The Wisdom of Love: Toward a Shared Inner Search
By Jacob Needleman
Publisher: Morning Light Press: 2005.
In The Wisdom of Love, philosopher Jacob Needleman studies the teachings of the world’s spiritual traditions to see what they can tell us about divine love and about love as it manifests between people. Although the human relationship he focuses on is marriage, his observations are meaningful for anyone who wants to cultivate a loving approach to all human relationships while striving toward spiritual growth.
Crossing all boundaries of religion, culture, and time, he finds that certain universal spiritual teachings have been handed down through the ages. These he calls by the simple name “wisdom”. Needleman says, “Wisdom teaches that what we erroneously seek from the ‘world’ is to be found only through the process that opens us to another level of life within ourselves. It is that life, we are told, that can give us what we mistakenly seek outside ourselves.”
While different spiritual traditions express their wisdom teachings differently, Needleman claims that all agree that a universal force of love and consciousness is at the foundation of the universe. “Love brings opposites together – that is its very definition. In the universe, in nature and between two people and within ourselves, love is the force that brings disparate and separate realities towards each other into fusion and mutuality.” He says that the fundamental and genuine obligation of every human being is to:
place oneself at the service of the universal forces of love and consciousness both within the self and at the foundation of the universe…. It is not oversimplifying to characterize all the spiritual traditions as saying that all human misery results from ignorance of or resistance to this intrinsic obligation, and that all authentic human happiness and well-being, as well as all authentic moral action, result from opening to the higher forces within and above the individual self.
This innate obligation forces human beings to struggle and search for meaning.
Very little of what we already are and already have brings us deeper meaning or happiness. We are born for meaning, not pleasure.… And we are born as well for suffering, not the suffering that leads to madness but the suffering that leads to joy: the struggle with ourselves and our illusions. We are born to overcome ourselves, and through that overcoming to find an inner condition of great harmony and being. We are born for that – we are not yet that. We are searchers; that is the essence of our present humanness.
What, then, does all this tell us about love as it manifests in human relationships? In human relationships, Needleman explains, love gets mixed with self-interest, passion, and possessive attachment. The condition of “being in love” is notorious for its instability and short-lived obsessive passion. But that condition also has great significance in offering “a taste and a promise of a more profound quality of conscious life.”
If lovers themselves tend to overestimate the purity and durability of this taste, then the modern “realistic” view of love, which is aware of all that is mixed in with romantic love, tends to underestimate the contact with higher human possibilities that being in love gives to almost everyone at least once in his or her lifetime.
Needleman says that “what we touch in love is like a sign, evidence that we are meant for quite another destiny than what the world around us can give.” Yet, being merely a taste or sign, this condition is short-lived. We quickly reach what Needleman calls a crossroads where we either start to dislike the one we once loved or long to go back to the beginning again, to relive the romance. But, Needleman argues, there is a third alternative, which he calls “intentional love”.
Intentional love is not the “automatic love” that just happens to us when we fall in love. Rather, we work at it. Needleman discusses at length “the long work of love.” Drawing on many diverse sources, ranging from the bhakti tradition in Hinduism to mystical poets and writers like Rumi, Rilke, Ouspensky and Kierkegaard, Needleman describes “working at love” as a path toward realizing the highest human potentials while dealing with the realities of day-to-day life. When we are “working at love” we are always working to free ourselves “from attachment to the illusions of ‘life’, while at the same time helping each other to answer to the normal needs of the embodied self.” When working at love in this sense, two people can “help each other remember what is primary and what is secondary in their lives, that is, in all human life in its essential structure.”
Buddhist teachings on compassion offer a clear foundation for working at love. In Buddhism one is taught to “regard all human beings as individuals striving for enlightenment” and to “treat others primarily as yearning, consciously or not, toward the inner freedom of nirvana, and to regard the suffering of all beings as due primarily to their deep ignorance of the nature of the self.” This approach to human relationships finds a parallel in the concept of caritas (charity) as discussed by Saint Augustine. “Caritas is the love that desires God, a love which, when directed to another human being, desires God for one’s neighbour.” With this approach to love, two people can “help each other become free of the reactions of life that they inevitably evoke in each other. A relationship is like a little world and can be like a tiny fragment of a ‘spiritual community’ within that world.”
Needleman calls this intentional love the “intermediate love”. It is intermediate because it is a step beyond the self-centred love that rides on a wave of emotion and passion, but it is not yet “the pure, impersonal love spoken of in the spiritual traditions of the world as God’s love for man, or as the love that emanates from the embodiment of God – the Christian saviour, the Hebraic prophet or zaddik, the Sufi sheikh, the Hindu guru, the Buddhist bodhisattva.” Intermediate love means working toward the ideal “in the midst of our actual lives.”
According to Needleman, the wisdom traditions of the world agree that “Love for the other is at root derivative, or, to be precise, a result of love for the holy God within and above.” He says the foundation of ethical living, in fact, rests on this point: “that we cannot truly love another without loving, or seeking to love, that force or Being that creates us.” Love and devotion for the divine entails the “surrender of one’s multiple personal desires to the single will of the divine. But such conscious surrender cannot take place without a long and difficult struggle against the ego’s tendencies toward either sentimentality, anxiety, sensory distractions, or cold, arrogant logic.” However, as Needleman points out, this is “the struggle that will make us human.”
In the original Greek text of the Bible, the word translated into English as love is agape (spiritual love) as opposed to eros (passionate love). Needleman explores the subtle meanings of agape.
The chief element of agape that distinguishes it from ordinary human love is that it is not automatic. Agape is nothing if not intentional. It is a love that can be commanded… At the same time, it is not something we can will in our usual psychological state. So, the mystery is there; at its deepest reaches, agape is not subject to our will in any way. Yet, it is commanded of us.
In order to obey this command to love, “a man or woman must be able -not directly to love, but to open him – or herself to the transcendent power that draws all conscious beings towards each other through drawing them toward the fundamental source of the universe itself.” The power of agape, Needleman says, is a gift, but it “is not given outright. It must be worked for, struggled for. This struggle is another name for what we call the search for meaning.” Ultimately, agape in its highest development is divine; it is loving as God loves.
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