The fully awakened heart knows what it is to love unconditionally. What could be more life-altering than to come to dwell in — to dwell as — radically fearless love, liberated from the familiar human ache to control, to defend against pain? Rinsed of it all, wide-open consciousness is felt as being boundless.
Acceptance of what-is becomes a profound door-opener. There is no separation between you and whatever you’re presently aware of. Consciousness itself is not apart from what it detects: if a thing is real, then perceiving human awareness is, for the duration of the moment, that reality. The awakened heart unflinchingly takes in what’s real. The processing mind — so well equipped to deny reality, to recoil from its challenges — is brought to utter quietude.
Ask someone on their death bed: was it wise to put constraints on the heart? If they had it to do over, is that how they would live?
Nor can the egoic human mind remotely fathom such an experience, focused as it is on orienting to ever-changing reality, necessarily maintaining the sense of an independent self. What typically occupies us as people is this: where am I in relation to this that’s happening? But that presupposes there is an I, and that it is apart from what’s happening “to” it, or around it. Hence the ceaseless need to sort out how to orient to each thing as it comes along. The whole thing is exhausting.
Awakening mercifully delivers a person from all of it. Talk about deliverance.
* * *
Sometimes in a human life, love is confronted with hideous suffering.
I once read an account by an awake person of sitting in a theater watching a film about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. Containing footage of the devastation, the movie was unflinching in its close-up portrayal of the nightmare visited upon the victims of the bombings. As the viewer took in (without recoiling) the images and sounds on the screen, he became aware of something bizarre within himself. The footage seemed to have brought him to a state of something like ecstasy.
Naturally curious, he mused upon what had happened, and eventually was able to account for the seeming contradiction between the pain he was confronting and the condition of his own interior. What he saw was this: when faced with that enormity of suffering (inflicted by one people upon another!), consciousness is asked to widen to such an unaccustomed extent — to open and open beyond its familiar spaciousness — that what becomes primary is not the agony and cruelty being witnessed but the purely accepting love that is “holding” it all.
Unbounded consciousness is felt as love. Not the familiar oh-so-human emotion, tainted by need and hunger, associated with comfort and mutuality. This love is of a different order of reality, even as it surely does register in the heart. What could be more ecstatic than love taking over so thoroughly that there simply is no other reality? Even as (yes) the human self is in the presence of visceral agony.
The excellent mind of a human being, even a fully awake person, is simply incapable of accounting for this seeming contradiction. The palpable experience under way is altogether outside the bounds of anything recognizable. Nothing has equipped us to understand.
Long after reading that account, I was to experience a curious commingling of pain and rapture in the setting of extreme sorrow. I recognized it as kindred to what occurred for that other person in the presence of the nightmare film.
* * *
People who have lived in concentration camps or experienced life-threatening warfare, or who’ve known some other extremity at the edge of life and death, will sometimes notice something curious about those experiences. It may likewise occur in the context of a terrible car accident or some other health emergency. An inner quiet descends. Time is felt to stop. In the profound stillness at the heart of extremity, a person may report having never felt so throttlingly alive. Even as (yes!) death is staring them in the face. For what could more radically shake a person awake than such a crisis?
Just at the moment when familiar human perception is registering what’s happening as an unmitigated nightmare, a person may be experiencing what will later be cherished (if they survive) as one of their life’s high points. For into that arrested and arresting moment descended a quiet miracle, enabling them to know, perhaps for the first and final time, the blessedness of simple aliveness. What could be more precious than such a moment? And yet to the ordinary mind what could be more bewildering?
Here is the compelling question: Why does it take something awful to bring us to this recognition?
* * *
It is rare to love without condition put on it. There is the wish for the feeling to be reciprocated. We want a relationship to fulfill us somehow; we long to be able to count on its stability. Many a relationship is at least as much “about me” as it is about delighting in the other person. The eyes are likely averted from any sign of imperfection or trouble. Nor do we welcome the unknowability of what lies ahead for one dear to us. It’s a tall order indeed to look in the face the truth that we cannot assure the well-being of anyone.
The tit-for-tat of love is a deadening force: I will love you if you love me back, if you promise never to leave me. There is no more reliable way to imprison the heart — nor (ironically, most poignantly) to drive a distance between two people. By marked contrast with the airless cell “love” often becomes corrupted into (“Promise you will love me always”), in an atmosphere of allowing, love can be a deliciously wide-open space with a sweet breeze blowing through it.
* * *
Unconditional love has nothing whatever to do with need. Putting condition on it places confines around the heart, making it smaller than it would otherwise be. Constraining love makes us smaller. To limit it is to live less fully than we might. Oh, but the perceived risk of the wide-open heart is great indeed. For it means the eyes are wide open to uncertainty, to the absence of control.
Love without condition is not about me. It is not about anything. Unconstrained love is what it is to be deliciously alive.
The scaled-down expression of cherishing is the norm, in human life, because of the way love is inevitably confused with need and fear. We’re afraid of losing the beloved, one way or another; that our love will not be reciprocated in kind. The relationship may not deliver all we wish it would. It’s all about perceived risk.
Meanwhile, the biggest risk of all is the one most of us gladly (if unconsciously) take, start to finish: that we will never know the felt experience of radical love. For to fully love in unresisting acceptance of reality asks a great deal of the human heart.
Yet the cost of this tradeoff is dear indeed. Just ask someone on their death bed: was it wise, after all, to put constraints on the heart? If they had it to do over, is that how they would live?
God save you from that regret, dear heart. Risk be damned.
* * *
Significant relationships typically involve denial and inauthenticity. Projection is rampant. The eyes tend to be averted from evidence to the contrary of what one wishes were the case. This dynamic is shot through with delusion, avoidance, and conflict. Is it any wonder so many relationships generate more pain than joy?
Yet such phenomena, when honestly observed, can become valuable teachers. They shine light on what we’re attached to, what we fear. Sometimes, if a person can summon the courage to be honest about such things — revealing their inmost fragile selves — the relationship can become more authentic, the connection deepen. Sometimes when unaccustomed honesty comes into the picture, it becomes vivid that change is in order. It’s all about the willingness to accept risk, in the name of authenticity.
Putting conditions on love boxes it in, makes it smaller than it would be: you must love me back, promise never to leave me. If you are my child, I need to be able to keep you safe, assure your happiness. So instead of love being endless space, fresh air moving softly through it, it become a little windowless boxed-in suffocating cell.
* * *
Where is all of this more keenly felt than in the context of a parent’s love for a child? What could a father or mother know more desperately than the longing to protect the young one, to assure their happiness? Hence what pain could be more acute than allowing the limit of our ability to assure anything? In the school of learning about the absence of control, there could be no finer teacher than the experience of crushing love for a child. At some point nearly every parent comes to face the truth that there’s a limit to how much love can assure. The recognition can embitter and distance a person, or it can open a door.
How humbling it is for a parent to realize that a love imagined to be unconditional has in fact been otherwise. We want a child to “turn out well” because we suppose that “success” that will reflect favorably on us as mother, as father. How many miserable and frustrated young people have turned out — superficially — to align with the goals of their controlling, projecting parents? Is anyone fooled into mistaking this for authentic fulfillment?
We are able to learn, as parents. Life with an adolescent can be a harsh teacher regarding the limits on the ability to assure well-being. Yet to embody that lesson surely asks of us something risky: to cease straining for control. For to love uncrippled by such forces — whether it be one’s child or another person dear to us — is to face a terrible truth: I cannot be certain of anything.
And to have that profound acceptance not be the generator of nightmare anxiety is a miracle not to be fathomed. In a life of identification with the mind’s stories about need and identity, where belief and the desperate wish for certainty hold sway, it simply cannot be.
Love has nothing whatever to do with attachment of any sort. Yet how that does fly in the face of our usual understanding of the most exalted of human emotions. No wonder unconditional love is rare. Our parents can be forgiven for having failed to love us as we’d wished. All we need do is look into our own hearts to ask whether we ourselves have loved anyone, ever, in this way.
It was inevitable that human beings would come to associate the divine with limitless love: for it is what we ache for all our lives. Yet from start to finish, it does not happen. A god untroubled by our imperfection? What could be more welcome? Of course religions would develop around such a prospect, that life after death would take on the appearance of paradise, eternal rest enfolded in the tender arms of radical acceptance.
* * *
The curious truth is that we deeply (if unconsciously) know the limits on our ability to guarantee anything, whether for ourselves or for another. This unbearable reality is the source of lifelong anxiety that nothing seems able to soothe. Yet what has constituted our most profound terror can oddly become the environment of the most profound peace. It is actually relieving to cease distancing ourselves from what we have secretly known all along to be the case: that the future is unknowable. To allow ourselves to rest in the truth of the absence of control is to come at last to dwell in the land of being with reality as it is. There, in the context of yielding to perennial uncertainty, the heart is undefended. It is able — at long and delicious last — to know what it is to love without condition, without need.
What could be more radically restful, more alive? Such a relief. Such a surprise!
May it not require the nearness of death to fully open your own heart, dear one. The “risk” of wide-open love is much less than the nightmare risk of having not really lived — having not really loved, without condition.
[From a forthcoming book by Jan Frazier]