What is(n’t) this thing called love?

Residents of Holy Isle - 2 wild foals

Residents of Holy Isle – 2 wild foals

“You don’t know what love is

Til you’ve learned the meaning of the blues….”

I recently went on a retreat on the Holy Isle, off the Isle of Arran, with Tibetan Lama Rimpoche Yeshe.  On a couple of evenings, volunteers on the island held a “discussion meeting” – a topic for discussion was decided upon, and we were to discuss the nature of the subject, from the heart, while remaining in the present!

On one of these occasions, the subjects decided upon – since a number were thrown up – were love, and false perception or delusion.  Being “in love”, for example, is an example of false perception or delusion:  the object of love can do no wrong.  (Although can we ever truly perceive a person?  Or anything?  Is perception always distortion stemming from the perceiving mind?)  Being “in love” may consist of attachment rather than love, and may incorporate obsession, dependency, and other unhealthy mind-states.  From a Buddhist viewpoint, attachment or clinging is one of the most harmful states of mind:  harmful to oneself, and harmful to the person to whom one is clinging.  However, most unenlightened human beings do not seem to know how to love without attachment.

This can manifest in an infinite variety of ways – some relatively imperceptible, others more extreme:  parents clinging to their (even grown-up) children – not allowing them to live their own lives… breaking up relationships.  Closet gay people can cling to their straight marriages – forcing their spouses to unknowingly live a lie.  (Thus, the consequences of homophobia can harm straight as well as gay people, as any phobia harms the phobic.  And that is not to say that only straight people are capable of homophobia, by any means!  But I digress……)

Someone had proclaimed, earlier, when Lama Yeshe was leaving the Island, “I love you, Lama Yeshe”, so the question arose whether this was love, or gratitude, or love mixed in with gratitude.

Someone posed the question as to whether love and compassion were the same thing.  I suggested that it would help to discover this by looking at whether the love we feel for living beings is the same as love we may have for inanimate objects.  Somebody reacted strongly to this. “Why do we need to know?”” she demanded.  I pointed out that this could help us to know whether love and compassion are the same.  “Why do we need to know?” she reiterated.  Because we are examining the nature of love.  And therefore we need to look at what isn’t love.  “Why?”  (In her place, at her age, I might have pointed out helpfully that bananas are not love!  Donkeys are not love!)  Because we are trying to find the essence of love. “Why?”  She couldn’t relate to what I was saying, she explained later.

Perhaps I was not discussing from the heart, but was entrenched in the old habit of academic debate.  And assuming that we were all engaged in the pursuit – probably also academic – of the essence of a concept, and the meaning of a word. Of what practical use is it to know the difference between love and compassion?  How does it affect our lives to know the difference.  Do we indeed need to know?  And another interesting question:  can love exist without compassion, and can there be compassion without love?  I can anticipate what the young challenger at the discussion meeting would have responded with:  “Why do we need to know?”!

I can think of at least one practical application:  I love my guitars, for example.  (Which is in fact attachment – or maybe something a little more complicated.  It is not just that I can produce music with them, sing with them – as I could do that with other guitars which might have a more beautiful sound.  It is that I have imbued them with value because of their link with my personal history and personal relationships – but that is also not all it is, since I may not have imbued other objects linked with my history and relationships with the same value.  And here, I seem to be closer to an analytical enquiry, rather than an enquiry from the heart!)  But if I felt compassion for my guitars, I think that might give cause for concern!  This, I think, is one reason why it might be important to know the difference between love and compassion!  I think compassion is something that arises in the face of suffering, and inanimate objects can’t suffer.

Science fiction, however, is crossing this boundary:  we are presented with robots modeled perfectly on the human form (externally), which are capable of loving, and which have feelings which can be hurt.  And the result is that the consumer’s compassion is aroused by a convincing portrayal of such emotions.  Is the consumer then projecting her/his emotions on the inanimate object?  Or is it that humans can create objects which then take on lives of their own, developing in their own way, beyond the control of their manufacturers?  So far, this is confined within the realms of science fiction.

It is also problematic to use the word “inanimate” in relation to robots which mimic life, or even in relation to guitars, which can respond so beautifully to a musician’s fingers, which have individual quirkiness, and which “die” if they remain unplayed for too long.

Holy Isle - looking onto Isle of Arran

The Holy Isle – looking onto the Isle of Arran