Episode 2: The Riddle of Love

In the second episode of the Open Secret Podcast, Sashank and Alan explore the concept of love. They discuss:

  • Types of love
  • Origins of love
  • Mechanism of love
  • Nature of vulnerability
  • Selfless love

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Episode transcript

For example, with how my Beloved sings to me-
in the chirps of mourning doves and squalling cardinals,
or in the whisper of damp white pines and fragrant scarlet oaks-
that she is here when my eyes are open for her.
For example, with how my riders rejoice with me-
in what could be the last dance in the absurd,
or what could be the final toast to the living-
that our unacclaimed joy merits no purpose.
And so I weep and dance to the beat of the tranquil sublime,
mad and ecstatic, inebriated in the love of my Beloved.

So I wrote this poem last month when I was going through the pictures from a recent bike trip I went on with my friends Alan and Aayush along the GAP trail from Pittsburgh to DC.  I was naturally moved by the beautiful fall foliage, but more than that the warm embrace of something ineffable, something that is everly present and usually overlooked. But it was just impossible to overlook in that context, and this ineffable something is what I label as “Beloved” in the poem, and it’s a word I borrowed from the great Persian poet Rumi.

Hello, this is Sashank, and I’m Alan, and you’re listening to the Open Secret Podcast, brought to you by Psyche Labs Studios.

So what  do we have on the menu today, Alan?

So today we’re gonna be talking about love. We’re gonna first define what is commonly meant by love; we’ll go into different types of love; we’ll discuss the origins of love and why we do it; then we’ll go on to speak a bit about the mechanism of love; we’ll discuss the nature of vulnerability and distinguish different ways of responding to it, and lastly we’ll discuss the nature of God’s love and compassion.

That’s a very exciting menu. And I think if we could just cover what you outlined there, we’d have touched on, some of the most important questions in the realm of love. But before we go on, I think we should disclaim this episode by letting our listeners know that the term “love”, as most of us know, is, referred to a very complex and wide range of conditions, and although our discussion will hopefully coincide with something valuable in that range, we’ll by no means be able to offer a comprehensive and analytical account of different shades of love.

Yeah, quite so, Sashank. That’s a great disclaimer. So let’s get into it. So I have here a preliminary definition of love based on my experience. I think love is acceptance of the inherent nature of the Other (whether it be another person, thing). I think it is most ideally manifest in a selfless manner, and requires a great deal of attention to one’s moment-to-moment experience.

I like that definition, Alan. Does that definition account for, say, my love for sushi or my love for an activity like biking, because in colloquial usage, we use the word love in different 

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think the question is suggestive of the fact that we usually think there is a sort of taxonomy of love. So I think it would serve us well to go into those common categories of love right now. What do you think?

Yeah, categories of love sounds great. And I think it is helpful if we demarcate for ourselves the conceptual territory we want to delve into. I’m quite fond of how the Greeks categorized love, and depending on how you see it, there are probably about six or eight different types of love, and I’ll try to enumerate them here. So first you have “eros” or sexual passion. This is your fiery, irrational, passion-filled love, and for a lot of us, that’s what we think when we say love. Then you have “philia”, or deep-friendship, and this is characterized by loyalty, sacrifice, and comradery. Then you have “storage”, and this is your familiar love. It’s the kind of love that you see between parents and children, or siblings, or any kinds of kinship, like patriotism. Then you have “ludus” – this is your playful love, and this encompasses things like flirting, teasing, dancing with strangers on a dance floor, or playful affection between children or even casual lovers. Then you have “agape”, this is selfless love. You could also call it compassion, and it appears in religion under different names; for example, “Love thy neighbor” in Christianity, or “metta” in Theravada Buddhism. Then you have “pragma”, so this is your longstanding love, mature, realistic love between long established couples. Then you have “philautia”, or self-love, and I guess you could subcategorize this into narcissistic obsessive self-love on the one hand, and the other kind of self-love which is marked by self-love and confidence.

I like those categories. I like the way the Greeks did it. I think it is important to remember that these are not mutually exclusive categories. So for instance, you could have “eros” with a romantic partner, and at the same time practice some sort of “agape” where you de-identify from the self and really show selfless love to the Other.

In addition, you’d also want to seek love from diverse sources, and that’s what the Greeks would say. For example, don’t just seek “eros”, cultivate “philia” by spending quality time with your friends, or treat yourself with some “ludus” by dancing the night away, or sending a cute monkey emoji to your crush.

Hmm, yeah, I think it’s good to be reminded to keep a balance of these different types of love. But I think a question that is in the common conscience about whether these types of love are ordered in any way — so whether there is a hierarchy, with for instance “agape” being the highest and ideal form of love. What do you think about that?

I don’t know if hierarchy is the best way to structure categories of love. I’d argue that upon careful analysis, we’ll find out that all these forms of love, at least the forms that we take seriously in modern parlance, I think they arise from the same source – some sort of shifting the locus of attention from self to the other. 

Yeah, I think what you’re speaking about however is the mechanism of love, which you called “shifting the locus of attention from self to the other,” and so the types of love you mentioned earlier can all be manifest by this same mechanism. So in other words, if the love expressed comes as a consequence of this mechanism, that is love, no matter the type of love that it could be categorized as, this mechanism is the key point.

Yes, and by agreeing with you Alan, I’m essentially taking a stance that love has to consist in shifting attention towards the other, or in other words, any dynamic or relationship which doesn’t involve that mechanism is simply not love.

That’s a bold claim which I totally agree with. So what would you say about the case in which a lover “loves” a beloved because they fill some void in their own conception of themselves — so they make up for the vulnerabilities present in the lover’s psyche? Surely, that’s love as well, no? I mean that seems like a pretty common phenomenon which one would label as “love.”

Surely there are multiple responses to vulnerabilities, one being validation, and the other being some sort of psychological visibility.

The American poet David Whyte has a term “robust vulnerability” which I think is quite apt. He says that robust vulnerability is when we want to be seen as we are in our totality. So this is when love begets psychological visibility, as you said, and we feel accepted as we are.

Oh I love David Whyte! And you’re right Alan, we want to be seen for who we are, and just we do not want others to create consoling fantasies out of us that are just out of touch with reality. 

So to stress the distinction… Validation is when there’s a consoling fantasy being created, and visibility is simply when we are seen as we are.

Yeah, it seems that needing validation is somehow an expression of our low self-esteem. We are frightened of visibility, and yet we crave it in the depths of our heart. But by seeking validation alone, we leave space for those consoling fantasies or images in the eyes of our lover. So there is a sense in which a certain amount of self-esteem is required for a robust love.

Yeah, hence the “robust vulnerability” term earlier. It seems visibility is certainly a necessary condition for love.

Hmm. I’m reminded of Nathaniel Branden, and he’s somebody we both quite admire and have read, so he has this concept he calls “the principle of psychological visibility” and this is from his book “The Psychology of Romantic Love”, and he says, and I quote him now, “When we encounter a person who thinks as we do, who notices what we notice, who values the things we value, who tends to respond to different situations as we do, not only do we experience a strong sense of affinity with such a person but also we can experience our self through our perception of that person.”

I like that description of what the resonant feelings of love are like, but it seems like there is a nuance there between just having these resonant experiences that Branden describes (where we share thoughts, values, responses with the other) on one hand, and then after-the-fact rationalizing the experience on the other hand. My worry here is that we are oftentimes liable to needing to describe our love in order to convince ourselves of it.

Good point. 

Alright so now let’s discuss the nature of love. What does love consist of? It’s not really just a feeling, reasons, attachment or any of these things alone. What is it composed of? Is it a combination of feeling and reasons, without attachment? Is it just affection, just a feeling of affection alone? What is the nature of love?

That’s a good question, Alan. Like we said earlier, the scope is so big that there’s no one size fits all answer here, but one explanation that particularly resonates with me, at least in the domain of personal love, is thinking of love as a union. So what does it mean to think of love as a union? To me, it means giving up some individual identity in order to construct and live a shared identity. In romantic relationships, it can manifest in different ways. Sex, for example, is one expression of this union, which is at once love of self, love of the beloved, and love of being alive, integrated all at once into one intense conscious experience. There is also psychological union, which I guess results from the will of the lovers to be radically visible to each other.

I like it, although I wonder if framing love as a union poses any risks for personal autonomy. I think it is a serious problem in practical relationships because each party may want to maintain his or her own interests/values. The relationship may become completely devoid of anything but shared interests and this may not be so healthy. I think we typically believe that some sort of distance is necessary.

Quite so, Alan. We see this tug of war between union and autonomy all the time in all kinds of relationships, but specifically in romantic relationships, right? And what’s interesting is that for some lovers, it might be an acceptable, or even a desirable consequence…oftentimes it is in this paradoxical to-and-fro that people see love. 

Yes, definitely very paradoxical that we seek union with our partner, but at the same time some quotient of independence.

Hmm, I want to segue into another aspect of love, which is selectivity, or choice. Love in a sense means so much to us because it has an element of selectivity to it. So in short, we’re trying to answer, what heuristics, conscious or unconscious, do we use when selecting who we love? When we colloquially talk about falling in love, it’s the lover responding to the beloved’s beauty or goodness, or some other attributes, but beyond that, the real selection involves in us seeking to confirm whether the beloved’s sense of life is somehow congruent with ours so that we get to co-expand each other’s consciousness and co-create even more excitement of living. So what is the sense of life that I’m talking about here? I quote Nathaniel Branden here again, and according to him, our sense of life is what reflects the subconsciously held sum total of our broadest and deepest attitudes and conclusions concerning the world, life, and ourselves. And of course there is also a healthy space for differences, but differences that are mutually enriching. 

I might add here Sashank that in love we not only respond to valuable attributes of our beloved such as beauty and goodness like you said but also develop a sort of depth through progressive acts of seeing and sort of devoted appreciation of these attributes.

So Alan, so far we’ve been focused on a more personal flavor of love, or the kind of love which involves a substantial reaction to the attributes of the Beloved, a selective love with some notion of exclusive depth to it, right? What about the kind of love that is not based on any attributes of the beloved, kind of like our conceptualization of God’s love? If we could allow ourselves a hierarchy of love, would that kind of selfless love be at the top?

I would say so Sashank. The kind of selfless love typically associated with God is non-exclusive, an all-encompassing compassion.

That reminds me of what St Augustine said in his Confessions about God, and I quote him – “You owe us nothing, yet you pay your debts; you write off our debts to you, yet you lose nothing thereby”. In this sense Alan, compassion or selfless love is born from an attitude that we’re born fundamentally full rather than us having to strive to become full. Each present moment is full and perfect in itself, and its in realizing this that we take a direction towards radical God-like compassion.

Yeah, totally resonant. That reminds me of a description of happiness actually according to Rupert Spira, he’s a Western teacher of the philosophy of non-duality. He says that happiness is an absence of a sense of lack. I just like that. Well Sashank, it looks like we’ve covered most of what we planned to talk about. In the spirit of our last points on God-like compassion, let’s leave our listeners with a poem by the great Persian poet Rumi. What do you think?

Yeah, I love Rumi, why not? No one says it better than him.

Cool. So here it is:

Love is reckless; not reason.
Reason seeks a profit. 
Love comes on strong,
consuming herself, unabashed.
Yet, in the midst of suffering,
Love proceeds like a millstone,
hard surfaced and straightforward.
Having died of self-interest,
she risks everything and asks for nothing.
Love gambles away every gift God bestows.
Without cause God gave us Being;
without cause, give it back again.

Thank you all for listening to this episode, and I hope you all had a beautiful Christmas.

Until next time.