“I can’t write about Zen and love because I have been a fool in love,” my Zen teacher once said to me.
“We all have been,” I replied. “You can still write about love,” I added, “because a Zen approach would involve, at least in part, embracing—being intimate with—one’s foolishness.”
Sex, money, and in-laws might seem, at first glance, like the locus of irrationality in romance. But until recently, I was certain that the chief obstacle to intimacy—and the major cause of our foolishness—was the tendency most of us have to try to win, rather than to understand, which renders our partners opponents we attempt to defeat or thwart, rather than friends we strive to empathize with. Winning in a relationship is a losing proposition.
I now think that successful intimacy is so fraught and elusive because it involves a task that few of us are prepared for—namely, integrating two different emotional worlds.
Worlds of emotional experience are enormously complex and multi-faceted. They contain core values and vital passions, psychological strengths and emotional wounds, unacknowledged hopes and recurrent fears, secret wishes and hidden expectations. When two such universes come in contact, something new can be born that lessens our isolation, gives our lives meaning, and leaves us immeasurably enriched. But worlds of experience can also clash, collide, and cancel each other out because of conflicting values, irreconcilable goals, or an inability to respect and skillfully navigate differences. Getting emotional universes to harmonize over time and weather the challenges that confront significant relationships is an art that few of us have mastered.
How do we avoid being fools in love? We can’t. But perhaps with practice we can lessen our self-blindness, operate more wisely, and co-create more loving unions.
The first step is to become intimate with our foolishness. We have several misconceptions about love and intimacy. We assume, without really thinking about it, that love is an instantaneous and ecstatic feeling. “I looked across the room and knew s/he was the one,” people say. What exactly did they know, I wonder? That the other person was physically attractive or well-dressed, gazed at them in a way that felt penetrating or inviting? Since they knew nothing about the person’s character, interests, or values—whether they were compassionate or sadistic, committed to health or self-neglectful, trustworthy or parasitic—the attraction was fairly mechanical and self-centered. The person across the room simply fit their image of what they desired to have or to be—a necessary yet wholly insufficient basis for a stable, loving relationship.
The second misconception about love is that it is a feeling a person possesses—glorious and ecstatic. One of the wisest insights of contemporary psychoanalysis is that emotions, which include love, are better thought of as having a context and co-created by two people rather than the internal possession of one. From that perspective, the rapture of love is based on an environment that a couple creates and sustains—or neglects and subverts.
This realization opens up a very different way of thinking about love than contemporary culture encourages. Lasting intimacy—a close and enduring relationship with someone we adore who cherishes us—is a marathon that requires training, not a sprint that takes a few moments. Reconciling, integrating, and expanding the worlds of experience of both members of a couple is a practice that demands patience and self-awareness, empathy and flexibility, resourcefulness and humor—qualities that are not in abundance today, when we live at a frenzied pace, are bombarded with information, and feel demoralized about the state of the world.
Self-care is the foundation of intimacy. Investing in the relationship begins with taking care of ourselves. There is no intimacy with another person without self-care, cultivating what helps us flourish: discovering our passions, finding our purpose, understanding and handling our feelings wisely, and living authentically.
The final stage and culmination of self-care is intimacy.
The practice of intimacy is immeasurably enriched by engaging in more direct contact with life as it is. At their best, Zen and psychoanalysis both facilitate this. Both promote the capacity to be present and open to the full range of our experiences. In addition, Zen and psychoanalysis foster self-knowledge, intimacy with oneself, and compassion, three crucial ingredients in integrating worlds of experience. To love, you need to be aware of your talents and limitations—especially the obstacles you bring to the relationship —and be comfortable in your own skin.
Meditation and psychotherapy help us be more at home in our lives. Both traditions also help release us from the suffocating grip of thinking our way of life is the only valid one. This frees us to stretch ourselves to accommodate the worlds of our partners, instead of dismissing, assimilating, and reducing them into our own.
Like a garden, an intimate relationship has weeds and pests; it needs tending or it languishes. A relationship must be continually maintained—watered and fed, weeded and composted. We need to make tending to the relationship a priority, deepen empathy for our partner’s experience, sensitively express our feelings and needs, and work mindfully with conflicts and imbalances in power. We also must find a place to house and compassionately work with disappointment, hurt, and anger. A loving relationship is a home for idealization and passion, but it is also a breeding ground for disillusionment and resentment. The beloved inevitably activates early wounds and unconscious patterns of unhealthy relating.
But the loved one can also serve as an invaluable resource in self-healing and personal transformation. We are attracted to those who emotionally resemble significant people from our past. If they didn’t, we probably wouldn’t be drawn to them. But they also offer the promise of healing unfinished emotional wounds. To the extent that old patterns are repeated and they treat each other as their parents did, each person remains stuck in previous and restrictive conditioning. When the promise the partner offers of being a more benign and healing presence is actualized, there is growth and transformation. And then the relationship becomes a place where the couple not only puts out psychological fires, but can dream together about—and strive to actualize—a better life.
Wholeheartedly engaging the relationship when it is difficult and fails to conform to our idealized and romanticized images of how it should be is vital. It can be terrifying, painful, and exhausting when the hoped-for sanctuary of the relationship becomes an emotional minefield or prison. It is not surprising that contempt, self-doubt, and despair sometimes arise. But at such moments, we must give ourselves permission to have our feelings even if they are scary to contemplate or unsettling to express. The greatest threat to the integrity of the relationship is not having disturbing feelings, but dismissing them, which usually leads to physical or psychological symptoms or illnesses and emotional distress.
In an ideal situation, our feelings and the discontent they represent are compassionately held, witnessed, and validated by our partner, which is indispensable in healing. Without that understanding and confirmation, we all tend to hold on to the feelings as a kind of silent memorial to our unwitnessed pain. But when our feelings are met with empathy, it’s an invitation for understanding and healing—perhaps by heartfelt apologies and wiser responses that not only repair the damage that has been done, but open up new pathways for emotional intimacy in the present.
None of us are experts about love, but we can all lessen—although not eliminate—our foolishness, and expand our capacity to open to unfamiliar worlds of experience and even create new ones that surpass anything we had previously imagined.
When separate psychological universes intersect, there can be enriching and transformative cross-pollination—or annihilating collisions. Mutually respectful relationships that integrate apparent opposites—like reverence and desire, insight and action, security and risk—create new worlds that are composed of elements of each person’s old ones, but which transcend and enrich them. The relationship becomes a refuge, not just from a speeding and distracted and demoralized world that has lost its way, but from our own doubts and fears and emotional vulnerabilities. From that refuge, we can more easily befriend both the wounded and shameful parts of ourselves and the hidden potentials that have rarely emerged. Not only do we become more than we were, we grow into who we want to be. We become freer to create a new life and future beyond anything we could have imagined, which is of inestimable value in a world in which love is endangered and a precarious achievement.