issue 158 - April 1986
Reproduced from the Jean Soustiel collection
The longing to belong
In Western thought transcendental 'true' love and good,
earthy sex don't seem to mix. Though we may be rediscovering
sex in the wake of the sixties, we've become rather afraid of love.
Sri Lankan psychotherapist Tara de Silva believes an exploration
of the Hindu philosophy of the East yields a more meaningful
model of the relationship between love and sex.
WHEN I was first training as a psychotherapist, several years ago, I met a young journalist who struck me as the epitome of the modern woman. She was single, worked freelance, depended on no-one, was beholden to no-one, lived alone. We warmed to each other and talked beyond our official time: about ideals, about having a sense of purpose, about deep needs fulfilled. At last I mentioned love.
'Love?' she responded, in amazement. 'Love is. . . an infantile need that one ought to grow out of.' And added sadly: 'Though it is very hard to overcome.
Her stern denial of love, and her sadness, remained with me all day. Was needing love really only a neurotic weakness we ought to overcome? Since then I've come across dozens of people who are ashamed of their longing to love and be loved. In my practice, it is the most frequently presented problem, by both men and women. Somehow, it's alright for other people to be needy. In fact, these patients rush to look after other people's needs. But it's not alright to be needy oneself.
The sort of love they dream of - and fear - is the transcendent sort that brings union: with a lover, with God, with humanity at large. Transcendent love is, by definition, 'selfless'. But what about 'selfish' love? Falling in love with a real person, bald patch and all? Transcendent love may lead to service and sacrifice, but selfish love leads to bed. It's this selfless transcendent sort of love that many women have, rightly, begun to suspect as one of the more powerful means by which they are oppressed. But in questioning the slavish nature of transcendent love, weren't they in danger of losing many of its benefits - and of repudiating selfish sexual love completely?
That these two levels are different is obvious. But must one be so severely separated from the other? Not all cultures seem to have been so plagued with anxiety about the worth of selfish love as opposed to transcendental love. What, I wonder, did Western missionaries make of the stone carvings in Indian temples of voluptuous goddesses? Or of the happily erotic Hindu Song of Songs which celebrates Krishna as a delicious lover?
India's centuries-old system of 'chakras', or energy centres, roundly accommodates both levels of love. According to this model, seven major energy centres rise up along. the human body, in a line down the spine. Two of these chakras - the solar plexus and the heart - make a pair below and above the belt. The heart chakra is a seat of love and union - a universal symbol, as Valentine cards suggest. Its twin below the belt is also concerned with love and union. But, where the heart chakra's energy turns outwards to humanity - towards transcendence - solar plexus energy turns inwards, towards the self, the ego.
According to the chakra model, the solar plexus is the place you are 'born into' when you leave the womb. It's home-base. This is the place where the longing for safety and belonging is experienced. It's this energy that motivates you to gather people near that you feel to be kindred. Here, too, is where patriotism - loyalties to family and tribe - are justified, and where you feel 'gut reactions' like jealousy, being sick with envy or poll-axed with rejection. You experience racist hate here also, and snobbery: because the energy that makes you draw some people around you as 'kin' also makes you exclude those who seem 'not kin'.
But the chakras don't operate in isolation. The energy rising up through the solar plexus doesn't have to stop there. If it is allowed to rise further and awaken the heart centre, then these two chakras' qualities can mingle.
Awakened, vulnerable heart plus solar plexus earthiness together create an experience of both belonging and transcendence. When this occurs in a relationship of long-standing trust and security, such as marriage, that relationship is vividly experienced as 'made in heaven'. The fortunates who have experienced this wholeness say confidently that no amount of casual, guarded sex can match this level of healing union ('holy matrimony').
In this state of bliss, people sound as if they've been on drugs rather than simply in each other's arms. They see rich, mysterious images; the natural world comes alive, leaves look greener, the skies rush down more brilliantly blue; they burst into song or start writing poetry; they feel whole and fully alive.
And the Hindu chakra model has an explanation for this burst of creativity too. The chakra below the solar plexus is the sacral, or sexual, chakra, the source of life-energy. In its positive aspect it creates, not only babies, but also life-enriching words and music, art and dance. But the negative aspect of sacral energy is powerful too. Untempered by the heart's goodwill, or even the solar plexus' need for social approval, it can rage violently. And dark sexual excesses - rape, incest, orgies - can be the frightening result.
They're powerful things, love and sex. No wonder people are scared of them. But to hide from the dangers is to miss the chance of discovering one of life's most glorious experiences.
Just after this was written a woman in her sixties came to see me. She'd led the most chaotic life, with a husband who had been a compulsive liar, schizophrenic, alcoholic, totally impossible. Eventually she'd left him. Had she regretted the experience? Absolutely not, she said. She'd adored him; he'd been the great love of her life. What ever else had happened, how could she wish that ecstatic experience away?
So: open your heart, to make sure you set off with goodwill and generosity; clear your head, so you don't leave your good sense behind - and follow your need to be loved.
Tara de Silva is a psychotherapist, journalist and poet living and working in London.