The boundaries of the ego and the difference between the erotic feeling and the true love

The boundaries of the ego and the difference between the erotic feeling and the true love

The misconception that falling in love is a type of love is so potent precisely because it contains a grain of truth.

The experience of real love also has to do with ego boundaries, since it involves an extension of one’s limits. One’s limits are one’s ego boundaries. When we extend our limits through love, we do so by reaching out, so to speak, toward the beloved, whose growth we wish to nurture. For us to be able to do this, the beloved object must first become beloved to us; in other words, we must be attracted toward, invested in and committed to an object outside of ourselves, beyond the boundaries of self. Psychiatrists call this process of attraction, investment and commitment “cathexis” and say that we “cathect” the beloved object. But when we cathect an object outside of ourselves we also psychologically incorporate a representation of that object into ourselves.

For example, let us consider a man who gardens for a hobby. It is a satisfying and consuming hobby. He “loves” gardening. His garden means a lot to him. This man has cathected his garden. He finds it attractive, he has invested himself in it, he is committed to it -so much so that he may jump out of bed early Sunday morning to get back to it, he may refuse to travel away from it, and he may even neglect his wife for it. In the process of his cathexis and in order to nurture his flowers and shrubs he learns a great deal. He comes to know much about gardening about soils and fertilizers, rooting and pruning. And he knows his particular garden-its history, the types of flowers and plants in it, its layout, its problems and even its future. Despite the fact that the garden exists outside of him, through his cathexis it has also come to exist within him. His knowledge of it and the meaning it has for him are part of him, part of his identity, part of his history, part of his wisdom. By loving and cathecting his garden he has in quite a real way incorporated the garden within him, and by this incorporation his self has become enlarged and his ego boundaries extended.

What transpires then in the course of many years of loving, of extending our limits for our cathexes, is a gradual but progressive enlargement of the self, an incorporation within of the world without, and a growth, a stretching and a thinning of our ego boundaries. In this way the more and longer we extend ourselves, the more we love, the more blurred becomes the distinction between the self and the world. We become identified with the world. And as our ego boundaries become blurred and thinned, we begin more and more to experience the same sort of feeling of ecstasy that we have when our ego boundaries partially collapse and we “fall in love.” Only, in-stead of having merged temporarily and unrealistically with a single beloved object, we have merged realistically and more permanently with much of the world. A “mystical union” with the entire world may be established. The feeling of ecstasy or bliss associated with this union, while perhaps more gentle and less dramatic than that associated with falling in love, is nonetheless much more stable and lasting and ultimately satisfying. It is the difference between the peak experience, typified by falling in love, and what Abraham Maslow has referred to as the “plateau experience.” The heights are not suddenly glimpsed and lost again; they are attained for-ever.

It is obvious and generally understood that sexual activity and love, while they may occur simultaneously, often are disassociated, because they are basically separate phenomena. In itself, making love is not an act of love. Nonetheless the experience of sexual intercourse, and particularly of orgasm (even in masturbation), is an experience also associated with a greater or lesser degree of collapse of ego boundaries and attendant ecstasy. It is because of this collapse of ego boundaries that we may shout at the moment of climax “I love you” or “Oh, God” to a prostitute for whom moments later, after the ego boundaries have snapped back into place, we may feel no shred of affection, liking or investment.

This is not to say that the ecstasy of the orgasmic experience cannot be heightened by sharing it with one who is beloved; it can. But even without a beloved partner or any partner the collapse of ego boundaries occurring in conjunction with orgasm may be total; for a second we may totally forget who we are, lose track of self, be lost in time and space, be outside of ourself, be transported. We may become one with the universe. But only for a second.

In describing the prolonged “oneness with the universe” associated with real love as compared to the momentary oneness of orgasm, I used the words “mystical union.” Mysticism is essentially a belief that reality is oneness. The most literal of mystics believe that our common perception of the universe as containing multitudes of discrete objectsstars, planets, trees, birds, houses, ourselves-all separated from one an-other by boundaries is a misperception, an illusion. To this consensual misperception, this world of illusion that most of us mistakenly believe to be real, Hindus and Buddhists apply the word “Maya.” They and other mystics hold that true reality can be known only by experiencing the oneness through a giving up of ego boundaries. It is impossible to really see the unity of the universe as long as one continues to see oneself as a discrete object, separate and distinguishable from the rest of the universe in any way, shape or form. Hindus and Buddhists frequently hold, therefore, that the infant before the development of ego boundaries knows reaity, while adults do not. Some even suggest that the path toward enlightenment or knowledge of the oneness of reality requires that we regress or make ourselves like infants. This can be a dangerously tempting doctrine for certain adolescents and young adults who are not prepared to assume adult responsibilities, which seem frightening and overwhelming and demanding beyond their capacities. “I do not have to go through all this,” such a person may think. “I can give up trying to be an adult and retreat from adult demands into sainthood.” Schizophrenia, however, rather than sainthood, is achieved by acting on this supposition.

Most mystics understand the truth that was elaborated at the end of the discussion of discipline: namely, that we must possess or achieve something before we can give it up and still maintain our competence and viability. The infant without its ego boundaries may be in closer touch with reality than its parents, but it is incapable of surviving without the care of these parents and incapable of communicating its wisdom. The path to sainthood goes through adulthood. There are no quick and easy shortcuts. Ego boundaries must be hardened before they can be softened. An identity must be established before it can be transcended. One must find one’s self before one can lose it. The temporary release from ego boundaries associated with falling in love, sexual intercourse or the use of certain psychoactive drugs may provide us with a glimpse of Nirvana, but not with Nirvana itself. It is a thesis of this book that Nirvana or lasting enlightenment or true spiritual growth can be achieved only through the persistent exercise of real love.

In summary, then, the temporary loss of ego boundaries involved in falling in love and in sexual intercourse not only leads us to make commitments to other people from which real love may begin but also gives us a foretaste of (and there-fore an incentive for) the more lasting mystical ecstasy that can be ours after a lifetime of love. As such, therefore, while falling in love is not itself love, it is a part of the great and mysterious scheme of love.
The Road Less Traveled
Scott Peck



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