World-renowned psychologist, Erich Fromm, is the author of the book, The Art of Loving. I read it when I was in high school. In the book, Fromm discusses five different kinds of love: brotherly love, motherly love, erotic love, self-love and love of God. While he is quite certain about the benevolent nature of the other four of the loves, he is skeptical about erotic love. He says:
Brotherly love is love among equals; motherly love is love for the helpless. Different as they are from each other, they have in common that they are by their very nature not restricted to one person. If I love my brother, I love all my brothers; if I love my child, I love all my children; no, beyond that, I love all children, all that are in need of my help. In contrast to both types of love is erotic love; it is the craving for complete fusion, for union with one other person. It is by its very nature exclusive and not universal; it is also perhaps the most deceptive form of love there is.
It is clear that Fromm does not look too kindly on erotic or romantic love. For him, it is questionable whether erotic love should be called “love” at all. Further, Fromm takes the view that true love has to do with an act of will. Thus, according to this definition, erotic love, stimulated by instincts and intense feelings, is not an authentic kind of love.
The Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, also wrote about love. He wrote a book titled The Four Loves. He bases his discussion on the four words the ancient Greeks have for love: Agape, Eros, Philia, and Storge. Agape has to do with unconditional and universal love. Eros has to do with erotic, passionate love. Philia has to do with the love of friends and equals. Storge has to do with parental love. Just like Fromm, C. S. Lewis has some concerns about the nature of erotic love. He draws a distinction between love and lust. He also points out the exploitative nature of the latter. He says in his book:
We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he “wants a woman”. Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude for her five minutes after fruition.
Still, Lewis is more generous about the nature of Eros than Fromm. In Eros, Lewis sees a potential upside — the possibility that our love for another person would elevate us into a higher ground, beyond ego, and towards altruism. He wrote:
The event of falling in love is of such a nature that we are right to reject as intolerable the idea that it should be transitory. In one high bound it has overleaped the massive of our selfhood; it has made appetite itself altruistic, tossed personal happiness aside as a triviality, and planted the interests of another in the center of our being. Spontaneously and without effort we have fulfilled the law (towards one person) by loving our neighbor as ourselves. It is an image, a foretaste, of what we must become to all if Love Himself rules in us without a rival. It is even (well used) a preparation for that.
In essence, Lewis sees in Eros the potential for us to catch a glimpse of what divine love is like. It gives us a chance to have a taste of Christ-like love. There is a possibility that our mundane erotic love can be transformed into something transcendental, much like a Tantric experience where sex is used as a vehicle for enlightenment. Ordinarily, the religious mind treats anything sexual as base, unworthy, and totally incompatible with spirituality. Yet, Eros can serve as the key to bridge the mundane and the divine, the carnal and the spiritual. It is perhaps not surprising that the Sufis often portrays the spiritual quest in erotic terms. The Divine appears as the Beloved, the ultimate love object.
Eros is doubtlessly a powerful force of nature. Instead of denouncing it, we can try to channel such powerful energy into use for spirituality. The conjugal relationship may seem selfish and exclusive to most people. But instead of condemning it, we may also view an intimate relationship as the Universe’s way to provide a self-contained situation for us to learn how to transcend our self-centeredness and to love altruistically despite the difficulties. The comedian, Richard Pryor, once remarked, “It’s so much easier for me to talk about my life in front of two thousand people than it is one-to-one.” This is true. It is easier to love a stranger a thousand miles away than to love someone who lives with you day in and day out, gets on your nerve, and pushes your buttons. It is also easier to have a conversation with a thousand people and deliver a beautiful speech than to have a one-on-one conversation with your mate.
Instead of bashing the exclusive nature of intimate relationships, perhaps we can, as C.S. Lewis suggests, view it as the training ground for the practice of divine love. Unconditional love is difficult. If we cannot even love our intimate partner, how can we expect to be able to love all sentient beings. I consider erotic love as a special vehicle for the practice of the Bodhisattva’s Path. There is a logical progression. We start small. We first learn to love ourselves. Then, we learn to love our intimate partner. Finally, we learn to love the world. An intimate relationship is a good place to start practicing Brahma Viharas: (1) lovingkindness, (2) compassion, (3) empathetic joy, and (4) equanimity. It is also a perfect opportunity to practice deep listening, gratitude, vulnerability, trust, authenticity, and forgiveness.
Returning to the original question: Is erotic love really love? The honest answer is that erotic love can be anything. On one hand, it can be an expression of extreme egotism and hedonism. On the other hand, it can be a vehicle for practicing the Noble Eightfold Path. There is no real line between erotic love and spirituality. The key lies in your attitude and mindfulness.