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The Gerson Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine

Valentine's Day Reveries: Romantic Love vs. Conscious Love

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One of my patients recently asked me what Ayurveda has to say about love. It made me recall an impromptu talk given at an ashram where I was staying many years ago near Hardiwar, in northern India. The essay below is my recollection of the concepts and ideas expressed that day—sprinkled with some of my own thoughts on the subject. I offer this to you with one caveat: I’m almost certain that no one fully comprehends the mystery of love.

If, like me, you have grown up in the Western culture you’ve no doubt been shaped from the time you were born with ideas and images about love. In my own case, this was fostered by the music of the 1960’s whose overarching theme was love. Of the 275 songs written by The Beatles, 230 have “love” in the title or lyrics. We even experienced the “Summer of Love” in 1967. However, much if not all, of these images about love were describing the form of love we might call Emotional Love or perhaps Romantic Love. This is very different from Conscious Love, which I will describe in a moment. Romantic Love is not conscious love nor is it real love. We’ve all experienced romantic (emotional) love, most of us initially when we were teenagers. In plain English, emotional love is simply infatuation. It’s a state of being consumed by a strongly libido driven feeling of passion for someone. Although it can happen at any age, its especially prevalent in the first, youthful explorations of the world of human relationships. Romantic love can (rarely) be the first step to a mature intimacy and conscious love. But almost always emotional love creates a seemingly real but ultimately false “erotic reality”. The lover projects all his ideals onto the personality of his beloved.

Its that projection that distinguishes Romantic Love (infatuation) from Real Love (Conscious Love). In Romantic love, the beloved is a passive victim of libidinous attraction being projected onto the partner. In Conscious love, there is an active knowledge and appreciation of the intrinsic unique nature of the beloved—regardless of the consequences to the lover.

Conscious love is rare among humans but, curiously is more commonly found these days in relationships between Man and the vegetable and animal kingdoms. Yes that’s right. Some of us develop a true love for the plants and flowers that we cultivate in our gardens or for our dogs and horses, which are a primitive form of conscious love. The sign of conscious love is that you have a singular wish that the other person (or pet or plant) should achieve her own unique perfection—even if they are not involved romantically with you.

So as you can see, Conscious Love does not occur by chance, accident or luck. It is the result of effort, resolve, and self-conscious choice. It requires that the lover perfect himself so that one day he might attain the self-knowledge and inner strength to aid with the perfection of his beloved. In the Vedic tradition, children are encouraged to grow flowers and cultivate reverence and care for animals. For if you cannot cultivate a flower or treat a cow or dog properly, how could one learn to cultivate the fragile, latent perfection of his beloved? Of the many qualities necessary, humility, patience, and tolerance are paramount.

In conscious love, if you are not sure or cannot provide what is proper for her perfection, do not block her from following her own instincts. In the meantime, take her within your heart and reflect—what is her nature, what she may become, what her soul craves, what she needs. Anticipate today her needs of tomorrow—and do this without a thought of how satisfying her needs impact you. Unlike emotional love, Conscious love requires self-knowledge and self-discipline. Those of you who are following a yogic lifestyle may therefore be unintentionally and unwittingly preparing yourselves for this highest form of love. Enter this enchanted forest, if you dare. Although emotional love can be demonic, conscious love can be a path to divinity. The gods love each other consciously; conscious lovers become gods and goddesses.

In our modern world where terms like “hook-ups” have entered the vernacular, casual sex has become prevalent, and the use of sexual imagery in marketing and even some forms of pornography have become almost mainstream, we have forgotten and lost the magic of continence. Conscious love practices include the most intense and satisfying sexually enjoyable experiences known to human beings and one of the keys to achieving this experience is continence.

You might consider yourself continent because you are refraining from physical sexual relations. But continence must be of the senses as well as the genitals. From each of the senses there pours out into the world continual rivers of energy. And just as we can expend ourselves through physical exertions, it is an absolute certainty that we can (and do) exhaust ourselves mentally, emotionally, or sexually through any or all of our senses—especially the eyes. To look at a woman (or man) with lust is much, much more than to simply look. When one looks, or hears, or speaks, or smells, or touches with lust a fine form of pranic energy--which is our sexual energy--is expended. And while it is often partially recoverable, its only with time and effort that it is replenished. The ancient Ayurvedic physicians realized that it is quite possible to become completely impotent through the senses alone, while remaining continent and celibate in the ordinary sense of the word. It is no wonder that amongst the eight original subspecialties of Ayurveda we find Vajikarana (Treatment of Sexual Weakness) to be highlighted.

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In Ayurveda we understand that control of the senses develops naturally in only a very few people; for the rest of us it must be acquired. Amidst the greatest and most enlightened civilization human history has ever known, the Vedic civilization, continence of the senses was taught from an early age. Each sense was carefully trained to enable students to discriminate between different energies generated from the five senses intellectually, emotionally, instinctively, or erotically. From this training, these young tantrics and yogis acquired the power of controlling and directing their senses in powerful ways. Eroticism in Tantric circles became an art form of the most conscious and divine way the world has known. Only its faint traces remain today in the remnants of South Indian art and literature.

Conscious love acknowledges that the beloved is an imperfect being on his or her own path to perfection. Love is a choice we make to help that being along the way. Conscious love is an action, not a feeling. It the act of giving without concern for what is received. Conscious love always evokes the same attitude in the beloved. Conscious love begets conscious love. It is unaffected by social status, race, age, or circumstances. I recall this talk ending with a peculiar admonition which went something like this (paraphrasing): “Until you acquire the wisdom equal to your love, be ashamed to declare that you are in love. Or if you simply cannot conceal it from your beloved, at least love humbly and hope to someday become wise and strong and worthy of love.”

Scott Gerson