What is Love? An Exploration of Culture and Truth

By Felice Dunas - August 21, 2018
Baby, don't hurt me.

By Felice Dunas, PhD

While reading a Harvard Business Review article on authentic leadership (leadership that includes the wholeness of self rather than just ambition based endeavors), I was intrigued by research addressing the importance of a strong support network for leaders. By loving and being loved, by leaning on and being leaned upon in their personal lives, leaders fly higher, bringing more goodness and transformation into the world. Without people by whom a leader can completely feel loved and let down, their wings are clipped and their power to positively influence the world is limited. This inspired me to think that we are leaders and need to feel loved to optimize our effectiveness.

This raises a question: what is the energetic dynamic that expresses as human loving in the medicine we practice? What is happening to qi and blood and organs and shen, hun, po and all the energetic components of the “beingness” that we are: body, intellect, emotions, and spirit? My life and career, like yours, has a high level of commitment to love, happiness, self-awareness, kindness, authenticity, pleasure, and truth, as well as the use of these wonderful experiences in creating health. Do you believe that our professional ancestors did the same thing? Did they understand love as we did? Where their treatments goals in alignment with ours? Was happiness something they strived for or saw as a goal for their patients?

The Modern Quest for Love and Its Challenges

Our patients live in heart-starved cultures. Their behaviors and yearnings reflect that there isn’t enough love expressed in most of their small, arbitrary encounters. Most go through extended periods surrounded by people without sharing warm smiles or sincere hugs. They pay to go to “personal growth” seminars and are told to hug and be hugged more often. They consume bitter, fire-element tonics, like chocolate and coffee, to warm their hearts, and drink alcohol and take mood-altering medications to create the illusion of movement in the liver’s ability to move qi, ameliorating despair and depression. Yet we all want what we define as love, and our organs show the lack of it.

We in the West take our concept of love for granted, yet the cultures from which our medicine evolved think quite differently about it. The texts you read may use words that you know, like love, but meanings that you don’t. As a result, it is easy to misdiagnose a patient or misinterpret the necessary treatment.

Historical and Cultural Perspectives on Love

Chuang Zi was an influential Chinese philosopher who lived during the 4th century BCE during the Warring States Period. When his wife died, at first he felt sadness. Then he sat on a rock, meditated on the changes of qi, and realized that death is nothing but a transformation (a dispersal) of qi, the same way that birth is a transformation (aggregation) of qi. At that, he said, his sadness dissipated and he felt joy. Some people might find this story philosophically uplifting and the source of great wisdom. This has been true for many of Chuang Zi’s students and his students’ students for over two millennia. We, however, would say he is being incredibly callous and insensitive, that his failure to acknowledge his grief is problematic, and that he is increasing his odds of getting sick as a result of his emotional emptiness/stagnation in a decade or two. Same patient with a different prognosis from the Eastern and Western acupuncturist.

Love, as we know it, is the result of a Western concept of self developed over 2500 years, from Plato down to Aristotle, through the Stoics, St. Paul, and the continuing evolution of biblical translation, including St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and St. Francis. European philosophers such as Locke, Hume, Descartes, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, and Sartre have tremendously influenced our view. Currently, the loud voices of psychologists, neuroscientists, gurus, and “human potential” movement authors define consciousness and selfhood for us.

The Chinese philosophies, however, do not envisage an individual, inward-looking, autonomous self as we have in the West. They do not perceive themselves as unique, emotional people needing time or room or cultivation of the “self”. There is no “self” as we know it to fall in love, need love, or get needs fulfilled!

Love in the Lens of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism

This has to be seen with reference to the three major philosophies of China: Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. I believe Confucianism has been the dominant philosophy since, at the very least, the Song dynasty. The Confucianist view of love is not vital, as it is to us.

Their focus would be on duty, responsibility, care, kindness, and, crucially, obedience. The translation of the Confucian ren as “compassion” is misleading. Ren is a state of family and social harmony that occurs when everybody behaves according to their duties and takes care of others. It is based on ethics, morality, duty, and respect—but not love. We must also remember that, to the Confucians, there was nothing worse than losing control, which passionate, romantic love can lead to.

The Daoist does not “love” the Dao. Ideally, the Daoist witnesses and, with great dedication, experiences the Dao. But there is nothing personal about one’s relationship to it. No silent communication. No self.

Self-esteem is paramount in American culture and you use your work to enhance a patient’s self-esteem. This would be unheard of in China. Your view of patients is based upon your culture of origin. Is it possible that by seeing through this lens you are missing something? If a patient is not of a Western culture, could you be misinterpreting their need for care, sending them in a direction that is not appropriate to them?

Integrating Eastern and Western Concepts of Love in Therapy

I once worked with a middle aged Chinese woman who had come to the US as a child. She explained to me that, in her home, emotions were not expressed, and that she never felt very high or very low. She lived in a comfortable world, but was aware that other people were different. She was fond of her husband, cared deeply for him, but felt minimal passion. She described the relationship as appropriate and good. Passion wasn’t something she understood well. It was helpful to her when I explained that supporting yin qi in her would allow her to become more receptive to her husband. Cultivating this form of qi could grow the marriage in a unique and new way and alleviate the menopausal problems for which she sought treatment. I told her that we could use the medicine to merge her culture of origin and Western culture by helping her feel more receptivity to everything, including love as it is defined in the West. She was very excited about this,but not all patients would be, and this is important to realize.

As published in the Handbook of Emotions, Shaver, Wu, and Schwartz interviewed young people in the U.S.A., Italy, and the People’s Republic of China about their emotional experiences. In all cultures, men and women identified the same emotions and they agreed completely except on one: love. The U.S. and Italian subjects equated love with happiness; both passionate and compassionate love were assumed to be intensely positive experiences.

Chinese students, however, had a darker view of love. In China, passionate love tended to be associated with “infatuation”, “unrequited love”, “nostalgia”, and “sorrow-love”. In short, love was viewed more as a negative experience: the result of obsessive thinking, jealousy, and the like.

Many Chinese books only talk about “love” (ai 爱) as a cause of disease without specifying what it actually is. The term could be referring to the dark aspects of personal affection reflected in the responses Chinese students gave in the study above.

The old pictograph for “love” had “belching” at the top, a heart, and “gracious gait” (as in one’s walking gait). “Belching” was later replaced by a “hand” and a “covering over the heart” and “gracious gait”. The modern Chinese removed the “heart” from the character so that now it looks very much like the character for “friendship”; i.e. are they more comfortable with friendship than love as we define it?

Yes, of course, Chinese people fall in love too and have passionate sexual desires. This happens more frequently now, due to exposure to the Western world, but all three of the philosophies of China considered “desire” the root of psychological and existential problems. Love is a form of desire. When we are in love we crave that person intensely. In Asian cultures, there has always been an awareness of emotional preference, affection, inebriation (as in drunkenness for wanting), and need for sex, as well as jealousy and despair over not having the person one wishes: these are not considered positive experiences and are not to be cultivated.

Does this mean that the rich, gooey, chocolaty goodness of snuggling with someone your entire being feels a “connection” with is not inherent to human nature? Can it not be found in our medical theory?

Yes, it can. One of the many areas of greatness in our medicine is its range and flexibility. Absolutely everything that any of our patients experience can be defined and understood within the theoretical constructs of TCM. This is how we know the universality of it, the inherent correctness of it. People whose belief systems and perceptions of life are utterly different can all find answers here. The inherent truth of this medicine allows us to find wisdom that reflects our beliefs even if they directly contradict those of our professional ancestors, the people through whom this medicine was brought to the Western world.

For example, the capacity to feel and express love comes from every aspect of who we are and is not limited to a particular “place” in our beings. It isn’t stored within the reserves of our kidneys. Infants and children, who radiate a compelling, pure, adorable and adoring love, have inherently weak kidneys until their bodies age a bit. It isn’t the result of an abundance of qi. The weakest among us, the wounded, handicapped, infirmed and dying, express heroism in their belief and experience of the extraordinary nature of ordinary love. It is not born of an organ. All organs lay the foundation for different experiences and expressions of love. The liver allows us to feel warmth and kindness, the lungs the bliss of bonding, the heart bursts forth enthusiasm and the gift of laughter, the spleen allows us to “know” love and the kidneys are the fountain from which love blossoms into wisdom.

Things to consider

1. When practicing, think seriously about the culture of origin of each patient. Realize that the structure of their personality and relationship to the world may be foundationally different than yours. It is imperative to strive for results in alignment with the worldview that they hold, not the one that you hold.

2. We are all involved in a sociological experiment. We are the first generations of acupuncturists to integrate this medicine into American culture. We may not be accurate in all our interpretations and, as players in an ongoing medical expansion, mistakes and corrections are inevitable.

3. When we are taught Five Element theory, we are told that the locations, the directions, were originally presented to explain lifestyles and disease patterns in China. But this theory can be used to explain differences on a much larger scale. How might Five Element theory help you understand patients from the West, East, North, and South worldwide? If you use the entire world as your map, how might you view patients differently?

4. Many use the (romantic) love of an individual as a microcosmic example of divine love that can be spread through all interactions and relationships of life. Essential Being = Essential Loving. We see love as a force that pervades everything, and our lives and actions as expressions of it. This is a Western view, not a Chinese one, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

As the Beatles told us, “All You Need Is Love”. While that song was probably not a hit in China, for us its truth is simple and profound. It is our gift to spread love to those we lead and heal. It is our gift to find love within this medicine and to use it to heal ourselves. It is our gift to grow this medicine in the soil of our thoughts and beliefs such that it nourishes Western patients, as it has so richly addressed the needs of those on the other side of the world, and in centuries past, whose beliefs have contradicted our own. We bring our unique gift to the multi-millennium old medicine that we practice. We contribute a blessing and a new dimension to it, something it has never seen before. We bring our frame of reference, our personalities, resulting from exposure to unique cultural experiences during childhood and neurological programming from parenting. We bring our understanding of emotion, our ability to treat western patients who are similarly programmed and who also experience love and loss and life as we do.

Empathy is an imperative if a practitioner is to experience higher levels of mastery in the medical arts. It takes one to know one. This is how we help our patients heal and come to know more love.

This article was originally published in Acupuncture Today in 2010.

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Felice Dunas

FELICE DUNAS, PhD, is an international professional speaker, consultant and executive coach who has used her understanding of behavior, the human body, and Ancient Principles to enhance the lives of individuals, couples, families, and corporate and health care industry CEOs for nearly forty years.

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