely unrelated interpretation of love.
What did Ramana Maharshi mean when he said “All wisdom is love, love, love”? Or Thich Nhat Hahn when he said “Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love.” How does Buddha’s teaching about “radiating boundless love towards the entire world” connect with an understanding of love as attraction and attachment? And what was the writer, Anaïs Nin talking about when she wrote that “love is acceptance”.
Where is there is attraction there is desire, there is chasing, craving and obsession. So what one earth was Jesus up to when he said that:
"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs."
Attraction and desire clearly aren’t patient. As Krishnamurti states “If I run after it, it is not love, it is a reward.”
And then as discussed, when there is attachment there is a fear of loss. But then why would Anthony De Mello state that:
“Love casts out fear. Where there is love there are no demands, no expectations, no dependency. I do not demand that you make me happy; my happiness does not lie in you. If you were to leave me, I will not feel sorry for myself; I enjoy your company immensely, but I do not cling.”
Krishnamurti also gets at this point nicely when he says:
“Love must exist with freedom. Not the freedom to do what I like—that is nonsense; freedom of choice, and so on, has no value in what we are talking about—but there must be total freedom to love.”
I cannot be free when I am attached. And because of the fear and insecurity attachment creates, I constrain your ability to be free too. How can love and freedom coexist if love is attachment?
LOVE IS NOT A FEELING BUT A WAY OF BEING
To the spiritual teachers, poets and writers mentioned above, love is a way of being rather than a particular set of positive feelings towards another. Love is an understanding. A seeing of the other as the constantly changing bundle of complexity that they are. Which is only possible if there is a wholehearted acceptance of what is. A surrendering to the moment. Being outside of time. Total attention given to the here and now.
Love isn’t something I chase. It isn’t something out there in the world. It isn’t something that you can give me. It isn’t something I attain or attach to. It is what remains when my mind is no longer expecting, judging, demanding, seeking or possessing.
Again, these are just words. All they can do is point and hint. Nothing more. But that is more than enough if we can listen fully and deeply to these teachers.
Ignore the talking heads, screaming mobs and noisy crowds. Ignore the fear-mongering, comparing and rat-racing. Just breathe. Slow down. Quieten your being. Then carefully, sincerely, and without expectation, look to see what all these spiritual teachers, poets and writers are pointing us towards.
There is something marvellous to be realised.
Do you see it? :)