Lessons from the Mind in Love
“There’s nothing like love to bring out the best and worst in the human mind.”
This essay is about making love into a practice.
What do I mean by practice?
It’s hard to pin down. There is Zen practice, spiritual practice, religious practice, mindfulness practice, meditation practice – etc. This is the spirit in which I use the word “practice”.
Practice in this sense is engaging with the events of our lives with intention.
It is the ongoing journey of investigating our unique human experience and learning to navigate it skillfully. That’s what all these “practices” have in common.
I once wrote – to the ordinary person everything is a blessing or curse. To the wise person everything is practice.
Suffering, joy, failure, betrayal, success are all practice. Each one has something to teach if met with an attitude of intentional and sincere engagement. This is practice. Practice may include religion – but it transcends any fixed ideals, philosophies, or denominations.
It is the practice of being a human.
So having framed up what we’re talking about with the word practice – let’s talk about love as practice.
In my short existence – and my even shorter time in love – I can say it will teach us more about the nature of mind and the human condition than perhaps anything else.
It’s heaven and hell. It will amplify all of the human mind’s most ridiculous, tedious, frustrating, and downright painful idiosyncrasies.
It shows us the psychological roots of suffering.
And so if we make it into practice, it can teach us what it means to be a human.
Love: The Hyperbolic Time Chamber of Insight into the Human Condition
In cartoon the Dragon Ball Z there’s something called the hyperbolic time chamber (way too much detail available here ).
Basically, you enter this chamber that has 10x gravity of Earth, thinner air, extreme temperature swings from -40 to 122 degrees, and time is dilated so that one day on the outside equals 1 year on the inside. The way this structure is used is for the superhero characters to pack years of incredibly intense training into a few days.
By magnifying the intensity of the conditions – their practice is far more intense.
As I talked with my Zen teacher today I said – I’m pretty sure romantic love is life’s hyperbolic time chamber of practice and personal growth.
In the same way the hyperbolic time chamber magnifies the conditions for superhero training – love magnifies the conditions of the human mind. It has an unmatched intensity. It brings out the biggest highs, lows, ruminating, grasping, and obsessing.
Everything that religion, spiritual practice, and psychology say about the human mind – love seems to magnify.
If we want to understand how clinging and grasping lead to suffering – love will make it obvious. If we want to see the tricks and foibles and insecurities of the mind – love will let ‘em rip. If we want to understand how the mind and body are one – love will make it clear.
Love seems to crank the intensity of the human experience up to 11/10.
Now let me say this essay isn’t a hit piece on love. What’s more, it might just be that I’m prone to more mental excess and neuroticism than the average bear. But my hunch is that this experience is rather universal…
And that if we view love as practice – something to engage with intentionally in service of understanding and experiencing the human condition - then we’d all be happier (and the world would be a bit less messy).
So here are two of the most impactful lessons learnt from the mind in love.
Mind Games: Perceptions are not reality…
So I’m out on a Saturday gameday in Tuscaloosa.
For context – the last two days in town I’ve re-sparked a past relationship that has now “sparked” into full on fire. We’re pretty madly in love. Before I hit the town that afternoon with my friend, my girl and I talked about eventually meeting up at the bar.
Fast forward to about 10pm and I haven’t gotten any text back from her. I’m having a pretty good time with my friends and I see her walk in.
Immediately my mind starts turning – okay that’s a little weird that she didn’t tell me she was coming but whatever. Then I see her at the bar talking to some guy. Now I’m pretty sure it’s her friend and roommate (who happens to be gay) but I can’t really make him out for sure.
All the sudden I feel my stomach turn – it’s like my lungs fall into my gut. I don’t think that is her roommate. And she’s kinda leaning on him. And she still never texted me saying she’s here.
I’m almost gonna puke...
And in that moment I observe myself.
I do my best to investigate where these insecure thoughts are coming from and put them to the test of rational scrutiny. I think - well maybe her phone is dead or something. Maybe this guy is just another friend.
All of these are much more likely than her suddenly not caring about me (especially considering like 7 hours ago we were telling eachother how much we love each other).
So 15 minutes later I’m walking back from the bathroom and we cross paths in the main drag of the bar. The moment we lock eyes it’s like the whole bar melts away in the background. She’s seriously the most beautiful sight on this earth (okay sorry getting off topic).
But I wrap her up in a big hug and introduce her to my friends and we start talking.
Why don’t you guess what happens within about 2 minutes?
She tells me she’s been looking all over and can’t find her phone. She thinks she might have lost it in the stadium. She also introduces me to her roommate’s other friend - aka unknown guy she was leaning on at the bar (who also happens to be gay).
This is what we call an AHA moment: AHA -- the human mind in its default setting is entirely f—king delusional. Now let me make a distinction here between the “I” (myself) – the one who is observing my thoughts and mental patterns and “the mind” – the mental chatter, assumptions, perceptions, and insecurities.
It’s not that I am an idiot or crazy or something. It’s just that I happen to (for better or for worse) be stuck in here with a human mind. And when the mind is in love it turns into an obsessive little kid – churning up insecurities, gimmicks, mental games etc.
So it’s up to the I – the observer – to witness these misperceptions and mind games and see through them. That’s what this mini story is about. It was such a blatantly clear case of this simple fact that thoughts and perceptions are not reality. And it seems that the intense desire that comes with romantic love stirs up the most provocative and illusory thoughts that the human mind has to offer.
Thich Nhat Han, the legendary Zen teacher, shares a story about the importance of learning to be the observer – and seeing through the games of the mind in love.
There was a young married couple in Vietnam who just had a baby.
Sadly, the husband was drafted and had to serve for three years. When he came back from the war he was so happy to be reunited with his beloved. She greeted him at the door with their young child in her arms. They were full of love and happiness.
That day they went to the market. While they were there, the dad was surprised because his young child would not call him “dad”. The child said – “you are not my dad. My dad comes home every night. He sits with mom on the bed and they cry together. Then when mom lies down they lie down together.”
In just that moment, the dad’s heart sank to his shoes. He was in disbelief. He did not talk to his wife.
They returned home from the market and he would not even look at her. They never spoke. He left home and drowned his sorrows at the bar.
And on the fourth day, overwhelmed with grief, his wife threw herself into the river.
When he heard the news he returned home that night. He lit a lamp in his child’s room. The child shouted out – “there, there is my dad!” and pointed to the shadow on the wall.
“Dad comes home every night. He sits with mom on the bed and they cry together. Then when mom lies down they lie down together.”
Suddenly it was all too clear.
This is the danger of mental perceptions. The Buddha said to ask yourself – “Are you sure of your perceptions?”
Thich Nhat Hanh says to write this down on a card and post it to the wall – Are you sure of your perceptions?
This is maybe the most important lesson from the mind in love.
Love stirs up the most extreme, dramatic, and emotionally intense thoughts. These perceptions, however, are not reality. We must learn to identify with the I – the observer. And see through the mind’s games.
Finding Balance: Learning to walk the middle way
Practicing with love is the ultimate challenge for learning the middle way.
What is the middle way? It’s impossible to give a just explanation in a few sentences. But the best way to understand is to see what it’s not.
Is it best to work all the time? No. Is it best to never, ever work and not do anything? No.
Is it good to spend all your waking hours with your beloved – from sun up to sun down right by their side? No. Is it good to never see the person you love – to be totally and completely apart? No.
Is it true that who we are depends completely on our nature – our genetics and nothing else at all? No. Is it true that nurture and experience are everything and nature has nothing to do with it? No.
The middle way is nonduality. It is avoiding extremes. It is to not be caught in one-sided views.
It’s the “sweetspot” so to speak. When our energies are centered and we’re not oscillating between extremes we can say we’re in the middle way. It is dynamic equilibrium, balance, harmony. If someone says “there is a fine line between this or that” that fine line may be the middle way.
Now when it comes to love – it feels very hard to find this balance point.
This has been a theme through a dozen or so discussions with my various Zen teachers. Here’s the dilemma…
On one hand I want to engage in life wholeheartedly. To live fully means to love fully. This requires some level of surrender to openness and vulnerability. It feels a lot like I’m letting this girl hold a loaded gun to my heart (in a good way, I guess).
True love is a most challenging, yet profound experiment of letting our guard down and opening our hearts – which is a pretty universal theme of spiritual and religious practices.
BUT – here’s the challenge of balance. This letting go or surrendering to love can quickly turn obsessive. It can become more like addiction and infatuation than love. It can spiral out of control.
When I think back to how I felt at the bar in my above story or even how I’ve felt a few times when I don’t get a text back – I can feel the clinging and grasping. I feel some yearning that tugs at my attention – this tendency is the root of suffering.
There’s nothing romantic about being totally preoccupied and obsessed. In fact, a teacher of mine, Norman Fischer, made a great point in one of our discussions.
He said - if as a couple, each of you are not grounded in yourself, slowly you will grow to hate one another. That sounds extreme, but hear me out…
If I am not in the “sweetspot” of the middle way, if I am obsessed or addicted, then every time she does some little thing it’s going to cause me some inner disturbance. She doesn’t text me back because she’s studying for an exam and now I’m suffering.
Vice versa – I talk to a female friend of mine and she suffers. Slowly, each of us will grow to resent the other because - intentionally or not – one has power over the other’s internal state.
So how do we find this middle way of balance – of wholeheartedness and openness to love without the clinging and grasping that lead to suffering?
That’s the challenge of love. And that’s why I say there’s no practice quite like this one.
It’s just like balancing on one foot. It’s a continuous process of falling off center and coming back. It’s leaning to the left and to the right – oscillating around the sweet spot. Like learning to balance on ice skates or skis or anything else, at the start there is a lot of falling off center – a clumsy, painful process. Over time these adjustments of coming back to center get smaller and smaller.
My Zen teacher Michael gives the analogy of an old sea captain sailing from New York to London. How many times does she turn the wheel left or right on that journey? Of course the whole trip the captain is working with the wind and tides – intuitively steering left, right, and back again - coming back to center again and again to stay on course. And eventually she arrives at the destination.
The middle way is something we’re always turning towards.
So it goes in practicing with love. One pushes a little too hard then pulls back too much then comes back too strong and so on and so forth.
The difference is that for the wise person – the one who holds love as practice – this process gradually centers them in the middle way. Towards experiencing the full power and beauty of love without the suffering and insecurity of obsession.
This is the practice of finding balance – walking the middle way of love.
So love can be the most challenging – and thus the most enriching practice. It is a tremendous teacher offering the most ecstatic and painful lessons in what it means to live the human condition.
Its tendency to bring out the insecurities and mind games casts a light on the psychological roots of suffering. This creates a valuable opportunity for insight – to see through the mental perceptions and identify with the I – the observer.
Its tendency to stimulate the most intense clinging and desire creates the opportunity to turn back to the balance point and slowly learn to walk the middle way.
“There’s nothing like love to bring out the best and worst in the human mind.”
And it depends upon our practice to bring out the best.
Your happiness experimenter,
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I love the notion of the middle way. I visited Eihei-ji, a Zen monastery in Japan a few years ago, and while I was inspired by many of the lessons I learned there, the middle way concept resonated most deeply with me. Great post.
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