I’ve been listening to some Buddhist teachings on love and attachment. This teacher says that to truly love someone is to want them to be happy, with or without you, but usually what we really want is for ourselves to be happy, and we believe we need someone else to make us happy. We call this love, but that is not love says the Buddhist teacher, that is attachment, and attachment is the cause of suffering.
I’ve struggled a lot with love. It’s true that the love I’m used to has caused me a lot of suffering, so maybe it hasn’t been real love at all! My question – Is it really possible to love someone without attachment?
In love and suffering
Dear In love and suffering,
The kind of love that is incompatible with being attached to someone or loving them for your own pleasure is a spiritual love. Spiritual love is a high ideal, and one that some people are called to. In a way, attachment IS the cause of suffering just as the ascetic spiritual traditions teach, and so it makes sense from that point of view that if we want to be free of suffering we should attempt to eliminate our attachments. Since romantic love has caused you a lot of suffering personally, I can see why it would be appealing to trade it in for a love without attachment. But please understand, it won’t be the same love.
Buddhists tend to idealize the emotional equanimity that comes with “non-attachment”. For some this offers a satisfying and enriching path, despite its difficulties. For others the ideal becomes an exercise in self-deception, what is commonly called “spiritual bypass” – rather than face the suffering that comes with the attachments of life, one tries to trick oneself into enlightenment by avoiding life rather than engaging with it. Still others manage to work fruitfully with the tension and dilemmas that come with attachment, even while they continue to live an engaged life.
The classical Greeks offer a different perspective on love altogether. They did not see love as mutually exclusive from attachment (or suffering for that matter), but rather they recognized at least four distinct kinds of love; we’ll look at two: Agape and Eros.
For the Greeks, Agape is spiritual, selfless love. Genitals are not included in this kind of love because bodily desire is not included.
Eros provides a darker foil to Agape. Eros is romantic or erotic love. It is sexually charged and desirous (genitals included).
In some stories the Greek God Eros was said to be mothered by Aphrodite, Goddess of love, and fathered by Ares, God of war. This parentage should give us clues to the temperament of Eros. Erotic love is understood to be frictious and troublesome, obsessive and personal, full of projection and confusion, and yes, suffering. Erotic love is also passionate, invigorating, colourful, and joyous. It’s a mixed bag.
So, do you want a cool and non-attached love? Or do you want a hot love that includes attachment, as well as passion and the associated suffering? There’s no wrong answer, but it’s worth adding that one makes a place for desire, including fucking and other forms of passion, while the other treats desire as a problem, something to be liberated from.
Interestingly, erotic love also has a psychological association that non-attached spiritual love does not. In the old stories Eros himself falls in love with a mortal woman named Psyche. Their love relationship is rocky, there is attachment and suffering in spades, but the suffering is psychologically meaningful; it helps the couple grow.
The Buddhist perspective in your question assumes that liberation from the entanglements of both Eros and Psyche is preferable to the psychological deepening that suffering in love can provide. Another way to say this is that attachment and suffering (and fucking for that matter) might be the enemies of spirituality, but they can be necessary for the soul (to read more about spirit as distinct from soul and the spiritual journey as distinct from the soul journey click here).
We’ve been looking at this in polarized terms for the sake of clarity and understanding, but these may not be mutually exclusive realms. We can question our attachments in love even as we wrestle with and even indulge them (I sometimes hold my partner’s face in my hands and teasingly tell her “I’m so attached to you”).
Can you have it both ways – can you do away with suffering and still feel the kind of fiery love that many crave? Probably not. Is it worth trying? Maybe, but keep in mind that much hinges on the meaning that you make of your suffering. If you believe, as I understand Buddhists do, that suffering is essentially meaningless, then suffering and attachment merely become problems to solve, something to be liberated from. But if you find psychological or soul meaning in the suffering and attachment of erotic love, then suffering becomes perhaps not only tolerable, but even purposeful.
Thanks for asking hard questions.
All My Best,
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