Let Me Count the Ways: John Tarrant on Falling in Love
Excerpted from September 2011 Shambhala Sun magazine
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 life.
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.
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–to 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 stage 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. 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 becoming 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.
2. 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 whatever, he at once saw in him 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 then than ever, and I understood everything that’s worth understanding in life, because…I was happy.”
Pierre’s insanity consisted of 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 implications 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 these 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.