Monday, January 10, 2011

YOUR BRAIN ON LOVE: ADDICTION AND TRANSCENDENCE

Photo: Angie Vorhies

DAPHNE WOULD UNDERSTAND

turning brittle, stiffening of limbs
rough, mottled skin

the loss of freedom to run, to fall
to pick yourself up, to laugh with wind tangled in your hair

being robbed of desire, shot with Cupid’s leaden
arrow, to miss something you can’t name

or don’t want to, a not-quite-remembered need
a tugging in the loins when sluggish sap

begins to stir. Daphne would understand
how offensive the birds leaping branch

to branch in the fecundity rituals of spring,
eggs in a nest, cacophony of young voices.

            ~ Una Hynum

**


WHY WERE WE CRUCIFIED INTO SEX?

Una’s poem is the most original treatment of the Daphne myth I have ever encountered. Here Daphne is not a young woman pursued by Apollo. She is everywoman getting old, limbs stiffening, the skin growing rough and mottled. 

Some readers may be unfamiliar with Eros’s leaden arrow. Eros had two kinds of arrows: the golden arrows, which he shot into the hearts he wanted to inflame with love and desire, and leaden arrows, aimed at those who were destined to be repelled by a particular lover, or romance in general.

In his book Soulmates, Thomas Moore speaks about the “Daphnic impulse.” Impossible as that may seem to a young person who has just discovered sex, as we mature we may temporarily enter a state of mind where libido and sex and all the baroque complications of romance are an undesired intrusion. In the country of old age, especially for women (men’s libido is notoriously persistent), erotic love rules no more – and some women are quite happy with that new serenity.

But  . . . aren’t we supposed to be capable of falling in love as long as we can still breathe? Well, it depends on sex and thyroid hormones, as well as the levels of certain crucial neurotransmitters, most notably dopamine, the levels of which drop lower and lower as we age. It’s all about brain function. Romantic love undeniably has a transcendent component -- also dependent on the activation of a certain brain region -- but without what might be called the addictive component, those lofty feelings are not likely to happen.

In Una’s poem the lack of Eros is seen as a great loss – “being robbed of desire.” Some women, however, experience it as a gain. It’s a peaceful feeling, they say. In fact I have met men who refused testosterone replacement because they feared an increase in libido, remembering the torment it was in their youth. That’s what I remember most vividly from the time I did some hormone replacement counseling: one man after another using the word “torment” or “torture” to describe his youthful libido. This reminds me of D.H. Lawrence’s cry in one of his tortoise poems: Why were we crucified into sex?

The biological reason for that crucifixion is obvious – nature wants to trap us into reproducing. A child as the ultimate union/fusion of the lovers begins to enter the imagination, even if on a practical and/or physiological level having a child is impossible. Many women confide that the way they know they are truly in love is that they start fantasizing about having a child with the beloved – even if they are already past menopause. Lesbian women admit to fantasies about having a child by the woman they love. So far I’ve met only two men who have had similar “our child” fantasies in response to falling in love – but there must be more.

But reproduction, real or imagined, is certainly not the whole story. Could it be that the agony and ecstasy of erotic love are the most effective way to make us grow as human beings, to expand the boundaries of the self? Is falling in love an enlargement, or even what the Eastern tradition calls enlightenment?  This will be the big supra-biological question later on in this post.

Both the pleasures and the torments of love have been catalogued by poets for millennia. Edward Hirsch seems to belong in the minority of poets who are inspired by the delights of love, rather than by longing for it. In an interview for Rattapallax, he said, “I think there are two different kinds of love poems. In the majority of them, the beloved is absent; these are poems of longing and desire. But there are also a few love poems of attainment, to use the Sufi maxim the beloved are I and one. These are very moving poems in which desire is momentarily fulfilled.”


Here is one of those happy poems.
 
A NEW THEOLOGY

God couldn’t bear their happiness
when He heard them laughing together in the garden.
He caught them kneeling down in the dirt
(or worse) and letting pomegranate juice
run down their faces. He found them
breaking open a fig with fresh delight
as if something crucial had dawned upon them.
I think the whole shebang – the serpent, the apple
with knowledge of good and evil – was a setup
because God couldn’t stand being alone
with His own creation, while Adam and Eve celebrated
as a man and a woman together in Paradise,
exactly like us, love, exactly like us.

~ Edward Hirsch, Special Orders

THE NEUROCHEMISTRY OF BEING IN LOVE

Early brain imaging studies brought us the news that the brain in love looks essentially the same as the brain on amphetamines. The levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, , phenylethylamine (PEA), endorphins, and other neurochemicals related to excitement and pleasure (as well as creativity) increase after a person falls in love. The faster the increase in dopamine, the more intense the pleasure. This has led to the addiction theory of love, at least in its infatuation stage.

Dopamine is like speed. The energy and motivation is provides can turn us into passionate lovers – or, usually later in life, into workaholics who don’t want to waste any time on sex. So you can’t quite say that it’s the neurotransmitter of love, or of the work-ethic. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of motivation, drive, of feeling driven. “Energy is eternal delight,” Blake believed. And so it is. Dopamine creates not only energy, but also the feeling of exhilaration.

Dopamine also keeps you slender. “The true lover doesn’t eat,” Casanova allegedly said as he tossed a plate of pasta out the window. Seriously, dopamine keeps you slender by stimulating the release of growth hormone, which signals the body to burn fat and build muscle. Good mood and robust immune function are among other gifts of dopamine.

(Serotonin, by contrast, is the “I don’t care” neurotransmitter. It diminishes drive: not just sex drive, but drive in general, in the sense of motivation. Aging means lower levels of dopamine [13% decline per decade, starting at age 40-45], while the levels of serotonin hold out much better. Thus getting older makes us serotonin-dominant and “mellow” (and fatter) – if we are lucky, that is. Sometimes chronic stress damages the brain so much that the result is an overall deficiency of neurotransmitters – one reason for “grumpy old men” and “crotchety old women.”)

Other researchers have explored blood levels of various hormones in people who have fallen in love. They discovered that in both sexes, testosterone (the so-called “hormone of desire,” which also raises dopamine levels) and other sex steroids become elevated. The later, attachment of "companionate" phase of love, however, means higher level of oxytocin (the “bonding” hormone). But oxytocin rises already in the early stages of love, facilitating bonding.

Oxytocin has been getting more and more attention lately. Its levels increase when we touch, hug, and have sex. It's also the hormone that bonds children and parents. Anyone who's been in love knows the peculiar tendency lovers have to speak in baby talk and exhibit parental behavior toward the beloved. Well, think of your first experience of love. Not of romantic love, but strong affection. That happened in infancy. People in love, with their high oxytocin levels, often take turn playing baby and parent. One definition of love is “mutual nurturing.”
What about serotonin, the “it doesn’t matter” neurotransmitter? We certainly enjoy the feeling of peaceful contentment that depends largely (but not exclusively) on serotonin. Serotonin decreases drive and leads to weight gain. As you might expect, serotonin is lower in the first stage of love. Bursting with energy and feeling exhilarated are the gifts of dopamine. 

THE NEUROANATOMY OF LOVE

Can this mental blossoming ever be translated into non-poetic, scientific terms? Well, we can say that a new relationship practically forces personal growth and increased self-knowledge, and this learning may be reflected in higher levels of the neural growth factor, a substance that stimulates neurogenesis. Yes, love is good for the brain, especially if your brain needs healing. 

For now, however, there is no danger that science will soon unravel the divine madness and mystery of love. However, the scientific consensus is that yes! love exists as a distinct brain function, and it’s not the same as sex drive. Brain imaging has shown that being in love (as opposed to sexual arousal per se) activates different brain centers, especially the caudate (“tail-like”) nuclei. The caudate region is in turn part of the basal ganglia, a set of structures that surround the deep limbic system (also called the “emotional brain”).

The basal ganglia are important in the integration of thoughts and feelings, and in producing smooth, integrated movement. The basal ganglia are also one of the dopamine-driven “pleasure loops” in the brain. Interestingly, the caudate is also involved in memory and learning. And the basal ganglia play a role in anxiety and motivation in general. The striatum is a particularly active dopamine producer, and has even been called the “pleasure center.” 

Basically all dopamine-releasing parts of the brain are activated during intense love. But there is yet another part of the brain that becomes activated: the insula. The insula, of great interest in addiction research, is the part of the brain that sustains motivation. The insula could be said to “assign value” to an experience so that we continue to seek it.
The more we find out, the more complicated and intertwined it all gets, cognition and emotion flowing along the dopamine and glutamate pathways. I could go on, but why torture you? You’ve been in love; you know it’s a very complicated state (and we haven’t even gotten to the later stage of attachment love, which activates different parts of the brain).

What causes the intense pain that usually follows a break-up? The addiction theory of love naturally sees it as the equivalent to drug withdrawal. Experience tells us that it’s much more complicated, and may feel like a psychological amputation, losing a part of our lives, our very selves. But walking away from a stifling dominator can cause a burst of euphoria (and hence also a surge of creativity; I speak from personal experience).

Is there a brain area that seems to be particularly involved in the transcendent part of love? The best guess is the right temporal lobe. This is the “God region” – the cortical site associated with both mystical and erotic ecstasy, as well as with processing music. When that region is activated, we experience bliss.

LOVE AS SELF-EXPANSION AND TRANSCENDENCE

The most interesting approach to love, however, claims that nothing is as rewarding as “self-expansion”: the rapid learning of new things from the lover (absorbing his taste in music, for instance, or reading his favorite authors; picking up his interests, opinions, and verbal expressions). This accelerated learning is a joy-ride in itself, a personality enlargement that makes us grow and flourish.

While this self-expansion is particularly intense in the early stage of love, a recent (December 31, 2010) article in the New York Times, “The Happy Marriage is the Me Marriage,” by Tara Parker-Pope, discussed a study that suggested that even long-term love flourishes most when the partners keep on learning from each other and continue to find each other a source of growth. “Research shows that the more self-expansion people experience from their partner, the more committed and satisfied they are in the relationship.” Love means both a great deal of giving and a great deal of receiving.

To this I would add my own observation that another part of the feast is the surprise of discovering new potential within oneself. With each lover, a somewhat different personality emerges: soft-spoken and maternal with X, flamboyant and dare-devil with Y, calm and full of practical wisdom with Z. Our perception of ourselves changes, broadens. Our self-esteem increases; we are thrilled not only with our beloved, but also with ourselves. It’s been suggested that the lover sees the beloved as god (assuming a totally loving deity) sees the soul: as perfect. Consequently, we have the sense of blossoming.
                       
Anza-Borrego Desert, Springtime

Every stick bursts into blossom.
Flame-beaked ocotillos
wave in the warm wind.
The scar of an arroyo
silvers with a living stream.

This is the most precious garden:
not hothouse orchids
but the desert lavish with gold
brittlebush, our-lady’s-slippers,
bells ringing indigo and mauve.

Just one season of unstinting rain,
and this place of thirst
blooms the richest Eden.
The lilac-plumed grass
tames to our hands.

So after years without love,
tenderness makes us flower.
So our face
becomes the face of All,
unfolding petal by petal.

~ Oriana @ 2011


LOVE VERSUS GREAT LOVE (MAD LOVE, PASSION)

There is luv, love, and Love. Luv and love are pretty frequent, especially in youth. Great love may happen once or twice in a lifetime. Maybe three times. Some people never get to experience it, though at least once in a lifetime is common. It can happen in youth, and be both ecstatic and excruciating. It can happen at an older age, when it is said to be particularly fulfilling, two mature people sharing their richness and life wisdom, treasuring each tender moment, not willing to lose any of that precious happiness by arguing over trivia. When Jack Gilbert arrives at the threshold of old age and pleads with the gods, he does not ask for fame and riches. He begs, “Let me fall in love one more time.”

Can great love last forever, or is that just a cultural myth? I once met a man, an eminent scientist, whose great love happened to be my mother (they met while studying at the same university). Both of them were at that point married to other partners. One time in my teens, I got to watch the two of them together. He paid no attention to me – so much for youthful beauty. Moth to flame, he still visibly worshipped my mother, middle-aged and hardly a sex goddess. But to him she was always his intellectual Aphrodite.

One of the phenomena of great love is the feeling that we have met our twin at last – ourselves, the way we would be if we happened to be of the opposite sex. The idea of the “missing half” in Plato’s Symposium also comes to mind. But we are not hemispheres – we are very complex polygons. If the mate happens to fit along some of the angles, it’s already a cause for joy. If he happens to fit along many angles, we are only too ready to claim that he is the “Twin Flame,” the soul-mate, “The One.” But we need to remember that the fit is always only partial. And that’s fine. It’s more interesting that way.

We rarely marry our great love. In a not uncommon scenario, great love is not even reciprocated. And yet it is life-transforming. The gift of self-expansion remains.

In my case, for great love, for passion, my neocortex (the “thinking brain” – though this definition is too narrow) has to be "delighted," and not just my emotional brain. When the neocortex also becomes deeply engaged, then it’s just amazing, amazing . . . A “whole-brain” love that makes the slightest touch electrifying, a seemingly casual remark engraved in memory forever because the Beloved said it. And the pine tree he happened to stand near while he said it becomes a sacred tree. Add music, and it becomes “our music.”

Speaking of music: the kind of music we happen to love, which brings us close to rapture, is a potent releaser of dopamine in the brain’s mesolimbic reward system. In college, I briefly dated a composer. One day as we were walking across the campus toward the library with its piano rooms, where he played for me, he lowered his voice and said, “Isn’t music the most voluptuous pleasure there is?” I said yes, but I wasn’t yet at the stage where this was true for me. That came soon enough. During a time of a traumatic heartbreak, it was music that kept me alive – the only reliable source of pleasure, aside from the visual beauty of California.

“If music be the food of love, play on” (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night). Doing something dopamine-enhancing with a lover, such as listening to favorite music, strengthens the relationship.  The relationship may in fact end, but the gift of “our music” remains. Once the grief of loss is resolved, that music continues to be very rewarding, in part through fond memories. "The music to come to" is how one of my friends describes Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.

The cortical involvement and the joy of intellectual connection do not mean that great love is rational. It’s closer to religious ecstasy. One view of Western romantic love, especially the infatuation stage, is that it is a misplaced religious yearning. Only the divine deserves that kind of delirious worship, the sages claim. Aside from some saints who have managed to love Christ in this mystical-erotic way, Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross being the most famous examples, the West, already with medieval courtly love, recognized the sacred in the love between two people, two souls. Ecstasy lay chiefly in the union of two souls.

Sometimes even an imagined union will do. Did Beatrice ever return Dante’s love to so inspire the Divine Comedy? And isn’t love poetry most often about the loss of the beloved? And didn’t Tolstoy remark that for all this union of souls, how come the love object also needs to be physically attractive? Or, as many psychologist claim, she or he must remind you of someone familiar from childhood, as though we deliberately sought to reactivate our wounds – because the familiar is always preferred? Or, as the addiction theorists point out, why talk about the soul when it can all be explained as a dopamine rush? Ah, let’s not even go there . . .  We know that the brief bliss of a cocaine addict is nothing like the rich experience of erotic love. The lover’s self expands; the drug addict’s self constricts.

However, the dopamine-driven addiction theory of love cannot be dismissed. We are used to thinking of love as sacred and exalted, and the idea of addiction repels us. Yet wouldn’t it be exactly like Mother Nature, in her dark machinations to insure the continuation of the species, to use a low but supremely effective trick like addiction?

Yes, but we know that it would be a mistake to define love as only an addiction. That the drive toward mental enlargement exists is in itself a fascinating human phenomenon. We want self-expansion and self-discovery. We can get that from a person with a rich mentality. It’s the marriage of minds that is the most “human” part of love.

LOVE IS A CHILD OF POVERTY AND WEALTH

Plato says that love is a child of Poverty and Wealth. Poverty here means simply the need for more of all that is precious to us. But that need is a powerful kind of hunger. No matter how rich we already are, the right person can make us richer yet. How greedy are we not only for the physical and emotional pleasure, but also for the riches of the mind? Infinitely.

Thinking, with trepidation, about great love, I ponder again the tremendous gravitational pull between two people swept away by each other. Passion feels different from the start. With a “whole-brain” attraction, it feels as though two souls were calling to each other, reaching out with total yearning. This hunger can override almost anything, including the threat of eternal damnation. “Love at last you have found me . . . Now the storm begins,” Charles Aznavour sings. This is the eternal whirlwind that seized Paolo and Francesca da Rimini (it’s odd how sweet the sinful, passion-driven Francesca seems next to the domineering, saintly Beatrice). Again, let us listen to Edward Hirsch invoke that Canto where Paolo and Francesca pay the price for “passion beyond reason” (could there be any other kind?)

THE SENTENCE
Inferno, Canto Five

When you read Canto Five aloud last night
in your naked, singsong, fractured Italian,
my sweet compulsion, my carnal appetite,

I suspected we shall never be forgiven
for devouring each other body and soul,
and someday Minos, a connoisseur of sin,

will snarl himself twice around his tail
to sentence us to life in perpetual motion,
funneling us down to the second circle

where we will never sleep or rest again
in turbulent air, like other ill-begotten
lovers who embraced passion beyond reason,

and yet I cannot turn from you, my wanton;
our heaven will always be our hell, a swoon.


~ Edward Hirsch, Lay Back the Darkness

**

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Paolo and Francesca da Rimini

    . . . . That day we read no more.


**


MARGARET MEAD’S THREE-HUSBAND THEORY 

Ursula:

My husband and I were discussing Una’s poem at lunch. He feels Una is one of the finest poets in San Diego, if not the finest. I agree. I'm in awe of how she continues to grow as a poet in spite of everything.

Margaret Mead came up with theory of three marriages: the first for romance, the second for family and the third for companionship. She felt no couple (or very few), could manage to fulfill all three as a unit.

I only see the necessity for marriage in the second case where children are involved and where the woman typically has her life both restricted and expanded.

Oriana:

Someone said to me that the first marriage is for dealing with your wounds. You marry someone who will make you grow re: early trauma, or some other central issue in your life. So in first marriage the woman suffers, but also grows a lot. Then the second marriage is to someone who shares your interests, and it's for joyful companionship in older age.

In my observation, those two marriages can be to the same man. The early phase is power struggle and other problems. With luck and maturation, the later phase can be cooperative, mutually nurturing and quite mellow. The experience of a long-term marriage is fascinating that way – the relationship evolves, and every 7-10 years it's a different marriage.

The more I researched the topic of this post, the more I became interested in the brain’s own “reward system.” It’s probably a crude approximation to say that our “pleasure center” is the nucleus accumbens, located at the head of the caudate, and that it’s all about dopamine. Regardless of the neuroanatomy and neurochemistry of pleasure, it is probably of utmost importance for mental health to activate the brain’s reward system as often as possible. A couple can enhance this activation, for instance by going to see good movies together, listening to great music together, going hiking in a beautiful area, and so on. This is the “joyful companionship” that Margaret Mead saw as the essence of the “third marriage.”

But because we are human and need meaning, the couple who works together on something that has great meaning to both of them (Marie and Pierre Curie come to mind) may be the ultimate example of a fulfilling marriage, beyond anything that Margaret Mead posited. Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry said Love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking together in the same direction. I think he meant mature love: not the intoxication of falling in love but the kind of love that takes time to develop. The pleasure pathways are no doubt still involved, but the “meaning-centered” marriage is probably beyond pleasure and pain. 


But even if we knew the neurochemistry of meaning, it would not help us much. We still have to find our own path. Yet love is involved. The bit of poetry below comes from a horoscope, of all places:


Only Venus. Only she
lights the way in the darkness. 


(I found this soon after I finished revising my "Late Venus" -- Jungians, rejoice.)



HEALING EACH OTHER’S WOUNDS BY SHARING EACH OTHER’S SUFFERING; LOVE AS NON-ABANDONMENT


John Guzlowski:

Oriana, What you say about marriage helping to heal wounds makes me think of my parents.  
My parents met in a concentration camp in Germany toward the end of the war.  She was a slave laborer in the camp, and my dad and some other slave laborers were brought there by German guards who were escaping the Russians.  The Germans left him and fled toward the American lines.  When my mom saw my dad, he was a scarecrow in rags.  He weighed about 70 pounds and had only one eye.  He had lost the other when a guard clubbed him for begging for food.  

She was 23, he was 25.  She had had been a slave for 2 years, and before that she had seen her mother, his sister, and her sister's baby killed by the Nazis.   

After liberation they did what a lot of people did.  As my dad liked to say when he was telling this story, first they had something to eat, and then they got married.

It was a hell of a marriage.  They fought and argued for the next 50 years – even on Sunday mornings – and even on Christmas Day.

It got so bad at times that – after we came to America – my sister and I would plead with my parents to get a divorce.  

They never did.  When my dad died in 1997, they were still married.  52 years.

I wrote a poem about why they stayed together.

Why My Mother Stayed with My Father

She knew he was worthless the first time 
she saw him in the camps: his blind eye,
his small size, the way his clothes carried 
the smell of the dead men who wore them before. 

In America she learned he couldn’t fix a leak
or drive a nail straight. He knew nothing 
about the world, the way the planets moved,
the tides. The moon was just a hole in the sky,

electricity a mystery as great as death.
The first time lightning shorted the fuses, 
he fell to his knees and prayed to Blessed Mary 
to bring back the miracle of light and lamps.

He was a drunk too. Some Fridays he drank
his check away as soon as he left work.
When she’d see him stagger, she’d knock him down
and kick him till he wept. He wouldn’t crawl away. 

He was too embarrassed. Sober, he’d beg 
in the bars on Division for food or rent
till even the drunks and bartenders
took pity on this dumb Polack.

My father was like that, but he stayed
with her through her madness in the camps 
when she searched among the dead for her sister, 
and he stayed when it came back in America.

Maybe this was why my mother stayed.
She knew only a man worthless as mud,
worthless as a broken dog would suffer 
with her through all of her sorrow.        

     ~ John Guzlowski

**

Oriana:

There is an amazing dignity to marriage that comes from what I call the pact of non-abandonment. When we say “for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health,” we are promising non-abandonment and being willing to share each other’s sorrows. Given how life is, yes, having someone who will help you carry the burden of your story is a great piece of luck. Sharing joys is wonderful, but sharing the sorrows may be even more important. 

Also, I know from some prose you wrote about your parents that they worked together toward an important common goal. In spite of all the obstacles, they were gazing together in the same direction. 




LOVE AS TRANSCENDENCE


Lisa:

I am first captivated by the revelation of timelessness when "true" or deep love comes around. Whether it is within a passionate whirlwind, when the time of day and any matters having to do with dates or schedules (even eating) are tossed to the wind; or whether it is with a dear friend that one has not seen for ages, and the reuniting (and the sheer love of the other) makes time irrelevant, as it seems that the passage of decades was "only yesterday" while the the power of agape spins its eternal magic. Hence, I think of love (even my love of poetry) as an emancipation from time.

I also love this idea that the self growing and expanding into the other- the self becoming awakened by new language, new music, new perceptions - is the soul's attempt to save itself from imprisonment. This expanding outward beyond the small boundaries of oneself is a true gift of love.

Another point of fascination is you can't fall in love without it breaking your heart. Love is, indeed, a set up for "loving to the point of tears," as Camus put it. This paradox is the same as the paradox of moving toward death (instead of away from it) as love grows deeper. Oh, this is the life well-lived, this courageous surrender to heartbreak. And so, you see in the following old, wise, and simple poem, that only in that surrender to love do we see that even the lowest of trees have tops, that love is love- even in beggars, and that "turtles cannot sing and yet they love": 

The lowest trees have tops

The lowest trees have tops, the ant her gall,
The fly her spleen, the little spark his heat,
And slender hairs cast shadows though but small,
And bees have stings although they be not great.
Seas have their source, and so have shallow springs,
And love is love in beggars and in kings.

Where waters smoothest run, deep are the fords,
The dial stirs, yet none perceives it move:
The firmest faith is in the fewest words,
The turtles cannot sing, and yet they love,
True hearts have eyes and ears no tongues to speak:
They hear, and see, and sigh, and then they break.

~ Sir Edward Dyer 

Which brings me to the next fascination: that great love, as you said, is often not reciprocated...and I would add, often not even heard, and certainly not consummated. I am reminded of Yeats and his true, greatest love, Maude Gonne, to whom he proposed 4 times and was rejected each time. The story goes that the last time, when he was on his knees, she had intended to say "yes," but seeing the near panic in his face upon the horrible realization that this love might come to fruition,she once again said "no." I think there is a great love that we only keep great by keeping it at a distance, unattainable, far off, so that we can preserve its godliness. This is why love at a distance often remains so passionate and "true" and untainted - because the humanness is not allowed to enter in. Yes, timeless love, the impassioned god-moments of love, whether they be with another human being or watching a white swan glide along a silent lake, or in a cathedral – these moments of absolute love are always fleeting. Hence, the "addiction" – to control and/or capture a fleeting moment of love, intensity, connection, selflessness . . .

The gift of self-expansion (as opposed to the demise of an addiction) seems so close to a deep definition of love- this self-expansion, that comes so naturally when one finds his/her element and is effortlessly integrating with a larger world, each minute "more like a king":

The Swan

This clumsy living that moves lumbering 
as if in ropes through what is not done 
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks. 

And to die, which is a letting go 
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day, 
is like the swan when he nervously lets himself down 

into the water, which receives him gaily 
and which flows joyfully under 
and after him, wave after wave. 

while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm, 
is pleased to be carried, each minute more fully grown, 
more like a king, composed, farther and farther on. 

- Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly 


Your question, "Could it be that the agony and ecstasy of erotic love are the most effective way to make us grow as human beings, to expand the boundaries of the self?" is commensurate with the letting go of the strategic mind. This mind that calculates and pays bills and has a very functional and working relationship with time, is not the mind that holds everything all at once. This deep and soulful expansive mind can, yes, hold agony and ecstasy together in one bundle and not separate them into demonstrable parts. 

Continuing with this idea – You wrote, "We are used to thinking of love as sacred and exalted, and the idea of addiction repels us. Yet wouldn’t it be exactly like Mother Nature to use a low but supremely effective trick like that, in her dark machinations to insure the continuation of the species?" I'm not sure Mother Nature ever steps out of the mind that holds everything all at once, so I believe that surrender, that giving over to nervously letting yourself down into what receives you gaily, even that "petite mort"(little death) as the French call an orgasm is this very surrender. 

About attainment as opposed to longing:

(In an interview for Rattapallax, he said, “I think there are two different kinds of love poems. In the majority of them, the beloved is absent; these are poems of longing and desire. But there are also a few love poems of attainment, to use the Sufi maxim the beloved are I and one. These are very moving poems in which desire is momentarily fulfilled.”) There is no other than Pablo Neruda to illustrate this point – that you do not seek out or force this moment of "attainment" but that the attainment happens to you while you are at the edge, in conversation with what you think is you and what you think is not you:

Poetry

Poetry arrived in search of me.
I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river. . . .
There I was without a face
and it touched me.

I did not know what to say, my mouth
had no way
with names,
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
deciphering
that fire,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
nonsense,
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing . . .
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind. 

**

Oriana:



TRANSFORMATION THROUGH POSITIVE EMOTIONS


I especially like your unexpected choice of Rilke’s “Swan” as an example of self-expansion/personality enlargement. Great love and death have always been deeply connected; to put it in the lingo of the post, the smaller self gives way to a the enlarged self, and seeing that fearless and more vital personality emerge is possibly love’s greatest gift of all.

Normally we are trapped in a lot of negativity. When we fall in love, especially if we are loved in return, we experience a rush of positive emotions. It’s not only the beloved who appears radiant. People in general appear more benign, less annoying, more kind – even loving. The sky is more blue, the world more beautiful. Little things don’t bother us anymore. We don’t waste time grumbling. We are in a state of grace: we feel blessed, and we bless everyone, trees and animals too. We bless, and we are blessed; we love the world, and the world seems to love us back. All because we met someone who filled us with positive emotions!

We feel much stronger too, and not just because someone cares for us. Simply carrying the feeling of love inside us like a marvelous secret makes us feel stronger, larger, pregnant with another life.

By the way, in the German text we see that Rilke uses an amazing phrase, "the uncreated walk of the swan" -- the swan was not created for walking -- hence the awkwardness -- perhaps also human awkwardness when we live without love, in constricted selves.



Self-expansion is very thrilling and rewarding in itself. I think the frontal lobes are definitely involved in this – and let us not forget that one of the three major dopamine-reward pathways leads to the frontal lobes. The intellectual connection and expansion is part of the overall euphoria: the state of increased energy that makes the rapid growth possible.

I am certain that physiological addiction to love's feel-good neurochemicals is involved. The dark side of this is that the loss of the beloved can create severe withdrawal symptoms. Yet soon enough, knowing there will be pain, we are ready to love again. 

I was wondering: Why only love? Why doesn’t hatred break our hearts if we are deprived of the energizing state of hating something or someone? Most likely, it’s because simply feeling energized is not rewarding enough. The energy needs to be connected to something positive, rather than to hostility, which probably involves feel-bad chemicals.  

True, there may be some addiction to self-loathing, but that’s not an aspect that I, as a recovered depressive, miss about depression. I miss only the escapist aspect. Without depression as an option, you simply have to grit your teeth and cope -- or, better yet, relax and copeSometimes I think I also miss the kind of mild depression that went well with lyrical writing. But then it’s always possible to go to the movies and cry. Then it’s over. It’s not real grief. Real grief follows the loss of love. It does not have to be the loss of a loved person. You can mourn for the kind of life you loved and lost; you can deeply grieve the loss of a place you loved, or a job you loved. But love we must; we were wired for it, and only love (in every form) gives life that special joy.


COMPETING LOVES


It’s interesting that great love rarely leads to marriage (though there are exceptions; I suspect that even great love needs to transform into attachment love if the marriage is to work). Great love may be too intense, or come with a high price-tag (e.g. the less dominant person, the one who loves more, may feel that s/he would not be able to have a life of his or her own, or would have to leave California for Alaska -- laugh all you want, I was once forced to confront this choice). For a daily partner, we seem to prefer a soothing “comfort person” to someone charismatic we can worship from a safe distance. Hence the theory that men can be divided into husbands and lovers; the same probably holds for women. We want to get stimulation from an inspiring person, but would rather marry a Martha-type woman or the kind of man who is not a great achiever, but is likely to be a good father. 

Likewise, especially as we grow older, we face the dilemma of competing loves. Jean Shinoda-Bolen was wonderfully intuitive when she chose Aphrodite as the goddess of creativity. An artist has to be in love with his/her current project. An artist for whom art isn’t the greatest love and does not come first is simply not a real artist. This can certainly lead to problems, especially if the partner does not understand the intensity of the creative process and does not have an equivalent “other love” in his or her life.

And yet artists tend to be charismatic – maybe precisely because they have another source of love, and are energized by it. Would I recommend getting involved with an artist (or someone dedicated to another field in an equally intense way)? No. Not if you want your lover to put you first and have a lot of time for you.  But two creative people together who understand that art comes first for each of them – now that can be delightful if both are mature, and both are motivated to make the relationship last.

If all this sounds difficult, it is. But here comes another wonderful bit of knowledge about love: it doesn’t have to be mutual. The person who is in love experiences stress-reduction and some degree of self-expansion even through loving from afar. Being in love is such a state of grace that it doesn’t even take being loved in return for personality enlargement to happen. It’s a great comfort to remember this in situation when complete love would create unacceptable problems, or is simply not possible.


COMPLEX ANGELS –

DOES A WRITER LOVE WORDS MORE THAN PEOPLE?

Oriana to Lois:

The length of my posts is out of control, I don't know why. I can write short poems, but practically never short prose – prose lets me explore complex angels (ooops, a typo! or is it a Freudian slip?) – I mean angles.

Lois:

I think it's mostly about complex angels since were in the stratospheres of thought. The difficulty for the reader is that your posts are so rich there is so much to respond to. One has to choose what leaps out first or best and go from there.

Oriana:

You are so wonderfully right. What leaps out is different for different readers, and that's why I love the comments. My readers have rich minds, with many angles/angels, and I never know which angel shall alight.

What worries me is that being a writer means having love affairs with the angels of words. Woe to the one who interrupts me while I’m writing! He’s intruded into my sacred space, the stratosphere of thought, and I want to kill.

The Cohen brothers made an amazing movie, “A Serious Man.” My favorite scene is the hapless protagonist’s attempt to get some answers about the Job-like series of disasters in his life from the senior rabbi, regarded as a holy sage. The senior secretary slowly waddles into the rabbi’s inner sanctum – then waddles back, closes the doors, and says, “The rabbi is busy.” “He doesn’t look busy,” the hapless protagonist replies. “He’s thinking,” the secretary fires back.

This was an empowering revelation to me. Even when I am no longer at the keyboard, often I am still in the writing space, thinking. That’s why my rage at anyone who intrudes.  It’s just a moment; then I regain control and act decent and polite. But the homicidal moment does happen – it’s not easy to leave the stratosphere and shift attention to the grocery list. 


Finding my vocation as a writer lessened my need for getting love from people. Suddenly there was another source of love and happiness! Hence this song of mine, in the persona of Eurydice:


So wide are the arms of the infinite
now that I sing my own song,
I no longer need a man made of words.


No longer a flustered girl, I prefer
men who are quiet as smoke,
who do not intrude on my world.





QUESTIONING EVERYTHING ABOUT LOVE


Michael:
I have reason to question anything ever said about love. A few months ago I ended a three and a half year relationship that included every ingredient for the perfect relationship (even age appropriate, per your post)--passion and affection, intellectual parity and mutual growth, side-by-side journeying, affirmation, warm, attentive companionship, and a clear-eye acceptance. She remains the most remarkable person I've met, pure gold to the core. Those looking in rightly ask, What in the hell is wrong with you? What indeed? I was clear why my 24 year marriage needed to end. Never a doubt, and I've never looked back. But this, this is different, deeper, harder, tangled. I am tethered still. 

There are several possibilities I've considered over and over (and there are probably more which I am certain will haunt me in days to come): I just committed a great self-destructive act (out of fear of engulfment? Or fear of...?); I don't know anything about love (which first occurred to me at a wedding of two lesbians--I wept for how little I knew of that kind of commitment, against such obstacles); That love isn't about the ingredients; That the us was for a time and place and both have shifted; That it is a mystery I will simply have to live with; That my soul is calling me on, but to what? At first I was thankful when the sun rose, but now my days have become nights. I am chastened by love's fading scent for allowing it to slip through my fingers. Or was it love? I think the gods may be angry with me.    

Epistemologists work with various kinds of truth – logical/mathematical, scientific, artistic, and religious truth. There could be more. We may need to work out what love truth is. I suspect it will line up closely with religious truth. For the epistemologist, each kind of truth has a unique context and purpose. Religious truth, for example, tries to solve the question of pain (as some see it) and it is judged by its success at how (well) it deals with pain. We have context (very dependent on soul) and purpose (the problem of pain). What would we say about love? (I can say it is played out on the field of our souls – and bodies.) What is love trying to solve? Ah. What? This I cannot say. I'm blinded by disappointment in myself. I cannot see love's purpose, but I yet feel its lure.

Religious truth is autobiographical. It is story. It is ludicrous to speak of wrong stories, and none are alike. Can this be said of love? That there is no one love? No right love? That no love looks like another? And if so, do we waste time defining, lamenting, plotting, and oh, my goodness, drawing blood?
I know this – I cannot bear to think of love as a product of brain chemistry. I don't care what the scientists have observed. Love must not be left in the cold hands of empiricism, it must be held by the scarred, blistered, bleeding hands of our hearts, and wept over. I am weeping. Sorry and happy for my humanness, the curse and the blessing of love, the questions, the answers, and the mysteries, and still very, very puzzled over love.
Another way of thinking about love – the act of love is a noun and a verb, a complete, sweaty sentence. The noun is easy to get, dime novels and porn shots salaciously provide the parts and show the act, but paper-like sex is only sex, animal, and thin. Masters of making love speak fluent, complete sentences, verb-based whispers, heart talk, soul touch, pillow-speak. The verb is difficult, elusive, and written only over time as it mingles with failure and desire, found only by intense living, and out of that place where pain enters. Love, I think, is writing the complete sentence on each others body and soul, because love is, in fact, made. Or is it?

Sophocles, asked about love and the benefits of aging, said, “I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master.” He meant freedom from the tyranny of passion. There is truly a mad and furious master far beyond just a thread in the web of love . . .
I understand and know the scourge of the mad and furious master, but I hope I never escape it.


Oriana:

LOVE’S PROGRESS

I think part of the answer lies in the normal progression of romantic love from infatuation to the disilllusionment stage to attachment love -- if the disillusionment stage does not result in break-up, as it most often does. I think our culture is mostly in sad denial of the basic fact that the enchanting infatuation stage of romantic love does come to an end.

Choosing to continue dating rather than living together/getting married can delay this "death of romance," but, in my experience, will not prevent it. After all those Reader's Digest articles on how to keep romance in your marriage, I discovered that you can't keep romance even in romance. The intensity of infatuation, that special magic and glow, will wane. Will the culture ever grow up unless this truth is acknowledged?

The difficult and often terminal part of the relationship is the stage of disillusionment. Suddenly you notice not the magical similarities, but jarring differences, annoying habits, and a multitude of other flaws in your formerly divine beloved. Unless you value each other very highly, this usually spells a break-up.

But here comes the wonderful surprise. If you do value each other highly and are motivated to keep the relationship, you can put up with the discomfort of the disillusionment stage and move into attachment love – which tends to get more mellow and cozy with the years. Time, normally love's enemy, is on the side of attachment love. You become even more infinitely precious to each other than in the beginning. Now you love even the person’s flaws and little neuroses.

The romantic in us may hate the notion, but I think we would be collectively more happy and more evolved if the culture (movies in particular, since this is such a powerful medium) fully acknowledged that in the end, attachment love prevails over the initial thrill of infatuation. Couples might grow more patient and suffer less during the disillusionment stage if they knew that the reward is just around the corner – provided the partner is “good enough” (to use a parallel with a “good-enough mother”).

Feeling “still tethered” might mean that the attachment stage of love was just beginning. Ultimately attachment “wins” over passion, since the intensity of passion can last only so long, while attachment goes through interesting phases, and deepens over the decades. Attachment makes daily life possible and emotionally secure. I hope everyone gets to experience both passion and attachment, since both bring great gifts. But the soul of another is a dark forest, and I know better than to venture into speculation here.

THE TIDES OF LIBIDO

Female libido can also be very strong, and women too can feel they are the slaves of sex, getting involved with someone who is merely anatomically correct, simply because they can't live without. The addiction aspect of love can be painful indeed, especially if the woman finds the relationship degrading, and yet answers her friends' hand-wringing with "Don't tell me to go without sex!" (I suspect that the former friend I'm quoting here is by now thrilled with the aging-related diminishment of libido.)


And yet the message of Una's wonderful poem is in a way the opposite of that relief that Sophocles mentions; she resents the ebbing of desire. Maybe a moderate, middle-aged sort of sex drive is best. Few seem to miss the crazy libido of one's teens and twenties. Personally, I am very glad youth is over (a friend just said those very words to me -- writing seems full of synchronicities). And I am also very glad that the capacity for tenderness grows rather than diminishes – even in men.

And yet, and yet . . . a woman may think her libido is dead, and then the Prince does come, and lo! Soon she is dancing with the Prince, the same dance at fifty-something as at fifteen, except now it is more glorious by far, and she can dance so much better. The big problem seems to be not so much low hormone levels as the scarcity of princes.

Plato called love a divine madness, a state in which we are closest to the gods. So far no one has refuted him.

And Rilke said, If you don’t have the answer, live the question. I’ve often wondered what it means to live the question, and my best conclusion is that it is to relax into that cloud of unknowing and that journey into the unknown that life is. I think you answer all your questions when you say that we simply have to live on, fearlessly and intensely, and let the story weave itself in some mysterious pattern that we’ll later call fate.

Of course anything said about love is bound to be an oversimplification, including this post. Some oversimplifications can be very fruitful. For me the statement "we write because we are compulsive" (something a friend wrote to me after my tortured post to her, questioning writing as a vocation) happened to be the perfect words at the perfect time. With some slide-backs at first, I calmed down and surrendered with a kind of blind trust, without asking why do it or where I was going.  Ah, the courage to stop tormenting oneself and just “keep pushing into the story.” And I have gotten so good at self-crucifixion!


I love the statement “religious truth is autobiographical.” Now that is a gift. Thank you, Michael – I know I will be quoting this statement. I assume you mean that God is a construct within human psyche, both individual and collective. Thus, “God” is different for each person, even in the same religious tradition. Likewise, each person’s love stories are both unique and universal, an interesting interweave of addiction and transcendence, of a leap into the unknown while attachment to the familiar remains stronger than we dare imagine.


Is love trying to “solve” anything? Maybe that’s like asking if Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is trying to solve anything.  I know that musicologists love to talk about fate knocking on the door, and the heroic theme and the tragic vision, but we just want them to stop talking so we can listen to the music. Do we want the dopamine rush we get from music, or do we want to experience the transcendence that great music provides, instantly transporting us to another realm? Obviously, we want everything, every note of bliss and sadness. 

Feeling “still tethered” might mean that the attachment part of love is by no means over. Ultimately attachment “wins” over passion, since the intensity of passion can last only so long, while attachment goes through interesting phases, and may be deeper after decades. Attachment makes daily life possible and emotionally secure. I hope everyone gets to experience both passion and attachment, since both bring great gifts. But the soul of another is a dark forest, and I know better than to venture into speculation here.

Why do people claim that love after fifty is much more satisfying? I suspect that we need to work out our “central themes” first. We need to figure out what we want to do with our life – which may be different now than thirty years ago. That question becomes more urgent if put in terms of “what do I want to do with the life that still remains?” Now the unknown amount of time that we still have becomes very precious – we want to make the best of it. Once we decide what matters most to us and what kind of life we want, the kind of partner we want will also come into better focus. (Of course we must also remember that no vocation is without its doubts and agonies, and no partner is perfect. Whatever works. We must make the best of that “whatever.” At some point it’s too late not only for suicide, but also for depression and non-commitment.)

And the answers may be politically incorrect. In adolescence, I thought the most important thing was to see the world. It took me many years to realize I treasure quiet life most, with travel near the bottom of the list. But I have also come to treasure tenderness more than ever, the little kindnesses, the deep underlying respect for the other. We evolve, we learn.

And yet we become more ourselves, too. Funny, it was precisely in adolescence that I scored extremely high on Eysenck’s introversion scale, which indicates an immense need for solitude and quiet. But it’s only now that I feel strong enough to “just say No” to most social invitations and know how to protect what is most precious to me. Rilke was a great role model here, and his “unforgivable” refusal to attend his daughter’s wedding because he didn’t want to interrupt his creative momentum shows me an artist who knew his priorities.

EURYDICE: LIKE SMOKE

Like smoke she was dispersed . . .
He was left clutching at shadows,
with so much still to say –
                                ~ Virgil
           

But there was nothing to say.
So wide are the arms of the infinite,
now that I sing my own song,

I don’t need a man strung with words.
No longer a flustered girl, I prefer
men who are quiet as smoke,

who do not intrude on my world.

                      ~ Oriana
**

Even so, I too join all the poets who declare that love is glorious, no matter the pain. The gift is so great. The pain passes, but the gift remains ours.

“The days grow longer so quickly after New Year’s,” my mother often said. Let’s sail on. 

photo: Angie Vorhies 

Marjorie:


The princes that I’ve kissed have turned to frogs. Thus, I have little to say about erotic love.

The foregoing aside, however, women (unless they’re 80) usually want to get married and will not go with a man endlessly without calling the question.  After the failure of a long marriage, a man may be commitment shy—especially if things started going wrong before that marriage became a long one. I am not sure, however, that women who have been wounded are any less commitment shy than men.  A woman may purposely pick out inappropriate men just to avoid the question or may call the question and then mess up the relationship in order to avoid marriage.

Oriana:

Princes turning into frogs –a very common phenomenon. Almost inevitable as the levels of amphetamine-like chemicals eventually drop. And princesses turning into pumpkins, for the same reason. D.H. Lawrence said that the purpose of marriage is disillusionment. And I think many psychologists would second him, adding that the point is to work through the disillusionment stage and get through to realistic attachment love. If the partner is valued enough, that may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

These days there is also a "dating" kind of marriage, without living together. Dating, social scientists claim, is the only way to preserve romance. But let’s face it, a long-term relationship of any sort runs on attachment, not passion. Passion may be divine madness, but attachment is a kind of happy (or at least contented) sanity.

One modern problem that’s been observed is that many men prefer the mate to be a “service person.” Thus a boss is more likely to marry a secretary than a successful business woman. Nurses, physical therapists, and women in other caretaking professions appear to be more sought-after in marriage than women in positions of command.

One of my single friends says she is happy to have her own condo now and not have to use a laundromat. The guys at the laundromat, she told me, are definitely interested in a woman who’d do their laundry.

On the other hand, what woman would leave a man who can cook?

What appears to be most correlated with a stable marriage is education (more is better) and age at getting married (older is better).

Of course all of us have witnessed marriages that are stable for the wrong reasons: some couples conduct marriage as warfare. I had a couple like that among my neighbors once, both of them in their late seventies. One day he got into his truck and was never seen again. He did stop to say goodbye to me. I said, “Have a good trip,” and he replied, with a mysterious smile, “I am not coming back.” After fifty-some years of miserable marriage, he finally decided it was too late in life to put up with it. Wherever he is now, I know he’s happier without her constant criticism.

But a lot of marriages and other long-term relationships mellow with time. The person becomes more precious just for being there. “Mutual forgiveness of each vice, such are the Gates of Paradise,” according to William Blake. Let him have the last word.

4 comments:

  1. Wonderful, inspiring essay. Thanks for all the hard work and thinking, Oriana. You give us so much to consider.

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  2. I am getting more and more interesting in the brain's own reward system. I suspect that this endogenous reward system holds great promise for healing. Maybe the central questions should be: What gives you pleasure? and What sorts of things do you love doing? What are best at?" That's opposite of "What are your problems?"

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  3. Apollo and Daphne
    -by Bernini at Villa Borghese
    I have never forgotten (never fully recovered from seeing it in Rome -such a wonderful image matched with Oriana's opening photo. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_and_Daphne_(Bernini

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  4. Long yet very interesting post. I must add that love is addictive.. A lot of people tend to fall into love addiction, a pit that's very complex and not easy to escape.

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