What Is “Love”?


What is love?” (lowercase “l”)

“What is Love?”

This is one of the most fundamental and important questions for us each to ask ourselves if we are to truly grow and evolve as persons and transcend ourselves and our conditioning.

In fact few questions can provoke and precipitate as much growth and inner-change as asking and answering honestly this question: What is Love really?

If more of us were to ask and answer this question—and to answer it in the way that C. S. Lewis or M. Scott Peck or Rilke or Erich Fromm or Jacob Needleman or Thich Nhat Hahn or The Dalai Lama or Simone Weil or Anne Morrow Lindbergh did—by thinking deeply about it and writing extensively about it—and then to open and discuss those ideas and answers with others—our lives and society as a whole would undergo a deep and radical change.

If we are to truly grow psychologically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, it is crucial—inescapable really—that each of us as individuals go and learn the meaning of what Love really is—and not just what we would like to believe it is—that is, not just come up with a facile definition that agrees with our native temperament and conditioning.

Not to ask this question—”What is Love really?”—and contemplate it and try to answer it wisely, is in a very significant way to not be human and to instead live a very stunted life.

It is paramount for each of us to make a legitimate effort to form a thoughtful and wise answer to the question of what Love actually is, because our happiness and the meaningfulness and quality of our lives and our relationships all depend on it.

There is probably no greater question or ideal that is more helpful to each of us to ask and pursue in aiding us to truly and legitimately grow and become real adults psychologically and spiritually, than asking “What really is Love?” Developing some sort of realistic and wise idea or map about what Love actually is will prove second to none in helping guide us and our thoughts and behaviors and in helping us lead a truly decent and rich and distinct and extraordinary life. Learning more and more every day about what Love really is enlivens and sharpens the intellect, activates and grows the conscience, brings the soul to life, deepens our awareness of ourselves and others, and helps us to become more grateful and appreciative, and aids us in more and more genuinely befriending ourselves and others and more of this life.

But if we’re living without Love and without an interest in learning more and more each day what Love is, we run the risk of wasting our lives—living a life of false and unexamined values, a life of a false- or pseudo-self, a life based on our conditioning and what happened to us in childhood and what formed our ego and what set our our preferences, tolerances, temperament, and limbic system in a certain way—and a way not of our choosing.

Why Are You Unhappy?” – Wei Wu Wei

Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 per cent
Of everything you think
And everything you do,
Is for yourself—
And there simply isn’t one.

A person who is truly spiritually enlightened appears to me to be one who has, to the best of his ability, liberated himself from the fetters of his selfish desires and is instead preoccupied with thoughts, feelings, and aspirations to which he clings because of their superpersonal or self-transcendent value. It seems to me that what is important is the force of this superpersonal or self-transcendent content and the depth of the conviction concerning its overpowering meaningfulness.” ( — Albert Einstein)

If God is Love, and if we each are created in the divine image and called to become more and more God-like, then we are each called to become more and more Loving, and to be able to Love ourselves and others in a very conscious and deliberate and healthy way.

Love, not just love the feeling or the emotion, but the Love that is beyond mere emotion and sentimentality is one of those few concepts of such pull and gravity that it can become an organizing force for all aspects of our lives—our daily lives, our decision-making, even our very personality as well. Talk about an “Extreme Makeover: Personality Edition“!—Learning what Love actually is can do that in a way second to none—it can change a person’s life as fundamentally and radically and deeply as a heart attack or walking away from a plane crash. A complete metanoia. A complete change of heart and mind and life direction. The question, “What is the Loving thing to do?” can clarify and cut to the chase so much of what we do and go through and are faced with every day.

Because ultimately doing the Loving thing and doing the right thing and doing the emotionally mature and healthy thing may well all turn out to be the same thing. What is Loving and what is morally right and psychospiritually healthy all may well be coterminous.

To ask and seek to meaningfully answer what is Love is to have asked and answered all of the fundamental questions of philosophy and religion and life and to have embarked on a lifelong course of learning and self-development—and perhaps even to set in motion what will turn out to be a fundamental paradigmatic shift and radical self-transformation.

Think of it . . . what can be more helpful, principled, useful, and enlightening in guiding our actions and emotions in any given situations than asking and answering honestly, “What is the truly Loving thing to do right now and right here?” “How do I actually Love myself and this other person and not just live automatically, reflexively, emotionally, and as a frightened self-protective loveless little ego that thinks life goes on forever?” What can be more helpful than asking “What does it mean to live life with Love; what does it mean to die with Love?”

“My Dead Friends” – Marie Howe

I have begun,
when I’m weary and can’t decide an answer to a bewildering question

to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear.

Should I take the job? Move to the city? Should I try to conceive a child
in my middle age?

They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling—whatever leads
to joy, they always answer,

to more life and less worry. I look into the vase where Billy’s ashes were—
it’s green in there, a green vase,

and I ask Billy if I should return the difficult phone call, and he says, yes.
Billy’s already gone through the frightening door.

Whatever he says I’ll do.

What’s the courageous thing to do? What’s the emotionally mature and healthy and growth-oriented thing to do? What’s the wise thing to do? What’s the truly Loving thing to do?

These questions are all interrelated and oh so centering and life-transforming.

And what is the sum effect on us of asking these and similar questions again and again? What is the net effect of reading and thinking and studying and reflecting 30 minutes or so every day on what Love really is?

Nothing less than an incredibly meaningful and examined (and much more difficult yet rare) life!

Such questions, and such a way of life and even death, will require heroic courage, determination, persistence, reflection, self-awareness, focus, resolve, and practice. And as beginners and novices in life and love, such a graceful and gracious and brave way of life seems so far above us, so remote, as if we are forever and hopelessly barred from ever attaining it and growing into it.

But it’s a way of life and an apprenticeship that begins with a little honest self-examination and soul-searching and insight, a sincere longing deep within one’s core, deep within what’s best in oneself. And it begins with a seemingly simple question or two, honestly asked and reflected on: What is Love? What is it really?

And so what is Love really? Is it an emotion? A feeling? An energy? A path? What is Love—the real thing, and not the counterfeit or the easy cheese and unexamined answer?

Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think . . . and think . . . while you are alive.

What you call “salvation” belongs to the time before death.
If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive,
do you think
ghosts will do it for you afterwards?

The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten—
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
You will simply end up with an apartment in the city
of Death.
If you make love with the divine now, in the next life
You will have the face of satisfied desire.

So plunge into the truth, find out who the Teacher is,
Believe in the Great Sound!

Kabir says this: When the Guest is being searched for,
it is the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the work.
Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.

In order to answer this question well—”What is real Love?”—each of us will likely need to go out far beyond the familiar and the known and begin inquiring with great courage, openness, sincerity, resolve, and agility. In short, we will have to inquire about Love with as much love as we can muster. It takes some modicum of Love to learn more and more what real Love actually is. And we each have that trace amount; we each have that thimbleful of real Love, that little bit of kindling necessary to catch a divine spark.

And if we are to ask and answer the question well, then ultimately each of us will need to come up with a volume on the subject. At some point, much further down the road and deeper into the process, each of us will likely have some form of a book or manifesto or many journals to show on the subject—something that shows that we have thought deeply about life and Love, something that shows that we have gone beyond mere platitudes, cultural clichés, and religious and parental dictates.

And the learning of real Love is a process that will likely require much writing, many drafts, and many revisions. We will have to remain open to editing and revising our tentative answers as we come upon new and relevant and seemingly more accurate information. We will have to read and study and research broadly. We will have to Love the journey, Love the search, Love the quest itself. We will have to take more delight in the unknown, in living the question “What is Love?” —After all, when all is said and done, what other question is there really that is worth living? What other question is as compelling or as interesting or as formative and potentially transformative and life-altering?

Because this is the question that inevitably arises in all but the most frightened and closed-off people when they are faced with death—either their own death or the death of those they love. . . . Have I loved enough? Have I loved this person and this life enough? Have I been a good and Loving person and made the most of my life?

If we have lived with deep and abiding Love, the answer will likely be a resounding Yes.

But such an answer is not come about in a facile way; it can’t be arrived at through a life of comfort, safety, excessive distrust and self-protectiveness, a life spent over and over again frequenting the path of least resistance. To come to actually live in such away—a way full of Love, grace, gratitude, and understanding—we will need to bring all the powers of both the heart and the mind to bear on the subject. We will have to think, study, reflect, contemplate, live, experience, and we will have to do so in a very open, mindful, self-aware, inquisitive, humble, self-acknowledging, courageous, tender, warm, and resilient way.

And, paradoxically, by doing so, we will find that such an approach and practice is itself a very Loving approach—that the very roots of Love will be beginning to break up through the stony ground in us and send forth their delicate inchoate shoots in our thoughts and actions.

As beginners in Love as well as in writing and thinking contemplatively and mindfully, most of us may quickly realize that we’re not at the level of the Kierkegaards or Platos or C.S. Lewises or Fromms or M. Scott Pecks that we read. And we may conclude initially and hence prematurely that our personal contribution or volume will never be as well-written and informed and deep as theirs. Questions of self-worth, as well as self-doubt, may stop us before we begin.

Yet we owe it to ourselves, to each other, to our children, to our community, to society, to life itself, to make this effort nonetheless. We owe it to what is best in ourselves and others. To that higher potential, that future larger and wiser self that resides like an acorn in each of us and wants to grow and blossom into existence. Because until we make this effort, like it or not, admit it or not, our lives will largely be a shapeless, random, accidental, amorphous, haphazard, hit-or-miss march to the grave. Our lives will lack real meaning or significance.

“Love is the Cure” – Rumi

Love is the cure,
for your pain will keep giving birth
to more pain
until your eyes constantly exhale love
as effortlessly as your body
exudes its scent.

Until our thoughts and lives are guided not just by Love, but by the quest to truly learn what Love really is, we’re asleep and just taking up space here. We’re just “falling leaves” (Hesse), “playthings of circumstance” (Frankl), a part of what Nietzsche described as the botched and bungled herd. And we’re likely just adding to the sum total of misery, unhappiness, darkness, exploitativeness, selfishness and pointless self-indulgence here on Earth.

But once we begin to make this effort and to do so with sincerity and regularity—once we start making this inquiry an integral and regular part of our daily life—our life will begin to change qualitatively.

I’m not sure that God particularly wants us to be happy. I think He wants us to be able to love and be loved. He wants us to grow up. . . . We think our childish toys bring us all the happiness there is and our nursery is the whole wide world. But something—something—must drive us out of the nursery to the world of others and that something is suffering.” ( – from the movie “Shadowlands“)

What if God—or Love—doesn’t particularly want us to be “happy,” or cozy or content or comfortable? What if God (or Love) doesn’t particularly want us to be safe and secure? What if God doesn’t particularly want us to constantly take the path of least resistance? What if God wants more? What if Love requires more? . . .

When love beckons to you follow him,
though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses
your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
so shall he descend to your roots
and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire,
that you may become sacred bread
for God’s sacred feast.

All these things love will do unto you
that you might know the secrets of your heart,
and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.

But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace
and love’s pleasure,
then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness
and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
into the seasonless world where you shall laugh,
but not with all of your laughter,
and weep,
but not all of your tears.

For Love gives naught but itself
and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not
nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.

And when you love you should not say,
“God is in my heart,”
but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”

Think not you can direct the course of love,
for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.

But if you love and must have desires,
let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook
that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart
and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
to return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart
and a song of praise upon your lips.

( – Kahlil Gibran, “The Prophet”)

What if those of us who dare to aspire to grow in Love will be subjecting ourselves to an ordeal and apprenticeship more difficult and taxing than any other? If “long is the road and hard that out of hell leads up to light” or to Love, then we may rightly doubt whether we have it in us to even dare to live this question, or whether the question itself is really even worth asking in the first place if it only promises a life of greater pain and difficulty and the removal of the comfortable scales of denial from our eyes that keep us relatively ignorant, unaffected, unaware, and blind. What if the cure—Love—is worse than the disease—ego, fear, lovelessness, isolation, blindness, heartbreak? A life devoted to the learning of Love doesn’t necessarily promise us prestige, accolades, riches, a bestseller, or even happily ever after with another. It only promises to make our lives more open, deliberate, reflective, meaningful, and likely that means making our lives more difficult, stressful, anxious, rigorous, and demanding. After all, the scales will be removed from our eyes, we will come to look at ourselves more honestly and fairly and objectively; we will see ourselves more and more as we are—

“Love” — Czeslaw Milosz

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills—
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

Does learning to look at ourselves in this way actually heal the heart? Or does it wound it and wound us? Maybe Milosz is being too optimistic regarding the benefits of objectivity, self-knowledge, and Love, and maybe Gibran is coming closer to the truth. Maybe for some of us, looking at ourselves honestly, candidly, as if watching ourselves on the feed of a reality TV show, ought to be off-limits because it may prove to be too shocking, unnerving, unsettling, embarrassing, humbling, even traumatizing. “I didn’t know I was actually like this . . . I thought I was coming across differently! . . . I wasn’t aware that I was conducting myself like this . . . how horrifying!” . . . . Remember the first time you heard the sound of your own voice on an answering machine? What was the reaction? For many it’s denial. . . . I can’t actually sound like that. . . . We are blind to self. And we are all blind to our self in ways that we’re not even aware of and that we can’t even imagine. Now times that by a hundred and that may be the shock to the system of looking at ourselves objectively and fairly and free of blinders for the first time.

Learning to look at ourselves objectively and learning to view our own wants and desires and feelings and comfort zone as no more or less important than that of those around us—in other words, learning to trim our excessive and inflated sense of self-importance and homeostasis—is a very daunting and difficult thing to do for most of us. It requires heroic effort, heroic and constant and sustained effort. . . .

“The Abnormal Is Not Courage” – Jack Gilbert

The Poles rode out from Warsaw against the German
Tanks on horses. Rode knowing, in sunlight, with sabers,
A magnitude of beauty that allows me no peace.
And yet this poem would lessen that day. Question
The bravery. Say it’s not courage. Call it a passion.
Would say courage isn’t that. Not at its best.
It was impossible, and with form. They rode in sunlight,
Were mangled. But I say courage is not the abnormal.
Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches.
The worthless can manage in public, or for the moment.
It is too near the whore’s heart: the bounty of impulse,
And the failure to sustain even small kindness.
Not the marvelous act, but the evident conclusion of being.
Not strangeness, but a leap forward of the same quality.
Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh.
Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus. But Penelope.
The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo.
The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding.
Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage,
Not the month’s rapture. Not the exception. The beauty
That is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.

And such a sustained effort and such a devotion to the learning of what Love actually is will almost certainly awaken us and make our lives more “meaningful”; but for most us, such a way of life holds little interest because it really doesn’t seem all that gratifying and fun. It seems more troubling and onerous, as in long is the way, indeed, and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light. . . .

It’s much, much easier and much, much less complicated to live a life without Love. (There it is again, the path of least resistance rearing its outwardly and short-term seductive but inwardly and long-term ugly head.)

But is such a life—a life without real Love—worth living?

Is the unexamined life—a life without learning to look at ourselves from a distance—as one thing among many—worth living?

There is life without love,” the poet Mary Oliver tells us, but “It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied.”

Is a life without the learning more and more every day what Love is worth living?

And what becomes of us if we live a life devoted to learning more and more what Love really is versus if we live a life where we are not concerned with Love—or Truth, or really Growing Up emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, spiritually, morally?

Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.

To be the one kind of creature is heaven: That is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power.

To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.

Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.

( — C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” pg. 87.)

What happens to the central part of us, the soul, the part of us that chooses, if we live a life without Love—a life where we are not interested more and more in learning every day what Love really is? What is the net effect of that on a person?

“A human being is part of the whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and the foundation for real inner strength and security. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self.” ( – Albert Einstein)

What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. ( – Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

What does a life without Love do to a person, to the soul? What does a life of playing it safe, of always choosing the path of least resistance (which Love surely is not), of being overly-emotionally reactive, of being too often too self-protective, do to a person?

There is no safe investment. To love is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable and irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell. (C. S. Lewis, “The Four Loves,” pg. 121.)

If you want to live a relatively safe and un-burdensome life, and never really have to face yourself, much less deal with yourself and grow psychospiritually, then you must not think or read or become in anyway concerned about what Love really is, or what Truth is, or what it means to live a truly meaningful life, or what it means to become your best. Instead you must avoid thinking of these things and associating with those who think about these things; you must keep matter such as these from your mind. You must not change your life, instead you must continue wasting it and dissipating it and frittering it away in the quiet desperation of comfort and clutching after more and more security and safety. . . .

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About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
This entry was posted in C.S. Lewis, Courage, Czeslaw Milosz, Dostoyevsky, Einstein, Gibran, Jack Gilbert, Kabir, Love, Love is Not a Feeling, M. Scott Peck, Rilke, Rumi, The Road Less Traveled, Waking Up, What is Love? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What Is “Love”?

  1. Pingback: What Is Love? (Is Love Fundamentally a Feeling?) | What Is Real True Love?

  2. Jasmine says:

    Incredible.

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