Romantic Love and Other Delusions

 Some of your friends in the neighborhood get together to play a game of softball. Joey Dambrozio just had his first child. You ask him how that feels. “It’s amazing,” he says. “I’ve loved my parents and I’ve loved my wife. But the way I love my kid is different. It’s the first time I can honestly say that I love someone more than myself.”

You look across a crowded bar and see a young woman with a beautiful face. Suddenly, she is looking at you, smiling. And in that smile you see the completion of your life. Everything that you lack or yearn for is there. You fall in love. It is an overwhelming love. The kind of love that feels like it can lift you up in the air and carry you away.

And, wonder of wonders, your feelings are returned. Everything that heaven can be can be given to you through this one person. You are enthralled by this love. Crushed by it. You treat one another like gods.

Years later, that feeling is gone. You don’t like the way she keeps shutting off the lights. She doesn’t like your habit of leaving the toilet seat up. You are jealous of the lilt in her voice when she talks to her friends on the phone. (You once thought that lilt would be only for you.) And she doesn’t like the jokes you make when you’ve been drinking.

In The Road Less Traveled, one of the most popular and least understood books about personal growth ever written, M. Scott Peck lays out a brilliant challenge to conventional views of love. He argues that there is a big difference between falling in love Hollywood-style (romantic love) and true love.

Romantic love, says Peck, is part animal attraction (cathexis) and part emotional delusion. Romantic love initiates a destructive and futile cycle of dependency, with each partner looking to the other for happiness and completion.

True love, on the other hand, is selfless and spiritual. It can evolve from cathexis, but only after it gets beyond it. True love is not a state of being, but an action. The intention of true love is the betterment of the loved one, not of oneself. If you expect to be fulfilled by the person you love, Peck says, you will be disappointed.

Peck’s argument, in a nutshell, is that romantic love is an unhappy and unhealthy idealization of another individual. Healthy love, in contrast, is the act of working hard to improve the other person’s life experience.

It’s possible to view Peck’s argument in terms of energetic impulses.

Romantic love, it can be said, is a very concentrated impulse. A person in the throes of cathexis feels an intense desire to attract the other person. He will do everything he can to win the loved one’s affection. Every word the lover utters, every gesture she makes is experienced intensely. The prospect of losing the other person is as fearsome as the prospect of losing one’s life.

True love is, as Peck defines it, is the willful effort to resist the desire that cathexis arouses. It requires a relaxation of the ego so that attention can be directed toward the benefit of the loved one, not toward the egoistic pleasure of being loved.

A seldom discussed but very interesting idea presented in Peck’s book concerns the nature of God. He says that God resides in the unconscious mind. Or, more exactly, that the unconscious mind is God. This is getting close to Zen Buddhism. We will get to that later.

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The Expanding Universe

 

In 1929, Edwin Hubble used his famous telescope to determine that galaxies were not fixed, as scientists had thought. All of them – including ours – were moving away from one another.

He thought about this for a long time. Logic dictated that if galaxies were always moving away from one another, they must have been closer together in the past. At the beginning of the universe, he reasoned, they might have been one solid ball.

How far had the universe expanded since then? In 1967, two radio engineers working for Bell Laboratories noticed a hissing noise in their instruments. They theorized that it could be sound waves from photons at the outer edge of the universe – 90 billion trillion miles away. Subsequent studies confirmed their hypothesis.

Six decades later, scientists came to the conclusion that the universe originated 13.7 billion years ago as the result of some sort of cataclysmic event: a “big bang.” The idea was that all energy was once concentrated… and it suddenly exploded to form atoms, elements, and, ultimately, galaxies.

It is difficult to find any scientist today who disagrees with this theory. Virtually everyone with serious credentials agrees that the universe was (a) once a contracted core of energy and (b) is now steadily expanding outwards.

These are really two separate statements. The first one is a theory based on logic; the second one is an observation that has been confirmed by scientific experiment. Interestingly, both are fundamental to quantum physics and everything that we have learned from quantum physics.

And they give us our first clue about the relationship between expansion and contraction.

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In a Single Day

 

 

You’ve had a tough day. The commute to work was spoiled by a traffic jam. A colleague jostled you at the coffee machine and you spilled your coffee on your new shirt. The morning was filled with interruptions, so you never finished preparing for your afternoon meeting with the boss. Your lack of preparation was obvious. By five o’clock, you had accomplished nothing important. You feel frustrated and angry.

Driving home in a light rain, the car in front of you suddenly brakes. In an instant, your car is swerving and then spinning on the slick pavement. Your heart is racing. Horns are blaring. Miraculously, you come to a halt without being hit.

You pull to the side of the road and get out of the car to reclaim some equilibrium. You find that you are standing in front of a grassy hill over which the sun is descending. The sky is violet. The grass smells fresh. The air is clean.

Somehow, to your surprise, all your worries float away. They are replaced by awe and gratitude. You are glad to be alive. It is as if all that is good in life is washing over you.

What is this feeling? How can it be described?

It is light. It is buoyant. It is uplifting. There is a sense of peace and acceptance.

Is there a word for it?

Happiness is too vague. Joy isn’t right either. Serenity? Yes. But serenity is just a part of it. As is peacefulness and harmony and tranquility. These words are helpful but they don’t fully express it. They don’t include the sense of opening up to and/or relaxing into the universe that is somehow at its core.

How different this feeling is from the many other feelings you experienced throughout the day. The irritation of the commute. The flare-up of anger when a colleague made you spill your coffee. The aggravation of the constant interruptions during the day. The frustration from not having time to do the work you wanted to do. The doubt and then the embarrassment of the meeting with your boss. And the fear of nearly crashing your car.

Irritation. Anger. Aggravation. Frustration. Doubt. Embarrassment. Fear. It’s interesting that the English language seems to do a better job of naming these negative feelings.

What do they have in common? How are they different from this one very good, but difficult to name, feeling that you have standing in front of this grassy hill?

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From the Journal of My Childhood Friend Alec Singer…

 

My attitude toward sports my entire life has been, “Win or die.” In my middle 40s, I took up golf. In my middle 50s, I took up tennis. So now I have these two sports to replace football, basketball, and baseball. I was good, sometimes very good, in football, basketball, and baseball. Now I am a bad golfer and a bad tennis player. I just started these games too late. When I played football, if we needed a 1st down, they would throw the ball to me and I would catch it. When I played basketball, if we needed a basket to win, I was happy to take it. When I played baseball, I was confident I could get a hit if needed or catch a ball for the out. Now, in tennis, when I am playing doubles and I hit a ball back, I pray to god that it won’t be hit back to me. In golf, my goal is to not embarrass myself. Pretty sad, huh?

I tell you this so you will understand why I made an unscheduled stop at the driving range yesterday. A friend of mine was kind enough to invite me to play at his private club tomorrow, and I needed to raise my golf game to the not-embarrassing level before then. That’s when I discovered I was missing the headcover to my semi-new driver. My anger at losing things used to be a foible. As I have gotten older, it has become a psychosis. Whether a pen, a pair of glasses, or really anything, the value or importance of the item doesn’t matter. The level of the anger is just as great as it would be if I lost my car.

My mood for the day had been what the average person would describe as slightly depressed. To me, it was as good as could be. Now I was thrown into the depths of depression fueled by anger. I had proven once again that I am a failure at life. Intellectually, I know this is not true. But my emotional side always wins out in these scuffles.

I must have left the headcover in the cart at the golf course where I played 2 days earlier. Call them? No. I would probably get some kid working the desk who couldn’t give a shit. Or I would get a retired guy even older than me who would want to give a shit but can’t since he can’t even remember if he drove to work that day or if his wife drove him.

The course was barely out of my way so I decided just to go by in person. I put the odds of getting my headcover returned at 30%. After all, golf courses are one of the last bastions of honesty in the world. But on the way there, the odds were steadily dropping in my head. 25%… 20%… By the time I arrived at the course, the odds were down to 10%. Behind the counter was the kid who couldn’t give a shit. I stated my case. He turned his head and looked at a spot on the floor. “This is the only one we have,” he said. It was my headcover. I told him it was mine, he handed it to me, and I left.

I went to my car and placed the headcover on the head of the driver. I was elated. On the way home, I let people turn in front of me. Someone cut me off and I smiled. This lasted for maybe an hour, and then I became myself again. But it was such a nice hour. Funny how something bad happened and then something good happened that only put me back where I was originally… with a headcover. And yet I was happy. How great it must be to feel that way for more than an hour. Maybe it was only 40 minutes.

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Ways of Thinking

There are basically two ways to think about things:

  • Focused thinking – for intellectual challenges that are somewhat familiar. Your brain understands the challenge and is able to travel down established pathways to find the answer. It is the sort of thinking we do when playing chess, repairing engines, and even analyzing poems.
  • Diffused thinking – for challenges that are new. It is more intuitive, allowing for random associations. It includes daydreaming and the kind of thinking you do in the shower when “brilliant” ideas seem to pop into your head.

The biggest challenges – like finding cures for cancer and solving political disputes and negotiating successful divorces – usually require a combination of focused and diffused thinking. Not simultaneously. (The brain cannot do both simultaneously.) But sequentially over time.

If you consider how those modes of thinking feel, you’ll probably agree that focused thinking feels “hard.” Even intense when the challenge is great. As for diffused thinking, it feels quite easy. In fact, it doesn’t feel like thinking at all.

Focused thinking exists in a world of exactitude and rigorously observed protocols. Diffused thinking exists in a malleable, ephemeral world without boundaries.

In terms of contraction and expansion, the difference is obvious: Focused thinking is heavy and tight. Diffused thinking is light and loose.

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An Observation and an Argument

There are two energetic impulses in the universe: contraction and expansion. Contraction is energy moving inward. Expansion is energy moving outward.

Contraction increases density and creates gravity, which pulls objects in. Expansion dissipates matter and creates antigravity, which allows objects to move away.

Contraction is achieved through a process of tightening – atomic particles coming together. Expansion is achieved through the process of relaxation – atomic particles moving away from one other.

Everything in the universe, including what we call matter, is comprised of energetic impulses. The overall nature of these impulses – inward or outward – determines the nature of the entity. Energy is always moving. Never static.

Human beings are energetic fields held together by some sort of inward gravity. The fields are always in flux. Expanding and contracting.

Every person, at some level, understands this flux. In fact, consciousness is itself a field within the larger field of fluctuation. From contraction to expansion. Back to contraction. Then expansion… ad infinitum.

Think about the taut exhilaration you feel on a roller coaster. Or the serene, almost liquefying sensation you have when meditating at the end of a yoga class.

Relaxation is what allows you to avoid conflict, overlook disappointment, and appreciate the best of your life. It allows our finest philosophers the space to discover their most profound insights. It allows monks to enjoy isolation and master archers to shoot arrows with Zen-like perfection.

But relaxation does not build skyscrapers or write novels. It is contraction that does that. Contraction provides the energy and impetus for artists, musicians, scientists, and businesspeople to create.

Contraction is also what locks fearful people in their homes and drives mad people into the streets.

These two impulses are always and everywhere. They are evident in everything we do and how we behave. They are built into our biochemistry. In the cells of our bodies and in the atoms that comprise our cells. They are present in every sound we hear, every odor we smell, every texture we feel, and every image we see. Contraction and expansion are the essential energetic components of our thoughts, feelings, and dreams. Even of our unconsciousness.

We are reminded of these impulses by a thousand natural patterns. These patterns include the beating of our hearts and the two primary experiences of life: birth and death.

Everything in the universe – including man and everything he has created — is a reflection and a result of these interactive impulses.

All our technical, artistic, and philosophic achievements are reflections and results of contraction and expansion. So is all the waste and war and death we have caused.

Contraction and expansion create our history and our future too.

We cannot escape these impulses. We cannot deny them. But if we learn to accept and understand them, we may be able to live fuller, happier, and perhaps even better lives.

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The Scientific Method and the Little Teapot

 An ancient shepherd looks at the nighttime sky and wonders how the stars got up there. He wonders why they shift their positions as the year passes and why some burn white, some yellow, and some blue.

Using his intuition, he posits answers to these questions. When other men ask him what he thinks, he tells them his ideas.

Generations come and go and the shepherd’s ideas about the stars are repeated and repeated, usually with some minor modifications that suit the teller and in some way make the answers seem more plausible.

And they are received as plausible. Eventually, in fact, they are regarded as likely facts.

Over time, these likely facts become common knowledge. And with another hundred or a thousand similarly refined “likely facts” they become the common knowledge of the common culture. They become the common sense that allows people to understand their lives.

If a stranger wanders into town with an entirely different body of “common knowledge” he is seen as a madman or a troublemaker or a fool. If he’s thought to be mad, he’s relegated to the quadrants of the wandering mad. If he’s thought to be a troublemaker he’s run out of town or tarred and feathered or burned at the stake. If he’s thought to be a fool, he’s kept around for everyone’s amusement.

This is crude – but it’s how I believe most of the commonly accepted “truths” about our world and how it operates came into existence: they were born of limited observation, sparked into conjecture by wonder and turned into theories and then facts and then plain old common sense by the proliferation of their tellings.

This method of discover truth, I’m sure you would agree, leaves much to be desired. It feeds the imagination and can spark all sorts of impressive human inventions, but it is not a reliable method for ascertaining truth.

There is a better method – what we call the scientific method. It’s just as simple as this false method but it is more likely to lead us to facts. The scientific method goes like this:

We observe a phenomenon, wondering if there’s a natural law that governs it. Using our intuition, we posit a guess. We compute the consequences of that guess to see what it would mean in terms of predictable actions. Then we compare the results of those computations to nature using experiments or experience. If they jibe, we accept our guess as a scientific law. If they don’t, we reject it.

In trying to understand the nature and essence of being, this is the method we should use whenever possible. At the same time, we must be careful to avoid what Bertrand Russell called “intolerable propositions.”

Russell, one of the founders of analytic philosophy, came up with a clever analogy to illustrate the limits of logic – and to explain why you can’t have a meaningful conversation about anything if you begin with a presumption that is unacceptable in terms of human reason. Here it is…

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At the Supermarket

You are on a checkout line at the supermarket.

When you joined it, it was the shortest of six. But it’s moving slowly. The line to the left of you seems to be moving faster. You glance at the cashier at the end of your line. He looks bored. The young woman cashing out the line next to you looks energized. And now it’s moving even faster!

You back out of your line and angle your cart in that direction, only to find that someone else – a Neanderthal-looking guy — has beaten you to it. He gets there ahead of you. So you retreat. But the person who had been behind you in the first line has taken your place and won’t let you back in.

Your pulse quickens. You are anxious and frustrated – on the verge of anger.

“This is foolish,” you think. “Calm down.” You count your breaths. And gradually you do.

In a few minutes, your line starts moving faster. Hope springs eternal. One by one the shoppers who had been in front of you disappear into the parking lot. Soon there is just one – an old lady with maybe a dozen items in her cart. You look to your left and see that the guy who had “cut” ahead of you in that line is now in third place. You feel good about that. In some part of your mind, you believe that the universe has made things right.

Then you look back and see that the old lady is pulling fistfuls of coupons from her bag. She is fumbling to retrieve them. She seems confused. The cashier rolls his eyes.

“Damn it,” you think. “Damn her and her miserly ways!”

You imagine a litany of snide or even rude comments you’d like to make to her. You look to your left and note that the Neanderthal has checked out and is strolling happily toward the parking lot. He glances back at you. Is he sneering?!

And that old, fumbling,, penny-pinching lady is still pulling coupons from her bag!

Now you are furious. Your blood pressure is palpably high. The universe – that freaking universe that fooled you into pretending it was fair — has played another dirty trick on you.

You gently nudge your cart against the old lady’s and as she looks back at you, you select one of the comments you had mentally filed:

“Do you have any idea how long you are taking?” you growl.

The old lady blushes. She stuffs all the coupons back into her bag. Her hands are shaking as she pays for her groceries. The lady behind you is tsking at your behavior. You lower your head pretending to be examining the contents of your cart. Finally, the old lady is gone.

You push your cart forward and see in the cashier’s eyes a combination of fear and disdain. You are confused. You are angry. And you are ashamed.

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