UNconditional love - it is infinite. It is NOT logical. It cannot be explained or rationalized or reasoned. It is intentionless, motiveless, goalless, endless. It has no prerequisites and no limitations, bounds, caps, or maximums - even the ones we invent and sustain ourselves.
Over the past two years, I’ve realized and confronted several of my detrimental behavioral patterns. Despite the discovery and all of the hard work I’ve done to combat them, sometimes they still haunt me. One, in particular seems to kick my butt over and over again...my misinterpretation of unconditional love.
I can be empathic to a fault. I take on - and allow others to place on me - their emotional burdens and stresses. I did this my whole life without thinking, without resentment or bitterness, because I thought that was love. I thought that was being a good friend, a good lover, a good daughter, sister, cousin, niece, student, employee, stranger, human. I thought it was an expression of my love for another person if I gave all of myself and more. And that is true! Total sacrifice is the ultimate expression of unconditional love, yes. However, I came to realize that my version of “love” was not that pure, condition-free, selflessly sacrificial love, because it came with the simplest, smallest of strings attached - but with a string nonetheless. This totally conditional manifestation of love to which I had ascribed my entire life became the cornerstone of an exhausting, victim story in which I loved to play the lead role. Then, I would realize my error of conditioning my love, and spend days, weeks, months re-discovering and embracing unconditionality all over again.
I still find myself in this cycle, and see and feel it approaching in triggering relationships or situations. It haunts me because total liberation from these lifelong cycles is freaking difficult to achieve! It is difficult not only because of decades of programming from my own mind and society at large, but also because it is such an enormous and overwhelmingly simple concept - that of pure, unconditional love. The stuff that makes up the universe and everything within and beyond it.
For a long time, I did not think about what real, unconditional love means. Looking back now, I realize it was previously beyond my realm of understanding. Our society is built on gains, trade, capital; it is focused on taking and giving in opposing measure. We seek profit and gain, not stasis and balance. Almost all functions, actions, behaviors, decisions, and interactions in our society mirror this framework. We give something for something in return. We create expectations about what we will “get” in exchange for our giving, and we place those expectations on ourselves and other people.
Throughout my life, I was trapped in that mentality in all things - including and especially - in love. I would attempt to be generous - loving freely, openly, and intensely all who came into my life - friends, family, lovers - and in the end, I would always feel exhausted. Hurt. Sad. Angry. Cheated. Like I had given so much of myself, made endless sacrifices, and received nothing “in return.” I would feel empty and tired, and resent myself and the other person quietly rather than express my anger and discontent, resigned to accept that, “sigh, that was just how love was.”
I played every victim role imaginable - tearful lips pleading with the universe, “how could you do this to me?!” “How could he do this to me?!” “How could I do this to myself?!” The words echoing up from rock bottom. Me - depleted, hollow, depressed. But part of me was always confused as well. I never wanted any thing from anyone - friend, family member, or romantic partner. I didn’t make demands or ask for things; I didn’t give ultimatums or expect any specific words, behaviors, or treatment...
But I hoped for their love.
And with that one single hope - that bastardly little expectation - I also expected their time, respect, and affection. The return I wanted for giving my love - and thus, all of me - was their love, and everything that I thought that should include. Even this one logical desire to be loved in return, rendered my love for so many people in my life totally and completely conditional : “I can only love you if you love me back.”
I opened my eyes to this pattern well over a year ago now, and though I am still working on those die-hard tendencies, I’ve discovered a lot. Summertime nostalgia has captured my heart, and lately I’ve been reflecting on my love for and connection to other beings past and present - friends, family, and romantic partners all included. I’ve cut people out of my life, distanced myself - detached - telling myself that the relationships were an emotional or spiritual drain. I felt like my energy had been getting sucked out of me by various persons in my life. I began to question my ability to love, to give and receive it in healthy and enriching ways. It expanded to my romantic endeavors, and I found myself playing over some twist on the classic “he loves me, he loves me not,” wondering, "can he love me? Can he love me not? Can l love him?!"
What became a dangerous pattern, began as a promising tale of self love and self care - removing negative energies from my life, giving others and myself space, practicing the art of detachment and loving from afar. However, somewhere along the way, it went very wrong, and this story of detachment became an excuse. I started telling myself that my love is not perfect and complete on its own. That my love is not infinite and whole, but requires something else...at the very least, returned love. Just like that, the self-love facade fell away and revealed the true monster beneath - a detrimental behavioral cycle of love-exhaust-detach-replete.
I convinced myself that the receiver of my love was flawed in any number of ways - unworthy, ungrateful, incapable of accepting my love, etc. etc. But really, the flaw lay within me: my love had become conditional. I convinced myself that the love I shared with others was exhausting, taxing, that it sucked me dry of all the energy and love and well-being that I had, leaving me feeling empty, fatigued, and frustrated that I had engaged in the first place. I thought this because I expected to receive the same kind or degree of my own love in return, and when I did not - I felt like my heart had been ransacked.
I had forgotten that our capacity for love - to give it and to receive it - is infinite. We do not possess only a finite amount of love to be doled out in rations until the next harvest. We can give ALL of our love and MORE at ALL times to ALL people. We can do this because we are made of love. We are filled with love, and we are constantly connected to energy that eternally exists because of love.
So, how did I end up feeling so hollow? So incapable of giving and receiving this infinite love that already existed within me? I believed I only had so much space in my heart to hold love. That it was a separate component to my being, and that once that space was empty, it was empty until I replenished it. Furthermore, I allowed myself to believe that I was not doing said replenishing - that I was giving until the giving was gone, and then that was it. It was another facet of the story I had told myself, that giving this love and replenishing it were two separate and distinct processes. That I had to load up on more fuel every time I pumped love out of my heart and reached E. This replenishment required adequate amounts of self-love and care that in the end I felt unable to give myself - my gas tank would feel so far past empty that I couldn’t even get to the gas station to refill it! That was part of the fallacy, part of the excuse - my gross misunderstanding that led me to detach from friendships, distance myself from family, sabotage relationships, and sink into depression and self-resentment rather than working on the real issues within.
We do not give out love, and then run away to an infinitely full fuel pump to fill our 13-gallon hearts each time we reach empty. Our hearts are already and always connected to that fuel pump. The pump is constantly sending more perfect love into our hearts in the exact moments we are giving it out. It happens in such perfect harmony, that our hearts can exist in homeostasis with the love we give and receive. We have only to recognize and know that it is true, to remember that we are already connected to Love - that we are made of it, that an automatic and infinite supply of it exists within us and around us at all times.
The moment we realize and accept this is the moment we realize we are pure, unconditional love.
Thus, we do not need to push people away to take our re-fueling trip. We can channel and produce all the love we need and more whenever we need it - a direct supply chain in which we are the source, discoverer, producer, and distributor simultaneously.
However, we are as we believe we are, and I had led myself to believe that I was separate from the source of love. The trips to and from the pump that I was convinced were necessary had depleted me entirely. Once I reached that point-past-exhaustion, I created another story to formulate a better solution:
Problem: running out of love.
Solution: stop loving.
This logic-based thought pattern started telling me that I must stop loving. Stop loving so passionately, stop loving so freely, so openly, so generously, so selflessly - stop loving. Focus inward, focus on yourself, give yourself that love. Use those 13 gallons of love on you, self! I started telling myself that I couldn’t be in love and be healthy. Therefore, it wasn’t I who was unhealthy, it was my love for another person. It was our love that was unhealthy and toxic, and not my own patterns. It was that other person specifically; he/she was a drain, was toxic for me and I should remove him/her from my life. I felt depleted. I felt irritable. I saw the problem, and my mind gave me an easy solution. The solution manifested itself as distance from my lover, my friends, my family, sometimes as fighting, space, a necessary, perhaps temporary break up while I worked on myself, gave myself love and care, gave myself more time and energy to create a larger stockpile of love to dispense later.
But this is bullshit.
Our love is infinite and never-ending; we don’t need to love others or love ourselves. We don’t need to care for others or care for ourselves. We can do both, all, at once, all the time! It was only the interruptions of an overly logical, disconnected mind that began to taint, to condition the naturally unconditional love of my own being.
I had come to believe that I was making too many sacrifices for someone else, for others - most specifically, I was sacrificing my own work, growth, and self-love. But these sacrifices were part of the illusion, the story. I told myself that these sacrifices and compromises were a symptom of unhealthy, imbalanced relationships. The Machiavellian mastermind in my head telling me, “End it!” “Run away!” tapping pointed, sinister fingertips together as I allowed my heart to blot out the brilliancy of unconditional love, and close. These sacrifices were not unhealthy - they were one small piece of true unconditional love. It was my stories around the sacrifices that were unhealthy and untrue - my belief that I was not already pure love, and therefore shouldn’t have to or couldn’t make sacrifices for and love others.
Re-discovering unconditional love over and over again has helped me to realize when I am making excuses for my lack of work, blaming others for my perceived separation from unconditional love, or creating victimhood stories around my own behaviors. I can't always find external explanations for my own unhappiness in relationships of all sorts. I can't use the story of an "imbalanced" or "unloving" relationship as an excuse to escape to my lair and "heal" (read: hide).
I am able to catch myself before I detach from someone who has been an invaluable presence in my life. I am able to evaluate our relationship honestly and openly. I have learned to discern between wrongful distance that emerges as part of my conditioned mis-manifestation of love, and rightful distance that occurs as a selfless expression of true unconditional love.
This “rightful,” loving detachment respects the boundaries and needs of myself and others. I don’t always have to express my unconditional love through affection, warmth, and selflessness. Sometimes it needs to be expressed with fierceness, honesty - and space. I can discern when distance is truly necessary, and when I am only craving it as part of my victim story, my excuses, or an easy way out of not confronting my own issues.
Unconditional love can include distance and detachment, too - for the right reasons. It can include removing people from your life temporarily, but it is important that the decision comes from a place of love and compassion. It must come from the desire to give yourself and others involved the space to live out the fullest version of yourself and your free will - whatever it may be in that moment. This means that you are both freed from any judgement or expectation - even such a simple expectation as being loved in return. This radical acceptance - of self, of the other, and of what is necessary or best for that person, regardless of what it may be - is the purest, greatest expression of love.
Sounds nice, right? Like I’ve got it all figured out with all this awareness….but I’m still a mess. And it took several passionate, but “toxic” friendships, familial ties, and relationships to end or be damaged, and one massive, soul-sucking heartbreak for me to realize all of this. If only I had opened my eyes sooner, eh?
But that is part of the journey. Sometimes, we see an exciting-looking path and we take it! That exciting path usually takes us on a wild ride; sometimes it’s a clear path with wildflowers and sunshine and singing birds; sometimes it’s dark and dangerous; and sometimes it takes us three miles backwards and spits us out on a trail we’ve already walked...several times.
Accepting the magnificence and ever-presence of unconditional love within us is the most incredible path you can imagine - but it is hard. We forget. We get distracted. We take detours and backtrack and re-learn lessons over and over again. And there is nothing wrong with that. We can only surrender to these meanderings and the lessons they contain, however oft repeated. We can only practice accepting the incomprehensible unconditionality of love until we stop resisting it - until it stops being incomprehensible.
To practice, we need only to shut down the twisted machinations of our minds for long enough to begin. Then we have already succeeded - we have already surrendered. We have called the power of unconditional love to our memories for one infinite millisecond...and that millisecond of courage and awareness is all we need to commit to the work necessary to love without limit - to re-discover unconditional love.
Written by Samantha Vaughn
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