I was raised saying, “I love you” to my friends, family, and intimate partners. And while this phrase was freely given as a child, as I grew up I developed a need to know I was going to hear it back before I said it.
Only in the last few years did I learn that this kind of love is conditional. As you may have already realized in your life, this can create a lot of suffering.
In my current partnership, we have agreed to return to unconditional love no matter what. For us, this means regardless of what happens, who hurts who, where trust has been breached, or how much we want to hold a grudge or not forgive each other, we choose to love. We choose to peel back what’s in the way and remember that we are love without needing to do anything.
But, What is Unconditional Love?
Is it really possible to love no matter what? What might it mean to love without any conditions? Without concern, if that love is reciprocated or received? Regardless of how we are treated?
Would it look something like Jesus saying of his crucifiers, “Forgive them, Lord. They know not what they do”? Thinking about the people who have figuratively crucified me, my response is usually quite different. It’s more like, “You’re such a $@%*(%#.”
It makes sense that most of us have no idea what unconditional love is.
We don’t have a lot of models of unconditional lovers surrounding us.
But there are some and they have left us signposts of what unconditional love might look like in our real, waking lives.
There are Seven Kinds of Human Love
The Greeks broke the emotion of love down into seven categories: eros – sexual love, philia – brotherly love, ludus – playful, childlike love, pragma – committed & pragmatic long-term love, agape – soulful love of humanity, philautia – self-lovef and storge – natural and effortless love for your child. Understanding these can help us uncover more love in our relationships.
My Tantric teachers talk about unconditional love being a transcendent love that we can experience in two ways: in ourselves through meditation and esoteric practices (or spiritual/religious experiences) or through personally loving someone else. We start there and then expand outward. Neither of these experiences is unconditional love in themselves.
The Origin of Love
One of my favorite songs is called “The Origin of Love” by Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It describes a creation myth where humans once had two heads, four arms, and four legs. The gods became jealous of their power, as the gods do in these kinds of stories, so Zeus rained lightning bolts to split us all in half and Osiris sent a huge storm to scatter us across the planet.
Our task ever since has been to find our other half. The pain we experience is of separation from losing our whole self.
Many traditions, including Tantra, talk about the pain of separation, or our original wound: that we are actually one fabric of consciousness, one beating heart, one vibration of existence.
Our task in this life is to remember the wholeness that we are.
Another word for this connected fabric of existence: Love. Unconditional love is simply the remembrance of our true self and the reflection of that in all others. Easy. Or not.
Love and Conditions
We get lost when we look for love to be a certain feeling, texture, look or words. It should have some flavor of a long-haired princess, a prince with a chiseled jaw and a little happily ever after.
As the book The 5 Love Languages explains, we each have specific filters through which we experience love. But those filters and their expressions are not love itself. They are the limited way we have been conditioned, raised, taught, influenced by the religion, media and institutionalized structures, to give and receive love.
We can learn to speak our partners’ love languages so we can intentionally offer and recognize that we are being shown love in more ways. But if we do this, then are we loving unconditionally?
It might open up our palate to begin feeling loved and loving more moments of the day. But we’re still talking about a certain way to love, not the beingness of love.
In the famous Bible chapter about love, Corinthians 13, love isn’t actually defined. It’s defined by what it’s not: limited by our human struggles of attachment, comparison and conflicted emotion.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
This is one of the closest descriptions I know of for unconditional love – which, after all, is defined in the negative of not being conditional. I interpret ‘love always perseveres’ and ‘love never fails’ as this state of the baseline of our being – that which we always are when we throw off the conditions of the mind/ego.
Okay, but what about relationships?
Unconditional Love in Intimate Relationships
Whether you choose to be celibate, monogamous, polyamorous, or without labels, unconditional love is an option. Love and sex are not necessarily linked, although when we put them in a blender and mix them up they can make one hell of an intoxicating cocktail.
An incredible daily lesson for me is that the personal love I experience can lead to more unconditional love – when I’m open to seeing the limitations and stories I create and drop those at the door.
Unconditional love is love no matter what.
Conditional love always has a but or if or when attached. Unconditional love has nothing to do with the being in love feeling. Instead, it’s the feeling of simply being love, regardless if it comes from someone else or starts within yourself.
Ultimately, we cross into unconditional love when we can’t tell the difference between the love we receive from others and the deep place of self-acceptance, humility, and grace found within.
But there’s more. Truly unconditional love extends to all beings at all times. Even that person you’re thinking of right now who you can’t stand. Even you when you’ve made the worst mistakes you can imagine.
Unconditional Love is NOT…
If you’re starting to get anxious, know that love is not co-dependence. Unconditional love is not putting others before you in order to feel valuable or worthy or letting others walk over you.
It’s not making excuses to stay in abusive, unhealthy or manipulative relationships because you want to fix someone. It’s not a form of superiority you can use to feel better than other people. It’s not about how you choose to have intimate relationships, your relationship structure, or being promiscuous. And it has nothing to do with how spiritual you are.
Personal Love to Transpersonal Love
A few years ago as I was leaving a Tantra class, I had a notable and confusing love experience. From the exercises in the class, I was walking out in a very expanded state of love, which I soon noticed was touching everyone I met, not just those I had developed a personal bond with in the class.
As I walked the streets of downtown Seattle at 11 pm on a Friday night, I felt like I was in love with strangers on the street who were drinking, yelling and even fighting.
I started noticing that I also sometimes felt this after a deep lovemaking session, that the love I feel for my partner extends to whoever I meet next. While this fades throughout my day, the more I experience it the longer it stays. When we deeply experience love for people, we have the opportunity to start connecting with that part in ourselves that is love.
Note: not the action of loving or being loved, but a state of being itself. Through intentionally connecting, dropping our stories and surrendering, we can expand more fully into this state of being and have the potential to experience universal love.
The Path of Unconditional Love
My path to unconditional love has become more alive through both meditation and Tantra, and my intimate partners. And it’s a slow progression. As I look back at my history of relationships, I can see that now I am able to love with less and less attachment to what it’s supposed to look like and show up in more and more love – which begins in myself and doesn’t need to come just from someone else.
For me, this also means choosing to offer love even when it’s not given in return, although I do only choose to stay in intimate relationships with those who feel love for me.
Because I don’t need to define or value myself based on who loves me.
I can simply offer my heart to students, clients, politicians, family, and strangers without needing any certain acceptance. The more I show up without needing to feel the love in return, the more my love becomes unconditional so that it isn’t my love, it’s just love.
Choosing unconditional love is really about unlearning to create conditions. We don’t create unconditional love, we simply throw off conditions and it becomes unconditional. It’s a process of stripping away – and what remains underneath is purely love.
But as the Tantrics say, don’t believe me! Use your own life as an experiment. Surely the world could only benefit from an effort to discover if unconditional love is real in our own lives.