Love is Suicide…of the Ego.
“The doctrine is like a finger pointing at the moon, and one must take care not to mistake the finger for the moon.”
In Become What You Are, Alan Watts introduces the “Finger and the Moon” Buddhist simile with respect to religion and notes his fear that “too many of us..suck the pointing finger of religion for comfort, instead of looking where it points.” I believe the same may be true with the common conception of love, especially that which is experienced with our chosen romantic partner. How comforting it is to be adored. How happy being needed makes us feel. But that is not true love.
As an angsty teenager, my favorite band was the Smashing Pumpkins. I loved the ephemeral melodies and raw rage in their album, Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness. But there was one song that bothered me. In a time when I was exploring the joy of love with my high-school sweetheart, I couldn’t understand the anger in the lyrics “the empty bodies stand at rest, casualties of their own flesh, afflicted by their dispossession.”
The music video is a disturbing account of a high school prom where the queen is subjected to a prank that pours red paint over her head after she is crowned. The incident is the start of a hellish sequence of events where her house burns down. And as the camera fades away, it locks on an image of Jesus on the cross.
15 years later, I am a married woman who has matured beyond relationships of fancy and convenience. As my husband and I reach our 6 year anniversary, we are partners in life who have many responsibilities and obligations to each other. One of which, is to keep our love alive. Now, I am learning the meaning of martyrdom in love.
Contrary to the implication of the shocking Smashing Pumpkins song of the mid-1990s, true love marks only the beginning of a full life. I do think that is what they meant all along. Love requires a symbolic death of the homecoming queen persona. Of the selfish yearnings in coming-of-age. Love requires a shedding of an old identity ruled by “I” and an ushering in of an identity ruled by “we.” Love is not a comfort object to make us feel better about ourselves. It is a test, a challenge, to ditch our egos.
The death of ego is not equivalent to lack of concern for ourselves, though. The mid-century philosopher, Erich Fromm, writes in The Art of Loving that “love for and understanding of one’s own self, cannot be separated from respect and love and understanding for another individual.” In other words, in order to fully be in love, we must love ourselves.
The relationship between self and beloved is a careful balance. I think that a concept from Mahayana philosophy can be borrowed as an analogy. Alan Watts introduces the “famous triangle puzzle” from this philosophy as an illustration of the human quest for understanding (also in Become What You Are). Within the triangle, there are two base points which represent the subject and object. The third point, the apex, represents the meaning between them. Strength in love depends upon each of these points receiving equal distribution of weight, or attention. And there is no room for ego in this formulation.
To love yourself selflessly looks much differently than loving yourself selfishly. The same can be said about loving another selflessly rather than selfishly. To love yourself with out ego interference is to open a space to love others and be loved in return. To love others for the sake of bringing them joy is to see the moon beyond the pointing figure.
I am not a psychologist or a monk or a 90s grunge rock icon but the common thread I see between the teachings / preachings / swoonings of these folks is this: to truly love, our pesky egos have got to get out of the way. I am a just a regular person living a privileged life in a prosperous nation. I have the luxury of spending time thinking about such things as optimizing love and minimizing drama. Sometimes it feels like the more comfortable a life becomes, the easier it is to be swept away into thinking oneself to be high and mighty. This is the sort of “first-world-problem” that began the field of psycho-analysis and study of ego in psychology in the first place!
As best that I can tell, my ego (or your ego for that matter) are not going away. Enlightenment is not one meditation session away. And love is not a blissfully peaceful place to escape the cruel world. Love is a training ground for rising above our selfishness. If you (or I) are so lucky to have found a person to share our lives, we must appreciate that for what it is: an opportunity to learn and grow.
So how do we help each other to live well and continue on our everlasting path of improvement? If we were to nourish each point of the triangle, would love overpower the ego? Can we make the choice to feed our love rather than our ego?
I do not have the answers to these questions. Not yet, at least. One thing is for certain, though, the journey of love is one of sacrificing comfortable finger suckling for leaping into the darkness so that our eyes may rest upon the beauty of the moon.
On this Valentines Day of love, I leave you with the encouragement to take that journey. For as Leo Tolstoy wrote in a love letter to his young fiance’, “believe me, nothing on earth is given without labour, even love, the most beautiful and natural of feelings.”