Love is far more than a universal emotion that is a source of inspiration for countless songs, poems, books, and movies. Predominantly, it is recognized with pleasure, euphoria, bliss, and, at times, pain; love is a complex emotion that can elicit a wide range of feelings and reactions. However, understanding what it means to truly love and be loved is an essential yet often overlooked aspect of self-awareness and personal growth. From a holistic perspective, what does it mean to truly love and be loved? Here, we will draw insights from various spiritual, psychological, and philosophical traditions.
How do we discern conditional from unconditional love?
We often hear the phrase "Love is love" in the context of equality in intimate relationships. However, I'd like to expand on this statement and talk about the difference between superficial and pure love. What we often refer to as love is shallow in nature and comes and goes based on self-centered conditions. For example, if one gives us butterflies, and elicits pleasure, we say we love them. Equally, we can define our love for someone and their love for us based on a shared set of expectations and behaviors. But when the initial excitement fades, and the other person's actions fall short, we often stop loving them.
Pure love, on the other hand, is much deeper and enduring. It's not based on fleeting feelings or expectations but on a profound acceptance and appreciation of oneself or another person. However, very few of us will experience this kind of love in our lifetime unless we learn to cultivate it from within and heal the wounds that prevent us from embracing it.
You can think of these different “types” of love, much like the distinction between industrially farmed meat and veggies vs. pasture-raised meat and homegrown veggies. Once you have experienced both, there is a palatable difference in taste, quality, nutritional value, and its impact on our health and the environment. Superficial love is not sustainable and does more harm than good, whereas pure love is abundant, nourishing, and changes our lives and the lives of generations to come.
Here are a few ways pure love displays itself:
Love as Compassion:
One of the most profound definitions of love comes from the spiritual teacher Ram Dass, who defines love as “the willingness to extend oneself for the spiritual growth of oneself or another.” This definition highlights the profound truth that love is not a mere feeling or emotion but an action that requires conscious effort and intention. Love as compassion means going beyond one’s self-centered desires and concerns and striving to alleviate the suffering of others. Compassion, in its essence, is not merely an act, but a unique perspective of understanding and empathizing with others. It embodies selflessness, whether that is holding space for another, not allowing ourselves to become upset when someone reacts in anger, or deeds performed out of genuine concern, without any anticipation of reciprocation.
Love as Acceptance:
Another aspect of love is acceptance. This means acknowledging and embracing all aspects of oneself and others without judgment or criticism. Love as acceptance recognizes that everyone is worthy of love and compassion, regardless of their flaws, mistakes, or shortcomings.
It can be difficult to accept others unconditionally due to the societal norms and biases that shape our collective consciousness. These adopted perceptions can inadvertently create barriers to embracing ourselves and others as we truly are, without preconceived notions or expectations. These narratives further amplify the fear of vulnerability and the potential for disappointment or hurt. The ability to dismantle such superficial labels and indoctrinated beliefs calls for immense bravery, empathy, and emotional intelligence. Only by challenging these societal constructs can we learn to appreciate everyone’s unique blend of life challenges and choices, facilitating true unconditional acceptance.
Love as Presence:
Love as presence communicates both a state of mindfulness and an attentiveness to our surroundings and relationships. It encourages us to be fully engaged in the current moment, absent of past regrets or future anxieties. This love is often nurtured in deep connections where individuals are aware and attentive to each other's needs, feelings, and perspectives. Beyond interpersonal relationships, love as presence signifies a total immersion in all aspects of life. Whether we find ourselves lost in the captivating beauty of nature, recognizing the importance of resources that preserve life, or even during our routine tasks, this form of love compels us to live in the now. It encourages a comprehensive respect and gratitude for life's many facets, reinforcing the importance of our interactions with the environment and the world.
Love as Integration:
Practicing love as integration means acknowledging our deep interconnectedness and interdependence with all things and understanding our actions' profound impact on everything else, whether we engage with it firsthand or not. Hence, the butterfly effect.
This form of love, which propels us to live in harmony with nature, respect the dignity and rights of all, and strive towards a more just and equitable world, is not just an emotion, but a purposeful life mission. Experiencing this love often manifests itself as a deep sense of purpose, fulfillment, and meaning.
Love as Surrender:
Love as surrender is the ultimate expression of trust and faith in the inherent goodness of life. It means letting go of our attachment to outcomes and embracing the mystery and unpredictability of life. When we practice love as surrender, we accept that we are not in control of everything and that there is a greater intelligence or consciousness at work in the universe. This type of love requires immense courage, humility, and faith and is often experienced as a sense of inner peace and gratitude.
As you continue to explore the depths of love and its many manifestations, you will gain greater insight into your true nature and the nature of the universe. May we all find the courage and wisdom to embrace love in all its forms and live a life of purpose, joy, and fulfillment.