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5 Experts in Science and Spirituality Answer Our Questions About Love

What is love? How do you find it and make it last? Top experts of varying backgrounds share their perspectives on these and other burning questions.

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One day a year, America puts “love” in the hot seat. For that brief moment, it’s all people can talk about—whether they want it, have it, or are somewhere in between. This Valentine’s Day, open your mind to new thoughts on this topic from folks who, by trade, study this intense feeling 365 days of the year. In this roundtable discussion with five experts of varying backgrounds—ranging from mindfulness and spirituality to anthropology and psychology—we’ve curated answers to your burning questions about romantic love. Each master in their respective field offers a unique perspective and invaluable insight that may help bring you closer to experiencing more of this wonderfully complex, deep, and enriching emotion in life. Despite their differing approaches to love, their overall message is similar and, we’re happy to report, very hopeful.

PANEL OF EXPERTS

*Lodro Rinzler: Sonima columnist, a teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, author of five books on meditation, including How to Love Yourself (and Sometimes Other People), and founder of MNDFL, a New York City-based meditation studio.

*Sri Dharma Mittra: Legendary yoga teacher, founder of the Dharma Yoga New York Center, model and creator of the famous “Master Yoga Chart of 908 Postures,” and author of Asanas: 608 Yoga Poses.

*Helen Fisher, Ph.D.: Anthropologist, Match.com chief scientific adviser, and author of six books, including Anatomy of Love, the newly released, completely revised and updated version of her contemporary classic first published in 1992.

*Avrum Nadigel: Toronto-based relationship therapist and author of Learning to Commit: The Best Time To Work On Your Marriage Is When You’re Single.

*Aliza Israel, M.D.: Psychiatrist and co-author with husband Nadigel of the new book Learning to Commit (The Workbook): Becoming Your Best Self to Find Your Best Match, due out this fall.

Q1: What do you believe may be people’s biggest hindrance in finding true love today?

Rinzler: The biggest hindrance I’ve seen over the 15 years since I’ve been teaching meditation is that often people try to find happiness in external factors as opposed to looking for contentment within. If you make external factors—like people, gadgets, jobs—the source of your happiness, you’re bound to be disappointed. People change, move away, or die. Gadgets break down. Jobs shift and change in sometimes stressful ways. Instead of relying on those things to make us happy, we can train to be happy and in love with the present moment, regardless or whether we find it pleasurable or painful. To be more direct, if you do not love yourself, you have no well to draw from in terms of offering love to others. Through learning to love yourself more fully, you may find it easier to connect with other people from a place of love and joy.


Related: How to Recognize the Beauty of Being Broken


Mittra: Same attracts same. First, improve your own good qualities. As Lord Buddha says in The Dhammapada: “First do a more difficult thing and straighten yourself.” Then you may attract someone just like you. When this happens, let all your goodness shine onto your loved one and be loyal to them. If the loved one does not shine, and also if the one who loves is not healthy and has some problems (disturbances), love cannot manifest in full. The qualities of the object of love and the one who loves determine the specific type of love, but, deep inside, love is always fully expressed.

Fisher: There’s no reason to not find love in our modern world. We’re are not marrying that person we met in high school or college. We’re having a very long period in our 20’s where we are getting to know ourselves and trying out a lot of people with intent to marry around age 26 for women and age 27 for men. Many people are back on the market, looking again, in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. If your mother can’t introduce you to somebody or you’ve gone through all the people that your friends and coworkers have suggested, you have Internet dating services, which are very successful. These days, over 30 percent of singles met their last first date online. Twenty percent of people who married in the last three years met somebody on the Internet. There’s a host of different dating sites for everyone. These are not, in fact, dating sites, however. They are introducing sites. You’ve got to do the dating yourself. You’ve got to get out there, meet people, and use your own brain—the finest algorithm that you’ve got—to decide who you want. The opportunities are there.

Nadigel and Israel: Often what gets in the way is our over-reliance on feelings to guide our decision-making in intimacy, love, and sex. In previous generations, feelings were secondary to the realities of the day. People committed to intimate relationships because they wanted to have children, ensure security (financial, physical, etc.) or uphold traditional values. I (Avrum) once asked a survivor of the Holocaust, a man in his 90s, “How did you pick your wife to marry? Did you love her?” He scoffed and said, “What does love have to do with it? We were the only survivors from our little village, so we decided to marry each other”. They were married 70 years.

Today, with fewer external reasons to stay together, we use our feelings to guide our choices, which often creates chaos. This is because feelings are transient: They come and go. If you leave as soon as feelings wane, you’ll never be around to experience the deepening, meaningful, challenging love that is yet to come. Ironically, fear of commitment is one classic reason why feelings change in a dating relationship. We mistake this anxiety for a signal that we’ve picked the wrong partner. And thanks to the Internet, with thousands of potential mates at our fingertips, it’s all too easy to throw one fish back and try for another, never getting beyond the cycle of infatuation and letdown.

Q2: What is the most important thing we all need to keep in mind as we search for a relationship with our dream partner?

Rinzler: Dream partner? Who is this dream partner? Does he or she always wash the dishes and never leaves clothes on the ground and only says pleasing things to us? I don’t know if that person exists. But if we do meet someone and we fall in love with them, it’s important to remember that they are constantly changing and evolving. The truth of impermanence is a real thing. You know that you are constantly changing every day. You are not the same person you were two years ago, much less 10 years ago. Why should your romantic partner be any different? Their whole body of knowledge and experience is shifting day by day. So it is important that we remain curious about who this person we’re sharing our life with is on a given day. Curiosity is a form of compassion. By becoming genuinely inquisitive about our partner, we engage them every day in a fresh and unique way.

Mittra: Intention is of great importance. Is the action we are taking out of passion? Or is our greater purpose to raise a family and have children? Or are we just looking to kill loneliness or better cope with life? If it’s just for passion, for sex, surely the relationship will end when the passion goes. In certain circumstances, it’s necessary to have a partner to prevent loneliness and suffering. This love can last indefinitely if the ethical laws are observed (see answer #4 below for more on this). However, when the self is finally realized, we don’t need a partner anymore.

Fisher: When you first meet somebody, you may overweigh those few things that you know about them and you’re more likely not to give them a chance. Think of reasons to say, “Yes.” The more you get to know somebody, the more you like them, and the more you think that they are like you. If you stay online and keep meeting, meeting, meeting people, the more people you meet, the less likely you are to find love. It’s called cognitive overload. Overlook minor things you don’t like, focus on what you do like, think of reasons to say, “Yes,” get out on a second date and give people a chance.

Nadigel and Israel: First, get clear on who you are. What’s most important to you in life? What do you believe in? What do you need and want? Are there changes you could make for yourself so that you’re living closer to those values? Spend some time working on those things to not only make your own life better, but also make you better able to attract the sort of person who’s deeply right for you. The better you get at this, the easier it will be to paint a picture of what your ideal mate will look like (i.e., his or her life goals and principles). At that point, your online dating searches will be more refined, and your blind dates a little less blind.


Related: How to Find the Courage to Live with Your Whole Heart 


 

Q3: Love is so subjective, we all experience it differently. What is the main commonality in our experiences of love?

Rinzler: I actually think love in its purest sense is universal. It’s a lightness, an uncomplicated way of viewing another being. We aren’t lost in our fixed expectations of what another person should do or be; we’re open to who they are right now. With love comes a sense of tenderness and vulnerability. That said, if we paint it with too many words then we are marring the experience of love. It’s like pointing at the sky. It’s there and a part of the fabric of our lives, but is quite ephemeral when we get down to it. That is my experience at least.

Mittra: Love is composed of the object, the action of loving, and the one who loves. The quality and nature of love is determined by the ethical conduct of the one who loves. The ability to see ourselves in others (all beings) is the action of full compassion and is the first step to self-realization. Thus, love flows equally and naturally to all. Real love is without strings: No expectation of anything from the loved one. Don’t worry about being loved, just love. Be extremely respectful, reverent, and compassionate to all, and this is already unconditional love.

Fisher: I’ve looked at the last 40 years of romantic love in academic literature and can tell you that it has a constellation of commonalities. When you meet somebody, you can list what you don’t like about this person, but opt to just focus on what you do like. You express intense energy and can walk all night and talk til dawn. You experience elation when things are going well and total despair when things are going poorly. You are possessive and have separation anxiety. You feel butterflies in your stomach, have weak knees, dry mouth. The three main characteristics are obsessive thinking (somebody is camping in your head), craving for emotional union (sure, you want to make love to them, but what you really want is for them to call, write, ask you out, tell you that they love you), and intense motivation to win this person as if they are the greatest prize—a mating partner. What people will do when they are in love is quite remarkable.

Nadigel and Israel: It is critically important to understand that love is a feeling. And because of this, love is subject to the same laws that govern all feelings—it waxes and wanes. And yet, somehow, we expect this feeling, unlike all others, to be permanent. If there’s anything common and universal about love, it is that it changes, often. It is also understood differently by different people, at different times and life stages. If people can accept this truth, they will be less rattled when their understanding of their feeling state doesn’t match up with their partner’s. And this is fine, normal and OK.

Q4: How do you foster a long-term sense of the highest experience of love amidst the busy-ness and inevitable stresses of life?

Rinzler: You let go of fixed mind. Love is not complicated by children and money. Our mind is complicated by thinking of these things as obstacles as opposed to part of our path of being present and loving. How do you let go of fixed mind? Meditate every day.

Mittra: The most efficient way is cultivating the ethical rules: Be kind in speech (angry words hurt); be kind to your guests, relatives, and pets; forgive; be vegetarian so that your physical and mental health improve; pray together; meditate without words on love to all; try to be physically fit; and finally be free from the three gates that turn love into hell: greed, lust, and wrath. Thus, human love turns into divine love, and this is almost eternal.

Fisher: We’ve evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction: Sex drive, feelings of intense romantic love, and feelings of deep attachment. You want to keep all of those brain systems alive. In order to stay in love, you need to do novel things together. It drives up dopamine systems in the brain and can help you sustain feelings of romantic love. Stay in touch. Hold hands. Walk arm-in-arm. Kiss your partner. Learn to fall sleep in their arms at the beginning of the evening. This drives up oxytocin system and can help you sustain feelings of deep attachment. Also, have sex regularly. If you don’t have time, schedule it. Sex is not only very good for the mind and body, but also it drives up the testosterone systems. Do all of these things and make time for the relationship.

Nadigel and Israel: True love is about sharing your real self, your full life with another, truly knowing and allowing yourself to be known. By definition it includes all those aspects of life—children, mortgage, everything. “Pure love” on an all-inclusive resort when you’re single is not love. It’s infatuation.

Q5: How does one’s perspective on love (e.g., being a realist, an idealist, or a pessimist) affect their ability to find love and make it last?

Rinzler: People should not get too attached to who they think they are. You can think you’re an idealist and then get grounded by reality. You can be a pessimist and find yourself delighted by a new encounter. Why do you need to label yourself? If you want to experience love, best to let go of all of this thinking. Don’t get attached to who you think you are; you are more fluid than you might suspect.

Mittra: Remember the Laws of Karma. Our present condition is the result of previous actions and we must do our best to cope with it. The love of old souls who are more ethically civilized is natural—based on friendliness. It doesn’t depend on sex or other passions. So, become really friendly and respectful towards each other, and then love may last indefinitely. Cultivate non-attachment, because nothing is eternal except the Almighty One.

Fisher: Your attitude about love is always going to play a role in who you love, when you love, how you love, if you love, and how long you will sustain it.

Nadigel and Israel: It’s important to question where those perspectives come from. Expectations about love and relationships are based on what we’ve seen of relationships—in our own families, our communities, the media. Our own parents’ marriage (and for many people divorce) is probably the strongest influence. If your parents had a terrible, conflicted, controlling, abusive relationship—or conversely, if they seemed to have a fairy-tale life with never so much as a difference of opinion—it will be harder for you to settle down and grow through life’s challenges with a partner who is not perfect but good enough, and good for you. Just knowing this—that it’s not going to be easy—can actually be reassuring to couples we work with. It means you aren’t necessarily doing anything wrong, you didn’t pick the wrong person, it’s just hard. Sometimes that knowledge is enough to help them keep going.


Related: The Myth of the Perfect Family


 

Q6: To “manifest love” is an empowering message, but how does it work?

Rinzler: From a Buddhist point of view, we are innately loving and lovable. That is our birthright. Underneath the layers of neurosis, confusion, and self-doubt, we tend to carry around with us that we are inherently good, peaceful, and loving. That is what the Buddha discovered 2600 years ago, and what we can discover ourselves today should we commit to a meditation practice. The more we befriend ourselves through meditation, the more we learn to get out of our own way, thus allowing our love to flow freely to ourself and others.

Fisher: I don’t understand what it means to “manifest,” but I do think that when you want something like love, you might walk and talk differently, buy new clothes and make all kinds of subtle changes. You might smile more, express more energy and optimism, be more focused, visit new places, meet new people and talk to your friends about it. I don’t think it’s magic. I’m a scientist. But the bottom line is there are these ways that we express ourselves differently if we want something. It’s entirely possible that those who are talking about manifesting love are focusing on the spiritual component, but it also has concrete psychological and behavioral components that actually will draw people to you. This is hard to measure. We are animals that express ourselves in many ways and science hasn’t recorded them all. I’m willing to accept the premise that there are all these unconscious things that we do when we’re looking for or want something.

Mittra: Let the qualities of respect, kindness, concern, compassion and loyalty really shine through the body and mind. Then act in full force accordingly.

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