Dear Still Water Friends,
As a college student I met a retired Congregational minister who came to our campus rallies for peace in Vietnam. We became friends and from time to time I went to his house for tea and conversation. One day he told me about his relationship with his wife, who was then in a nursing home. In explaining the changes, he used two words — Eros and Agape — that were new to me but were, I learned, commonly used in ancient Greek and early Christian writings. Eros is a sensual – romantic form of love, often seen as demanding or self-centered. Agape, sometimes called divine love, is more selfless, altruistic, and unconditional.
The conversation came to mind this week as I was reflecting on the Third Mindfulness Training, the focus of our Dharma sharing this Thursday evening.
In its original formulation during the time of the Buddha, the Third Training concerned sexual misconduct, usually understood as having sexual relations with partners considered inappropriate in one’s community. In re-envisioning the trainings for our time Thich Nhat Hanh expanded the Third Training to also include what he calls True Love:
Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.
Reflecting on how Eros and Agape might appear separately and together offers an interesting perspective on the Third Training.
- There are people for whom both expressions of love are absent from their lives. There is a lack of heartfelt connection to others, a lack of true interactions with others, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual.
- There are also people whose lives are dominated by Eros with little if any feeling of Agape. Because their relationships lack depth and connection, they may move quickly from one unfulfilling sexual relationship to another, betray their partner, or sexually, physically, or emotionally abuse others.
- Another manifestation of love is to have one’s life dedicated to Agape with little if any feeling of Eros. This can be manifested in monastic life, in self-less service, in the pure love of (and for) children, in living a celibate lay life, and in many others ways.
- And, there is the possibility that both Eros and Agape are both present in one’s life, in a caring and committed relationship. This is the aspiration of many lay practitioners.
Another way of looking at the two expressions of love is as a journey that spiritual practitioners take in their lives, moving bit by bit from self-centered Eros, or lack of love, to a more openhearted and generous love of others and all that is. At various points in the journey we may let go of the physical expressions of love, or we may infuse our physical expressions of love with more caring and mutuality.
I know that my life has involved such a journey. My adolescent guides to “love” included Hollywood media, Playboy magazine, and male peer groups that viewed sex as a sporting activity (getting to third base!). Over the decades, bit by bit, I’ve worked on my capacity for a loving connection to others and to myself.
In writing this announcement I gained a new appreciation of that long-ago conversation about Eros and Agape. I’ve always thought of it simply as a change in the minister’s life that he wanted to tell me about, just as I told him about what was new in my relationships. I now see that the conversation was probably deeper than that. I believe he discerned how utterly unskilled I was in establishing a mutually sustaining and nourishing relationship and wanted to plant a seed in my consciousness that might later bloom and give me some guidance or direction. He was not just telling me about Agape, he was practicing it.
This Thursday evening, we will begin our Dharma sharing with the question “In what ways has my mindfulness practice helped me develop my Agape?”
You are invited to join us.
Please also note that next Thursday evening, May 16th, will be a special evening celebrating the April ordination of Eliza King and Lori Perine into the Order of Interbeing, and bidding farewell to Order of Interbeing member Scott Schang, who after 20 years with Still Water will be moving to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to become a professor of practice of environmental law at Wake Forest Law School.