Updated: Sep 7
“The point is to touch in to the good heart that we already have and nurture it. Our capacity to love is an unstoppable essence that when nurtured can expand without limit. Love and compassion are like the weak spots in the walls of ego. They are like a naturally occurring opening. And they are the opening we take. If we connect with even one moment of good heart or compassion and cherish it, our ability to open will gradually expand.”
In many spiritual traditions, unconditional love is seen to be the highest form of human expression. In a meeting with some friends during some very challenging times, a question was asked, “How do you deal with cruel people?” One of the women, gently pressing the tips of her fingers together in a near prayer position, said, “send them compassion.” Initially, I thought that sentiment was completely unhelpful. Upon further reflection, I realized the wisdom in that answer. Breaking open my heart or having my heart broken open allowed me to touch a place within myself that permitted me to feel, see, and understand the pain and suffering in all of us. This experience of touching into the depths of pain and darkness, bitter as it was, generated a deep well of compassion and light that granted me access, for a time, to effortlessly be in the state of being unconditionally loving.
Unconditional love is a profoundly transformative, self-transcendent, freeing, and motivating human experience. While seemingly elusive and often confused with romantic love, which tends to be conceptualized as something that happens in the space between two people, in my experience, unconditional love is much more so a state of being or perceiving rather than a moment to moment happening. When I am fortunate enough to drop into the presence of it, I remember that it is something that awakens from within me, rather than something that is given to me from any external source. While, it is and can be nurtured from external sources, its origin and place of birth is from our connection to ourselves. Like energy, which can neither be created nor destroyed, unconditional love is a constant, a force, that inherently exists. This love is freely given, with no consideration of deservingness, no expectation of return, and continues to generate an expansiveness of that state of being in love, in passion, in joy, in a certain type of life force.
The poet Rumi speaks of entering into that state of being by not seeking it but softening the protections we have built that keep us from accessing it. Generally speaking the protections or walls we build are meant to keep us safe. What we don't realize, is that by trying to keep ourselves safe, we block off certain parts of ourselves. These parts tend to be our most tender and vulnerable parts. This means we are disconnected and fragmented from the parts of us that are best at connection. Essentially, we end up keeping ourselves from being able to access the very state we long for. Erik Erikson, a German-American psychoanalyst, created a theory about the 8 different stages of development we all move through during the course of a lifetime. The very first stage, which happens between the ages of 0-3, is said to be the foundational time of learning whether or not we can trust that our basic needs: nourishment and affection, will be met or not. This foundational stage then determines our sense of safety and thus regulation or resiliency of our nervous systems and attachment systems. These systems then determine how we engage in relationships and how we relate to getting our needs met. Being able to experience a state of unconditional love then is very dependent on our capacity to trust. If this is not instilled early in life, it requires incredible acts of both strength and courage or the combination, which I will call vulnerability, later in life.
“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
Carl Rogers used the term "unconditional positive regard," which describes an experience of genuineness, authenticity, self-disclosure, acceptance, and empathy. Unconditional positive regard is often something I get to experience consistently with my dogs. I think animals are actually under-cover teachers at the mystery school of love that we are all here participating in. What I experience is a caring for one another as separate and unique identities, such that we can honor and respect each other’s needs, wants, and ways of being without judgment and with curiosity, care, and interest. It requires some elusive form of separate togetherness that seems incredibly challenging to attain in human connection.
There are so many attachment dynamics that occur in human connection that we often seek safety instead of possibility for fear of getting hurt. The idea of being unconditionally loving seems to bring up fear or at least confusion, instead of freedom and joy. It doesn’t seem logical because we have been conditioned for most of our lives that being loved or feeling deserving of nourishment and affection is dependent on certain conditions of being good enough. There is nothing that supports a felt sense of safety and security like being loved or loving ourselves and or others without a requirement of anything needing to happen next or in return. And, as much as I know this to be a true, it is all to easy to forget that being unconditional loving is one of the best ways to cultivate safety and generate the feelings of connection we seek.
While unconditional love itself is inherently without boundaries, feeling it inspires healthy boundaries. When we feel that space of freedom that being loved and accepted without condition evokes, we are able to access a deep, heartfelt desire for our own greatest joy and for others to experience theirs. This desire motivates setting healthy boundaries so we can more freely give ourselves permission to say ‘no’ to being in relationship with people who don’t have a resonate capacity for a similar way of loving. Many people think that feeling unconditional love means accepting all behavior, including abusive or violent behavior, without any consequences. This is a misunderstanding. Being unconditionally loving does mean there is no judgement in the limitations of ourselves or others capacity for love, but rather an acceptance and acknowledgement. Boundaries actually support all of us in accessing an expanded capacity for unconditional love, even more deeply and consistently.
“When you are in the presence of unconditional love, that is the optimum environment for your heart to open, because you feel safe, because you realize nobody wants anything from you. The minute that heart opens, you are once again letting in the flow.”
Please do not mistake accessing a state of being in love or loving unconditionally with all sunshine and rainbows. It is not a spiritual bi-passing of the uncomfortable emotional and somatic experiences. In fact it is highly likely that, at least initially, those uncomfortable emotional and somatic experiences will increase or be felt more intensely. We will experience and feel again the parts of ourselves that felt shamed, rejected, humiliated, betrayed, and neglected. Re-opening our hearts to love also re-awakens the tigers and dragons inside. These are the parts that have endured years of pain and unmet longing. The gift is that as we learn to witness and be compassionate towards these parts, our hearts open, love starts to flow again, and with time we grow into the courageousness it take to love them all without condition and enter into states of deep bliss because we know how to love unconditionally.
"The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself
arriving at your own door,
in your own mirror
and each will smile
at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again
the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread,
Give back your heart
to the stranger who has loved you
all your life,
whom you ignored
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life."
-Derek Walcott, Love after Love