What about love, that mystery which allows us to embrace ourselves, our partners, our families, our world? Often its experience defies description, thus Rumi’s “cage of words,” from which love has escaped. Most of what has been written which speaks to its virtue has come from poets, mystics, and troubadours. And always blooming like a flower from the seeds of our passion, the expression of this universal experience has many colors and shades.
Sex and Romantic Love — A Personal Connection
As children we love easily, but as our hormones awaken during adolescence, love transforms into a chemically fueled, blinding force. This tumultuous storm consumes our innocence as the identity of the child gives way to an expanded sense of self through the ungainly, uncomfortable consummation of romantic love. As we make our way through the labyrinth of sexuality and romance, we become the unwitting participants of a universal Shakespearean drama; the emotional highs and lows of anticipation, adoration, and rejection.
The sciences of neurology and endocrinology have clearly revealed that “being in love” puts us under the influence of a host of brain chemicals that can actually become quite addictive. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher has done extensive fMRI studies involving three sets of individuals: those who have recently fallen madly in love, those who have been married for an average of twenty-one years and still report being in love, and those who have recently been rejected. Based on her research, identifying areas of the brain that are activated in these states, Fisher reports that “romantic love is a need, an addiction,” and that it displays all the classic telltale signs of addiction: tolerance, withdrawal, and relapse. Whether or not love is requited, just the thought, let alone the sight of the object of our desire, can bring on a wildly beating heart, sweaty palms, dilated pupils, and an inability to think or articulate clearly. These are only some of the physiological effects of a cascading river of neurotransmitters (phenylethylamine, dopamine, oxytocin, norepinephrine, and adrenaline). They originate in the brain and flow throughout the body, and can bring on amphetaminetype responses (let’s stay up all night and talk!) and/or relaxation responses (let’s just stare at each other, cuddle, and fall asleep in each other’s arms).
This is a love that utterly unifies, while celebrating the uniqueness of each within the whole. This is a love for the source of all life.
Even a kiss may turn out to be just as important chemically as it is romantically. Each of us has something called a major histocompatibility complex (MHC) which measures immune responses in gene groups. An individual’s MHC can be detected scientifically in saliva and perhaps unconsciously detected and analyzed in a kiss. Studies involving a lot of dirty, sweaty T-shirts worn by men, show that women, on the basis of scent alone, consistently found T-shirts worn by men with an MHC most divergent from their own to be the most enticing. It would seem that the evolution of the species directs us subconsciously to mate with individuals carrying the maximum degree of potential genetic diversity for our offspring.
However, women who are taking birth control pills appear to have a distinctly dampened sensitivity to MHC in potential mates. They consistently picked T-shirts worn by men with MHCs far closer to their own. Some researchers suggest that this may be a factor contributing to the high incidence of early divorce, given that women on the pill choose partners without the benefit of a fully functioning MHC detector. Later on in the relationship, when the possibility of children is embraced and these women stop taking the pill, the closeness of their partners’ MHC can be detected and the marriage hits the rocks.
Some neurologists even go so far as to attribute the idiomatic seven-year itch to nothing more than withdrawal from the initial chemical dependencies associated with being in love. Statistically, it is actually more like a four-year itch, as divorce rates reach their peak after about four years of marriage and then level off. Clearly, once the initial thrill and passion culminate, many relationships end. Oftentimes, though, these relationships have resulted in the bringing forth of children, and here we cannot underestimate the importance of “chemical” love for the perpetuity of the human species. And too, in becoming parents, many people are blessed with the much sought after prize of unconditional love for their brand new baby. This experience also has its own brand of chemistry. Nursing mothers’ brains are filled with the neurotransmitter oxytocin which heightens openness to bonding. Studies have even shown that men who live with their mates during the latter stages of pregnancy also experience heightened levels of oxytocin.
Perhaps our brothers and sisters are those with whom we share not a kinship of blood, but a kinship of thought, vision, and action.
As relationships evolve from sexual and romantic attraction, growing out from under the covers of night into the light of day, partners are well served when they seek out different experiences to share. The human brain loves novelty, and research shows that couples who continue to participate in novel experiences are least likely to separate over time. Partners begin to encounter and know each other in new ways, and the uniqueness of each individual begins to develop within the relationship. This gives rise to a strengthening of the person-to-person love connection based upon mutual admiration and respect.
Brotherly Love — A Human Connection
When Jesus ministered to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” it is unlikely that he meant the term “neighbor” literally. Who then are our neighbors? Within the broad spectrum of humanity, perhaps we can consider our neighbors those of like mind, whether they live around the corner or on the other side of the globe. Perhaps our brothers and sisters are those with whom we share not a kinship of blood, but a kinship of thought, vision, and action. In identifying our interconnectedness with an intangible likeness of mind rather than the tight constraints of materially or chemically based judgment and feelings of attraction and repulsion, we begin to transcend from the hormonal into the invisible, spiritual realm of who we “really” are. We begin to love others from the heart.
We might even begin to entertain the unlikely possibility of forgiving those who trespass against us, our enemies. In a world so plagued by violence and the atrocities of war, are we not compelled to imagine such a thing? The words of the ancient Roman orator, Cicero, offer insight and guidance, even today. He warns that “the enemy is within the gates; it is with our own luxury, our own folly, our own criminality that we have to contend.” The more we become aware of the invisible web that connects us all by simple virtue of our shared humanity, the more the urgency to blame others and make them our enemies is replaced by a willingness to take responsibility for our own actions and to work to change them. Changing for the sake of one’s own evolution is at the heart of self-love, but can come at the cost of personal and professional relationships. Change takes courage, and in the words of Gerald Jampolsky from his book by the same name, love is letting go of fear.
In the midst of profound personal change, many people experience acute and even existential distress. Having intentionally initiated change on deep levels within our psyche and our reality, we experience chaos and may be at a loss for how to bring ourselves into equilibrium without retreating into the familiar. In such moments we ask seriously and sincerely for help not from another human being, whom we know innately does not have the answer to our suffering. We turn instead to a transcendental source.
Divine Love — A Sacred Connection to the Source
The soul which burns to be a part of the Greater is the living heart within the encrusted form of prayer, which cries out constantly to be taken by storm.
The religion of the heart is not a stark monument of stone; lovers of God have no religion save yearning for me alone.
Rumi — Mathnavi II, 1750
The spiritual journey towards divine love has as many paths as those who travel it. Yet some aspects seem to be common within the diversity of individual modes of study or worship. Just as in the passion of romantic love, there is a longing, a yearning as Rumi puts it, for union with the Beloved. Such a union can take place in prayer, meditation, in the quiet of a dappled forest. When it comes, it is ecstasy. The more we surrender, the more it emerges, and the more the nature of its source is revealed within and without. Such a sacred love begs us to see in others what we have come to see in ourselves, to respect and nurture the environment in which we find ourselves, and to continue a life revealing the wonders of deep interconnectedness. This is a love that utterly unifies, while celebrating the uniqueness of each within the whole. This is a love for the source of all life.
Such states of transcendence also affect us in wonderful ways biologically and neurochemically. Anyone who has practiced yoga, meditation, or a focus discipline of any kind will say that doing so brings on an experience of inner radiant health!
A recent study conducted in India measured the presence of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline among three groups: those practicing meditation at least four days a week, those engaging a brief progressive muscle relaxation technique at least four days a week, and a control group. After forty-eight hours, stress hormones were significantly reduced in the first group, slightly reduced in the second, and remained relatively fixed in the control group. The participants were periodically tested during the entire study, which lasted eight months, and the results remained consistent.
Evolution of the species directs us subconsciously to mate with individuals carrying the maximum degree of potential genetic diversity for our offspring.
Recent fMRI studies conducted in Taiwan also indicate significant findings. Individuals engaged in various methods of meditation demonstrated increased activity in numerous and diverse parts of the brain. Researchers were particularly struck by meditative practices which included cognitive functions (focused imagery and/or words). These practices showed increased activity particularly in the hypothalamus, and thereby very likely had a complex effect on the body’s endocrine system.
The healing quality of reunion with the divine should come as no surprise. For within such an embrace we are wholly without the emotional stressors that tax and burden the mind and body. Instead we are wrapped in a knowingness of unity and stability – a love that quenches an ancient yet ever present thirst. No doubt science will continue to explore the biochemical and neurological aspects of love in its many expressions. And no doubt human beings will continue to long for and search for it, finding it in many places, through many and diverse expressions. Songs will continue to be sung, poems to be written, bouquets to be picked and given. Nonetheless, the unfolding mystery that is love may remain just that. And isn’t that wonderful? For as long as the mystery eludes us and yet blesses us, it will entice us further into its depths. The deeper we go, the more we will love and the more connected we will become to each other, to our brothers and sisters, and to the divine spark that envelops us all.