It’s almost the end of February, the month of love, yet it’s still appropriate to speak about what does and does not constitute unconditional love. As the late psychologist John Welwood wrote in an article in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, “At the very heart of our experience of being human, each of us has an intuitive sense of the value of unconditional love.”
There’s no doubt that we get the best glimpses of unconditional love during at least two times in our lives—when we come into the world and when we leave it. When we’re born, we feel the love of our mother or caretaker; and when we pass away, we feel the love of those who care for us during our last months, days, or hours. Unconditional love also comes into play when we open up to other human beings in a special, connected type of way, such as during romantic love. “Tough, frozen places inside of us begin to melt and soften as the circulation of love warms us like spring sun,” Welwood wrote.
Feeling unconditional love is something that we experience in our hearts. It’s a tender type of love in which we allow others in and/or are moved by them. Feeling unconditional love has both receiving and giving aspects. It also has a lot to do with trust. Carl Rogers used the term "unconditional positive regard," which underscores our need for genuineness, authenticity, self-disclosure, acceptance, and empathy. While the term was mainly used in the clinical realm, it can apply to all relationships. It’s really about caring for one another as separate identities, honoring and respecting each other’s opinions without judgment. In the Buddhist realm, this is more commonly referred to as loving-kindness, or maitri in Sanskrit.
Conditional love, on the other hand, means that there are certain conditions, likes, and dislikes that determine the extent of our love. It’s about someone matching our personal needs, desires, and outlooks. This may be connected with personality, physical attraction, or the feeling we have when we’re with these individuals.
In many spiritual traditions, unconditional love is seen to be the highest form of human expression. I remember meeting with some Buddhist monks during some very turbulent times in the world. I asked one of them, “How do you deal with mean-spirited people?” The monk took his rosary in his hand, rolled the beads a bit, looked in my eyes, and said, “Just send them compassion.” Initially, I thought that sentiment was incomprehensible, but upon deep reflection, I realized the wisdom in his answer.
Feeling unconditional love from a spiritual teacher can teach us how to love and accept ourselves. Once we do so, then we can more easily accept and offer unconditional love to others, including, friends, family, colleagues, and even “enemies.”
In summary, one way to feel more unconditional love is to work on having an open heart and allowing yourself to more easily move through disappointment. Breaking open your heart to others also allows you to forgive, and permits you to see and understand the goodness in others. It can also point out how very limiting conditional love can be.
Here are some ways to cultivate unconditional love:
- Practice self-love.
- Nurture yourself.
- Maintain a regular meditation practice.
- Work on “just being.”
- Refrain from holding on to negative thoughts.
- Try not to use the word should.
- Allow other people’s experiences to resonate with you.
- Surround yourself with those who are upbeat and loving.
- Send love to the difficult people in your life.
Matsu-Pissot, C. (1998) “On the Experience of Being Unconditionally Loved.” Phenomenological Inquiry in Psychology. Boston, MA: Springer. pp. 321–334.
Rogers, C. R. (1961). On Becoming a Person. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Welwood, J. (1985). “On Love: Conditional and Unconditional.” The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Vol. 17. No. 1., pp. 33–40.
Welwood, J. (2002). Toward a Psychology of Awakening. Boston, MA: Shambala.