Love is an enlightenment story available to everyone, and that story includes being attacked by demons as well as being showered with roses. If we widen our gaze, in love, we discover what we like about ourselves and how we want to live our lives.
Article by John Tarrant published in Lion’s Roar magazine August 2, 2011
It was his first kiss, a moment when no one was running the show and no calculations were being made. In so many ways, says John Tarrant, love is like enlightenment. It teaches us how to live down a level, to follow instructions that come from deep inside.
Question: Why is it like this?
Teacher: It is for your benefit, honored one.
When love strikes, it fills us with an inner glow that everyone can see. We skip through the day humming old Beatles songs, smitten by the swish of a dress, the smile of a bus driver, the old couple holding hands at the light, and the shine on the hulls of upside-down canoes at the dock. Love also wakes us from sleep and does not let us rest; it makes us tear out our hair and run screaming into the night as if attacked by unseen assailants. Love is an enlightenment story available to everyone, and that story includes being attacked by demons as well as being showered with roses. If we widen our gaze, in love, we discover what we like about ourselves and how we want to live our lives.
The first time I kissed a girl, her green eyes filled my view, sunlight bounced from the river and off the undersides of leaves; it glowed on the sweat from our skin, mingling quietly; with my arms around her, my wrists resting on the strings of her bikini, she was a bird with angular shoulder blades, my hands hardly dared to close on her skin, and when we kissed we both began to tremble involuntarily.
That was pretty much it for our relationship and the next day, when I bought her a Coke and she said “I like Pepsi,” a fatal rift appeared. Our brief meeting provided me with guidance, though. On behalf of that kiss, I was ready to indulge anything, to forgive anything, to enjoy anything she did. I had been converted to a new religion.
Everyone wants a life-changing experience—something that allows us to see how green is the grass, how fragile are the pear blossoms, how luminous is the girl’s cheek, how disappointing it is to be right or superior to others, and how eternal and welcoming is the moment that is always in flight, never to return. The kiss was personal and particular, and it was a transcendent moment too, a moment when no one was running the show and no calculations were being made.
Buddhism typically holds itself aloof from love, puts love in the too-hard basket, but the difficult bits of life, the exciting ones, are often the gates to what is real and good. The moment of love takes away the walls around the world and a larger aspect of the universe is seen. It is a creative time.
I once asked the Australian poet Judith Wright, “How is it when you write?” She replied, “The pen shakes in my hand.”
In poetry and pop songs, love is fatal, an arrow through the heart. We’re driving in a fast car—too late to stop now, it can’t be reversed—and the old life that hitherto seemed perfectly adequate can no longer be lived. In the mythology of Zen, too, the image of transformation is that a fire burns you up, or there’s a snake on the path and you can’t avoid it. You lose your life and everything else as well, like the scholar who, on awakening, burned all the notes he had ever taken. Love and enlightenment are both fatal discoveries.
The respectable view is that falling in love is full of delusions, projections, and misunderstandings. But if we reverse that idea, we can ask, how is love actually very much like enlightenment? Let me count the ways…
Love hits people over the head when they are not looking for it, and the same can be said for epiphanies and enlightenments. We fall into them. An opening appears in regular life, and what follows doesn’t necessarily fit in regular life. That opening changes your frame of reference and then, well, anything might happen. Both awakening experiences and falling in love always seem to be followed by a period of sorting things out and discovering the implications of what happened.
One sorting strategy is to spend time trying to repeat the enlightenment by falling in love with a succession of people, or looking for a blissful state in meditation. Efforts like these are hopeless but you can try them anyway.
Conversely you could look for a way to express the new orientation in your life and find out the implications of the new point of view. You might assume that the implication is that you have to marry and have children and stay together for the rest of your life. That might be so, but it might not; love isn’t dependent on outcomes. You might notice that love is what really counts in life and that could mean you get a different job, spend more time with friends, forget about being famous, come out as gay, or shave your head and go into a long retreat. Both love and enlightenment are in favor of whatever welcomes more life.
Looking at the implications is what Buddhists call having a practice. Falling in love is the beginning of a practice.
Love Is Underneath Everything
Here is Tolstoy near the end of War and Peace. The whole meaning of life, not only for him, but for all the world, seemed to consist only in his love and the possibility of her love for him. Everyone appeared in the bright light of the feeling shining within him, so that without the least effort, meeting any person whatsoever, he at once saw in them all that was good and worthy of love.
“Maybe I did seem strange and ridiculous then,” he thought, “but I wasn’t as insane as I seemed. On the contrary, I was more intelligent and perceptive than ever, and I understood everything that’s worth understanding in life, because…I was happy.”
Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.
The implication of Pierre’s discovery is that love is an epiphany and also a template for how to live, or at least a way of interacting that is truer and more fun and alive than what went before. Everyone has the capacity for those feelings, the unreserved release of your heart, the colors so bright. Meeting and marrying, we are ten feet off the ground, our hearts beat fast; the moment can’t find a way to end. That’s really how life is when we are not pouring it into little containers.
Love comes to the truth not through suffering but through a leap into a realm in which generosity, kindness, and appreciation are the basement floor of existence. This is probably the most important similarity between awakening and falling in love.
Living Down a Level
Once I had a conversation with a woman who had been a driver for Trungpa Rinpoche.
I said, “Did you ask him questions?”
She replied, “Not much, I was shy.”
“Did he speak to you?”
“What did he say?”
“He would pat my shoulder and say, ‘Enjoy yourself.’”
You have always done things for clear reasons and suddenly you find yourself doing things that are not comprehensible to you. You are drawn toward or away from things in ways that completely ignore your to-do and not-to-do lists, and the new direction seems both right and unavoidable.
Some aspects of living are best when they happen easily and involuntarily, such as dancing, where thinking about it gets in the way and causes you to tread on your partner’s shoes. The involuntary is a gift—outside of the things we intend and manufacture. When things come into being involuntarily, everything shakes; the universe appears, expanding rapidly, poems arrive out of nowhere, coincidences occur, and the mind is rearranged. In love you do things that don’t make rational sense. Like enlightenment, love teaches you how to live down a level, to follow instructions that come from deep inside.
Here is an example: A friend fell in love while sending a package at Pak Mail. His eyes locked with hers and the glance was naked and unintended. They unhooked their eyes from each other and pottered around copying and filling out forms but, like iron filings drawn to magnets, they found themselves in line for the register together. She gave an eloquent shrug; they both minded being in line and didn’t mind. They noticed their shared response. Then she drove away in her SUV and disappeared from his life like a coin that falls into the harbor.
A couple of days later they bumped into each other and after that she left her complicated and difficult husband and, full of delight, they married.
Usually we don’t trust how things appear. In love at first sight, though, things come up from the depths and there is no arguing with them. The creature in the black lagoon turns out to be your friend and knows more about what will make you happy than you do. Falling in love with someone we don’t really know unifies the surfaces of things with the depth of things, and that is exciting.
As with any practice, with love it is possible to try too hard. At Stanford, a man fell in love with a woman who was of Northern Californian nobility. She had an English accent and lived in a castle in the hills with a swimming pool made of stone. He was a lowly grad student from the Midwest. She said, “I don’t think so. I just don’t feel that way about you.” He said, “I’ll win you over.” He mounted a total assault with boxes of chocolates and deliveries of flowers. He played guitar in the moonlight under her window. This was a happy time; he enjoyed difficult projects.
Finally, as in a fairy tale, she said, “Okay, I’ll marry you.” So they got married and had a couple of kids and then, as you might have predicted, she left and he went crazy for a while. Love is a whole thing—the wooing, the doubts, the attempt to overcome the doubts, the breakup, the going crazy. You don’t get only the nice bits and you don’t actually want to get only the nice bits.
Obstacles are intrinsic to love and enlightenment; without obstacles the transformation inside the lover can’t find its form or come into being. The important thing is not the outcome of the relationship. It is the taste of your life, strong and rich, and how that becomes part of you. When I was a teenager I walked into a party with people from a different world than mine. A slightly older guy was sitting outside on the hood of his Jag, weeping. He had black curly hair like a figure in a Renaissance painting. Inside, his girl emerged from one of the bedrooms with a TV producer, a man who seemed varnished and unhappy. Muted sounds had indicated that sex was going on. The man sitting outside was just weeping; he wasn’t reaching for the sort of things people reach for at such times, things that don’t help anyway. This was a surprise to me. It expanded the range of what responses I could have. I talked a bit to him and liked him. I could see how love encompassed a totality, how you can’t protect yourself from it when it goes bad. And it was strangely appealing to be able to live a life where you feel things and don’t bother to hide it.
A Tolerance for Disaster
Question: But what if it’s a disaster?
Teacher: That’s it too.
Love is not an equanimity practice; it doesn’t filter your responses or fit them to a preset level. Meditation and love can both result in equanimity but it’s not a goal, since a goal makes you refuse other possibilities that appear. Love makes you less happy with day-to-day grayness and more resilient with the actual reverses of life, such as an earthquake.
You notice what gives you pain, what hardens your heart—how when you dislike someone or hold a grudge, or embark on a crusade, or are jealous and principled, you make yourself and others around you unhappy. Noticing is a practice of love. You don’t have to exclude, extinguish, or dislike anything that the mind presents. Life becomes an adventure. You take the ride.
It Happened on a Friday Morning at 11:07
Enlightenment is rooted in forms and textures. It is anchored in the real world of people—yellow dresses, cafes in Chelsea, and a fast car turning end over end on a summer night in a com field, its headlights pointing to the sky, the field, the sky, the field.
New lovers discover themselves through the mirror of the other and often tell each other their romantic history. In this spirit you could tell a friend the story of a love affair that asks to be told. It could be a bit like the Asian custom of making offerings to the dead. And you could find what was good about the love affair no matter how it ended. You might soften and discover something new about your own story.
I’ve talked to several women who had epiphanies during childbirth. They remember that moment of pain turning outwards into something vast and joyful. You remember your first kiss or when you met the one you love. You remember where you were, what the weather was like, what you were wearing, who else was with you, and what song was playing. Such a memory is one of the compass points of life. It doesn’t mean that the love was smart or worked out or you understood what it meant, but it means that you surrendered. You risked the taste of life, and that changed things.
Love is not good for purposes other than its own expression. It can’t be used for advantage, it is not practical, it is not approved of, it is unpredictable, it is for itself, it is only for your benefit. Its gifts are given without conditions. As we make the meditation tradition our own, we are building a culture. For this we need to learn what is important to us. And love in all its forms—romance and friendship, its loyalties and betrayals, its jealousies and generosities, is one of the deepest things in life, and also one of the most essential.
Practices of Love
If we didn’t try to tame or banish the unruliness of love, I wonder what our practices would be like? I think they would plunge us into what is real in our feelings.
Here is another practice, rooted in Zen tradition, which you might enjoy. Sit down with someone you care about and have a cup of tea. The practice is just sitting and having tea and conversation for its own sake. Drink the tea together without an agenda, without wanting anything from the other person or trying to change them. That means not wanting them to think or feel differently from the way they do, without wanting them to appreciate you, or needing them to understand how you feel about them. Enjoy yourself.