by Donald B. Fedor , Ph.D.
Most of us encounter spiritual topics on a daily basis. There is an increasing array of books, seminars, workshops, and programs on topics spanning compassion, meditation, shamanic journeying, energy healing, past life regressions, connecting to Source, and discovering our true selves. In the midst of this spiritual explosion, it appears to be a good time to step back and ask the questions, “What are we really seeking?” and “What is our ultimate goal?”
At the core of many such pursuits is the desire to know and experience unconditional love. It is often held up as the absolute goal of our spiritual efforts or the key to our spirituality. Surprisingly, while unconditional love appears to play a critical role in many spiritual traditions, why does it seem to be hidden in the background? Why is it so illusive?
One reason is that most of us have never experienced it. Even in many spiritual and religious traditions that define God as love, our understanding of such love is often very conditional. There is an array of guidelines for living in ways that are “acceptable” to God and we had better do the right things if we want to enjoy a pleasant afterlife. Aren’t places like Heaven reserved for good people? It can be difficult to learn about unconditional love by emulating those beings we see as “on high.”
We also get to experience conditional forms of love from those closest to us. Parents and friends can make their love conditional on what we do and how we do it. Look at how we are supposed to respond when someone espouses their love for us. How many times have we heard, “If you love me, you would do …” This suggests that love is not only conditional, but it has reciprocal requirements and the giver, whether a deity, family member, or friend, can have specific ideas about how we need to behave in order to deserve their love.
Yet, the lack of love we hold for ourselves is our most difficult hurdle. How do we react when we don’t live up to our own expectations? How much do we dwell on our own shortcomings? How often have we thought, “I could love myself if I were thinner, more attractive, smarter, had a more prestigious job, was with my soul mate, or had more money?” This list can be virtually endless. Whatever we are, do, or have can feel insufficient for true self appreciation.
Although it is difficult to argue against love, human beings have existed for a long time without most of us getting anywhere close to the unconditional version. If a lot of our Supreme Beings don’t seem to embody unconditional love, what hope is there for us? The irony is that at our most fundamental level we are unconditional love. In spite of the deities we have created throughout the ages, we are of Source and Source is unconditional love.
Instead, we tend to create identities based on everything but love. We identify with our jobs, titles, degrees, careers, neighborhoods, possessions, sports teams, and especially our hardships. In this last case, we build identities from those things that have been extremely painful such as childhood abuse, drug dependencies, and diseases. Are these really who we are?
Shifting our identities to the unconditional love within helps us stop beating ourselves for all of our perceived flaws and releases us from our focus on pain and suffering. Note how many of us feel miserable about ourselves while, at the same time, we are trying to be perfect so we can be worthy of love. And what we do to ourselves, we tend do to others.
What is Unconditional Love?
There may never be a simple answer to this question, but there are many sources we can draw upon. A good starting point is offered by Neale Donald Walsch who posited the following:
“It (love) is that which is without condition, without limitation, and without need. Because it is without condition, it requires nothing in order to be expressed. It asks nothing in return. It withdraws nothing in retaliation. Because it is without limitation, it places no limitation on another. It knows no ending, but goes on forever. It experiences no boundary or barrier. Because it is without need, it seeks to take nothing not freely given. It seeks to hold nothing not wishing to be held. It seeks to give nothing not joyously welcomed. And it is free. Love is that which is free, for freedom is the essence of what God is, and love is God, expressed.” (1999, p. 156)
From this perspective, unconditional love is more about being than doing, and encompasses acceptance, joy, gratitude, forgiveness, and peace. We have so often looked outside of ourselves thinking that it comes from “out there” where it is provided by someone or something (e.g., God, a loved one, or a pet). We see ourselves as incapable of being unconditional love and often think of it as something we earn instead of what we already are. This is why so many spiritual teachers tell us that “the answer lies within.”
What I’m going to add to this perspective comes from my channeling of twenty-three Masters. I asked each of them what they could share with us about this topic. What the Masters offered is being compiled in a book entitled, The Heart and Soul of Unconditional Love: Guidance From The Masters.
What emerged is that unconditional love first and foremost is about letting go of judging everything as to whether it is good or bad, wonderful or heart breaking. A surprise to many of us is that unconditional love has nothing to do with fixing or saving anyone including ourselves. It is not about deciding what we think is best and then trying to make that happen. Instead, it is about approaching each situation with a knowledge that all of us are in the process of learning who we are and are choosing different ways, sometimes radically different ways, to discover our true being. This is why acceptance and allowance are so critical. The difficulty is that judging ourselves, others, and everything in our lives has become as natural as breathing.
As much as we idealize romantic love, unconditional love appears to have nothing to do with another person fulfilling our expectations or needs or us fulfilling theirs. Nor is it reciprocal. It is often easier to focus on what is happening outside of ourselves, such as what others are doing to us, than it is to be on the sometimes painful journey to what we are holding inside and to take responsibility for what we are creating. Moreover, a great deal of our society is based on fairness in terms of exchanges.
When it comes to love, we tend to use the same yardstick of reciprocal relationships. This often contributes to our ongoing feelings of being short changed. If we love someone, isn’t that person supposed to love us back? We can feel hurt or abused if we offer our love to someone and it is not returned in the manner we desire. This feeling that we have something to lose can be the fear that inhibits love regardless of the outcome. Love appears to be infinitely available and yet we perceive it as a very scarce commodity.
Unconditional Love, Submission, and Sacrifice
Even when we understand that unconditional love is not dependent on anyone else or anything else, we can still believe that it requires us to be submissive to others’ wishes. If we are holding unconditional love, aren’t we supposed to allow others to do as they see fit and always turn the other cheek? Didn’t the saints sacrifice themselves for others? From depictions of Jesus on the cross to martyrs throughout history, our conceptions of unconditional love are steeped in sacrifice and pain. This is probably why many of us view unconditional love as being beyond our reach or outside the realm of possibility. Throughout history we have tended to view unconditional love as an ideal and see it as impractical for daily application.
It is true that unconditional love respects others’ choices and allows others to experience what results from their choices. It does not, however, call for us to allow others to be abusive or for us to suffer. What has been missing from our conceptions of unconditional love is the question of what is the highest good for all concerned.
Gandhi was an excellent example of someone who understood that while he could love all beings (his followers as well as his enemies), he could oppose what he understood was not consistent with the highest good for all. True unconditional love is based in understanding and strength, not submissiveness. Many of the great spiritual teachers have been depicted as both strong and willing to speak their truth.
In other words, loving and protecting ourselves and those we care about is completely consistent with unconditional love. At the same time, we need to appreciate the very real limitations of our own viewpoint and realize that we cannot always see what is best especially when we have an emotional or material stake in the outcome.
Where’s the Motivation?
One concern about unconditional love is the potential for complacency. If we accept who we are, doesn’t this mean we won’t be motivated to improve? Most of us have been taught that the way to improve ourselves is to focus on the difference between where we are and where we want to be. What happens to all of our bad habits if we love ourselves unconditionally? Won’t we simply accept them and not make any changes? The answer is no. Just as unconditional love does not ask us to sacrifice ourselves, it does not ask us to be blind or not have goals.
The difference is that when we love ourselves unconditionally, we can attend to areas we want to change without ascribing negative emotions and self loathing to aspects of ourselves. Unconditional love is nothing if not honest. As such, it can make change easier. This is because it decreases the strong emotions we have toward those aspects of ourselves we find unacceptable. That to which we give energy, especially negative energy, persists even when we are desperately trying to manifest its opposite. This is why anger and frustration with ourselves often blocks what we truly desire.
Experiencing Unconditional Love
Even having role models such as Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Buddha, or Jesus hasn’t helped us very much when it comes to experiencing unconditional love. Holding their levels of acceptance, joy, and peace can seem totally out of reach in our more ordinary, daily grind lives. As my partner, Katherine, once said, “I wonder how well all these sages and gurus would do holding peace and love if they were raising teenagers?”
In one form or another, most of us have posed similar questions. Does this mean we give up? A lot of us are coming to the understanding that the answer is no, we do not. Moving into unconditional love is too important for it is the doorway to the self. In our own lives, we need to find a starting point and this might be somewhat different for each of us.
One good place to begin is by examining our current relationships, to identify the person, animal, or thing for which we hold the greatest level of unconditional love. Is there something or someone for whom we can hold love no matter what he/she/it does or does not do? This love doesn’t have to be 100% unconditional, but as we more deeply explore these feelings, we can begin to better sense the true essence of unconditional love and the appropriateness of having boundaries. Then we can deepen and expand our understanding to encompass more people, especially ourselves, in our realm of unconditional love. How would it feel to more fully love ourselves and what would this do to how we view and interact with our world?
Sometimes to step into something we haven’t experienced, we need to take actions we understand and then apply them in new or different ways (a form of creativity). This is where gratitude can play a key role. We often feel grateful for the good things in our lives, such as abundance and good health. Gratitude goes beyond what we consider the good side of our lives. In its complete form, gratitude encompasses everything—the good, the bad, and everything in between. It’s about appreciating that whatever comes into our lives is for our soul’s growth and our own self-discovery. Without gratitude for everything we continue to judge things as good and bad. While doing this may momentarily feel good and feed our egos, it doesn’t help us to be the peace and joy we really desire.
We can also do what was suggested in Love Without End: Jesus Speaks: “Glenda, would you like to know the best way to discover and to prove that you are love and that love is not an external commodity? In the presence of your enemies, you know with certainty that any love you are able to feel is not because of external factors. You are not loving your adversary because of his kindness, his supportive nature, or because you stand to profit by the encounter. In the presence of your enemies, you know that you are love…and the source of your love. That is the important reason I told you to love your enemies—not for you to become weak or passive, not for you to be walked on, not for you to suffer, not for you to yield advantages to those who oppose you—but for you to learn that you are love.” (p. 52).
When we are faced with difficult situations, how much love can we bring in for all participants, especially those we see as our enemies or opponents? This love is us.
Doing Versus Being
Most of us are very action oriented and the question often arises as to what does unconditional love look like and what behaviors are associated with it? In other words, what do we need to do in order to be it? Once again, there is no simple or straightforward answer. Unconditional love does not appear to be defined or confined by any specific set of actions and all actions can be attributed to many different motives. No actions are automatically love based. It is for us to choose from moment to moment in what manner we respond to others and to the situations that arise in our lives. Sometimes our love will prompt us to provide help or support, while at other times we will decide not to respond. Deciding not to get involved in a situation can often be the most loving and compassionate thing we can do. By our natures, we want to fix things and to be helpful and outwardly doing nothing can be viewed as uncaring. It can be tremendously challenging to let go of such judgments of ourselves or the fear of being judged by others.
For instance, many of us have struggled with what to do when a loved one has a drug or alcohol problem. Our love for that person and others involved may have us attempt to intervene, or conversely, to allow them to fully experience where this path leads. Often, there is no “right” answer. Holding this person energetically in love with the intention that what unfolds is in their highest good can sometimes be the greatest gift we can provide.
Unconditional love also applies to all of those involved, including ourselves. If we are in harm’s way because of someone else, removing ourselves partially or completely can be the most loving action. Martyrdom might appear to be the ultimate form of unconditional love. However, even the act of giving up one’s life can be based on motives other than love such as a belief in being a victim, wanting to prove we are right, or being loyal to a cause.
When it comes to enacting unconditional love, it does not appear we are being asked to play God and determine, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is the highest and best for all. The Dalai Lama struggled terribly with the decision of whether to leave Tibet after the Chinese occupation. It was unclear to him what was best for him and his people and how events would unfold. It is worth noting that he chose not to remain and possibly martyr himself. Yet who could have foreseen in 1959 the benefits derived from his presence on the world stage. We can debate forever what was best and whether the loss of life was worth it.
We need to act in ways that recognize our own biases and the learning process that is called life. Here our true intentions are the key. If we are trying to do things so that our way of life is validated, so others will think well of us, so we can control others, or so we can get what we want, then our motives have to do with gaining acceptance, validation, or control and not unconditional love.
Given what has been said, some might be concerned that things like serving others or providing a helping hand is being dismissed. Not at all. What is being suggested is that if helping others is how you choose to express your love, then do it. However, serving others is not the equivalent of holding unconditional love. The energy that accompanies the giving is what makes the difference. Likewise, we can truly love those we choose not to outwardly help and potentially help them more than could ever be done through providing assistance. Knowing that such enlightened ones as the Dalai Lama and Jesus struggled with what to do can take pressure off of us trying to get everything “just right.”
Holding unconditional love encompasses accepting our own and others’ unique spiritual paths, letting go of what we think is right or wrong, good or bad and looking beyond the surface to see the magnificence of all beings including ourselves. A way to do this is to feel gratitude for all things that take place. Admittedly, accomplishing even some of these can feel overwhelming. All of us have experienced the tremendous challenge of forgiveness and gratitude in the face of painful situations. And yet, holding unconditional love can not only transform our own lives, it might be able to change life here on earth. We need to be what we want the world to reflect. We cannot create the change we want to see in the world by being angry with it or our fellow inhabitants. The good news is that while unconditional love requires nothing to change, it allows everything to change.
Selected References and Suggested Readings
Chopra, D., The Path to Love: Renewing the Power of Spirit in Your Life. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
Ford, D. (1999). The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. New York: Riverhead Books.
Green, G. (1999). Love Without End: Jesus Speaks. Fort Worth, TX: Heartwings Publishing.
McArthur, D. & McArthur, B. The Intelligent Heart: Transform Your Life With the Laws of Love. Virginia Beach, VA: ARE Press.
Millman, D. (1984). The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. H.J. Kramer: Tiburon, California.
Spalding, Baird. Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East. Marina del Ray, CA: Devorss & Company, 1924 (Vol. 1), 1927 (Vol. 2), 1935 (Vol. 3), 1948 (Vol. 4), 1955 (Vol. 5), 1996 (Vol. 6).
Talty, S. (2011). Escape From the Land of Snows: The Young Dalai Lama’s Harrowing Flight to Freedom and the Making of a Spiritual Hero. New York, NY; Crown Publishers.
Walsch, N.D. (1999). Friendship with God: An Uncommon Dialogue (containing books 1, 2, & 3). New York, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Walsch, N.D. (2005). The Complete Conversations With God: An Uncommon Dialogue (containing books 1, 2, & 3). New York, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
About the author:
Don has published in psychology and business journals, edited a research series, and has a book on organizational change with David M. Herold (Stanford University Press). He has received training from numerous individuals including Alicia Lawson, Lynn Waldrop, Carol Ann Liaros, Wayne Medwid, Lloyd Rawson, Jan Fine, Joey Korn, Sharón Wyeth, and Bernard Morin.