A useful way to think about erotic love is to categorize it into three levels. What are they? What can be done to attain the highest level of erotic love?
The lowest and first level is by far the most common. It may have been the level W. H. Auden mentioned: “Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of goods.”
Nearly all sex affairs are efforts to use another person to improve our own condition. They nearly always involve emotional addiction as well as lust, which is why they are commonly thought of as pits to be fallen into.
If (at least) one partner in an erotic love sex affair is emotionally dependent upon the other, it cannot be a genuine love affair. Contrary to what many think, emotions are always self-centered (as I argue in my book HOW TO SURVIVE COLLEGE EMOTIONALLY). Since love is other-centered, emotions and love are antithetical. Emotions poison love. It is impossible to be selfless and emotional.
Emotional maturity increases as egocentricity decreases. To love is to give selflessly, which is why sages or saints, who are the most selfless people, are the most loving people. To love is to promote what is good for your beloved; it is not to use your beloved to promote your good. Loving is not taking, using, or exploiting. Loving is a selfless activity, not an egocentric feeling or set of feelings.
It’s better to think of “(to) love” as a verb rather than as a noun.
So the extent to which you are not emotionally independent is the extent to which you are incapable of love. The degree to which you are not fully in control of and responsible for your emotions is the degree to which you are unable to love.
Since most people have never worked on themselves enough to decrease their egocentricity significantly, most people are incapable creating an encounter that rises above the lowest level of erotic “love.” When at least one partner is egocentric, a sex affair cannot rise above this lowest level. This explains why almost all sex affairs occur at this lowest level.
Whether or not they are worth the bother of creating and sustaining them, the real problem with utility sex affairs is that they are unsatisfactory in the sense that they are devoid of love. Since, as Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them,” solving their central problem requires attaining the next level.
Since it requires emotional independence, the second level marks a profound shift. To understand why, think of emotional independence as emotional success.
Few have paid the price for emotional success. Brian Tracy: “The ability to discipline yourself to delay gratification in the short term in order to enjoy greater rewards in the long term is the indispensable prerequisite for success.” Success always requires doing the work before getting paid. Zen master Muso: “Those who want to get paid before they do any work, so to speak, who demand assurance of success before they make any effort, will never get anywhere, either in Buddhism or in ordinary endeavors.”
Nevertheless, there are some emotionally independent people who hook up. Instead of living as if it is someone else’s task to take care of them emotionally, they have accepted full responsibility for the emotional quality of their lives and worked hard to make themselves emotionally self-reliant (by using a meditative practice to reduce their egocentricity).
So the second level of erotic love is coming together for mutual gain. The ideal is one of equality: I promote what is best for you and you promote what is best for me. Neither of us is dependent upon the other. Though conditioned, the giving and receiving is satisfying. The partners remain different and separate, but they are both better off conjoined and living together.
The danger in second-level encounters is that they may fall out of balance. They can be excellent bargains, but, frankly, trading is no more genuine loving than using is. Loving has nothing to do with keeping score. Their conditioned nature appears whenever one partner gives or receives so much less or more than the other that unfairness surfaces. As soon as I am receiving much less value than I am giving, my impulse will be either to restore the balance or end the encounter.
The third level of erotic love requires both partners to abandon egocentricity. Though it is simple, it is not easy to let go of our self-concepts.
However, it is possible since, contrary to popular belief, we are not separate, continuant selves beneath our incessantly changing qualities. We are selves, but those selves are nothing beyond a cobbling together of transient parts. The third level requires identifying with the other as (part of) my self; it requires including the other as (part of) my self.
As with “love,” it helps to think of “self” as a verb rather than as a noun.
This identification or inclusion permits unconditioned giving and unconditioned receiving. It is the unconditioned nature of the giving and receiving that marks this as a genuine love.
Love requires incessant effort. As Zen master Dogen wrote, “Continuous exertion is not something ordinary people are fond of, but nevertheless it is the true refuge for everyone.” It’s not just that most people are not fond of it, it’s also that most people are incapable of it.
What should you do if you wish to experience the third level of erotic love for yourself? Since there’s no way to guarantee that experience of erotic love, I recommend letting that dream go.
However, what you can control is becoming capable of experiencing it should the opportunity ever arise. Remaining open to it and becoming capable of it are possible and valuable.
How? How are they possible? There’s only one way: by mastering an effective meditative practice.