Jan 21, 2009
Aldous Huxley: “We can only love what we know, and we can never know completely what we do not love. Love is a mode of knowledge…”
Halfway between “the season of goodwill” and Valentine’s Day, Bodhipaksa looks at Huxley’s understanding of what love really is. Is love a feeling, or is it a way of knowing?
What do we mean when we say the word “love”? What does it really mean to love someone? In what way is love “a mode of knowledge.” When we’re talking about the fact that we love ice cream we obviously mean something very different from the love we talk about having for a person. One’s just a simple desire for sense-fulfillment while the other is much more complex. But even when we talk about loving another person there are many different forms of love. At one extreme there’s a kind of “love” where we don’t really see the other person at all: a love that’s based on projection and on wishful thinking, a love where we idolize the other.
Lovingkindness is not conditional in any way. It’s based on an empathetic resonance with the other person.
In a similar vein, there’s also a form of love that’s highly conditional. We love the other person as long as they’re enjoyable to be with, or as long as their desires are in accord with ours, as long as we get what we want, perhaps as long as the other person doesn’t change. When conditions change — for example when we stop getting what we want, or when the other person ages, our “love” collapses.
The love that Huxley talks about here is something very close to what Buddhism calls metta or lovingkindness. It’s not conditional in any way. It’s based on an empathetic resonance with the other person — or to put it more simply, we are aware of the other person as a feeling being, we are aware that just like us the other person wants to be happy and wants to escape suffering. This is just about the most basic thing that we have in common with others. Although this is a very basic form of knowing, it’s not an easy thing to remember that others have the same basic aspirations as we do. But when we do experience metta we can hold love in our hearts for others whether or not we like them or even know them. It’s a completely unconditional love.
Whenever we want something from another person, there’s a danger that we’ll lose sight of that basic commonality, that sense that we’re all in it together, sharing a mode of being in which suffering and its end are our deepest drives and our deepest connection. We can lose touch with this understanding very easily. Just think about when you’re in a hurry and other people do things that delay you — they stop you to have “a quick word” or they drive in front of you more slowly than you would like. We can very easily see another person as an obstacle rather than as a fully-fledged fellow human being. Whenever we crave something from another person we’ll tend to lose sight of their humanity and see them primarily in terms of what we want from them, even if that’s just to get out of our way.
When we know the longing for happiness that lies in the heart of all beings we can start to really love them.
As Huxley says, we can only love what we know. When we know the longing for happiness that lies in the heart of all beings we can start to really love them. Without that awareness, we can’t love other being in any full sense. So metta (lovingkindness) involves a certain kind of knowing, or insight, into the nature of sentient beings. Lovingkindness requires a degree of insight.
Talking about love in this way though is very general, though. All beings want to be happy. All beings want to be free from suffering. But we don’t just love people en masse. We can love humanity, but we’re not ourselves fully human unless we love particular human beings. This is perhaps why the development of lovingkindness meditation doesn’t just include the last stage, which is where we send thoughts of lovingkindness out towards all beings. There are a number (either four or five, depending on the exact form of the practice) of stages where we cultivate lovingkindness towards people we know personally. In cultivating metta in this way we are developing relationships based on love and appreciation, especially when we’re cultivating metta for someone we already regard as a friend.
love involves curiosity and appreciation
A word for this particular form of love is friendship (as opposed to the general “friendliness” of the final stage of the practice), but even that doesn’t do the word justice. The powerful bond that can form between two people, whether or not they’re romantically connected to each other, can’t really be called anything but “love,” no matter how ambiguous and overloaded that term is. Love that seeks to “know completely” is what I think of as real love, with the other meanings of this multivalent word being mere shadows and distortions.
What Huxley’s quote reminds me is that this kind of love involves curiosity and appreciation of another person. We want to know the other person on ever deeper levels. Even clashing with a person we really love leads to us wanting to understand them (and our relationship with them, and hence ourselves) even more. This kind of love involves a deep desire to know and understand another person intimately, because that kind of knowing is the most satisfying thing we can do in life.
Wisdom and compassion are not in fact two different but conjoined qualities, but are in fact one quality
This I think takes us somewhat beyond simple lovingkindness (although there’s nothing very simple about it) and into the realm of insight. There are many words used to describe insight, but one of the more interesting is “vidyā,” which Sangharakshita parses (PDF) as “aesthetic, appreciative understanding.” One Sanskrit dictionary includes in its definition of vidyā, “knowledge of soul.” Vidyā, as a form of wisdom, is a “mode of knowledge,” and it seems to unite in some way the traditional understanding of wisdom (as a kind of cognitive understanding) and compassion.
Wisdom and compassion together are the two “wings” of enlightenment, and are considered to be inseparable. Vidyā makes it clear that wisdom and compassion are not in fact two different but conjoined qualities, but are in fact one quality, which the unawakened mind persists in seeing in a dualistic way. The term vidyā rather beautifully helps us to overcome that dualistic tendency.
So this I think is what love is in its fullest sense: it’s vidyā, a desire to know ourselves and others completely, an appreciative desire to understand reality to its very depths. Love is a mode of knowledge, or even a mode of exploration. The more we love, the more we want to understand, and the more we understand, the more we love.