In the Goddess Temple in Glastonbury this June, as I sat down to find some space after an interview with Philip Carr-Gomm for Druidcast, a lady approached me and asked if I would write a blog post about unconditional love. She said she was having trouble with this concept, and I said I would do my best. I have been thinking about this matter for a few weeks now, mulling it over and letting it settle in my mind before putting words to paper (or a computer screen, as it were – it just seems less poetic).
First, we have to define just what love is. The Oxford English dictionary defines it thus:
• A strong feeling of affection
• A great interest and pleasure in something
• A person or thing that one loves
A difficult one; look at several other dictionaries and you’ll notice that even they cannot seem to agree on what love is first and foremost. It is such a widespread and subjective concept that changes depending upon culture, religious or philosophical points of view. In an Eastern tradition such as Buddhism, love is more than affection, pleasure or something that one loves. Indeed, in most traditions it is more than that: love is peace; love is understanding; love is compassion; love is life itself.
For me, love is all these things. That is why it is so difficult to define. When considered in this context, love is, in itself, unconditional – or is it? Can you put a condition on the notion of peace, of understanding, of compassion, of life itself?
In a way, yes. Throughout the world, peace, understanding and living are kept under certain conditions in order to benefit the greater good. Laws and customs in every society are created for the supposed benefit of all – is this love? Laws and customs are a condition for keeping the peace, yet when we consider things such as genital mutilation, are we acting on a condition that brings about love?
Reining it back in for a moment, in most Eastern traditions love equals compassion. So, what is compassion? I’ve talked about the nature of compassion for years on this blog, considering it from every angle possible. Compassion is trying to see the bigger picture, to see that everyone suffers, and to alleviate suffering, both yours and the world at large. This compassion does not mean that you then become a doormat, however. The Dalai Lama states in his essay on “Compassion and the Individual”:
“[w]hen a problem first arises, try to remain humble and maintain a sincere attitude and be concerned that the outcome is fair. Of course, others may try to take advantage of you, and if your remaining detached only encourages unjust aggression, adopt a strong stand. This, however, should be done with compassion, and if it is necessary to express your views and take strong countermeasures, do so without anger or ill-intent.”
In this quote, compassion comes about with a concern that the outcome is fair. Fairness is, in itself, yet another subjective concept that means so many different things to so many different people. It would appear that we’re already on shaky ground before we’ve even gotten through to the concept of unconditional love. However, in the “without anger or ill-intent” there seems to be a key.
If we do not harbour anger or ill-intent towards anyone, is this the gift that unlocks the door to unconditional love? It just might be. I may disagree with political parties, companies, individual persons, but I do not wish them harm. I may hate most of David Cameron’s policies, but I would not wish him personally to come to harm. I may write petitions, raise money or volunteer, protest his policies; I may express my point of view with words and conviction, strong in my personal belief of what is right. I can do all of this without ill-intent. Without anger? Sometimes, but not all the time. For me, anger and ill-intent are two very separate issues.
So what is unconditional love? Is it living in a world without ill-intent towards other beings, human and non-human? I’m not sure that quite covers it – loving someone and not wishing them harm are not exactly the same thing. Is anger here the key to unlocking this further mystery?
What is anger? I’ve pondered this one for years, and have come to the conclusion that anger has its roots in fear. I become angry because I fear my personal rights are compromised. I become angry because I fear for the safety of a bluebell wood. I become angry because I fear for the well-being of a friend who suffers. This anger is directed, focused into non-violent action and activism. It is fear that is transformed into energy for what I perceive to be the greater good. Like everything, it is subjective. Is this anger all that bad then, considering the focus? Looking and understanding fear helps me to use anger and to understand anger in others. When someone shouts abuse at me, I understand their fear. It doesn’t mean I have to like it, but I understand it. With Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of “Engaged Buddhism”, one can work to counter that fear and anger and stand up for what they believe is right, while maintaining an awareness of the whole.
There is a saying, “love means never having to say you’re sorry”. This is not to mean that one should behave badly, without thought or care for others – quite the contrary. It means that one should live a life that causes the least amount of suffering for others, so that you will never have to apologise in the first place. It’s a nice thought, and one to work towards. It carries the notion of personal responsibility for all actions.
In my opinion, it is all that we can do to become aware of our emotions, of our fears and our passions and work for the greater good in all that we do. I can look to my gods for inspiration.
With regards to Druidry, it is often said that we do not submit to our gods, for to do so would destroy us. In Druidry, anger is a god. Love is equally a god. Should we therefore not submit to love, either? More questions…
We may have to take a strong stand in our convictions at times. We have to look at the nature of love, of anger and of fear and understand the currents of these energies to better understand their influence in our lives. Thinking about these energies more often than not brings up more questions, making us quest ever deeper for the awen that will show us the way to peace.
Perhaps love is more akin to the concept of animism, which Emma Restall Orr defines as seeing the inherent value in all things. We do not need conditions to make this idea work. We value everything, no matter what, and work with our gods to better understand the nature of all being and all beings, questing the awen that will allow us to tap into that well and drink deeply.
So is this unconditional love? Or is it a case of only if when there is absolutely no fear, can there be unconditional love. Is that humanly possible? I’m not so sure yet – I’m still thinking about it. Is animism the inspiration that will unlock the mystery of unconditional love?
Where I struggle is that the desire to love unconditionally is challenged by the behaviour of people. Partners I could not stay with. Friends whose words or actions I could not make peace with. There is (I think) a difference between unconditional love in a broad spiritual sense, and in a specific, immediate and human sense. The second type is hard, perhaps impossible. I know there are limits on everything, there are things people could do that would destroy my ability to love them. The second type is also mostly what I have.
It’s a tough one to figure out – I’m still figuring it out! x
Thank-you Joanna. I was that lady! and I do appreciate what you struggled with as I have done but brought it all together so eloquently and clearly. But as you say more to explore – discuss – think about etc. So….if no fear then unconditional love can reign – but what about anger – are they the same thing and is the anger and expression of fear? What I struggle with is if a person I love is defiled in any way can I love the person unconditionally – feel compassion for the person – know he/she too lives in fear? Thankfully I have never been tested on this and I pray I will never be.
Hi Mollie! Good to hear from you again!
I do think anger is the expression of fear. Perhaps in seeing the fear in everyone, that will lead to compassion.
Or maybe you can love everyone unconditionally – but you don’t have to like everyone unconditionally… 🙂
Needless to say, I have some slightly different perspectives to bring to this one. First, the word unconditional. On the surface it can seem to indicate a confirmation. A confirmation in which the person is agreeing to give of themselves almost “regardless of the consequences”. Speaking personally, if I was to give “unconditionally” it would be an affirmation that I was now “allowing myself to go with the flow”, that is to say, I would be handing power to the forces at play with whatever I was agreeing to engage with. Unconditional is therefore, IMO, a statement of permission.
Next, the word love. Much as I have said elsewhere about the word Druid, defining love is almost akin to trying to nail a jelly to a table. It can be shoe-horned into so many things as to be almost meaningless in some quarters. I personally have moved away from identifying its primary meaning to be associated with human physicality. Love to me now is indicative of an almost organizing process within the cosmos. It is the unifying “force” within the cosmos.
So for me, if I was to give “unconditional Love”, I would be allowing myself to allign with the primary organizing force within the cosmos (using my own experiences and the terms of references I have built through these interactions) and trusting my engagement would “bring something else to the party”.
As to anger, been thinking about that and the destructive cycle involved in physical life and will probably be blogging about that in the near future.
More to chew on – thanks for your comments, Corvus! I look forward to your blog post. x
This is a very well thought out and questioning post. Much to think about. My observations may not be pertinent, but they are what came to the surface as I read your words here.
First of all English is a very limiting language in which to frame the word love. I love my step-daughters and I love raspberries. Same word, totally different inference as far as I’m concerned. The other thing is the word compassion, from its Latin roots it means suffering with. Is that what it means in Buddhism? Or is there no accurate or adequate English equivalent for the word in the original texts. The last thing is that we so often use the word hate as if it was the opposite of love, but it isn’t from my perspective, indifference/apathy are opposite for they indicate to me no sort of engagement. Hate is very engaging, destructive to be sure but engaged at some levels. In some ways I see love and hate on parallel tracks, juxtaposed perhaps but not opposites in the sense of black and white on two ends of a scale.
Unconditional love is very hard,both conceptually and practically. Love is so subjective and contextual. I grew up in Sunday School being told that God loves you unconditionally, yet you read the Hebrew Bible stories and found out there that God’s love did seem to have conditions (supposedly the same God). There are even hints of it in the New Testament, in places in Epistles. And even Jesus had the ‘temple tantrum’ over turning the money changers tables. An angry outburst, and certainly not the wishy-washy all loving Jesus meek and mild image. And then there is the misunderstood and misrepresented images in Revelation. An all-loving God is not going only to take 144,000 of the elect only into Heaven and leave the rest to burn in the wastes of Hell. An unconditionally-all-loving God would not say only if you were baptised would you spend eternity in His splendorous presence. Only if you believe in Me, in the this group of people says you must are you worthy of my blessing, my salvation, my paradise.
This is what theologies have done to the concept of unconditional love, and in much of the world this is the context for trying to rationalise any sense of unconditionality with regards to love. So, it still leaves the muddle and confusion, the questions and the contradictions. And maybe it is one of those concepts that is contested for a reason. Maybe to make us think long and hard about the nature of being and the being of nature, and our beingness in the matrix of nature, especially as Druids.
For the record, I don’t think there can be unconditional like. Liking something or someone seems more straightforward, though it might not be, it just ‘feels’ that way. And, I also agree wholeheartedly about not wishing ill/harm/misfortune those whose actions or polices we might find detestable/indefensible/abhorrent.
Again, an extremely challenging, thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Thank you.
Hi Aurora – wow – even more for me to ponder lol! The brain is full at this time of year, overflowing…
Thank you so much for your comment. Good words, and I hope to see you this weekend – will you be at the Yew Gathering? x
I look forward to seeing you at the Yew Gathering as well, so many people I’ve been virtually interacting with and finally getting to meet face to face. Can I cope?!
Unconditional love is what a mother has for her child. You might not always like some of the ways they behave, especially when they are being deliberately naughty or obnoxious, and sometimes you may loose your temper with them, but you can still love them underneath all that. See to what they really are, and what they want to be. A scared little child trying to figure out his or her place in the world.
We are all children, we are all the same and just trying to find our way the best we can. I believe there is love out there for all of us from Spirit, but sometimes, like a child, we can’t see it or don’t feel we deserve to be loved. I have found that once you can find compassion or forgiveness for yourself, then it is much easier to find it for everyone else. We are all the same underneath.
This is my take on love anyway. Feel free to disagree.
Interesting viewpoint. I’m not so sure that I believe in love from Spirit – I’m not even sure what Spirit means in your context. I know that I don’t believe that there is an all-loving Mother Goddess type figure out there – as a Druid, my worldview is based on what I learn from nature. Finding the human concept of love in nature is difficult, at best. I do agree that fear is a large motivating factor in human interaction. I’m also not so sure about a mother having unconditional love for her children – there are mothers out there who disown, abandon or otherwise wholly separate themselves from their children, as the human consideration of love has failed to keep the relationship going, for whatever reason…
Unconditional loves comes from the deepest parts of our heart and soul, letting go and allowing each life form to exist for their own reasons, not here for us to use, exploit, or harm. Fear, anger, and hate come from the ego and so does any kind of “isms” when a person has superficial superiority complex that they think some life forms matter less than others which also supports “isms”.