Musings On Eros

Different languages, including the Irish language Gaeilge, have different words for 'love' and different words for different kinds of love felt for different people, places, feelings & activities. In English, as well as some other languages there is only one word for 'love'. When we talk about the human experience of 'love', one word does not give us opportunity to express the multiple nuances or many rich subtleties & experiences of our minds, hearts & bodies or how those can all change & evolve over time.

I can say ''I love strawberries'', ''I love making love with my lover'', ''I love my cat'' or ''I love the volunteer work I do'', these are not the same kinds of love, they have different meanings & I express those 'loves' differently as well as wanting different things in return. The Greeks, among many others, were on to something useful with different words to philosophically describe the different textures & flavours of love & that, in the context of intimate relationships, is what I want to explore a little here.

Different schools of thought vary on the amount of types of love the ancient Greek philosophers spoke of, some will say there were four or five, others seven, others again will say there are nine main categories with some sub-categories. Regardless of how many different types & subtypes they're usually spoken about in terms of the four or five main types below, as referred to mostly by Aristotle, Plato & Socrates.


I believe it was Aristotle who spoke most about Philia; a type of love experienced between friends & equals, he devoted two whole books to the topic in his Nicomachean Ethics work, almost one fifth of the whole work. He had a lot to say on the matter! Equally, Plato also had a lot to say on the topic & it is, after all, his name that gives us the term ''platonic'' to describe relationships where Eros, or the erotic, is not present or not expressed/shared. Philia is the love between friends, colleagues & sometimes a love of one's country. It is, essentially, about kinship & community.

Storge usually refers to the love between family members though it is also sometimes referred to as love between long term partners, perhaps a couple who build a life together over many years or decades. Storge is often referred to as the love that exists between partners after Eros passes or becomes less important - it is a familial bond. There is often, also, the idea of interdependence inherent in Storge, sometimes dependence too.

Agape, primarily coming from the Christian tradition, is the term used to describe the love felt for our fellow human beings. It often shows itself as sympathy, empathy & generosity towards those who are 'less fortunate' or struggling - it is very much about giving. It is felt & expressed regardless of the perceived 'value' of the object to which it is directed & it demands nothing in return. We might call it 'unconditional' & a general love for humankind.

Pragma is, as the word might imply, pragmatic, practical & often felt by those in long term committed relationships regardless of the nature of those relationships - it could be family, friends or partners. It has at it's heart commitment, regardless of what else is present in the relationship, including if no other forms of love are present.

Of the five I'm mentioning here, I've saved Eros for last because in my experience it is the least understood, often the most difficult to talk about & the most frequently ignored of them all, it's also what I want to focus on here.

Eros is the most unwieldy of 'loves' - that which involves sex & sexual expression can trigger & provoke our deepest wounds, it can also connect us with the transcendent in the most mind-blowing life-changing ways. It's fertile ground for confusion, intimacy, pain & healing, as well as the love that can arise through Eros. However, sex is only one element of Eros, there is much more to it than that.

In our highly sexualised world you may think that Eros is everywhere we look, I disagree. What we see in our heavily sexualised mainstream media, popular culture, fields of advertising & pornography is not Eros, it is simply the commodification & capitilisation of sexuality & desire, there is no full-spectrum aliveness present - only some form of transaction. It's also important to highlight here that Eros is also about sensuality, living & experiencing life vibrantly through all the senses as opposed to a one dimensional experience of the body. Eros is what gives life it's aliveness, that doesn't necessarily need to include sex but it most often does.

When I speak about love in the context of Eros I'm not talking about Agape, Philia, Pragma or Storge but the unique flavour of Eros itself AS love. Eros as a love energy that has the potential to open us to ourselves, to others & to life - this is why we sometimes call sex ''making love'' - in our sexual explorations & expressions we can choose to engage in the act of the making of love. Making love doesn't need to be about candles, incense & dinner dates, love can be made in frantic fucking just as much as it can in slow sensual connection - it doesn't matter so much what we do what matters is the intention & purpose with which we do it.

The difference between 'sex' & the exploration & expression of Eros in practical terms might best be illustrated using the following metaphor - 'sex' might equate to using two or three herbs or spices in cooking, & always limiting one's cooking to that, whereas accessing & cultivating Eros opens the door to all the spices & herbs available in the whole world - there is no comparison to what's possible. One of my colleagues & teachers, Esther Perel, speaks about the difference between sexuality & Eros from her perspective in this video. (click here to watch)

Eros is most often rooted in & driven by carnal desire, lust, passion & attraction as well as a quest for beauty. The greatest beauty is eternal, whereas physical beauty is, most definitely, not. However, if a lover succeeds, while dancing together in the flames of Eros, in glimpsing or achieving possession in some way of the beloved's inner beauty, their need for happiness or satisfaction will be, at least in part or temporarily, fulfilled. In some way then Eros is also about the intoxicating dance of possession & being possessed, and of the surrender & risk necessary for that - no doubt this contributes to why it is feared!

It is natural to feel afraid of being possessed or of possessing another on an emotional or spiritual level because in that we may fear loss of autonomy, freedom & individuality, we perhaps fear the loss, engulfment or consumption of the self, but that is not what Erotic possession needs to be, it can inspire greater freedom if we know how to simultaneously surrender to it & master it. 

Exploration of the erotic between two people is a delicate dance, there are no steps to learn in advance - this means that toes can easily be stepped on & mistakes easily made. Eros must have freedom to unfold naturally & organically on it's own as it moves in the moment while at the same time those who are holding the container (relationship) in which Eros is moving have a responsibility, both towards themselves & the other person, to allow that dance happen in such a way that the risk of either individual being hurt is minimal.

Eros as Spiritual Practice
Eros is the fire in the belly of the beast of adult humankind, it is a source of, & fuel for, life, indeed some say it IS the source & fuel of life itself. Eros is how we breathe life into ourselves & into others, it is what brings the greatest aliveness to our experience of living & loving. Nature-based religions & many Eastern philosophies & religions have believed & practiced on that basis for many more millennia than the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity & Islam) have been around. Eros, as distinct from sexualisation, has been exiled & rejected by culture after culture for the last two millennia & that rejection is closely tied to the rise & growth of the Abrahamic religions, both in terms of time & place, as well as the accepted 'spiritual', as well as other, roles of women & men in our cultures & societies.

These religions have, as part of their doctrine, theology & practice, separated Eros from the other forms of love, they have exiled it, called it, & the sex that is integral to it, 'sin' or 'haram' - a transgression against belief in a 'divine law'. Because it is & has been believed to be a transgression against the belief in a divine law many have sought to control it. I'm sure I don't need to illustrate to you, especially as you're reading this article, the myriad ways in which human sexuality in all it's expressions, by both women & men, has been & continues to be the target of control for those who would wish to either harness it's power for themselves or prevent others from harnessing that power. 

In many cultures we have been spiritually dismembered, our hearts cut off from our genitals, the realms of spiritual ecstasy requiring our whole selves, in mind & body & 'spirit', have been separated from the earthy animal nature of our corporeal selves as they manifest in matter through sexual desire & ecstasy. Of course this serves to disconnect us also from the fullness of our power as human beings - the heart & the mind are potent forces, of course, but they are less potent in comparison to that which is possible when we add the alive & vibrant power of Eros to power them.

The 'danger' is, of course, when balance is lost, or never found, between all of the aspects of who we are. Power in sexuality without the conscious tempering of Erotic love, for example, is fertile ground for distortion & abuse as well as the transactional commodification of sex I spoke about earlier, which serves to further disconnect us from that full heart, mind, spirit, genital connection & whole human experience & potential.

What is ''spiritual'' in 'the west' has often become that which does not deal in the messy matter of human existence - most spiritual paths & practices, especially in 'the west', seek to take us up & out of our bodies, not down & deeply into them rooting our higher selves in our corporeal body in the process. In attempting to transcend, control or perhaps even punish our own bodies we bypass the opportunity for a whole-body whole-life experience where blissful physical sexual ecstasy together with spiritual ecstasy is possible through the body, both alone & with another. 

Among other religious or spiritual paths, the traditional practitioners of Tantra (not neo-tantra as it is mostly presented in 'the west') have known this for millennia which is why the sexual secrets of traditional, classical Tantra are taught only to few initiates after many years of study & practice. I make the distinction here between traditional/classical Tantra & 'neo-tantra' as it's taught in 'the west' as they are vastly different to each other in many ways. What is possible if we access the ecstatic & transcendent through the body as part of the whole human being instead of attempting to bypass the body or focus exclusively on the body is beyond compare.

''Rather than seeking pleasure as an end in itself, Tantra taught practitioners to harness the body and sensuality in order to unite with divinity and attain transformational power. Tantric sexual rites were also distinguished by their transgressive nature, engaging with the taboo rather than repressing it. ''..... one of the central aims of Tantric sex was to unite with divinity, rather than to seek pleasure for its own sake. Tantra validates the body and the sensual as a means of achieving liberation and generating power.'' - British Museum. I think this is one of the best descriptions I've read of what's possible through the conscious cultivation of Eros, through Tantric practice or otherwise.

Painting of a couple having sex. Rajasthan, India. Gouache on paper, about 1690.

I'm reminded of a time when there were protests at a festival I ran in 2015 - 600 people from as far apart as the west coast of the USA to New Zealand & many countries in between gathered for an alcohol & drug-free festival in Ireland to celebrate & explore ''sexual freedom, health & pleasure in mind body & spirit''. There were protestors outside the venue as well as a High Court legal effort to prevent the (perfectly legal) festival taking place & countless appearances in the local, national & international media, by myself & those attempting to stop the festival going ahead, in the weeks leading up to it.

The loudest of those objecting & protesting were religious people, and, interestingly, the largest amount of hostility I experienced while running Bliss Festival events in Ireland over a period of approximately 3 years, came from yoga teachers. To me, this speaks loudly of the perceived split between that which people view as 'religious' or 'spiritual' and the explicitly sexual & erotic - it is a split & dissociation between the 'sacred' & the 'profane'. 

It is impossible in the minds of some people that the spiritual can be sexual & the sexual spiritual - but our ancestors, in Ireland as well as in many other cultures worldwide, were incorporating sexual rites & ritual into their 'spiritual' practices for millennia before the Abrahamic religions took hold of the majority of the world, attempting to control Eros & sexuality in all its forms in the process.

Protestors outside the 2015 Bliss Festival, Northern Ireland

True practitioners of Tantra, for example, will find equal ''spirituality'' in all forms of consensual sexual union, including the taboo, as they will in meditating on the nature of death & impermanence. Nothing is not spiritual, nothing is separate from that which is 'spirit' & the moment we seek to separate that which is ''spiritual'' from that which we believe is not we immediately create a duality, we create ''sacred'' & ''profane'' and thus demonise parts of our own & the nature of others in the process. 

It is this splitting, this dissociation, that causes us to psychologically, as well as sometimes even physically, exile parts of who we are, parts deemed unacceptable & unholy, to cast them into the realms of the unconscious & to then sexualise, to commodify & capitalise on Eros & the erotic rather than viewing & experiencing them as the holy whole they are.

Eros in many spiritual traditions is viewed as a pathway to 'enlightenment', a path that can bring us closer to the divine in ourselves, in others & with the oneness of life itself. The essential foundation for this path, however, is that it is travelled consciously, slowly and with respect for its power, both in the body & mind, as well as it's potential influence over others.

When we pick up a sword, it's metal honed, polished & sharp, we must learn how to wield it with responsibility & skill, we must master it while remaining fluid enough to remain open & responsive to it - if we don't master these skills, with humility, we risk hurting others & ourselves - Eros is that sword.

Vajrayana Buddhism (the main Tantric path) is not called the ''thunderbolt'' or ''lightening'' way for no good reason - it's given that name because it's power, both generative & destructive, is recognised, acknowledged & respected. Equally, Vajrayana students understand that to progress to the sexual rites, rituals & secrets takes many years of practice & dedication. Vajrayana practitioners are often feared in India, for example, because many Hindus are aware of & fear the potency of this path.

Weaving together different textures of love
When it comes to adult human sexual relationships let's imagine that each form of 'Greek love' is a different possible ingredient in every connection & relationship we have. For example, some relationships will have lots of Philia, we will have strong bonds of friendship with a partner or lover & indeed this form of love may be the most prominent in that relationship. Perhaps, even, over time Eros fades & becomes far less important or even fades altogether to the point where it is not present in the relationship at all. Some couples are both happy with this & some couples, or an individual within the couple, are not.

Let's compare this with a relationship with a lover with whom Eros is strongly & deeply present - this is perhaps what has drawn these two people together & maybe it's the driving force in the relationship or the glue that holds it together. In my experience, this kind of relationship, if navigated consciously & with care for the feelings of each person, can be deeply satisfying if, usually, time limited. That said, I have known of relationships built on & driven by Eros last for decades so that time limitation isn't necessarily a short term one.

Equally, a relationship can begin with several different types of love present, there may be Eros & Philia, later perhaps Pragma grows as the commitment to the relationship deepens over time & Agape arrives too, maybe with children. Sometimes, in long term relationship, Eros wanes & what's left is the other forms of love. This is not uncommon in adult romantic relationships & often one or both partners find it a very painful place to be - this is a common theme in my therapeutic work with couples.

It also needs to be highlighted that two people in the same relationship can feel & express different kinds of love at the same or different times, there is no rulebook that says that how we love each other or how we like to be loved has to be the same as each other or the same all the time. If there is room for different expressions of love in a relationship then it can be deeply satisfying for both parties - the key question to keep in mind is one of expectations. If expectations are present in the relationship, ones that will not or cannot be met, or worse expectations that are not known or spoken, then it is a recipe for heartbreak or hurt of some sort - clear, open & honest communication from the beginning about what is wanted, expected & hoped for, as well as what each person is available for, is absolutely essential.

Cultivating Eros, or accessing it, as part of a spiritual path or relationship can be a potent & powerful journey, it can be deeply rich & rewarding as well as expansive, providing enormous opportunity for personal growth - and in my considerable experience over the last 30 years - it's one that needs to be entered into slowly &, ideally, with the guidance of a more experienced practitioner or intimate partner. We are engaging with one of the most potent forces available to us as human beings and as such we need to be mindful & respectful of that power, we need not to assume that it is risk-free physically, emotionally or spiritually. To underestimate the power of sexual energy, particularly when it's deliberately cultivated, is to do it, ourselves & potentially others a dangerous disservice. Equally, to dismiss the possibilities & potential of sexual & Erotic energy is to turn our backs on an unlimited source of pleasure, connection, personal power, expansion & much more.


An invitation to personal inquiry, if you'd like to explore yourself a little.....

What I'd like to invite you to explore now is your own thoughts, feelings & relationships with each of these forms of love. You don't need to feel they are a true reflection of love for you but bear with me as an experiment!

Let's imagine that every adult intimate sexual relationship has the potential for each of the 5 named types of love; Philia, Pragma, Agape, Storge & Eros in varying amounts & varying over time:

- do you find the Greek philosopher's definitions of 'love' useful? How so? Do they help give you clarity on your thoughts & feelings about love? If they do, how?

- can you identify which form of love you are most comfortable with & which you are least comfortable with feeling in yourself towards others? Do you have a sense of why that is the case?

- can you identify which form of love you are most comfortable with & which you are least comfortable with receiving from your lover/s? Do you have a sense of why that is the case?

- which expression of love feels most easy for you to give & which is easiest for you to receive? Do you know why?

- can you reflect on your current, or previous lover relationships & identify which types of love were present, which were not present & why? How do you you feel about that?

- for you, does Eros feel like a vehicle or expression of love? Why or why not?

- how do you feel you could cultivate Eros as love in your current or future lover relationship/s?


If you, or you & a partner, would like to explore the cultivation of Eros as love in your relationship then email to find out when the next online client sessions are available. Please bear in mind that the calendar is usually booked up 4-6 months in advance.


Last updated: 18/08/22