In one of her relationship articles, Kris Gage says that love is not a feeling — it is a choice. Illustrating this idea with an analogy with the business world, she writes:
“Many business owners are “all in” on their company, but they aren’t committed because it’s “the one”; it’s “the one” because they’re committed.”
I like that notion. This means that we get to decide whether or not we love somebody. It also implies that a good relationship is not something that shall one day fall upon us — but something we can intentionally create.
The relationships we build with others can be expressions of love. However, they are often also founded on many other things — dependency, mutual interest, exchange of favours, and so on. Most people only enter a relationship if they think they can benefit from it.
Support. Trust. Feeling less alone. Whatever it is, if we treat one of these things as a prerequisite to love, we put a condition on the experience. We will only consider ourselves to be in love for as long as the condition lasts. It is, of course, very understandable and thoroughly human.
That’s why the most common kind of love is a conditional one.
Yet, the mystical concept of unconditional love persists in the books we read, conversations we have and — maybe most of all — in our imagination. We believe that in order to love others authentically, we first need to find unconditional love for ourselves. Only then we are able to give to, rather than get from, those close to us.
On one hand, I like this noble notion of loving others without expecting anything in return — like I imagine Jesus or Buddha did. On the other, I can’t help but question the idea. What would it mean to love unconditionally? And since, to most of us, this kind of love doesn’t seem to come naturally — can we somehow learn it along the way?
We are unconditional beings born into a conditional world
Once upon a time, you were a child, unspoiled by any social conditioning. You had no notion of concepts such as “to deserve something” or “wrongful behaviour.” You were just being you, without ever considering the existence of some arbitrarily “good” and “bad” ways to conduct yourself. You didn’t question your sanity or worthiness — simply because you had no idea what these things meant.
When we tell our life stories — no matter to ourselves or others — we often overlook the chapter of infancy and early childhood. Most of us have very few memories from that period, so we fail to acknowledge many profound and formative experiences that happened to us at this early stage. The fact that we can’t remember them makes us behave as if they were irrelevant.
But I suppose that if you asked any psychotherapist, they would tell you that these first years heavily determine the rest of our lives. It’s just extremely hard to access those events — because our conscious memory fails to store them.
Yet, if there is a “role model” for what it means to be unconditional, I believe it is to be found in our early childhood. In the moments when we run around naked in public, without ever having to wonder whether this offends anybody. In the demands that we constantly direct towards our parents — not to manipulate them into our hidden agenda, but simply because we are hungry, tired or uncomfortable. In the songs we make up as we go, and sing for pleasure only, without considering whether they make us appear cool or talented.
Then, this unconditional way of being we naturally display as children quickly gives way to something else.
“The unavoidable consequence of childhood is that we all receive this emotional baton from our parents so that we can take our part in the human race. Imprinting is an unfolding of a sacred agreement we have with each other. Imprinting is therefore not something done to us by our parents, or something we do to another when playing the role of parent. It’s an experience we enter together.” — Michael Brown, The Presence Process
As your body grows — and so do the years on your record — the world imposes more and more expectations onto you. Simultaneously, through interacting with your caregivers and peers, you develop your emotional and mental ways of functioning in society.
You make no conscious decision about it — yet, you gradually get sucked into the system of social rules and emotional behaviours that you never got to choose. Suddenly, it is not okay to be naked on the beach or cry in your mother’s arms in the middle of a shopping mall. Suddenly, you have learned to respond with fear to certain cues — and with anger or contentment to others.
Everything has changed. Your unconditional way of being became constrained by the limitations of the conditional world. No-one ever asked you for consent. It just had to happen this way.
Through the process of socialization, you were taught that certain conditions must be met if you are to be happy within any particular environment. When comes to your love for others, that works as a two-way street. On one hand, you believe that you must conduct yourself in a certain manner in order to be “lovable.” On the other, those with whom you come in contact must also fulfil a number of conditions for you to at least consider loving them.
However, what “love” means to you at this point is still not entirely clear.
Maybe we have the definition of love all wrong?
Let’s not shy away from it and tackle one of the oldest questions in the world.
What is love?
I started developing my own understanding of love when I first read a book called The Presence Process. It is a 10-week procedure based on a daily breathing practice, that facilitates tapping into present moment awareness and entering the experience of unconditional love.
Michael Brown, the author, distinguishes between two definitions of love that we all carry within us. One of them is the childhood and — for the large part — unconscious one. The other is the adult definition of love that we construct on a more conscious level.
“Our unconscious definition of love is the resonance of the emotional signature we experienced as children whenever we needed to be loved. Consequently, we unconsciously recreate the resonance of this emotional signature whenever we feel the need to be loved unconditionally and whenever we attempt to show unconditional love to a specific other.” — Michael Brown
This definition may explain the irrational behaviours displayed by many people who are always “in search of love.” It also sheds new light on why people who witnessed domestic abuse as children are more likely to experience abuse from their partner as an adult.
For our “inner child,” who manages our choices on an unconscious level, it doesn’t seem to matter whether love hurts. The child only knows how love “should” feel like based on what it experienced in the earliest stages of life.
For our childish, unconscious self, the only thing that matters is to recreate the emotional resonance it learned to recognize as “love.” Whether that resonance is connected to violence, hurt or kindness is irrelevant. The child cannot discern between the destructive and constructive implications of the love it seeks.
But according to Michael Brown, each of us is also equipped with the second definition of love — the one that we embrace as adults. It is the “wine, roses and romantic sunsets” image of love. It is the “prince-on-a-white-horse” or “fragile-and-vulnerable-princess” projection. The vision of the happily-ever-after life that we can have once we find “the one.”
I think that most people — including myself — blend these two definitions together while looking for the experience of what they call “love.” On the surface, we want our relationships to consist primarily of romantic moments filled with exploring intimacy in a flower-bedded forest (ahem, okay, that’s my adult definition of love). On the other hand, we unconsciously attract people who spark in us this ancient resonance that we experienced to be “love” when we were children.
That resonance is not necessarily aligned with the romantic vision of love we developed as adults. It is often far less comfortable than we would want “love” to be. It can make us feel like we’re never “getting” what we are looking for. We may even conclude that we are sabotaging our own efforts to be happy, because of our childhood that was “broken” in one way or the other.
This is where the concept of unconditional love — neither based on the child’s, nor the adult’s demands — starts appearing as the Holy Grail. It may seem like it could save us from the endless struggle of chasing the conditions that hurt and lure us at the same time.
But how are we to experience unconditional love without having any sense of how it feels like?
Unconditional love starts with knowing yourself
“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the essence of another human being unless he loves him.” — Viktor Frankl
Love is about other people and connecting with them. For sure. But I believe that this comes later in the process. It cannot happen before we first look at our own childhood and adult definitions of love and swallow up the hard truth:
All our lives we have been looking for love based on ideas imposed on us by other people. We have never questioned what love actually means to us.
For me, blending the childhood and the adult definitions of love resulted in a few pitiful quasi-relationships and one-night stands, memories of which I cultivated in my mind for as long as I needed to convince myself that my emotional void finally got filled up.
I looked for “love” in all kinds of wrong places. I engaged in random acts of intimacy and did things I despised, just to delude myself that I found love. Even if just for a brief moment.
If there was a main theme in my search for love, I would say it definitely was “desperation.” It didn’t seem to me like I was choosing love. It always was more of an “if-he-wants-me-I-gotta-give-it-to-him” kind of approach. In other words, I didn’t feel like I could afford to waste an opportunity for love. If I saw even the slightest chance, I would give it my all.
From hindsight, I realize that all my experiences in search of love were choices. Love — any kind of it — was always a choice, just like Kris Gage said. It’s just that my choices were, for the most part, unconscious.
As a result, the “love” I experienced could never move beyond the conditional realm.
Today, I believe that unconditional love must have something to do with consciousness. Because if I am unconscious, I can only do two things. I either entertain the mental fantasy of how unconditional love should look like (the adult definition) or I throw myself into the search primarily directed by the “expertise” of a 5-year old (the childhood definition).
I think I’ve been doing both for long enough already. I somehow came to believe that if I am to love someone unconditionally, I have to give him or her my all. Whether it was about my mother, a romantic partner or a friend, I could usually sign my name under the words of Elizabeth Gilbert:
“I disappear into the person I love. I am the permeable membrane. If I love you, you can have everything. You can have my time, my devotion, my ass, my money, my family, my dog, my dog’s money, my dog’s time — everything.”
But that’s not love. That’s allowing my childhood imprinting and the “prince-on-a-horse” fantasies to be the dominant drivers of my behaviour. And this means that I become blind to what happens in the present moment. I can’t see what’s really going on in my own emotional realm — as well as in the other person’s.
And that leads to, again, putting conditions on my love — just in a clever disguise of giving myself to the one I “love unconditionally.”
In the end, I can only try to define unconditional love by pointing to what it is not.
It is not roses and sunsets and romantic letters.
It is not running around in circles, trying to recreate your childhood experience.
It is not losing yourself in the other person — but neither is it ignoring their needs and being selfish.
Ultimately, it seems to me that unconditional love is an experience we have, rather than a definition. It cannot be locked into a concise, clever sentence that would allow everybody to readily grasp what it means. All the definitions we construct are based on trying to identify similarities between our own and other people’s experience. But unconditional love doesn’t conform to such methods.
Unconditional love can only be grasped by discovering it through personal experience. It is something we learn as we start looking within, and seeing through our imprints, conditioning and emotional patterns. It is something that each of us would probably describe with different words — but when we see it in the eyes of another, we don’t need the words anymore.
We just know.
Can we learn to experience unconditional love? I believe so. I believe it can be done by challenging our deeply-embedded beliefs about the nature of love — as well as the ones we hold about ourselves. And we may start this process by ceasing to discern between our own and another’s well-being and interest.
To me, unconditional love becomes possible when you recognize that it’s impossible to care for another while not caring for yourself — or the other way around. Real care, compassion and love are collective and inclusive by definition. They either benefit everybody involved or nobody.
“The greatest gift we can give another person is the gift of our own personal growth. The more we know ourselves and develop the courage and skills to communicate our inner experience, the more that trust and love can flourish.”
It seems that the good old “know thyself” maxim is, again, the starting point. It’s the seed we just have to sow if we want to harvest unconditional love at some point.