Infatuation (written 2015)
Most often the word “infatuation” is used in the context of romantic love. When we become infatuated with another person, it is as if we put on special lenses. These lenses do not allow us to see qualities we may not find appealing, at the same time as they exaggerate or even invent qualities in the other that we are drawn to. If we think back to romantic involvements that arose in our pre-teens or teens, or even look closely at attractions to singing stars or film idols that we might have as adults, we can see this at work. It's not even necessary for us to know much about the real person. Most of what we think we know is a personal invention, a riff we take off on from the tiniest beginning...a smile, a phrase, a tilted cowboy hat.
Yet, we feel betrayed when something of reality breaks through...a piece of news about the film star, or an action on the part of our “idol” that is drastically out of sync with our expectations and beliefs.
In his book Living the Compassionate Life, the Dalai Lama talks about the fragility of marriage in modern times, saying “Marriages that last only a short time do so because they lack compassion; they are produced by emotional attachment based on projection and expectation, and as soon as the projections change, the attachment disappears. Our desire can be so strong that the person to whom we are attached appears to be flawless, when in fact he or she has many faults.”
This habit of projection that human beings have, however, is not limited to romantic relationships. In the teachings of the Buddha there are references to the five cords of sensual pleasure. These are simply our five senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. These are great gifts, of course. We are embodied beings and our senses allow us to fully experience an embodied life. It is not the senses themselves that are a problem, but rather that we can become “infatuated with them and utterly committed to them,...without seeing the danger in them or understanding the escape from them.” (MN 26 v32)
When we become infatuated with the senses, we form the idea that satisfying them is the key to happiness. As we did with the TV star, we project onto the objects that please us the capacity to make us truly happy. And over and over again, “our projections change and the attachment disappears” even as the Dalai Lama observes in short marriages. Advertising plays on this by building projections for us. We know this when we pause to evaluate, yet we come to believe that the untainted joy people in the ads seem to experience will be ours as well, if we just own that model of car, smoke that brand of cigarette, drink a particular kind of beer, take our vacation in a certain location.
Our infatuation with the senses leads us to over-indulge, to saturate the senses, and then to become bored and restless because more or different no longer brings the rush it once did. Infatuation leads to the insatiable need for more that is harming us and our world.
This isn't a condemnation. It is the nature of being human. But as human beings we are also blessed with the capacity to see clearly, if we commit to this instead. Careful investigation of our thinking, of how we move from a moment's pleasure to a full-fledged belief in lasting fulfillment, is the beginning. Looking closely, but with compassion for others and ourselves, is vital. Seeing the flaws and accepting them, in ourselves and others.
Ultimately then, we can enjoy the beach while still seeing the abandoned wrappers in the sand, and acknowledging the need for temperance and sunscreen in partaking of its pleasures. We know it is just a beach. It is not the answer to all life's problems. It is just a vacation, not the solution to the difficulties and heartbreak we are working through. It is just a smile from an attractive stranger, not the discovery of the perfect soulmate. When we commit to this investigation, infatuation has no foothold.