What do we ultimately want from our romantic relationships? Why are humans so compelled to seek out love and companionship? After all, finding love – and staying in love – is really hard work. So why do we expend so much time and energy on the exhausting pursuit of love? We recently spent some time doing fieldwork in India and the U.S. in an attempt to answer these questions.
Modern neuroscience generally explains human behavior through the lens of the brain. In particular, neuroscientists believe that the brain has evolved to make us more efficient at meeting the two “big needs”: survival and reproduction. The brain does this by optimizing information processing, and calling upon specialized modules for problem solving. Romantic love, it is argued, brings us physical and emotional pleasure. This pleasure makes life worth surviving, and is a handy side effect during, ahem, reproductive processes. Some scientists think of romantic love as a “paradoxical tactic,” especially if you presume we evolved emotionally according to the rules of game theory. It’s paradoxical because it’s both imprisoning and irrational (so they claim), but we’ve evolved to have it because it gives our brains a strategic advantage in the mating marketplace.
This view of love, then, suggests that it’s all about meeting physiological and psychological needs, as these are the ultimate drivers of human behavior. Yet anyone familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will recall that material and psychological needs form the base of the pyramid: Maslow placed “self-actualization” and “self-transcendence” at the top as the most important needs, with the lower-order needs merely providing a pathway to this quest. Self-actualization implies an individual’s creative reaching of their full potential. Maslow noted that some individuals can go beyond self-actualization by seeking communion with the transcendent, through mystical or transpersonal experiences.
Of course, Indian philosophy had its own models of the self long before Maslow came along (or any Western psychologist for that matter). The Taittiriya Upanishad suggests that an individual is represented by five different sheaths or levels that enclose the individual’s self. Here, rather than a pyramid, the image is that of an onion. The levels of the self are arranged in ascending order, at increasingly finer levels. Reaching the level of the innermost sheath (the anandamaya kosa or bliss sheath) is achieved by gradually peeling off the outer sheaths (annamaya kosa – physical body, pranamaya kosa – energy, manomaya kosa – mental level, and vijnanamaya kosa – intellect).
Thus, the ideal spiritual process means peeling away the layers of the self/onion. As Indian philosophers understood it, the strings of samsara (the cycle of life) keep us perennially trapped in the outer layers of our self. It is the transition of our awareness into the deeper layers of the self that signifies progress on the path of spirituality. Unfortunately, this view of spiritual progression – by scaling the pyramid or by peeling the onion – has eroded from the consciousness of modern societies in both the East and the West.
In the context of a loving partnership, “self-transcendence” implies a joint search for meaning, truth-seeking, and transcendence of body, mind, and self. If we were to enter into a romantic relationship with the knowledge of this hierarchy of needs or motivations, then we would surely place self-transcendence at the top of the pyramid or at the center of the onion. Our key insight from our fieldwork is this: human beings seek out romantic love because we are ultimately questing to fulfill this higher order need of transcendence – and the lower needs (material safety and security, emotional stability and compatibility) are merely a ladder to get there.
Love in our view is a tantra – a technique to peel away the layers of the self in the company of a partner who can serve as a mirror as we lay bare the deepest kosas of our metaphorical onion.
Our fieldwork suggests that people in the East and the West are ultimately seeking some kind of spiritual fulfillment through their relationships – we postulate this seeking happens at the subconscious level. We call the achievement of this fulfillment – or its explicit pursuit – “transcendent love”. Transcendent love means walking together on a path toward truth or spiritual enlightenment. It means the relationship itself provides a way to realize the nonduality of body and mind, of self and other, i.e. to achieve self-transcendence.
Surprisingly, not everyone is aware that they are seeking transcendent love. Our preliminary findings suggest that those who have experienced a lack of material or psychological support, especially at a young age, spend much of their romantic lives hungrily searching for someone to squelch those needs. As the pyramid form implies, you cannot pursue higher-level needs without having the lower ones met first. Or using the image of the onion, unless the outer layers are shed and transcended, one cannot get a glimpse of the deeper layers.
Furthermore, many people are simply unmindful of the anandamaya kosa or self-transcendence level as the highest/deepest need. In the West, for instance, we are inundated with books teaching us how to communicate with our loved ones and what these different “love languages” of communication may be. Yet this kind of advice remains focused on the lower part of the pyramid or onion, and neglects the upper tier or innermost layer.
In our work, we have found cases where people enter into relationships and marriages, initially happy to discover in their partner a match in terms of material and emotional support. Yet over time, they slowly grow dissatisfied as they yearn for “something else” that they cannot quite put their finger on. The general approach is to apply a band-aid on the outer layer of the onion when it gets bruised, rather than peeling it off and peeking inside.
Whether we realize it or not, we are seeking a love that is transcendent. In a future post, we will explore the stages of coming to realize, search for, and find one’s partner in transcendent love.