Love Is the Art of Not Knowing

Reading about love is like watching sex on TV: It just ain't the same as being there.

Nonetheless, U.S. publishers deluge bookstores with relationship advice each February. (And this really is an annoyingly American affliction. British and Canadian publishers behave more like literary lions than Hallmark sheep.) Here are a few of the interesting titles sprinkled within this year's downpour.

Zen and the Art of Falling in Love (Simon & Schuster) is unique. By focusing on love itself -- rather than the predictable ways it manifests in relationships -- author and therapist Brenda Shoshanna has crafted an uncommonly original book.

"The wonderful, ancient practice of Zen is actually the practice of falling in love," Shoshanna writes. "When one focuses on and welcomes all that life brings, each day becomes a good day ... to continually find wonder, kindness, friendship and playfulness."

Among the introductory practices are steps through which one may discover oneself, give up control, and become emotionally available. Later chapters explore how to nourish oneself, be present for others, and deal with the blows that will inevitably come.

The teachings are structured as stories, and each is reinforced by Koan-like exercises such as this: "Look at a person who is close to you right now -- anyone it happens to be. Notice the ways in which you push him away. Stop doing that for a moment. Become aware of what he is offering and what he is not. Allow the two of you to be together in whatever way you are. Just be with it all for a little while and let it be fine the way it is. Do the same thing tomorrow with someone else."

The other bold title in this year's Valentine's Day Avalanche is Peace Between the Sheets: Healing With Sexual Relationships (Frog). Lawyer-turned-relationship-counselor Marnia Robinson argues that many of us are literally addicted to orgasm, stumbling through life from one dopamine hangover to the next.

The first half of Robinson's book makes the case that orgasm unleashes the same sort of chemical assault on the brain as alcohol, nicotine, cocaine or other drugs. She asserts that many couples' relationships eerily resemble the addict-dealer relationship pattern: newfound delight, followed by begrudging contentment, devolving into angry resentment. "We remain at biology's mercy," she writes, "until we begin to make the connection between the great sex we had last week and the disharmony we are experiencing this week."

Her solution, detailed in the book's second half, is to avoid getting sexually "overheated," abstain from orgasm for pre-agreed cycles, and learn to engage in a calmer form of intimacy. Robinson proposes that "the satisfaction lovers have been looking for lies in a mutual experience in which both partners stop using each other for physical gratification and make nurturing each other their primary focus."

Robinson concedes that many people -- especially women who discovered orgasm late in life -- may be reluctant to embrace such a cure. To these she suggests: "If you are still skeptical, get out a calendar and track it for yourself -- both orgasms and pronounced mood swings over the following two to three weeks. If you are open-minded, you may see the connection between cause and effect for yourself."

Taoism is one of many ancient practices credited by Robinson as a source of inspiration for her "hold it" philosophy. And it is one of the practices reviewed in depth by Georg Feuerstein in Sacred Sexuality: The Erotic Spirit in the World's Great Religions (Inner Traditions). Feuerstein concludes that Christianity, Judaism, goddess worship, Taoism and Hinduism all share a common attitude: Spirituality is erotic, and sexuality is spiritual. (And for those who have no intention of holding back, Destiny Books will soon release Tantric Orgasm for Woman, as well as a Spanish-language version of its successful Tantric Secrets for Men.)

There are two new titles co-authored by couples: 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married (New World Library) by Linda and Charlie Bloom, and Working on Your Relationship Doesn't Work, self-published by Ariel and Shya Kane. Both couples are relationship counselors, and both books present their authors' accumulated wisdom in the anecdotes-and-tips style that has become a hallmark of self-help bestsellers. In a similar vein is Linda Marks' Healing the War between the Genders: The Power of the Soul-Centered Relationship (HeartPower).

For those whose relationships just can't be salvaged, there's The Breakup Repair Kit (Conari). This may be one of the first books anywhere printed entirely in pink ink. Co-authors Marni Kamins and Janice MacLeod's heart-mending tips include, "Rediscover what you love to do and take yourself on the date of your life."

And for the tragically hip, there is Ben Stein's How to Ruin Your Love Life (Hay House). The nasal-voiced eye-drop pitchman explains how to ruin one's love life in 44 easy steps, including, "Talk about Yourself Exclusively," "Make Fun of Your Lover's Family," and "Compare Your Lover with Lovers You've Dated in the Past."

"If you're dating someone who has a lot of problems, is generally a mess, and all of your friends dislike him or her," concludes Stein, "get married anyway -- marriage will solve all of your problems."

Monte Paulsen is editor of The Dragonfly Review of Books. He has ruined his own love life many, many, many times.

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