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If there is a secret valley leading to a river stream in the vacuous desert that is heartache, it can be found beyond the portal that is arduous self-inquiry.
One of the many things that prolonged grief has shown me is just how deeply entrenched my previous ideals of romantic love truly were, alongside how insidiously destructive those concepts can be in that they’ve led up to the cultivation of unreasonable expectations and gaping disappointments.
As I’ve stated in previous articles, I have always had a mind prone to dreaming and entertaining thoughts about the most intense and all-consuming love. The impressions and sensations described in Pablo Neruda’s poems is exactly the kind of love I’ve always yearned to experience and encounter with another person.
My mind has even gotten lost in a soap opera of my own creation—fantasizing about passionate conversations whereby the beloved in question professes a deep and everlasting longing for me, or a fiery rekindling of lost romance.
One of my favorite sonnets is Sonnet XVII, by Neruda himself. Beginning in the ninth line, in the third stanza, he writes:
“I love you without knowing how,
or from where.
I love you straightforwardly,
without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.”
I was 19 or 20 when I’d first read those delicious lines, and instantly responded to the visceral tugging at my heartstrings.
That is love, I must have thought. And that is precisely the depth of passion I long for.
It took me nine years of brutally honest inner searching and some shadow work to realize that the type of otherworldly love I’d been seeking from outside of me was a byproduct of an unconscious desire to escape the bleakness of this world and connect with something I perceived as sacred and pristine. I wanted to be lifted closer to the heavens and touch the stars. I wanted to bask in the afterglow of the divine.
Furthermore, I noticed that whenever I felt limerence toward someone, I wrote what I considered my best prose. I felt renewed, inspired, and as though I was gazing at the world through a new set of eyes. I felt more fully connected and alive. It gave me meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence and put a spring in my steps. It incubated me from my own deeply-seated existential anxiety and depression. I loved the idea of an overriding zeal at the mere thought or presence of a lover and craved affection. At that time in my life, being single made me feel lost and incomplete.
This unquenchable thirst for a feeling of completion eventually led me to move across the continent and get married at age 24. By the time I turned 29, I was officially divorced after two years of physical and emotional separation. In that two-year period, I met a person who sparked my spiritual awakening and my life thereafter was never ever the same as a result.
With my ex-wife, I was hopelessly enmeshed. Seldom did we do anything apart from each other and to add insult to injury, we both worked from home. We shared everything—sometimes even eating the same dinner off of the same plate, simultaneously, side by side.
Whenever one of us expressed a desire to be alone or get together with friends or family without the other, a feeling of insecurity and even betrayal would surface. Obviously, this was neither healthy nor sustainable, and with time, I began to distance myself, inch by inch, the longer we lived under the same roof. When we got along, we could be the best of friends, but when things went south, the arguments were heart-wrenching, tumultuous, and sometimes lasted hours or days. Those ups and downs eventually became predictable and even somewhat addictive, regardless of how much they hurt—and they hurt deeply, indeed.
I would often fantasize about breaking free and finding peace. I became more and more distant, but the thought of leaving was at the same time equally terrifying to me. I felt extreme guilt. I worried about my partner’s mental and physical health. I worried, too, about my own.
In a sense, you could argue that I was in a sort of self-imposed purgatory, at the time. It took me several months post-separation to finally decide never to return, and not without some intervention from concerned family members and friends.
At that phase of my life, I could have sworn that the trauma bond I’d acquired as a result of those on-again-off-again feelings were a testimony of true love. She would get angry or upset, threaten to leave, and I would beg for her forgiveness and plead for her to stay, even though there was a part of me that knew these patterns were unhealthy and that it was probably best to let the relationship go.
Emotion often clouded reason, and I’d tell myself (and others) that we were stuck on each other for better or for worse.
The encounter following that one was far more ethereal in quality, and, truth be told, took me by surprise. I was not prepared for it. It shook me out of my dream and turned my world entirely upside down. It shattered my illusions about myself, the purpose of love itself, and made me question my life’s direction and purpose. It was exotic, serendipitous, enticing, inspiring, and even devastatingly painful. Regardless, I found myself through that connection, albeit not without more than a fair share of heartbreak.
Finally, after so long, I’ve had to ask myself what fulfillment really means as well as what true love actually looks and feels like.
When many people attempt to scratch the surface and define unconditional love, they surmise that it means feeling love or affection for another person, even if that other person stops loving them. Not too long ago, I too thought that this was what unconditional love was like, but I’ve since learned differently.
When we define unconditional love as an unwavering affection in the presence of unrequited emotions, we fail to understand the deeper layers of that which we are attempting to figure out.
Believing that we love unconditionally because we never stop feeling for another person regardless of what they do or do not feel for us in turn is the ego masquerading as true love. For one thing, we may be under the delusion that we truly know the other person in question. We may see in them what is not truly there and thus circumvent the underlying reality. We may be responding to subconscious childhood wounds. Or, we may knowingly or unknowingly be clinging to his or her more redeeming characteristics in lieu of seeing the complete picture—shadows and all. Whether we are aware of it or not, this too is the ego sneaking in through a back window. In a sense, we are inadvertently projecting our values and perceptions onto the other person, whether those impressions are accurate or not.
As difficult as it may be to grasp, I’ve fairly recently learned that loving someone for “who they are” isn’t as unadulterated as we tend to believe. The fundamental question is: who are they, in absolute terms? Better yet, who are we, really?
For instance, when we claim to love someone because they share similar opinions, habits, roles, likes, and dislikes, we are actually loving a fictitious and impermanent entity. We do not love the eternal part of the other—their essence, which is deeper than a set of preferences and ideas about who they are. No. We value that individual’s conditioning and his or her ego attachments, or his or her persona. The soul is not a collection of ideas or roles—all of which are material and ultimately, of this world. People’s personalities are a result of their familial conditioning, past experiences, thought patterns, and so on, and our ego mistakes all of these things for who we are, in essence.
Besides that, if the same soul did not share similar ego attachments (opinions, values, belief systems, likes, dislikes, habits, and compulsions), would you still feel the same way about him or her? For many of us, the answer is quite simply no. We always love what is illusory or subject to change. It can therefore be said that our love is rooted in ego and subject to duality. Anything subject to duality is by its nature not unconditional.
Still, the vast majority of us experience love in this way. We select partners and friendships based on a set of values, and those values are entirely subjective. We base them on what is common, or mutual. We love only or especially when someone resonates with an ideal. In addition, we love how that person makes us feel, what they can offer, and subsequently feel shattered or even resentful when they no longer deliver. In this way, we could feasibly argue that what we thought was love was actually a Band-Aid to cover our own chronic or acute wounds.
Like it or not, however, this is simply part and parcel of the dance that is being in a human vessel, which, of course, comes with a mind that scrutinizes, compares, and has a set of criteria, which includes preferences and expectations of various kinds.
For me, this realization has been sobering and even somewhat depressing. As much as I too enjoy people for the common traits and interests we share, there nevertheless remains a part of me that understands, deep down, that it is all just one huge smokescreen and nothing more or less than that. Of course, when I say it is all a smokescreen, I don’t mean to imply that there is any level of malice or deceit going on, but that we are both finite entities playing a role on a grand stage. All of the things I think matter and that I claim to love about the other person, and vice versa, are subject to the law of impermanence—most especially the body, but also, perhaps, the astral self, which is petty in the hands of the mechanics of the mind.
For a long time following this awareness, I began to question my entire sense of reality and to wonder how on earth I could ever derive any sense of joy or earthly satisfaction, knowing that everything was subjective and ultimately shifting. I struggled to grasp any greater meaning or inspiration in light of this realization.
Then, one day, I came across lines from a Mary Oliver poem, which read:
“to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the times comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
Life, I’ve learned, is a dance, a performance. Romantic relationships are just one more facet of this existence. We’re all here to play a role for a limited amount of time in the larger scheme of things. Because this thing we call “real life” is a rather persistent illusion, I can try to enjoy the show for what it is; just that—a show. Maybe I’ll even discover some other interesting characters along the way, and we’ll dance together in the dark, underneath a florescent moon.
Perhaps, knowing that we’re all out-of-touch with who we really are in essence, or in absolute terms, on this materialistic plane, is about the best we can hope for.
But it is not unconditional love—nor will it ever be.
Unless we know who we are, align with, and embody it, we’re always simply playing a role and meeting others in their own costume, behind their own mask.