SUMMARY: There is a relatively rare form of love that is more of a perception — or way of perceiving the world — than it is an emotion.
(About a 6 minute read)
There is a kind of love that — even if it were unpleasant — would be worth experiencing.
This is what I call, “unconditional love”. Buddhists, I believe, call it , “loving-compassion”, and Christians call it “agape”. Many people around the world consider it the “highest” or most “pure” form of love.
Some other folks call it “altruistic love”, but I find that term misleading, not because there isn’t an element of altruism in it, but because altruism is so poorly understood, largely perhaps because it is so difficult to explain.
Many folks who have never experienced it do not believe it exists, or even reason that it logically cannot exist.
Unconditional love would be worth experiencing even if it were unpleasant (at least in my opinion) because it brings with it great insight into people and things, compassion, and a feeling or sense of renewal or rebirth — among other things.
But what is it?
As its name suggests, it is love with no conditions for it. You do not unconditionally love something because it is good, or because it benefits you, but simply because it is what it is. There are no strings, no conditions, attached to unconditional love.
For instance, if you were to unconditionally love someone, you would accept and affirm them just as they are. You would not impose conditions on your love for them, such that they be a good person, that it be pleasurable to love them, or that you gained something from loving them.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you would allow yourself to be abused by them. You would have no motive for doing so since you would in no way be emotionally attached to them, as is often the case with other kinds of love. But you might chose to act altruistically to benefit them either with no benefit to yourself or perhaps even at some cost to yourself.
Some people confuse unconditional love with parental love. But parental love has a string or condition attached to it — you must be the parent’s child to be loved that way.
I think it is crucial to grasp that unconditional love is not primarily a feeling or emotion, such as all other forms of love are, although it seems to be closely associated with several very positive emotions. Precisely speaking, you do not “feel” unconditional love, you “experience” it.
It is a way of seeing or perceiving the world about you at a given moment. When you experience unconditional love, you experience it for everything within your perceptual field. By “perceptual field”, I mean anything and everything you are sensing at any given moment.
Thus unconditional love is a kind of perception that is different from our normal, everyday perception. I believe it is the world seen through the lens of the self but seen while the lens itself is also being clearly seen. Please allow me to explain that admittedly dense sentence.
Normally, when we perceive something — let’s say a car — we perceive it through the lens of the self with, however, only dully realizing if at all that that is precisely what we are doing — seeing the world through the lens of the self.
In the first place, when we look at a car through the lens of the self, we instantly perceive it as distinct from us, as “not-us”. That is, in our normal way of seeing the world, we instantly divide things into “us” and “not-us”. I might think my arm is “me”, but I don’t think that car is me.
It is a simple enough thing to see this almost instantaneous distinguishing between self and not-self in action. Simply look at nearly anything anything around you and ask yourself if you think of that thing as you?
Now, if you answered “no” to the question, look at something you know you will answer “yes” to — something you think of as you. And if you answered “yes” to the question, then now look at something you know you will answer “no” to — something you think of as not-you.
The mere fact your mind makes a distinction between you and not-you should be obvious to you now. Moreover, it is indeed the mind that makes that distinction. Scientific studies have shown there is a region of the brain that does it — the parietal lobe. People with damage to the lobe sometimes cannot tell what is them and what is not-them.
But here is where it gets a little tricky. While I don’t think that car is me, I might think that that car somehow reflects on who I am as a person — who I am as a self.
That is, I see the car as more than just a car. I see it as a reflection of me. “That is my car and it shows I have good taste and lots of money.” Or, “That is my car, and it shows I have poor taste and not much money.” In either case, our almost instant perception of the car as reflecting on us as a self all but goes unnoticed by us.
It’s there, it’s real, and if you look hard enough, you will see you doing it yourself. But it also happens for most of us on the barely conscious level. We don’t usually focus on it. We more or less ignore we’re doing it.
So the lens of the self is to first perceive the world as divided between self and not-self, then to perceive at least somethings as reflections of who we are as selves. Furthermore, like most lenses, we don’t really focus on the fact that we are looking at the world through them.
When we experience unconditional love, however, we become acutely aware that we are seeing the world through a lens, and precisely aware of how that normally changes or distorts our view of the world.
Thus if you were to look at me in unconditional love, you would notice both my appearance and your own assessment that I am not you but — perhaps — am a reflection on you as a self. “Paul is my friend and shows what appalling taste I have in friends. I think I’ll go barf now. This unconditional love isn’t as pleasant as what I expected at all.”
Because unconditional love is aware of seeing the world through the self, it comes with a sense or feeling of what the world is like without the distortions of the self. I think that is why so many people describe it as “pure” love, “clean” love, and “higher” love. They mean it is — in a way of speaking — clean of the self.
The lens of the self tends to blind us to certain things. Hence, the notion that most loves are “blind”. When we love someone in a normal way, our perception of them as reflecting on us tends to invoke all sorts of distortions. “I don’t care what everyone says. Ted must be a good man. Otherwise why would a person like me love him?”
Unconditional love appears to be brief, rarely lasting for more than a few moments. Moreover, it is like a summer breeze in that you have no control over bringing it about or over making it last longer than it will.
However, it’s after effects linger for quite sometime. For days or weeks afterwards, you might be acutely aware of the lens of your self. Then later, you might recall for years or decades much of what you “saw” during your experience. Last, you will probably never forget that there is indeed a lens of the self.
But unconditional love does not always come without a price. It can have a negative effect on you too. For instance, you can become greedy for more of it because it is so “pleasant” and become very frustrated when more isn’t coming.
Again, you can compare whatever other loves come your way to the unconditional love you once felt and then find the new loves wanting, thus sapping your passion for them.
I strongly suspect unconditional love is closely related to mystical experiences. Like mystical experiences, unconditional love comes and goes like a breeze. It is also life affirming, and tends to create a sense or feeling that one has been reborn.
But unconditional love seems to just stop short of being an actual mystical experience. During a mystical experience, the self is absent. In unconditional love, the self is still present, but one is more acutely aware of it than is normal.
It seems possible to me, however, that unconditional love might be what spiritually enlightened people who have had mystical experiences feel on a continuing or ongoing basis. That is, it might be characteristic of enlightenment and an enlightened person.