Love in Three Centers - Body, Heart & Mind
by Peter O’Hanrahan
What is love? It’s easy to say but hard to define. It means different things to different people. Perhaps the most common meaning is that love is a feeling in the heart. We care for another person, we feel something for them. Yet there is much more to “love” than our feelings.
George Gurdjieff brought us the modern enneagram diagram as well as other important teachings about human development. Although he did not talk about nine personality types he did speak about three “brains” or three centers of energy and intelligence – head, heart and body. His view was that love can be expressed from each center with its own quality and result. Almost one hundred years later, scientists have this to say:
"Dr. Paul MacLean, an evolutionary neuroanatomist and senior research scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, has argued that the human brain is comprised of three distinct sub-brains, each the product of a separate age in evolutionary history. ... His neuro-evolutionary finding of a three-in-one, or triune, brain can help explain how some of love's anarchy arises from ancient history."
From "A General Theory of Love" by Lewis, Amini, and Lannon. Random House 2000.
The Gurdjieff work gives a practical outline for understanding how we love and how we want to be loved. It helps us integrate the many forms of love portrayed since ancient times to the present - from the earliest love poems and the teachings of Greek philosophers to modern romance and brain science. Gurdjieff asserted that instinctual, or body-based love is the most common form of love all around the world. He was skeptical of romantic or emotional love, saying that it can often turn into its opposite (as our feelings change). His view was that the highest form of love comes from the intellectual center.
However, brain scientists tell us that our “love map” is based in patterns of the limbic system formed by our body and emotions called “limbic attractors” which organize our communication with others and evoke a response from them. In contrast, love from the head center has been described in the spiritual traditions as charity, agape, Platonic love – something that transcends personal gain.
Understanding the role of our three centers will help us appreciate how we already love others and how we can further develop our capacities in the head, heart and body. Knowing the enneagram types helps us work with the structure of our own personality type and what gets in the way of love.
Body Center Love
Body-based love is the doing for another, taking action on their behalf. It may be combined with a positive emotional state but not necessarily. The instincts have an inherent “pro-life” code. When the baby cries in the middle of the night a sleep deprived parent may not feel positive emotion but still provides the necessary care. A father or mother will work long hours to support the family, even though their heart center may be less available and feelings stay under the surface.
In India today most marriages are arranged by the family, not chosen by the partners. People in these marriages report as much satisfaction and love as those who married based on choice. Throughout history romantic love has not been the usual starting point for family life. Marriage and family relationships have been based more on practicality – keeping people alive and thriving as much as possible, having babies, achieving a secure position in the family and in the community.
Body-centered love shows up in three instinctual territories:
We can see the self preservation instinct at work in the way that people take care of one another through providing food, shelter, money, protection, and attention to the health and well being of loved ones. Self preservation instinct may be limited to oneself and one’s family or inner circle. But we also see an expanded form in those who work long and hard to provide for the entire “human family.”
The sexual instinct has its own survival value. Making babies ensures the continuation of the species, while “making love” is (often) accompanied by an increase in hormones and neurotransmitters which support attachment and bonding. Even without involvement of the heart center sex may contribute to the well being of another through physical intimacy and pleasure. Eros (erotic love) is not limited to sexual relations; we may sense an attraction and a connection to others through the presence of the life force itself. The aliveness of our body connects us to the life force in their bodies.
With the social instinct people take action on behalf of their friends, their tribe, their nation, or humanity as a whole. We are the descendants of many generations of people who lived and fought for their vision of a just society. Societies continue to evolve and each of us plays a small part through our participation and cooperation at so many levels with our neighbors, fellow country people, and universal villagers. Social instinct love can lead to acts of great service and heroism. But this instinct can also lead to acts of aggression and violence against people from another tribe or nation. Aided by the enneagram and other useful systems and methods, an evolving social consciousness is helping us lean towards peace.
"At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.... We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force."
Heart Center Love
"Love feeds a million watch fires in the encampment of the body."
Diane Ackerman in "A Natural History of Love."
As human beings we have a limbic system which governs our emotions and supports our bonding and attachment with partners, friends, children, and family members. Surely this is an evolutionary development which furthers the survival of our species. Most people, with few exceptions, have strong emotional responses towards people they care about. We are capable of empathy, compassion, and devotion. We know when someone is listening to us and empathizing with their heart. We are moved by the joy and suffering of others. With a strong enough empathy function we may even feel concern for a stranger who is in trouble. The discovery of mirror neurons gives this a scientific basis. We will experience something of the physical or emotional state of another person in our own body when these neurons fire.
The problem with emotional love, as Mr. Gurdjieff suggests, is that it can turn into its opposite. If we only love with our feelings what happens when our feelings change? There is a saying that “love brings up everything unlike love,” meaning that when we open our hearts in a close relationship we also open the door to any unworked or repressed feelings from our past. When these feelings are blamed on the other person there is big trouble.
In our modern culture we expect to be moved and opened up by falling in love. But perhaps not too much. Emotional intensity can lead to big drama, for better or worse. How much romance do we seek? How much can we handle? The media are full of stories about charismatic people who meet their “soulmate,” fall in love, but then some years (or months) later there is an acrimonious divorce. On a positive note we also hear stories of high school sweethearts who are celebrating a romantic 60th wedding anniversary.
Romantic love for the majority of people in the world is a relatively new development in human history. The concept of romantic love took a big leap with the romantic poets of the late medieval and renaissance periods. But the best object of one’s romantic love was someone unattainable, someone to be idealized from a distance. You generally did not seek to have sex with them!
Totalitarian states have often prohibited romantic love between individuals while telling people to direct their love toward the motherland or the supreme leader as the embodiment of the nation. For most of its history the Christian church discouraged romantic love between people, saying that it must be directed only toward God. Yet at another level, the Christian tradition offers a compelling image of the burning heart of Jesus with the message of deep compassion and love for every person.
It’s said that romance provides the fuel for the fire of the heart center. Yet the biochemical rush of romantic love wears off over time. Can it be reignited? Can it mature into something more stable and committed? Can we keep our hearts open to our partner through times of disappointment or difficulty? The enneagram work would say that this takes work on our type structure.
“.... the intensity of romantic love fueled by PEA and other chemicals, most commonly wears off between 18 months and three years. Then what? A new set of substances comes into play - endorphins, which help create feelings of safety, security, and comfortable attachment. Unlike PEA, these do not increase excitement but have a calming effect.”
From "The Anatomy of Love" Helen E. Fisher, Norton, 1992.
Robert Johnson, an author and student of Carl Jung, describes “stirring the oatmeal love ...a willingness to share ordinary human life, to find meaning in the simple, unromantic tasks: earning a living, living within a budget, putting out the garbage, feeding the baby in the middle of the night. To ‘stir the oatmeal’ means to find the relatedness, the value, even the beauty in simple ordinary things, not to eternally demand a cosmic drama, an entertainment or an extraordinary intensity in everything. .... it represents the discovery of the sacred in the midst of the humble and ordinary.”
Still, romantic love continues to thrive in the songs, films and stories of our culture. We are especially inspired and moved by music which speaks directly to the heart center:
“Love was when I loved you, one true time I hold you, in my life we'll always go on. Near, far, wherever you are I believe that the heart does go on.”
Sung by Celine Dion
“You’re not a ship to carry my life, you are bound to my love in many lonely nights. ... And I need you to turn to when I lose control, you’re my guardian angel who keeps out the cold... Did you say yes, well I said I knew that my reason for living was for loving you......”
And here are some quotes from Rumi, the 13th century Muslim poet and mystic:
“Go to the well of deep love inside each of us. Be generous and grateful.” “I will set you on my breath so you will become my life.” “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”
Head Center Love
Love from the head center is about the seeing and appreciation of the other person. There is a saying that to love someone you have to see who they really are. Otherwise we may be caught in our own projections and idealizations. When reality intrudes and the other person fails to meet our expectations, do we no longer “love” them? When romance wears off or the activity of the instincts subsides, can we see and appreciate our spouse, child, or friend for their true self? What if we feel abandoned by them, or angry at them? We may still be able to feel some empathy but head center love does not require this. It’s a different kind of positive regard. For example we may have experienced the dispassionate gaze of a teacher or guide who has “seen” us in a powerful way yet is not very involved emotionally.
“Tough love” is important at times when we need to speak the truth to someone who is acting badly or caught in the grip of a destructive pattern. It goes well with empathy, but seeing and understanding what needs to happen takes priority over feelings.
Those of us who have been involved in the enneagram over time know that the system of nine types helps us to see people more clearly, to not take things so personally, and to stay more constant in our positive regard for others even when their personality is irritating or difficult. It supports us in making a choice, repeatedly, to honor the real person inside the type structure even when we don’t feel like it. This is close to the traditional description of charity, or caritas, as being located in the will and not the emotions.
Victor Frankl said it well:
“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”
There are countless books, articles, films, songs and poems that describe or evoke a particular aspect of love. But rarely do we see or hear anything that describes love in three different centers of intelligence, each with its own style and potential.
The centers can function independently. Instinctual love does not necessarily involve the heart center. Sometimes it seems limited to material security. Emotional love does not necessarily involve the head center and it may be unstable. Seeing and appreciating another person from the head center does not necessarily involve any physical activity on their behalf. But it could. It’s not uncommon that loving from one center will evoke love from another center. At other times our centers may be in conflict. For example, our heart says one thing and our head center says another. Which center takes priority?
With inner work and practice we can increase our capacity for all three kinds of love while understanding the intelligence and the limitations of each. And we have the map of the enneagram to show us how our type structure and defenses get in the way.
This is true for each of the nine enneagram types. There may be some association between the “lead center” and how we love. Body types (8,9,1) may emphasize instinctual bonding and doing; feeling types (2, 3, 4) may emphasize the heart; head types (5, 6, 7) may focus on an intellectual connection and seeing the other. But this is not a rule and everyone can use any of the centers. For example: enneagram Threes are part of the “heart triad” but often show their love by doing things for their significant others. Sixes are “head types” but can be plenty romantic at times. And then there is traveling the line to our “heart/security point.” Strong body-based Eights become opened up and emotionally vulnerable when they travel to the Two space. Romantic Fours in a long term partnership may start to connect more from the body and instincts at point One. When we include the theory of the Enneagram of Harmony and the “hidden lines” we find Sevens who are working deeply on their type structure and developing a strong connection to the Four space. It’s a complicated and dynamic system. The point is to explore how we love and which center(s) we are using.
How we can use this model of love in three centers:
First - It reminds us to appreciate ourselves for the ways that we express love from each of our centers. It’s the right thing to do to acknowledge how we care about the people in our lives. Even when we do not feel appreciated by another, we can appreciate ourselves. This reinforces the neural pathways that sustain and develop our capacity to love.
Second – knowing how we express love reminds us to get there in the moment. We can remember to pause, breathe and bring our attention to one or more of our centers to extend ourselves a bit more in our caring for the other. We may be able to shift our internal state so as to open up our ability to express love in the moment. It may not be very far away.
Third – We can stay interested and committed to loving from each of our centers. A central goal of the enneagram work is to access our full potential as human beings. This takes a lot of work over time. While loving others gives us a powerful motivation for continuing our work on ourselves.
"We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love."
Questions for reflection and observation:
How do we love people? How might this be different with a friend, a child, a sibling, a sexual partner?
Which center or centers are we using, and how much?
How do we want to be loved and what is our priority among the three centers?
How is the need for security part of love? How does it get in the way?
In which relationship(s) are we called on to develop more capacity in the head center, the heart center, the body center?
How can we develop more presence in each center? What are the practices?
Helen Palmer at the 2008 conference of the Association of Enneagram Teachers:
“The topic for this meeting is love, and a commonly asked question is “what is it?” The spiritual traditions have a great deal to say about this, that love is a state of mind and a state of being rather than an attraction or a passing thing. That love can be accessed and lived in rather than being just a transitory guest. Well where is it? And if there is such a thing as living in an enduring state of love, how do I get there? These are the seminal questions that seekers begin to ask themselves. Meditation is a good place to begin. With practice it will lead us to a state of no suffering that can only be termed love...”
Presentation at the 2019 IEA Conference in Oakland, CA
9-10:30, Sat. July 27
Love and Relationship in Three Centers - Body, Heart, Mind
To receive emails about new articles or workshops, please join my email list.