Some of you may remember the Integral Spiritual Experience 2 event which addressed the topic of the Evolution of Love. I remember meeting some of this blog’s readers there for the first time at the shores of the Pacific Grove on the New Year’s holiday. Do you remember learning a revelatory new teaching from Dr. Marc Gafni concerning the stages of love?

I do. I’m not sure that the conception of love as a multi-stage process originated with Gafni or any of the other Integral theorists who contributed to the development of that spiritual program. But since many integralists are familiar with the notion, it’s a fine place to start. I’d like to propose a correction or refinement or evolution of the teaching to reflect wisdom from my own worldview artistry.

Here’s the skinny. If you need a refresher course on the notion of stages of consciousness (a key element of AQAL Integral Theory that includes different strains of developmental research on multiple lines of intelligence, correlated together without prejudice), then do some homework in developmental studies if this discussion floats over your head. For everyone else, let’s take a time capsule to read about “A Teaching on the Three Stations of Love”, focusing first on the general approach:

To unpack the notion of stations of consciousness as they relate to the evolution of love, we’ll use a formulation taken from the tradition of Kabbalah.

The Baal Shem Tov—the great Hebrew mystic who founded the Hasidic movement—in a number of elliptical passages discusses three distinct points that occur in a person’s movement through the different dimensions of life. He refers to them as hachna’ah or submission, havdalah or separation, and hamtaka or sweetness. Each of these three stations refers to a distinct developmental experience, which we move through in the course of life as practice.

The stations, which the Baal Shem calls submission, separation, and sweetness roughly correspond to a movement that developmentalists might refer to as identification (which, at ethnocentric waves of development, might be with a family, partner, or group), to dis-identification (defining the self as separate and distinct from your family, partner, or group) to integration (re-entering the family, partnership, or group at a new level of awareness).

Following this theoretical introduction, Gafni presents his model for love. Station One is “Falling in Love” in which one’s personal individuation is submerged in the joy of connectedness and “you might be willing to do anything to be with or to please your partner or group”. So if you find yourself feeling blissful and excited, then you know you are beginning the Evolution of Love if you want to be fused to your relationship because it “keeps you alive”. (Stop your smirking or grimacing, some of you. Let’s move along.)

At the Station Two, there’s “Separation/Individuation”, which is moving beyond the fusion to loss, loneliness, and the arrival of “persistent conflict with the former togetherness”. If we’re talking about a mentor and protégé, for instance, then you will learn how to let go of the old relationship so that a next generation can arrive into their own successful disambiguation. Now if we’re talking about a romantic relationship, a “falling out of love” occurs in which a person accepts the outcome of a divorce so that their “own heart becomes open and free in spite of an ex-partner’s inability to forgive.”

The Station Three of Love is “Sweetness/Re-Integration”. When sweetness arrives, the prior two stages are joined together; conflicts are worked through; respect is gained of another’s differences, and the partners re-discover each other in “mutual intimacy”. Gafni says that in Kabbalah, “sweetness” is connected to nondual realization in which “you live as part of the largest context of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful”.

Let’s recap: first, you fall in love; second, you fall out love; third, you find acceptance of a sort of mutual intimacy that is connected to a wider spiritual context. These stages “roughly correspond” to the general developmental process of identification, disidentification, and re-integration.

It would be too easy to critique this evolutionary model with knowledge of Dr. Gafni’s well-publicized experiences with relationships that have been described as abusive and exploitative. But I’ll leave that for others to address, if they choose; that’s not why I’m writing this blog post. I’m writing to make a narrow, two-fold argument, and to make it concisely:

First: When it comes to offering simple models of the development of love, we probably need to avoid the sorts of oversimplification involved in the ISE2 model as it was presented.

Second: Developmental models, when simplified in this manner, can become too sweet in a manner that leaves the bitter aftertaste of saccharine.


Now, let’s look at a few of the ways that Dr. Gafni’s stage model of love is oversimplified. Is it really the case, in your life experience or mine, that love begins with a loss of self-identity in exchange for merger with another? Even in the classic Hollywood romantic comedy formula (which as Stanley Cavell has observed has roots in depth psychology and transcendentalist philosophy), love doesn’t start out that way. The “falling in love” story is a complex process starting with a DIS-engagement and rarely ends in a perfect union, fairy tales aside. The screenwriting guru Alexandra Sokoloff presents a typical love story structure basically like so (slightly edited):

  1. MEET CUTE
  2. THE INCITING INCIDENT/CALL TO ADVENTURE
  3. LOVE INTEREST INTRODUCED AS COMPLETE IDIOT
  4. THE HERO/INE’S GHOST
  5. THE DANCE
  6. FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE FAMILY
  7. OOPS, WRONG BROTHER! (or WRONG SISTER!)
  8. WRONG MAN/WRONG WOMAN
  9. GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS/BOYFRIENDS PAST
  10. THE AWFUL TRUTH
  11. PRATFALLS
  12. THE REVOLVING DOOR
  13. WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME
  14. THE CATCHPHRASE or TAGLINE
  15. THE RIDDLE
  16. GOSH, S/HE’D MAKE A GREAT PARENT! (or THE YEARNING FOR A FAMILY)
  17. THE MAKEOVER
  18. COUPLE FORCED TO KISS
  19. COUPLE FORCED TO SHARE A BED
  20. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
  21. SEX AT SIXTY
  22. THE CONFESSION SCENE
  23. YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE WHO UNDERSTANDS
  24. ONLY YOU
  25. GET THE COUPLE TO SOMEONE ELSE’S WEDDING
  26. CINDERELLA GOES TO THE BALL
  27. INTERRUPTING THE WEDDING
  28. I’M GOING TO BREAK UP THAT WEDDING IF IT’S THE LAST THING I DO
  29. “IF ANYONE KNOWS OF ANY REASON…”
  30. THE PROMISE
  31. THE LOVER MAKES A STAND
  32. THE DECLARATION
  33. FINAL BATTLE
  34. PROPOSAL
  35. GROVELING
  36. THE KISS
  37. NEW WAY OF LIFE

All that’s supposed to be Station One in Gafni’s model of love (i.e., the partners fuse together).

I know that talking about screenplay structure here is an odd sort of analysis. But my point is simply this: real life is messy; developmental models can be too pretty. How useful is it really to generalize about love in this way as simply two people meet… boom… instant fusion, and one of them wants to do anything for the other one? I mean, what could possibly go wrong with that sort of analysis? Can anyone think of a reason that shouldn’t be held up as a template for an ideal process?

It seems like Station One might be close to the truth if we’re talking about two agentic partners who both find communion, but usually love stories involve one agentic partner and one communal partner, and each goes through a process somewhat in reverse of the other (e.g., a man finding a release from his egotism while the woman is empowered into a new career with the man as her partner).

Who knows. I’m not claiming to be a love guru. I’m not claiming to have a better model. I’m just saying: can we integralists all pause for a minute before re-using this developmental model in the future and think it through a little more please?

And while we’re at it, let’s notice that if Station One is overly simplified, then Station Two needs to similiarly be complexified to be more useful. And now let’s look at Station Three.

I do believe Gafni and the many integral folks who helped to put out the ISE2 event with this model of love in the background were onto something very important, useful, and true. After all the complex meanderings and wanderings of early stages of love are passed, love is messy… and sometimes partners find themselves enlarged, enlivened, and vitalized in an intimacy which may work itself out as either together or separate. So I don’t have a problem with a stage model for love suggesting new and empowering ways of conceptualizing such a stage in order to provide guidance or hope for lovers working out the painful difficulties of the earlier stages. And “reintegration” is a fine word. I mean, why not? There’s no need to get cynical without cause.

But is there anything about the Integral worldview that suggests that “sweetness” is the best — or at least an insightful and apt — way of talking about this rather important notion? After all, love is at the center of so many of our lives and the very core concept of divinity in some influential faiths. So before we pull out the ISE2 experience and begin reflecting on our experiences of love as resulting in a state of sweetness (and if you don’t find love’s afterglow to be sweet, then, you know, maybe there’s something wrong with you?), let’s put a pause on it.

Looking at the Kabbalistic origins to the “sweetness” notion a bit… Gafni refers to hachna’ah as submission, havdalah as separation, and hamtaka as sweetness. I’m not a Hebrew scholar. But using insights from Lingua-U, I can tell you that he is basically reading this three phase model as yin (fused) to yang (breaking) to yung (integration). This isn’t what the subtle energy of these words suggest to me, for what it’s worth. I would look at the most relevant shifts between hachna’ah as yin-yang-yin, havdalah as yang-yang-yung and hamtaka as yung-yang-yang. I don’t expect these terms to mean much to you, but if you are looking to the Three Stations of Love as presenting some sort of a logical progression in energy flow patterns from one state to the next to the next, then you’re not going to find it in this particular formulation. Perhaps submission, separation, and sweetness are fine translations of the reference of the words, but semantics includes sound-meaning as well as reference, and at a more fundamental level.

Let’s not confuse the myriad ways that love can evolve and devolve — or simply Volve and do many other things — as a simple three-step stepladder. And when we update our developmental models concerning love, we might want to check to see that the subtle energetic processes described by our Sacred Words are indeed cohesive. Ideally, they should have a subtle logic of their own that is elegant and wise, preferably with roots in cross-linguistic or cross-cultural symbolism. After all, even a simple stage model can provide useful insights that seem profound for a time, but then they look rough (or downright daft) in hindsight.

The third stage of love may or may not be sweet, as the Kabbalists suggested, but Lingua-U suggests that if sweet is an appropriate word, we don’t have to look too far to see how sweetness alone is not a good metaphor for nonduality. What might be better? Perhaps Sweet and Sour. In the Lingua-U metalanguage, the two words are virtually indistinct to six degrees: Sweet (𝌣⚍) and Sour (𝌣⚏). Sweet is yang and sour is yin; together… we may say, yung, they sound delicious. Like a pitted cherry, one taste of love of nonduality with a tart, juicy center.

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