Lata Mani in conversation with Arvind Narrain
Love as the Discovery of Self through Relationality. Part two of a conversation on love, August 10, 2014. Read the preamble, here.
Arvind: It is really powerful, the key idea you put forth…love as the discovery of self through relationality. It’s a marvelous way of putting it. I guess relationality comes with its joys, sorrows, difficulties, a range of things but it also enables a process of self-discovery; it opens out the self. The three…aspects to love…how did you put it?
Lata: Love as idea, emotion and physical sensation.
Arvind: When all three come together it’s a power you feel, you can’t stop it.
Lata: Yes… you cannot have the coercive notion of love as yoked to duty or obligation with this triadic notion of love. After all parents chasing out their children or framing false charges of rape against their partners of choice are clinging to an idea of love which has nothing to do with that triadic experience for the people involved or indeed even for themselves. They are cutting off the fullness of their own feelings in pushing an idea of parental love that says, “I take care of you in this way.” “You do as I say.”
Arvind: In a sense you look at love not as law but as principles. We may find it easier to understand love as law, as that which is laid down as strictures, what one should do and what one should not do. But what you are saying is that underlying the law (often a perverted form of what it should be) are these principles, idea, emotion and physical sensation and these also link up to the idea of relationality.
Lata: There is an internal relationality in your experience of love as process. And it’s a process that integrally and crucially involves mind, body and heart, idea, feeling and sensation. And there is also relationality in terms of yourself as a node in a web and your relation to others, many, many others; because we are not just talking about love between two people but love as a principle. And love as a principle is also love as a process and love as a process does not present ready-made conclusions. It is love as a process of discovery, of learning as well as unlearning.
Arvind: It reminds me of the ideas of love present in the Symposium. Of Aristophenes’ idea of love between two people as love of a person who completes you. Or Alcibiades’ idea that the other person helps improve you, which is one step above. As he understands it Socrates is someone who helps him discover himself, makes become a better person.
But Socrates takes it further. He says initially you are in love with the idea of beauty of one person and you realize that beauty is perishable. Then you move on to the idea of beauty itself. Then you realize that beauty itself is not an ideal worth having. And then you move on to the idea of truth. And he stops there. It’s a dynamic notion. I see some kind of parallel with your idea of love as a process. It takes it out of this framework in which are all imprisoned, the idea of two people completely with each other and story over.
Lata: It also helps you to recast all the other kinds of love. If love is discovering the truth of relationality, it can become a prism through which to understand many things, to reimagine parenting for example. At first blush you might think that if love requires us to be open, vulnerable and unknowing, how would that make sense in terms of parenting? And yet it does. The parent has to be open to learning who the child is in order to know how best to enable its full potential to emerge. That requires a certain vulnerability, a certain openness to revising preconceived notions and trusting in unknowing. Quite often, coercive, parenting comes from not holding a child as someone who could be a teacher for you in terms of your assumptions. We can learn from absolutely everything with this orientation. People often feel that love is some abstraction that you can uphold. But you cannot love if you are not a lover, if it’s not an active relationship.
Arvind: Relationality is such a powerful and rich description. You are talking of an awareness of the other person, sensitivity to the fact that the other person may be feeling, thinking, being in a certain way. This is not always the case. We do not always see people as people. We see them within fixed social roles and categories. And the way you’ve described relationality it’s not just about relating to the other person but it is about how.
Lata: And it’s about both you and the other person. As a word it speaks not just about the other person but about your relationship. You are mutually constituted in every interaction, reconstituted in every interaction, especially if you are open to allowing yourself to be changed. It is in the space of intimacy that one is most likely to find oneself willing to be open to unknowing. But it’s an orientation that needs to be released from that space and thrown open to all of life experience. Otherwise learning from life will be much more difficult. How can we be remade? How can we be given pause if we don’t deeply embrace mystery and not-knowing, don’t allow ourselves some suspension of belief?
Arvind: So the space of intimacy is what makes available vulnerability which is also integral to the idea of love as you put it. What is it about intimacy which allows one to be vulnerable?
Lata: Intimacy today is closely associated with the sexual, with the primary relationship. I don’t know if we would use the word intimacy to speak about our relationship with family, although there is a form of intimacy one has with siblings and family members, an at-ease-ness, an at-home-ness, assuming that it is not a conflictual relationship.
But in terms of discovering yourself and confronting your own vulnerability, we often come face to face with that in our adult intimate relationships. Because in the forging of intimacy in adulthood you are negotiating your entire past, you are inhabiting a new present and you are always imagining the future. All three come together. It is not that the birth family only represents the past. But as you get to know your partner and as you become physically and in other ways intimate you are confronting yourself and your past-present-future in a way that is very particular.
You can have that same richness of intimacy in coming to God. Mystics often talk about their journey to God in ways that are remarkably erotic. Because what is Eros if not the fusing of body, mind and heart in a single pointed attentiveness to some process that is transforming you? It’s a different kind of erotic relationship to be sure but mystics use language that seems congruent with the kinds of intimacy we have just been talking about. This is why Rumi is read a lot by lovers in the romantic sense of that term. When he talks about the Beloved it is possible for the secular romantic to imagine the Beloved as his or her beloved. Rumi is talking about a very different kind of relationship. These two languages are constantly borrowing from each other because there is much shared space. The experiences overlap.
Arvind: In the CREA lecture you reference the idea of ecstasy. How does the notion of ecstasy relate to the idea of love? Where does ecstasy come from? What is ecstasy?
Lata: Ecstasy is the concentrated intensity of a complete openness. Ecstasy is that which is released and experienced when you are feeling completely open and one with the current of love. It is possible to experience that when you are in a physical relationship with another human. It is possible to experience that in the heightened intensity of a solitude which is asexual. And it is possible to experience that in the erotic dimensions of a journey to the Divine. All three. People also experience ecstatic bliss through mind-altering drugs and other experiences of expansiveness they can’t quite account for. It is something that opens and transforms.
One must think about these things on a continuum and in relation to each other partly because just as forms of love have been hierarchized, so too forms of Eros. Love for God is seen to be of an intrinsically higher order than love of humans. The reverse is also true; secularists will say that love for humans is the highest form of love you can have. “Love for God? God is just an idea!” But if you have had an experience of God that has cured you of the false idea that there is something about being human that is a fall from grace, then you cannot think that to be human is to not be divine. Now it is true that to be human is to not be the Divine; it is to have a spark of the divine in the Hindu way of putting it. But it is not true that love for God is of a higher order than love for humans. If you believe that the entire universe has been manifested by the Divine then it would seem odd to hierarchize forms of love.
Arvind Narrain is a founder of the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore and a prominent human rights lawyer and activist, more here.
To be continued in next post on Romantic Love, Lust & Relationality