We ache all our lives to be loved unconditionally. To be seen through and through as we truly are, without judgment or any attempt to alter. To be entirely held in that vast cherishing and acceptance.
The primal longing for unconditional love occurs initially in the presence of our original care-givers. As life unfolds, while that hunger never abates, it may be transferred to a partner or friend, to one’s own children, as possible sources of fulfillment.
Who of us has loved unconditionally?
Surely the compelling lure of belief in an all-forgiving divinity has its roots in the prospect of coming at last to rest in unbounded love – an experience we’ve almost certainly never had in the context of human relationship. The lifelong disappointment over that unfulfilled desire comes with the territory of being a conditioned, mind-driven human being. For all of that “self-making” machinery inevitably constrains the human heart, which otherwise has the capacity to receive – and to give – vast love not subject to condition.
After all, who of us has loved unconditionally? What loved ones in our own complicated lives would attest to the joy and restfulness of having been entirely seen and accepted as they are, without any movement on our part to “help” – to alter – who they are?
The potency of our conditioning makes need and fear into mighty forces – limiting forces – in the context of love. They inevitably tighten the heart, making it smaller and harder, less available to know love in its fullest expression. Yet the heart isn’t doomed to this constraint, to be less open than it was born to be. All our lives there is the possibility for it to soften to a more luscious generosity. But before that has a chance to happen, it’s necessary to see – to feel – the depth of need and fear that determines so much of who we are, of how we live our lives.
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Had someone suggested to me, in my first 50 years, that my own capacity to love was in any way limited, I’d have thought they were crazy. Had the “accuser” been a wise and trusted teacher, I’d have been simply bewildered. How could such a thing be? That a woman with my passionate intensity and devotion to anyone (or anything) I loved could embody anything short of unconditional love?
Above all other loves, the one for my son and my daughter. For what opens the human heart like the presence of a beloved child? What experience has the capacity to bring a person so profoundly to her knees? Oh, but to love like this carries enormous risk, as perceived by the conditioned mind and its real-seeming self. For everything in the caring heart wants to protect. To assure well-being and a “good” life – at least, as these things are defined by the protector-parent. Yet there lives constantly (if pushed into the background of awareness) the knowledge that our ability to keep safe, to shape and guide, is not the only force at play in a life, even the life of one we love more than our very selves.
I had long been mystified by the notion that love’s opposite is not hate but fear. I never understood the dynamic between the two, until fear ceased functioning and the heart’s floodgates opened to their startling fullness.
As we live our lives, even as other people and undertakings may be of compelling concern to us, at the same time we care very much about our own fundamental okayness. In a way, this is the primary concern all our lives (however unconsciously held it may be). Although many people will attest to a lamentable absence of “self-love,” in fact the protection of the conditioned self extracts a crippling devotion equal to none. It’s perceived, in fact, as a matter of survival, a contest between life and death.
Here lies the rub, dear heart.
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As we develop from children into adults, entering into various sorts of relationship – with friends, siblings, teachers, partners, children, our own parents, in work settings – these human encounters become arenas in which various needs can be met. You can make your own list. Perhaps it includes things like the need to be understood, adored, respected, admired. We look into the eyes of someone important to us, and there we long to see our assets reflected, as we imagine (or hope) ourselves to be. To the extent the felt needs are roughly fulfilled in a given relationship, typically in both directions, so long as the inevitable “issues” and imperfections don’t get the upper hand, the connection is likely to continue.
Where in this dynamic is unconditional love to be found? Anyone born into this world – where who you are and what you do (have, accomplish, embody, fail at) are of paramount significance – is ill-prepared to experience a fully open heart. How can a person subject to such conditioning possibly know the generosity of presence not driven by fear or need, including the constricting wish to be a certain kind of self, to have a particular sort of life experience? How can a “love” with these constraints not include the desperate desire for control, for security in an imagined possible future?
Yet unconditional love is entirely at ease in the presence of messy reality – including the truth that there is no control, no certainty. We simply don’t know what will happen – in our own lives or in the lives of those we deeply cherish. But who can bear to rest in such knowledge?
The distorted sense of love that emerges, under the pressure of all this, turns out to be both conditioned and conditional. In the face of such forces, how could the human heart be anything but terribly shut down?
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Love that’s not unconditional – virtually all human expressions of it – is as much about “me” as it is the loved person. A love with conditions put on it (most of them unconscious) has need and fear in the picture. Something about the other person’s way of being, including what we perceive as their love (or lack) for us, becomes central to our sense of who we are. How easily shaken this is when there’s some rebuff, when insufficiency is detected.
The potent role played by need and fear was a shocking realization in my own life, post-awakening, particularly regarding love for my children. It’s a moment of revelation I’ve been privileged to witness in the tearful eyes of more than one parent, in the years since. That awful reckoning! How humbling it is, the dawning recognition of a parent’s own driving need – to see that parental love has not, after all, been unconditional. That it’s been as much about ourselves as about the beloved child. One reason a parent wants a child to “turn out well” is that it reflects favorably on the parent. Always the compelling hunger for our own fulfillment, so we can know we “got it right,” so we’re thought well of. And if things go well enough for the child, it tamps down the godawful fear that’s driven us from the beginning: that disaster could befall them.
Need and fear, our constant companions.
Given the force of this dynamic, how could parents help but share this crippling “legacy” with our children? Thus teaching our youth (in however unarticulated a way) that what constitutes a good relationship is, in part, one that “completes” us. On and on it goes. No one’s fault so much as an inevitable – largely unconscious – carrying on of a timeless assumption about the nature of human fulfillment. Of what it means to love.
How twisted and reduced love becomes when we imagine having control of some kind over how things go for (or with) the loved one. When we hope never to lose who (or what) is dear to us. We cannot make space in the heart for the unbearable truth that we have no say in how things go, that nothing is forever. There’s no defending against what might befall ourselves or those we cherish. It is not for us to determine whether the loved one gets (or remains) sober; whether the perennial risk-taker stays approximately safe; whether the desperately depressed friend keeps to this side of suicide.
Nothing has the power to generate crippling fear like parenthood. Anyone who has loved or cared for an adolescent is brought to confront the absence of ultimate control over this young person’s well-being (as defined by the caring grown-up). What has greater power to shatter an otherwise capable adult? What happens to the heart – to love – in the presence of that humbling recognition? Is fear allowed at last to take entirely over? Does the heart become paralyzed and crushed by that overwhelming force? Does terror distort into anger and rejection? Does it take refuge in alcohol or denial or some other escape?
The mind-driven self screams that “we must try to help” (as if to “relent” would be a withdrawal of love). The mind walls off the heart from the hideous pain. This pain has two components: what we feel of the other person’s suffering; and the devastating truth of our inability to make a difference. We cannot bear to fully feel the agony of someone we love so dearly, and at the same time allow ourselves to know our powerlessness to help. We protect ourselves from those twin miseries by various means: by offering suggestions (or demands), by judging, and finally by distancing ourselves.
Anything to escape unconditional love in its vast allowing of what-is. The heart grows smaller and tighter.
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Given the experience of what we’ve grown accustomed to, starting in youth, how could our inheritance of the idea of love be other than defined by – conditioned by – need and fear?
Witness the potent lure of enduring intimate companionship, the promise of finally having a relationship delivering deep fulfillment of every need: to be seen, adored, needed. Witness the culturally-portrayed potential of romantic love to at last “deliver the goods.”
Yet how close cherishing and loathing turn out to be. Defined by the enduring sense of lack and insufficiency, how deftly love manages to morph into disdain and bitterness, especially when betrayal or some other disappointment has entered the picture. You needn’t have lived long to have gathered a bounty of evidence of this endlessly repeating loop. Love and hate are not opposites, after all, so much as uncomfortable bedfellows.
For some, the only fleeting refuge in the doomed search for limitless love and acceptance is to be found in the wordless company of a beloved pet, who neither judges nor is asked to fulfill. In that radically allowing presence may be felt the quieting of the familiar turmoil. For unlike human beings, animals carry no vivid sense of self. Nor are they anyplace but the now. How welcome a resting place that is, for one doomed to a largely mental existence. Because a pet is not asked to deliver the goods, this love stands a chance of being pure and simple. At last you are loved for just yourself, “imperfect” though you may be. In the eyes of an adoring dog or cat, no imperfection is reflected there (apart from what we manage to project). The tormented mind can be felt to unwind, however fleetingly. The heart allowed – briefly, sweetly – to open.
A kindred blessedness sometimes occurs gazing into the fathomless eyes of a newborn human being, one not yet subjected to the shaping forces of well-meaning adults.
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What’s to be done, meanwhile? As these imperfect human lives of ours are continuing in the way they do, is there some way to invite the heart to taste a richer fullness, given its legacy?
Make no strained attempt to “cultivate” unconditional love, an effort that can only ever be superficial and unfruitful. That is not how these things work.
Instead, be willing to notice – to feel, in a bodied way – those moments when need or fear enters the picture. The initial clue will doubtless not have need or fear tattooed on it. What you’ll perhaps notice is restriction of some kind, the rising of anger or superiority, the feeling of recoiling, of being wounded. Stay with it. See what else may be there . . . deeper. Be gentle but persistent. Allow yourself to become aware of underlying beliefs — things you never even realized you “believed,” because you just took them for granted as “the truth” (like “people shouldn’t behave this way”). Such discoveries can have enormous liberating power. All kinds of lights can come on, if you’ll be patient, if you’re willing to linger in discomfort. Allow the space for all of it.
You cannot “go looking” for the sources of these constraining forces, which are unconsciously held. (It would be the mostly useless mind doing the looking. Remember that this is the very mind whose primary lifelong devotion is to maintaining the real-seeming self. It is not likely to permit such destabilizing insights.) Instead, allow the body to illumine in the way it is equipped to do.
Feel. Just feel. Not with any “goal” in mind. Not as a means to an end. Certainly not to alleviate pain. For it hurts to rest in what we’ve long walled ourselves off from. To sink into the truth of what defines us, what we’ve counted on so dearly. To look in the face of our deepest terrors.
Yes, this takes courage. But the price of recoiling (as you’ve long done) is – has this become clear? – dear indeed. So when those moments come in which you can feel something in you tensing up, growing angry or defensive, shifting into judgment or self-protection – when your physical present-moment self rings a quiet bell that means to wake you up to what’s deeply going on – take a gentle breath and see whether you can relax into the deeper truth of what’s driving the reactivity.
To allow all of this is uncomfortable in the extreme: otherwise we would not have driven it into unconsciousness. And yet – talk about revelation – it can be strangely restful and even relieving to allow what is true. For as we continue to willingly enter into this dark and concealed terrain of our own devising, the walls that constrain the heart, that drive us to a crippling refuge in the mind, can be felt gently to begin to crumble.
Oh blessed crumbling! In the surrender to fear and its minions, the heart is felt to open. Even as – yes, dear one – it is subjected to a mighty pain. For to love – to really love – is risky. Even as it is somehow miraculously restful to cease the fight with life-as-it-is.
And surely it is “riskier” to live an entire life with a closed-down heart.
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When someone you love is in the presence of your (suddenly, perhaps) non-judgmental, fully accepting awareness, it is detectable by them and it feels wonderful. Deliciously different from what they’re used to. They can sense they’re being truly seen, and accepted, just as they are. It’s palpable, the relaxing of projection (your “good” ideas inflicted on them, how they “ought” to be). This may be your teenager, your close friend, a sibling (with whom you’ve had a difficult relationship forever), your ex (whom you’ve run into, and perhaps have children with). A familiar guard can be felt to drop – perhaps on both sides – however briefly. Or it may change things from then on. Something unaccustomed may be felt to flow between you. Something like a miracle.
You may have been on the receiving end of such a blessing, from one in whose presence you never imagined to feel such a thing. So you know how good it feels, how welcome it is. Let yourself revisit how delicious that can be. See how such a moment is possible, no matter the history. There’s many a death-bed moment that’s embodied this kind of miracle. Why wait till the end of a life?
The longing for unconditional love is, at its source, the wish to know the capacity of our own hearts. We’ve lived at a distance from our very selves – our original selves – which know no need or incompleteness.
This is what awakening opens our eyes to. Talk about revelation. Not to mention relief.