Monday, May 10, 2010

A Vindication of Love

And then, my eyes opened and love became less about the object of love and more about the Love itself. It was not whom I loved, but that I loved that became important.

I was sitting in an airplane on my way to a conference in Cancun, Mexico, of all places, when this revelation occurred to me. I planned to stay there for a couple of extra days, and I was meeting very good friend there who would help me while away my time on the beaches, in the bars, and in the bedroom. Our relationship was very complicated and had had a lot of twists and turns. I felt excited to meet him in Mexico, but also a little bit nervous. Should I be doing this? Was it a bad idea? Would it just make things more complicated and painful?

My plane reading was a book that I'd had on my shelf for awhile, but that I'd never been able to get to. Eight plus hours of plane and airport time finally gave me the window of opportunity, and I eagerly cracked the book. I don't think I put it down for the whole trip . The book is called A Vindication of Love, by Cristina Nehring, and she uses characters from literature and real life to illustrate the fact that love is rarely as simplistic, safe, and consistent as we are told it should be in our culture. Using the examples of the most famous lovers of history and literature - from Romeo and Juliet to Heloise and Abelard to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera - the author points out that love has nothing to do with contracts or social rules, and everything to do with emotion, difference, and tension.

The book, for all of its intellectual flaws, was fun to read and made it OK for me to be flying towards yet another adventure with someone whose relationship to me not many people in my life - including myself -  seemed to understand. It gave permission for me to explore the idea of loving without limits, of dropping my expectations (even if only temporarily) for the safe, simple, and quietly happy one man-one woman relationship that I had always assumed - and been told - was the norm and my birthright.

And then, in the midst of relaxing my judgments around the consistently supreme weirdness of my romantic life, the veil dropped from my eyes, and the love I felt for this man became not something he did for me, but something that I always held, something that I created out of my own heart. It wasn't about him; it was about me. It was a gift that I carried with me always, something I could give away endlessly and never lack. It's the first time I've felt that in any relationship, always assuming as I have that any love I felt was directly linked to a particular person, and always feeling that that person, somehow, had control over me because he had the power to create or destroy that feeling within me.

Love is not something that someone else does for us; love is something that's always around us, in us.  The person we're in love with acts as a mirror, a prism, for the love that already exists. When we feel love for another, we can absorb that love, sit in it, feel it, embody it, and use it to remind ourselves of the love that surrounds us like air.  And when the love we have with another doesn't look the way we're told it's supposed to look, or if it goes awry, we can still feel the love itself, and make the decisions that are right for us, but know that the love itself is still there, no matter what happens. It's in our heart, and not dependent on what anyone else feels for us, or what happens to the relationship.

Friday, May 07, 2010

 Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I have a cynical edge to me; I don't buy all this "happy, happy, joy, joy" business, this almost mandatory (these days)push to find bliss, enlightenment, and eternal happiness, this implication that if we feel a difficult thing, that we're simply not trying hard enough to be happy, not practicing enough gratitude, or just need to do more yoga or watch less TV. That little tweety birds and butterflies will flit around our heads and beautiful flowers pop up wherever we step, if only we could find the answer to the mystery of How to be Happy. Happiness, to me, though a wonderful emotion, is a fleeting experience, as are all emotions.

Let's just say that, though I am actually a died-in-the-wool hardcore romantic, I am very, very, painfully, intimately aware of my Shadow.

In the last few days I've felt a relief from what had seemed a relentless blanket of dread, sorrow, and grief that was attached to a particular situation in my life, or seemed to be anyway. For some reason it lifted. I could speculate as to what about the situation has changed for me to feel this way, but that's not important. I feel stronger these days, more confident, less obsessive. I don't ruminate as much. I don't cry as much. I enjoy things. I sleep better. I've even, for the most part, managed not to get obsessed and terrified over wondering when the crippling darkness will come back, as I know it will.

In thinking about this state of affairs, I realized that there's something at the root of it that feels like an emotion we're told is bad or negative. Something that self-help books tell us to control, something that Buddhists tell us is part of suffering. Something that positive psychologists and happiness researchers measure to gauge whether their subjects are happy or not. But for me, this is an emotion that has energy and movement in it. When I feel it, if I don't let the story behind it take over my brain, I get more done. I feel stronger and stand straighter. Are you ready?

That emotion is Anger.

Yes, I feel, at the root of this strength, something that feels a lot like anger. In this anger is an acknowledgment that I am important, that my needs are important, and that the messages I get that something is wrong with me are more about the person who judges me than they are about me.There's righteousness there; a sense of having the right outlook. There's self-protection there, as if I'm a self that deserves protection. There's no aggression or need to hurt or lash out at anyone, but there's a cynical long view, a squinting of the eyes and a lack of trust in anyone but myself. There's an understanding that people do shitty things, although not much judgment there. People do shitty things for their own reasons. There's a sense of being alone, but not lonely. Alone like the Lone Ranger, alone like a Clint Eastwood cowboy, and not like the sad and scared little girl that I experience so often.

Is that bad?

Last night, I went to a talk by a woman* who spoke of the importance of emotions, of acknowledging ourselves and other humans as emotional beings first. She talked about being a spiritual seeker for years, but of continually getting the message that she was too emotional and that it was the reason she resisted Enlightenment. Later, she decided that her emotions were there for a reason, and were not something to be ashamed of or to try to "bliss" away. They were there for a reason, they were giving her important messages, and it wasn't wrong or immature or unenlightened to feel them.

This is something I've thought for years, and one reason why I've never committed to studying any particular spiritual path. I've always felt like most spiritual paths ask us to think of emotions as diseases or afflictions that we just need to bear or breathe away. That our goal is to live in an absolute, peaceful, blissed-out, serene fog.  But to me, emotions, by their very existence, are real and true, messages from our soul and subconscious no less than our dreams. They are important. Even the difficult ones. Perhaps especially the difficult ones.

This isn't to say that we should let our emotions control our actions, but only that they are there to feel, to tell us things, and with practice, we can begin to feel them without acting in ways that cause harm. 

And Anger, to me, is a strong emotion, is a vitalizing and vibrant emotion. If I use it correctly, it gives me energy and stops me from devolving into a crying, blubbering mess every time someone does something I don't like. It inspires me to protect myself, it tells me stand up for myself. The righteousness is a relief from the grief and despair, which told me that I was not OK, that I was lacking. And so I welcome this hardness, this anger, this righteousness, as a way to move into my life in strength and with a realistic view of the world and what can happen in it.

*The woman I saw ended up being somehow connected to a shady, cult-like organization. I never could get the full scoop on her. But I still liked what she had to say :-)