Love is romantic, emotional, even spiritual, according to the various points of perception: literary, psychological, or religious. The dictionary is mundane: love is compulsion, desire, even obsession. This is the understanding of most people, who see love originating with physical and aesthetic attraction, then personality, then hormones. After this phase, love continues in a subtle, quiet allegiance, loyalty, or identification based on longevity, companionship, and shared values. The origins of love is as a survival instinct, and when young people begin to express this interest, one can be sure that the expression is instinctual, filtered by cultural factors. The duration of love is a testimony of successful complementarity and affection.
These are not new facts. The acceleration of the expression of love through vertical stages of presumed sophistication, from physical to aesthetic, to psychological, to abstract cultural to relgious or spiritual, culminating in love of God or the grand analogy of “God is love,” at least in those with a particular religious interest is perhaps new to the dictionary. The mundane train of thought suspends the consideration of a durability, a horizontal character, to love, inevitably biased towards the emotional and romantic, to the vertical. So in the mundane view, love is identified with the vertical, not the horizontal.
But how does the lofty acceleration from instinct to absolute, entirely vertical, change the mundane definition of compulsion and desire? Or, rather, is it not an extension of such thinking?
Many attempts to spiritualize the trajectory of love as purified of the carnal can be found among spiritual writers. Rumi distinguishes the “temple of love” (the physical) from love itself (the spiritual), and Teresa of Avila portrayed her ecstasies by analogy with physical raptures but sanitized spiritual experiences, though in contrast to some mystics like Eckhart, her pursuits appear to be invoked and intentional. But even for the intentional spiritual interest, love cannot escape the instinctual element; love must be other than a vertical ascent but cannot escape this experience because it seeks to reproduce the analogous path or way, which is physical and psychological. Love with an object, however absolute the object, cannot but fit the mundane definition.
In Eastern thought, love is a difusion of identification with the universe, with all sentient beings. Not that lay people and householders are assuming this in their personal relations. Rather, spiritual practitioners do not imitate or transcend the instinctual vertical instead bypassing it for a completely different application of the affective faculty. Because God is within all reality, the expression of love cannot be analogous to the instinctual expression. This love does not take on a function of adding pleasure in order to promote survival. In Eastern thought, love is compassion for its innumerable objects, not desire for one object, even if that object is God. For Eastern thought, all reality is in the same existential plane, and worthy of compassion, worthy of love. The Western aberrations of love — lust, greed, ego, obsession — are made not impossible by Eastern though but irrelevant to the process of love or compassion. They are on a different plane. The plane of compassion is almost horizontal, and not, like Western love, constantly piqued to a vertical height that overshadows any other emotion, sentiment, or desire.
The hermit can see this distinction and retains it in daily life. The peaks of vertical ascent are to be avoided; enlightenment is naturally horizontal, it is not going up or down but within, while retaining a grand vision of identifying with nature. The excesses of Western love are in the same bucket as temptations, and are not sanitized to justify a spiritual expression of desire, greed, or obsession. The hermit, whether Eastern or Western, is in the fortunate situation of being able to express love as compassion, serving all and serving none, by the faculty of understanding and empathy, lacking the tribulations of what is commonly called love.