Living with Love

Living with Love is my blog where I will comment on various things related to psychology, society, and culture.

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Listening to Leonard: Relishing Our Defeats

January 26, 2014

170px-Leonard_Cohen17b-170x204The following blog post was originally posted on the William Alanson White Institute’s blog, Contemplative Psychoanalysis.  Polly will be speaking there on February 5 as part of the White Society Colloquium, giving a talk titled Taking Our Selves Less Seriously: Buddhist and Psychoanalytic Views of Subjective Freedom.  Anne Harrington will also be speaking at the Colloquium.  For more information, visit their events page.


I miss the America we used to be

January 25, 2014

Blue-Is-The-Warmest-Color-2-350x196How the French film “Blue is the Warmest Colour” reminded me of the pleasure of learning, and the joy of being human.

The French film “Blue is the Warmest Color” has gotten a lot of media attention recently.  Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche and winner of the Palme D’ Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, the film has garnered attention for several scenes that focus on two women making love to one another. The film, in my view, is certainly not about female love making that is, in any case, highly stylized and choreographed in the scenes where it appears.  Rather, it speaks to the way we used to live—loving learning, interacting, and being present.


Getting off the Emotional Roller Coaster with Polly at Omega

August 1, 2013
wave-and-rider-489x151To download an audio copy of Polly’s talk, visit Polly’s SoundCloud page.

Teaching at the Omega Institute with Anyen Rinpoche and John Tarrant on the topic of “Getting Off the Emotional Roller Coaster: What the Buddhists Teach” was enjoyable and engaging. Looking back at the course, and the 80 or so attentive people who attended, I am especially impressed by the ways we all stressed deep self-acceptance and self-compassion as the means of emotional healing.


Before Midnight: Kids, power struggles and passion in mid-life marriage

June 29, 2013

BeforeMidnight-489x204While movies rarely show us the reality of the struggles of long-term married couples, Before Midnight dives right in with a refreshingly authentic perspective on how intimate relationships change as we get older.

Like its predecessors, Before Sunset and After Sunrise, Before Midnight deals with the romantic and existential entanglements of its two main characters, Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke) and Celine (played by Julie Delpy).  In this third segment of the relationship, the main characters have aged from their first meeting in their 20s, clandestine rendezvous in their 30s (when Jesse was married to another woman, but she was the wrong wife) and are now married and living in France. They have 8-year-old twin daughters, and host Jesse’s 12-year-old son for summers and holidays from the USA.


Karmapa’s Monlam Retreat – Bodhgaya, India

June 29, 2013


Karmapa(From my recent trip in Dec/Jan 2013)

As we got closer to Bodhgaya, the roads became crowded and hectic. We were immersed into the chaos: Bodhgaya, at this time of high spiritual pilgrimage, is an assault on all the senses. Nothing is serene. In the road, I see hordes of people, cows, bulls, dogs, goats and boars mixed with a barrage of motored vehicles, bicycle rickshaws.

There are hundreds of formally dressed Buddhist monks and nuns – mostly in gold and maroon robes, the colors of Tibetan religious orders – and hundreds more rag-tag Indians, some filthy and ill, carrying their loads on their heads or begging or pushing to get by.

Horns and motorcycles and motored rickshaws blare the sounds of their machines (sometimes a little rap music, here and there) against shouting and grunting and demanding. The mix of smoke, noxious pollution, nauseating sewage, and sweet spices and human sweat assaults the nose. The taste of sewage and various kinds of carbon fuels and occasional fried foods sticks to my taste buds.

My body alternately feels hot, afraid or exhausted as we bounce along into the jumble of life and death (once we saw a stiff long corpse, wrapped in a black blanket, being held by three people sitting in the backseat of an open-air Jeep). My mind was sometimes overwhelmed by the misery and chaos and then overwhelmed by stimulation and then uplifted by dogs playing or beautiful silver cows with calm pretty faces.

When I fell into Ativan-induced sleep that night in our supposedly Western-style hotel (but more Indian-style) aptly named “The Royal Residency” because it promised heat and hot water (though it didn’t always deliver) along with marble floors and veranda-style lobbies, my mind’s eye flooded with all that had flooded my senses. I land upon the playful dogs and fall asleep.

Inside a couple days, we have repeatedly braved the road into the main temple marketplace of Bodhgaya, on foot or in motorized rickshaws – with an on-coming flood of traffic and children, even toddlers – that sluices off as we fly forward into their opposing flow. There are no traffic rules. You are hurtling yourself wildly into everything coming at you. It is a dream instead of being dream-like. This is Bodhgaya.

We make our way to the concluding session of the Karmapa’s Monlam retreat, a yearly pilgrimage in which mostly Tibetan monks and nuns, and other religious and lay Buddhists, gather in the thousands to hear the teachings of the handsome fresh-faced 17th Kagyu Karmapa (, the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa, the beloved spiritual leader of Tibet who was well-known also in America and Europe.

“Karmapa” means “embodiment of Buddha activities.” Different from His Holiness the Dalai Lama who is both a political and spiritual leader, the Karmapa is dedicated to spiritual teaching. Born in 1985 to a nomadic family and identified as the reincarnated 16th Karmapa when he was 7 years old, this Karmapa is surprisingly practical and guileless.

I was in his first audience in America on May 16, 2008 in New York City – with 5,000 other people. Once again, I am in a crowd of at least 5,000 under this huge tent except now at least 3,000 are Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns — many of the monks being young boys.

We’ve all been searched and scanned in order to get into the tent on the grounds of the Karmapa’s monastery. His Holiness the Karmapa (HHK) makes his way into the tent with little ceremony. Immediately he tells us he is suffering badly from the flu. He wasn’t sure he could withstand the challenge of giving his talk.

I feel comforted by the fact that he speaks openly of his weakness because I have been feeling especially weak and white and fragile next to my brown brothers and sisters – Indian and Himalayan – who soldier on under conditions worse than I could have imagined.

HHK says he is weak and yet he is happy that the teachings for 2013 have concluded in a satisfying way because too often, he says, obstacles interfere with his plans. He wonders why. And then, he proceeds to give a clear and inspiring presentation about one’s attitude towards practice.

He begins by saying that one can do prostrations and mantras “because you see others doing them” and they are perhaps of benefit – better than doing nothing. But the true attitude of practice is to investigate your experience and see what happens:

If I do this practice, how does it benefit others and me? If I don’t do this practice, what happens?

In such a way, we become responsible for our daily practice with a sense of why we are doing it. We clarify our motivation. Until we have this direct awareness of why we engage in practices – meditation and others – we cannot get the full benefits they were designed to provide.

While he is talking, scores of old Tibetan people rise and do prostrations, saluting Buddha, Dharma, Sangha with prayer-hands at the forehead, throat and heart. I have the sense they are barely listening to the instructions of HHK. He concludes by encouraging everyone to investigate one’s own experience in practice and to be honest and responsible about what we are doing.

This is Bodhgaya. I love it.

Your Next Chapter

January 8, 2013

ucUnwelcome change disrupts what we regard as our “lives.” Although our lives occur only on a moment-to-moment basis, we have the belief that life should be stable or secure or continuous. When a deep unwelcome change cracks open our belief in security and stability, we have to make a profound shift in order to move forward. Our life context has been upended by death, illness, betrayal or some other kind of loss and we must change our identity in order to fit into a different life. The event – no matter how chilling or difficult – must be told in our own words to others in order for us to move on and transform ourselves. And yet, we must eventually shift away from the “event story” and into the next chapter of our “life story.”

But how do we move on from an event that has gripped our imagination and spirit and changed us forever? How do we surrender to the contingencies of a life we no longer recognize?

Contemporary grief and bereavement models appear to have limited usefulness for those who feel stuck in a sense of being lost, alienated, ashamed, envious or helpless. READ MORE

Minding the Gap

December 14, 2012

true-love1-420x204True love takes place in a particular kind of interpersonal space between you and your beloved. I use the metaphor of a “gap” – an opening between two people across which sparks may fly. In order for true love to strengthen over time, this gap should neither be too wide, like a chasm or an abyss, nor too close as though you share the same mind. If the gap is a chasm, you feel like strangers and you are no longer familiar with one another. If the gap is too small or seems to have disappeared or collapsed, then you feel the other person is completely known by you and you lose the mystery, uncertainty and desire to inquire. Finding and maintaining an ideal gap between two people in a close relationship is often the biggest obstacle to true love.

You might be confused by the notion that true love requires a special kind of distance instead of closeness. When you read the lines from the Milosz poem: “Love means to learn to look at yourself, The way one looks at distant things,” perhaps you feel surprise or disbelief. But to become a warmly attuned witness we have to cultivate a curiosity and open-mindedness about our selves and our loved ones, which must be practiced especially in the presence of our own pain and negative feelings. Love requires us to resist knee-jerk reactions, defensiveness, tired opinions, and sometimes even cherished ideals. When you love someone, you need to pay homage to the fact that you live in different subjective worlds. And that’s why the poet says you need to learn to look at yourself the way one looks at distant things.

What About the Chemistry?

December 5, 2012

71552-61942Single adults—young and old—often talk about wanting the right “chemistry” in a relationship. They mean that rare combination of the new and different with an unexpected ease, the sense that the other, a stranger, is somehow instantly familiar and compelling. Words such as “hot” and “way cool” go with “chemistry” and imply that we’re speaking of bodily states. Depicting our human emotional life as “chemistry” expresses the extent to which, consciously or unconsciously, we have accepted neuroscience and biology–pre-programmed drives, configurations of facial features, hormones or the urge to reproduce-as the most fitting way to narrate our closest human relationships. Have we forgotten the utter complexity and subtle nuances of human relationships?

Not that singles believe they are really mindlessly pre-programmed in their search for the right partner. On the contrary, they hope to… READ MORE