Love And Falling In Love

I wrote my senior thesis in college about love. Specifically, it was a poetry manuscript about desire, clinging, and romantic love vs. Buddhist notions of compassion. I was wondering how it is possible to "truly" love somebody you desire. After I finished that thesis I thought I would never write about love again, because I had exhausted that subject intellectually. But love is a useful tool, and since the human experience of love is so similar to lots of stuff that comes up in spiritual and religious practice, I'm finding it useful to talk about again.

About a year into my stay at the women's monastery, my mother sent me a book called "Inner Gold: Understanding Psychological Projection," by the Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson. He describes how all people have "inner gold," the best parts of ourselves, our wit, intelligence, kindness and talent, but that for most people, carrying this gold ourselves is too hard. It's hard to carry our own gold because the gold is so heavy, and so we find other people to carry it for us for a time. Robert Johnson calls this process of handing over our gold to someone else psychological projection, which has kind of become a buzzword in Buddhist communities, but I think for good reason.

Sharon Salzberg wrote that "bright faith" is like falling in love, and I think many of us can relate to her description of her first encounter with Buddhism. In her book Faith she writes:
I arrived in Bodhgaya in late December 1970 and fell in love. I fell in love with the meditation teachers I found there, and with the community of students who gathered around them. I fell in love with the Buddha's teachings. I fell in love with the place. Even discomfort and uncertainty didn't tarnish the romance... This state of love-filled delight in possibilities and eager joy at the prospect of actualizing them is known in Buddhism as bright faith. Bright faith goes beyond merely claiming that possibility for oneself to immersing oneself in it. With bright faith we feel exalted as we are lifted out of our normal sense of insignificance, thrilled as we no longer feel lost and alone.

I know this was true for me. I came to Japan and fell in love-- with an old temple, with the mountains, with my teacher, with the practice, even with the cold and the pain. And like most new students I handed over all my gold. Robert Johnson says when we hero worship, we hand over our gold to someone else until we can get strong enough to carry it ourselves. But eventually we have to take it back. Taking back your own gold can be painful because sometimes the people we've given our gold to (the people we fall in love with) don't want to give the gold back. Sometimes we have to slam the door to announce we are leaving. It's difficult to do in a kind and respectful way.

Dharma transmission means a lot of different things to a lot of people, but I'm starting to think that it is really a symbol of getting your gold back. In the beginning, it's necessary to fall in love with a practice and a teacher but in the end we take back our gold so that we can hold it ourselves, by which I mean, we understand that its our own responsibility to act as our best selves as much as possible, to uphold the teachings the best way we can, to give light rather than take it. It's hard and scary for me to really stand in a position like this, but I'm realizing more and more that holding my own gold is something I want to do.

In this sense, mature Buddhist practice is the opposite of falling in love. When we fall in love we give the best part ourselves to something external, thinking it will change us. When we practice well we know that the burden is really on ourselves, and we act from this place.

So practice is really the opposite of falling in love. But love and falling in love are completely different.

Bell hooks defines love as "the action we take on behalf of our own or another's spiritual growth." Speaking about love as an action or a choice is powerful. Martin Luther King said, "I have decided to love," and in saying this he pointed out that he could have decided something else. He could have chosen not to love.

Practice is like this as well. Practice is an action and a choice. It's a choice, moment by moment, to do things in the best way you know how, to meet everything with the best self that shows up. When I write it like that, it sounds so simple, doesn't it? And maybe it is simple. Let's try.


  1. great book Inner Gold. And much appreciation for your clarity around this big word LOVE. Helpful. Thank you. You and your readers may like this blog by Jared Gottlieb who is currently on staff at IMS. Like your words of wisdom I find his insightful and helpful as well.

  2. When we fall in love we activate the best part of ourself in relation to that something external. Taking back our own gold can be painful because our own gold is oftentimes our own burden and we, too, don't want to take the burden of our own gold back. When we practice loving someone the burden IS on us to carry our own gold and we act from this place.

  3. Ethan Nichtern said that your guru had to disappoint you at some point. That's another way to be handed back your gold. I like your and Robert Johnson's point about our gold and owning it. I've read several of his books, but had not seen that one. Gassho.

  4. Learning to carry my own gold and shit, one day at a time.
    Thank You, Gesshin.

  5. This is beautiful Gesshin! I wasn't familiar with Johnson's "inner gold" idea but it sure makes sense. And yes, in the end we do, I think organically, come back to ourselves..."hold our own gold"...for the benefit of all sentient beings.

  6. former monastic. celibate ten years. was everything - beautiful, free, pure, happy, satisfying. Love for art, beauty, nature, humanity... that always seemed to be among the most fulfilling spiritual experiences. And seems utterly unrelated to sexuality --- which more than often is a huge basket of entangled misery.

  7. 'Bell hooks defines love as "the action we take on behalf of our own or another's spiritual growth."'

    She kills me! Fortunately, intimacy and spirituality need not be mutually exclusive, or so it seems for many of us in the West. It does, however, leave us no leg to stand on when it comes to matters of the heart.

    "He could have chosen not to love"- I think you can only call it a matter of choice in that a person has the choice to hurt themselves or not.

    You can have your gold back, but you can't take it, right? These things must be done delicately.

    I spoke briefly with Blanche Hartman at SFZC, after a lecture (by Carl Bielefeldt). She said, "I've come to believe it's love" (hope I'm quoting her correctly). I said, that's trance phenomena you're talking about (meaning trance in the way that Milton Erickson defined trance).

    At Green Gulch, Reb spoke about embodying the Bodhisattva vow in every gesture and posture, and how he's been walking that way for 45 years.

    I myself find I can only do one thing at a time, and that's touch and go, but still I hold out for love.

  8. Thank you for this. Really wonderful articulation of this process, without judgement, and with much clarity.

  9. I love the simple clarity of disseminating the beginning of the our gold and "devotion" to something or someone outside of ourselves. The empowering and real and painful process of owning "our own gold" ,i.e. actually seeing, recognizing and hodling "who we already are and always have been!"......the buddha itself....


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