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?