A Love That Lasts
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
I once spoke to a group of high school girls at a luncheon in Minneapolis. After my talk I answered questions, and the girl who presided asked, “You’ve used the word love many times. What does love mean to you?” I gave her a straight answer: “When your boyfriend’s welfare means more to you than your own, you are in love.” She turned to the rest of the gathering and said candidly, “Well, I guess none of us has ever been in love.”
I think that can be said of most people. If you look at popular novels, gossip magazines, syrupy soap operas, and movies, you come away with the impression that falling in love is something that just happens. Here you are, sauntering down Fourth Street minding your own business, when suddenly you spy a certain someone coming out of a shop and you fall in love as if into a manhole. True love is much harder to come by than that.
The mystics are the world's authorities on love. When Saint Teresa says “Amor saca amor,” she is giving us the basic principle: “Love begets love.” One of the most beautiful things about love is that even today it cannot be purchased. It cannot be stolen, it cannot be ransomed, it cannot be cajoled, it cannot be seduced. Amor saca amor: only genuine love begets love.
All of us have been conditioned, even though we may not put it in such crass terms, to believe that if you love me six units, I should love you at most six units in return. I can feel secure in loving you six units because you have already committed yourself that far. But if you get annoyed with me and stomp out, slamming the door, I should get annoyed in return - and pull back, at least temporarily, my six units of love. This is the type of bargain that more and more so-called lovers strike today. Saint Teresa would say uncompromisingly, “Don't pretend that this is love. It falls more accurately under the heading of commerce.” Shakespeare put the matter in perfect perspective: “Call it not love that changeth.”
The whole thrust of what Teresa is confiding to us is simple: With practice, everyone can learn to love like this; everyone can live in endless love. After all, even if you don't learn Esperanto, your life is not necessarily going to be dull and drab. Even if you are not intimately acquainted with ancient Sumerian sculpture, you can make it through life without suffering serious depression. But if you do not learn how to love, everywhere you go you are going to suffer.
Now we get down to the nitty-gritty of romance. Which one of us is free of self-centered thinking, even in our most intimate relationships? It may take the form of “Is she always going to be faithful?” or “Is he always going to cater to me?” Whenever we start making demands like these, at that moment the relationship turns from love. No matter what the relationship may be, when you look on another person as someone who can give you love, you are really faking love. That is the simplest word for it. If you are interested in making love, in making it grow without end, try looking on that person as someone you can give your love to - someone to whom you can go on giving always.
Learning to love is like swimming against the current of a powerful river; most of our conditioning is in the other direction. When the river by my village used to flood with the advent of the monsoon rains, we boys liked to try to swim across without being swept downstream by the current. To tell you the truth, I never succeeded. The only time I came close was the time someone told me there was a crocodile after me. But a few of my cousins were such powerful swimmers that they could fight the current and reach the other side exactly opposite from where they had set out. It is simply a question of developing your muscles: the more you use them, the stronger they get. Similarly, when you put the other person's welfare foremost every day, no matter how strong the opposing tide inside, you discover after a while that you can love a little more today than you did yesterday. Tomorrow you will be able to love a little more.
In my experience, love can be fairly well summed up in a single word: patience. Oh, I know it isn’t thought to be a glamorous quality. I don’t remember anyone writing a song about it. We can turn on the radio and hear songs about coral lips and pearly teeth, about candlelight and moonlight, about Paris and Rio . . . nothing about patience. But you can have very ordinary lips and uneven teeth, live in Hoboken and never travel, and still have the most ardent love affair with your husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, if you both have patience.
Just try flying off to Acapulco with the current sex symbol and see how well you get on if you are both impatient! For a few dazzling hours you may be able to conceal from one another the self-will lurking within. Even after the puzzled glances, the astonished stares, the little disagreements begin, you can still ignore them by searching out a new wine to savor, a new sight to see. But soon the truth becomes painfully clear to all parties, and before long you are on the phone: “Flight to the States, please – any flight! For one, one way.”
When you are patient, on the other hand, an unkind word or thoughtless act will not agitate you. You will not want to run away or retaliate. Your support will hold steady, based as it is on deep respect and the knowledge that the Lord lives in the other person. Pride will not keep you from making the first – and, if need be, the second or third – overture towards reconciliation.
The scriptures of all religions contrast spiritual union with the relationship based solely on physical attraction. The first shows itself in patience and forgiveness; each person wants what is best for the other. The second cannot help being evanescent, marked by manipulation, self-assertion, and pride, because each person wants what is pleasurable for himself or herself.
We need not talk about right and wrong here at all. I am saying, simply and practically, that while sex has a beautiful place where loyalty exists, we cannot build a lasting relationship on it. The very nature of the physical bond is to exhaust itself quickly. One day we think Cecily or Dexter the most flawless, the most alluring creature on earth; we cannot live another moment apart from such embodied charm. This is the stuff of great literature – all those stories and poems which depict the suffering lover. But some months later, isn’t most or all of that gone? Strange, but when we look closely, Cecily has some not so endearing quirks of personality that we never noticed before; Dexter’s physical imperfections have begun to grate on our nerves. And there we are: alone again, lonely, perhaps moving on to Angelique or Zachary . . . who (and this time we couldn’t be wrong) is the most flawless and alluring creature on earth.
I am not denying the temporary satisfaction in a relationship centered only on sex. That is what pulls us into it. But if we follow that pull, we are heading for disruption, and for all the heartbreak and turmoil that follow. If we want relationships that deepen with the passage of time, relationships that help us grow, we have to remain loyal through the bad times as well as the good, to accept the differences as well as the congruencies. This is what we learn to do when we try patiently to put the other person first.
Love “has no errors,” says William Law, “for all errors are the want of love.” When we have problems in our relationships, it is not that love has failed; these are defects in our ability to love. In our contemporary climate of separateness, it has become almost impossible for a man and woman to remain together for more than a short period of time. But to throw up our hands and say that love won’t work, that lasting relationships are no longer possible, simply betrays our ignorance of what love means.
I read a lot these days about the decline in literacy. But when it comes to love, virtually all of us are illiterates. It is not a condemnation. When you were two, did you know how to read? And even when you began to learn, wasn’t it mostly things like “See Spot run”? There is no need to be embarrassed about it; that is how all of us began. To read a writer like Shakespeare with real understanding takes most of us twenty years – and even then we may not be able to follow the simple words of John of the Cross when he soars into realms where we have never been. It is the same with love. At the outset, it is wise to admit freely that this is an art that we do not know. But we can put ourselves to school; and if we are willing to put in at least the time it takes to understand Shakespeare, all of us can become perfect in love.
When two people love each other, there is one sure sign: they want to lose themselves in their unity. The words are simple; but the more you reflect on them and try to practice them, the more you will see how profound a concept this is, how difficult to practice. It is just the opposite of what we hear around us: “Maintain your individuality, maintain your own little separate personality, and then try to get along together as best you can.” In spiritual terms, this is the denial of love. Each person is drawing a little circle around himself or herself and saying, “I will function freely in my circle; you can function freely in yours.” The circles do not even overlap, which means that there is no real relationship between those people at all.
This is how we begin. Most of us, if we could see objectively, stand inside virtually separate circles, which we ourselves have drawn. That is what self-will does; and to move closer, we need to reduce self-will. It is difficult, distressing, even dangerous; that is its challenge. But gradually, as self-will decreases, the circles you and your partner have drawn around yourselves move closer together, until at last they touch.
After that, the work is equally strenuous. Now you try to make the circles overlap, so that each intersects a little arc. During eight hours together, you try to preserve at least one hour when there is no acrimony, no competition, no selfishness. For the other seven hours, your mind may have been complaining bitterly. It’s quite all right: there is now an arc in common. There are still vast areas that need to come together, but you can concentrate on that little area of unity and say, “Yes, it is possible. Even if it takes years, these circles can become one.”
If we could but see it, there are not many separate circles; there is only one. All have the same center and the same radius; nobody’s area is different from anybody else’s. You may have been born in Rhodesia and your partner in Rhode Island – two different environments, different languages, different cultures – but there is not the slightest difference between the Self in you and the Self in him or her.
The closer two people grow, the deeper is the longing to become closer still. But nothing short of absolute unity is going to fulfill the deep, driving need in the heart of every one of us to be one and indivisible. Even in the most passionate Romeo-and-Juliet relationship there will always be a void, a hunger that can be satisfied only for a short while. Pick up the paper almost any morning and you will find somebody complaining that this satisfaction has come to an end. “We’re together all week long; I need a vacation from him.” “She’s always there when I come home; I need one evening a week all to myself.” I read recently about two people trying to preserve their relationship by seeing each other only on weekends. I wanted to ask, “What relationship is there to preserve?” If the object is to keep life from becoming humdrum, why not just have a breathless encounter once a year when your paths cross in the air terminal at St. Paul?
When two people really love each other, they will want to be together always. It is one of the surest tests of love. It doesn’t mean becoming dependent on each other, or sitting together on a loveseat writing sonnets. It means working together in a selfless cause, merging two lives into a single, beneficial force. When you have a relationship like that, even a hundred years together would not satisfy you. If you can be satisfied by anything that is limited, your love is not complete. When your two circles come together you will cry, with the daring of the mystic, “Let there be no separation.”
Excerpts from “Learning to Love,” by Eknath Easwaran