2. REAL LOVE IS MUTABLE
Behavioral rhythms play out in the annual, seasonal, daily, and ultradian frequency bands I listed in the last chapter.
The strongest, most dependable environmental rhythms engage all the members of a species living within a geographical range in coordinated behaviors. The sleep/waking cycle is the clearest example of this. Its stages and turning points link the daily and seasonal rounds connected with the sun and with the revolution of the earth around it to basic human activities. Over long periods of time, even the precession of the equinoxes and the advance and recession of ice ages drive patterns of aggregation and dispersal that motivate species to migrate in search of habitat.
Though we can cite many examples of the operations of the ur-rhythms in every organ and animal species, the important point is not to multiply instances but to establish a sound conceptual scheme showing how aggregation and dispersal, physiological expansion and contraction, social approach and separation and cognitive withdrawal and return interact to produce complex social and solitary behaviors. With this scheme in hand, we will be able to understand how organisms build ecologies of rhythm, often across species lines, and how these ecologies prepare the way for emergent love and wisdom.
In its earliest expressions in primitive animal life, the social and solitary rhythms very likely functioned reciprocally. That is to say, when one was active the other was dormant. Otherwise, the inward tendencies would have blocked social expressions and the social drives would have inhibited reflective learning. But this reciprocity is only one kind of interaction among many. In our actual experience, one rhythm never utterly vanquishes the other. The social and solitary behaviors move through life together. Neither has priority. Depending on conditions, they develop complex phase relationships sensitive to stimulation from cycles of nature, from other organisms, from internal drives, etc. The interacting rhythms either adjust themselves to each other or break each other down.
In primate, hominid and human life, certain signals encourage approach and bonding, others bring on enmities, competition, aggressive tendencies and pain. Along our line of development, nightfall, body warmth, infant dependency, food storage, dangers, sexual pleasure strengthen the aggregation impulse and its component parts. On the other hand, daylight, intelligence, cunning, curiosity and self-seeking support dispersal and produce social separation.
San South African Cave Painting
Picture yourself viewing the life of a city from a space satellite. You will see the great daily rhythms, and within them briefer rhythms. Alternating approaches and separations will reach a peak in the day and subside at night. To model these patterns, we would have each individual’s patterns follow straightforward “ant-like” rules. From this, enormously complex patterns of dispersal and aggregation would develop within which approach-separation and withdrawal-return was contained in a circadian pulse.
Imagine we have been videoing city life with high-resolution cameras and we have a futuristic instrument that lets us see in the infrared and even take real-time MRI’s. And suppose we have fast computers that can crunch the numbers. What will we see? We will recognize, first, that even on the smallest scales social and solitary behaviors are composed of simpler rhythmic components down to the molecular level. We will observe the social rhythms combining and taking on their larger approach-separation patterns. With our advanced monitoring equipment, we would witness the rhythms within and between cells. We would see cellular expansion, contraction, molecular aggregation, and dispersal. Viewed in brain imaging studies, we would see them producing outcome behaviors built on approach-separation and withdrawal-return patterns.
In both patterns we would observe fractal processes. That is to say, each larger behavioral pattern would be built from briefer rhythmic units. The social and solitary rhythms, represented as changes over time, would weave together threads of briefer approach/separation and withdrawal/return rhythms.
The fractal quality is more than a metaphor. The granularity is real. All living systems are made up of oscillating fragments, which look like wholes when seen from one perspective but look like fragments when seen from another.
The fractal qualities of rhythmic life are adaptive. Approach-and-separation and withdrawal-and-return, because nature compounds them out of many mini turnings, can adjust themselves to perturbation in many ways and still keep oscillating. These fractals unfold in time. To perceive their rhythmic qualities we have to see nature in movement: Not the full-grown tree or the finished seashell, but nature in process, doing its thing, nature naturing. Even the mountains heave. Everything moves. Everything unfolds in temporal patterns shot through with rhythms marked by reversal moments by which we establish their frequencies.
The notion that when events reach an extreme they turn around is basic in the West. Heraclitus emphasized it. Plutarch paraphrases him as saying: “One cannot grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, but it scatters and then again gathers; it forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs.” (Heraclitus Fragment LI.) John Burnet, a scholar of pre-Socratic philosophy, explains that in Heraclitan philosophy “‘The strife of opposites’ is really an ‘attunement’. From this it follows that wisdom is not knowledge of many things, but the perception of the underling unity of the warring opposites.” 1 This is the conceptual scheme whose biodynamics we are testing here.
Polar rhythms play in the world on every scale. The myths of the heroes all show polar dynamics. They deal with reversal of fortune in fundamental ways. Death and rebirth—the symbol of the fullest kind of reversal—is at the core of shamanic and heroic transformation. According to Joseph Campbell, myths show that things move in a cosmic round “out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve.”2 The extremes are neither unnatural, regrettable nor in contention with each other. They do not engage in a tug of war over the fate of events. They are the dynamics by which the events are formed. The extremes belong to each other. They’re part of a whole. They’re mutually inducing.
From this polar movement human life takes on its essential characteristics. The extremes play parts in a coherent sequential design. They occur only at points of tension in rhythmic processes. Taoists locate this dynamic in the deepest tissue of nature. Lao Tzu writes of the Tao: “Being great, it is further described as receding, receding, it is described as far away, being far away it is described as turning back.”3
Seven Taoist sages
The Book of Balance and Harmony says:
“Waxing is the beginning of waning: waning is the end of waxing. Waxing is the massing of energy; waning is the dissolution of matter. Growth and development is called waxing; returning to the root, submitting to destiny is called waning.”4
Our quintessential human behaviors follow these patterns.
Australian Aborigine cave paintingTake approach-separation. Observe young lovers. They build their love from many brief approaches and separations. He calls, she says yes, they meet, they share, they part; she calls him, he calls her, they meet again. And so it proceeds. Or finally ends when one person’s separation stage moves too far out of the other’s range to sustain ties. Sometimes they both mutually retreat.
A single lovemaking incident itself contains many caresses, many approaches and separations, and within these caresses, many heartbeats happen, and in each of these there is an oscillation, a pulse and interval, an arousal and relaxation. Moreover, many arousals and relaxations are enclosed in yet larger oscillatory patterns as the lovers come to know each other. A love relationship construes itself, then, from thousands of small rhythmic gestures, many of them founded on approach-and-separation, shown in facial expressions, eye-contact, certainty and doubt, noddings of assent, demurrals, reciprocated caresses, crises of confidence, restorations of trust, interruptions, perturbations, oppositions. The mechanisms for these interactions – following responses, imitation, introjection, identification, are all mediated through sensation carried on rhythms of approach-and-separation. The pattern is not uniquely human. All social animals build their relationships from alternating movements of approach and separation. To acknowledge the biological substratum does not degrade or disparage human love. It shows its ties to nature and points to the evolutionary thru-line that all life carries on – the ur-rhythms of dispersal/aggregation and expansion/contraction. In other words, when we quantify the frequency-related behaviors conserved all through the tree of life, we find the building blocks culminating in love.
In mammals, the feeding/satiation rhythm evolves into a basic rhythm for approach and separation. Nursing at the breast is rhythmical. And some say food is the source of love.
The birth trauma itself is a separation, followed by a close reunion on the mother’s breast. Infant feeding arrangements have natural contours based on the body’s hunger and satiation rhythms. Even the way the nipple is given and taken away shapes it. The transactional elements in the contact of an infant’s lips with a mother’s breast are conveyed rhythmically. The two move together: there’s an underlying dance, a rhythm; the mouth moves towards the stimulation of the breast; the rate at which the breast moves away determines the rate at which the mouth moves towards it, dampened by the softness of the breast. The following response in this setting builds upon physiological entrainment – we swing and sway to each other’s movements. By responding to or leading the mother, and by making eye contact, the infant begins to acquire a sense-based kind of knowing that by their rhythmic underpinnings probably fall into patterns of duple and triple meter musically. And rhythmic contiguities open the way to deeper connections that develop into dances of entrainment. By entrainment I mean the sequences in which the parent’s movements and the child’s function as signals to each other, eliciting responses that elicit other responses in a train of rhythms that takes on something of the qualities of a pantomime of approaches and separations, analyzable on a time-series grid as a resonance phenomenon. Facial recognition between infant and mother goes back and forth. (Beatrice Beebe, Joseph Jaffe and Frank Lachmann have studied these interactions in detail from a psychoanalytic perspective.)
In social settings, normal tremor, at 6-10 Hz, may function as a fractal unit of approach and separation, and serve as a carrier for body language, gesticulation, emotional empathy, imitation and communication.
The sexual embrace may transfer the tremor rhythms from one lover to another. Sexual encounters are fundamentally rhythmical. Even the lovers’ heartbeats and brainwaves may be synchronized. The mutually reinforcing giving and receiving of pleasure is rhythm-driven. Riding to the peak, at the climax, in the moments leading to orgasm in sexual love right before the rhythm itself breaks down in its moment of fulfillment, lovers send many signals. A profound exchange bearing on bonding and commitment takes place in many bodily systems.
Social tremors working beneath the threshold of consciousness (they are accessible to human consciousness with sensory awareness training) establish routes along which individuals pass packets of information to each other. They travel first through touch, but normal social tremor can be seen and heard too. Perhaps these tremors of intent even surface in political contexts. They may become dominant when larger cultural rhythms break down.
Shakespeare built the tragic drama of Romeo and Juliet entirely on turning points of approach and separation. The lovers meet at the masked ball and have to separate quickly because their families are feuding. However, Romeo approaches under Juliet’s balcony in the night. Until morning breaks, they explore their intimacy, then separate, resolved to marry.
The next day they are secretly married in friar Laurence’s cell. But the marriage is not consummated. They have to separate. The rhythm of love is here perturbed at its most vulnerable moment.
In their time apart, the world intrudes again. Romeo slays Tybalt and has to run away. Before leaving, he comes to Juliet in her bed chamber. They spend the night together. They make love. That’s their closest approach. At dawn, they part. Romeo flees to Mantua, their furthest separation. Only their sense-memories remain. Their hopes attach to them. But further perturbations to rhythm thwart their plans. They end up dead in each other’s arms, twin suicides. Final separation.
All through life, the cycles of approach and separation play out. They are there when a youth leaves home. They are resonant in every erotic desire. They play out over many cycles in the course of a marriage. And each signal for approach or separation is carried in sensation.
People learn early that they cannot touch someone from far away, but can see them and call to them; that closer in you can touch them and smell them and feel their heat. Certain experiences attach to sight, certain ones to hearing, to touch, to smell and to taste in distinct combinations. Approach brings data from certain ranges of sensation in a certain order, separation others.
In human social life, tone of voice, the modulation of the amplitude and timbre of the voice, carries meaning independent of and sometimes in contradiction to the words used. And many nonverbal body movements and gestures have social content. We receive and transmit them like attitudinal, spinal, semaphore signals that cover specific distances and communicate messages encouraging approach or separation appropriate to those distances.
These sensory messages are always transactional. They happen between persons. Someone is either coming or going. Two or more people are always engaging, refusing, or otherwise provoking each other through movement. The rhythmicity is in the “we” not the “I.” And the engagement or refusal is actual, tangible, and physiological. These boundaries and crossings become measures of value because individuals prefer and seek out and feel safe in different sensory distance combinations.5 From this process, starting in infancy, a primal sense of place and belonging grows.6
The social rhythms we receive through the senses always transfer information at a distance—in fact over specific distances depending on the mix of senses. They move in sequence from sight to hearing to touch to smell to taste. Moreover, we are sensitive to violations of this order. In The Hidden Dimension, Edward Hall mapped four basic distances underlying the approach-separation dance in all social interactions. He described them as the public, social, personal and intimate distances. The boundaries between them he called their structure points.
“By using one’s self as a control and recording changing patterns of sensory input,” he wrote, “it is possible to identify the structure points in the distance-seeking system. In effect, one identifies, one by one, the isolates making up the sets that constitute the intimate, personal, social and public spaces…For example,” he continues, “the presence or absence of the sensation of the warmth from the body of another person marks the line between intimate and non-intimate space… By using one’s self as a control and recording changing patterns of sensory input it is possible to identify the structure points in the distance-seeking system.”7
The dramas in the turnings of love
Love songs and poems clearly show the rhythmic movements through the four sensory distances. They detail the kinds of information and the feelings that occur in each range. Many of the standard tunes in the American songbook rely on this structure. The overriding tendency in the early comings and goings is for the lovers to get closer and closer. Though they have their separations, the mini cycles favor approach; they combine to form a big approach process.
Somewhere in the very midst of the compounded approaches, however, the balance between the approach and separation begins to shift; the tide turns, and the lovers recede from each other. Sometimes the new approach is weak or never comes.
Our little dream castle with every dream gone,
Is lonely and silent,
The shades are all drawn.
And my heart is heavy as I gaze upon
A cottage for sale.
The rhythms have been caught charmingly well in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, beginning with sight and ending with smell:
Had I no eyes, but ears, my ears would love
That inward beauty and invisible
Or, were I deaf, thy outward parts would move
Each part in me that were but sensible:
Say, that the sense of feeling were bereft me,
And that I could not hear, nor see, nor touch
Though neither eyes nor ears, to hear nor see,
Yet should I be in love by touching thee.
And nothing but the very smell were left me,
Yet would my love to thee be still as much:
For from the still’tory of thy face excelling
Comes breath perfum’d, that breedeth love by smelling.
But, O, what banquet wert thou to the taste,
Being nurse and feeder of the other four!
Would they not wish the feast would ever last,
And bid Suspicion double-lock the door?
Lest Jealousy, that sour unwelcome guest,
Should, by his stealing in, disturb the feast.
44Every kind of loving relationship resides in these distances. Nevertheless, each distance favors one kind of love over another and pauses there, orients itself to that distance and finds its central values there. The virtue of compatibility, for instance, has different content and meaning in sexual love than social love because it finds its center in a different sensory circle, social love in sight and hearing, sex in touch, smell and taste.
The medieval troubadours chronicled the procession through the sensory distances (often approach to someone else’s wife) with particular clarity. Each stage of love they tag with certain sensory expec-tations that make their lives meaningful or empty. Take The Romance of the Rose, (circa 1225) where the Rose symbolizes the beloved. The troubadour starts with sight and closes the distances:
Amongst them all
My rapturous eyes on one did fall,
Whose perfect loveliness outvied
All those beside it. Then I spied
With joy its lovely petals…
And then is moved closer by smell that awakens a desire for touch.
When I caught its odor, I was wholly fraught
With strong desire that now I might
Snatch for my own that sweet delight.
As the intimacy rushes in towards its culmination, its rhythm is checked. The poet of the Rose stops in his tracks. Thorns and thistles around the rose “wound the profane hand” and block the touch.
Of all love songs, the Song of Songs most profoundly portrays the movement through the sequence of sensory distances, with crucial meanings attached to each distance, showing the kinds of gains and losses involved and their inevitability. You can treat it as a mystical manual of instruction in approach and separation. The Song of Songs catches the content of all love songs.
From its first verse, it shows this search for union through deep sensory approach.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—For thy love is better than wine. Thine ointments have a goodly fragrance…
It affirms the truth that a series of approaches and separations is the human condition for love, not only the soul’s love for God, but of man and woman, full fleshed and vibrant with erotic desire. All have change at their core.
Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my bride;
Thou hast ravished my heart with one of thy eyes,
With one bead of thy necklace.
How fair is thy love, my sister, my bride!
How much better is thy love than wine!
And the smell of thine ointments than all manner of spices!
Thy lips, O my bride, drop honey—
Honey and milk are under thy tongue…
One wants to keep the union but it passes. The Song of Songs says that our wish for constancy is an illusion.
I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.
(Song of Songs 5:6)
For biological reasons, the union of the lovers is tremulous and temporary and cannot last. In their heart of hearts, the lovers know that the world is wild and full of accidents and that reality, because of our mortal condition, has inconstancy in its core, and heartbreaks come and when they hit us in our phase vulnerable moments they change us.
Solomon understood that lovers, whether of each other or of God can’t hold steady against the rhythmicity or the hazards of life, which is the tidal pull of the creation itself. Every love has its tensions and reversals, its little deaths and its transports of passion and agonies of despair. This suggests that the eternal union in love, though sought after, can never be achieved. As Adin Steinsaltz, the translator of the Babylonian Talmud into English, commented, “The Jewish approach to life considers the man who has stopped going – he who has a feeling of completion, of peace, of a great light from above that has brought him to rest – to be someone who has lost his way.”8