When you say to someone ‘I love you’, what do you really mean?
Do you have a deep affection for them? Do you feel sympathy towards them? Are you attached to or dependent on them? Do you feel a sexual attraction, or a union souls?
When someone says to you that they love you, how does it make you really feel?
Elated? Distrusting? Aroused? Excited? Giddy? Do you get butterflies or palpitations? Do you swoon or feel sick? Or are you comfortably numb?
Love is the most complex of all emotions.
Throughout history artists, poets, philosophers, and scientists alike have offered interpretations, theories, or experiences of love. But are there overarching qualities of love? Can we adequately describe it, or even begin to define it? Can we begin by agreeing what this crazy little thing called ‘love’ actually is?
Love is heterogeneous. It defies reason, it defies limitation, and it defies definition, which is principally why poets resort for figurative language in their endeavours to capture the experience or indeed the essence of love, without ever really grasping what it is.
Love, it would seem, eludes us every time.
In spiritual communities we hear and read about different kinds of ‘love’, most commonly ‘unconditional’ love, self-love, love as Being, love as universal energy, love as empathy, love as the anti-dote to fear, and love as the highest possible energetic vibration. There also seems to be a difference between the idea of love as an emotion on the three-dimensional plane, and the idea of love as a state of being, or higher consciousness, on a fifth-dimensional plane.
So what is love?
No one really knows. And so with this caveat in mind I have toyed with three ideas of love, each one is different but also connected, and these three ideas represent the movement from three dimensional or conventional notions of love, to a five-dimensional conception of love, to an understanding of love as oneness with Creation, or indeed creation itself.
1. Love is Energy
First of all, love is energy. It is the fabric of the Universe, the highest vibration, and the heart of Creation itself. It is totality: as energy, love is ubiquitous and limitless; it cannot be created or destroyed.
Love is everything that is, ever was, and ever will be.
Love is eternal.
2. Love is Being
If the Universe is energy, and the highest vibration of energy is love, then it follows that if we are born from the Universe — and vice versa — then we are born from love, we are love: love is Being itself. It might be said that this love is ‘unconditional’.
We tend to talk about ‘unconditional love’ in the context of feeling love for other people, or in the context of self-love. But according to Ram Dass, this type of love is an ‘active emotion’ for an object, which can lead to attachment, even if that object is our selves (I discuss this type of love below). Therefore, how might we think of ‘unconditional love’ differently?
If love is Being itself, our essence, then that state of being involves honouring and integrating all aspects of our selves. This is how we find wholeness, balance, and is the epitome of self-love — that is, embracing and ‘loving’ all aspects of our unique selves — both light and dark — without judgment. This type of love does not require an ‘other’, an object, but is rather akin to living with authenticity, as it is principally about our state of Being. We are love if we are simply present in our existence — no object, no ‘active’ emotion, no attachment: just Being.
But I’d like to explore this idea of attachment a little further.
In spiritual discourses the idea of ‘attachment’ often comes loaded with negative connotations: to be attached to something — a person or an outcome — external to ourselves is to be dependent on it, which is the opposite of freedom and somehow hinders our inner growth.
Too much dependence and not enough independence can be detrimental.
But we have attachments throughout our lives to people whom we depend on for guidance, support, knowledge, growth, and healing. For example, our attachments to parents and leaders, teachers and mentors, doctors and healers — all of which are people we potentially look up to and who inspire us in our own lives.
Furthermore, is it not natural to have some attachment to ideas or beliefs that we live by, such as the idea of love, self-love, and ‘enlightenment’ itself? For example we are on this journey of awakening because we are attached to an idea that awakening is a) possible and b) happening to us. Our attachment to the idea is part of our drive, our passion, our belief.
‘Attachment’ in its pejorative sense is oftentimes associated with fear: we attach to something out of fear of our own identity, power, or autonomy. But isn’t the opposite — a desire for total freedom — also rooted in insecurity and fear: in this case, the fear of attachment?
Attachment to people is no bad thing. We need other people to help us through the dark times, sometimes to show us love, to empower us, and even awaken us. We walk this road together to share our fears and our dreams, to share our strength and our insights, to offer our support and a guiding light. In our quest for freedom and enlightenment, we are inextricably dependent on other people: so there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ about a feeling of healthy attachment to them, for attachment by definition is a feeling of association and familiarity.
Where things seem to go awry is when the attachment is not reciprocal, or it verges on over-dependency. And the same could be said of its ‘opposite’: a desire for freedom can go too far when it is not grounded in mutual respect (ie. can lead to infidelity in an relationship) and verges on over-reliance on the self for everything.
In our desire for freedom from attachment, it is indeed possible to become excessively attached to the ‘self’, the Ego. Perhaps the solution lies in a middle ground between attachment and freedom: too much of one or the other is detrimental; for balance is key to inner wholeness and harmony.
So what has this got to do with love?
If we think of love as Being, that love is Being, then ‘love’ is taken out of the context of attachment versus freedom. Attachments have nothing to do with love for other people, and freedom has nothing to do with self-love.
We are free to be, however we choose to be, for simply Being, existing in the present, and living by our own truth, is love. That Love is ‘unconditional’ in the sense of having no attachment to an object or an outcome; no active emotion directed at a person or invested in an idea; and no judgment of our selves or of others. We are ‘unconditional’ love.
By Being ourselves, moment by moment and in the moment, we align with the highest vibration in the Universe, which is love: the energy of creation, of life, of existence. When we align with love, we align with the universal power of our own making. We align with Being itself.
And so unconditional love exists within each of us as a state of Being. Indeed it is the very essence of our inner Being, for Being and love is one and the same thing: we are Being, we are love. But there is a difference in being love, and being inlove. This brings me to my third conception of love, which is the love we have for each other, and may be termed ‘conditional’ love.
3. Love for Each Other
If love is Being, and if that love is unconditional, what about our relationships with others, whether platonic, romantic, or familial?
The definition of ‘love’ is a feeling of deep affection for someone, or something. This kind of love is an active emotion directed at a person or even invested in an idea, a passion. It is rooted in emotional experience in our three dimensional reality, and whilst we might describe ‘love’ as an emotion, our experience of love is a spectrum of emotions: passion, desire, hope, peace, exhilaration, wholeness, attachment, fear, anger, envy, grief and loss; for all emotions exist as different vibrational frequencies, and we often experience these feelings in our experience of love. So it is not the case that love is not jealousy, or love is not fear, for this is called apophatic reasoning — it defines something by a process of negation by focusing on what it is not as opposed to what it is. Love is what we experience, or more importantly what we choose to experience, and that experience incorporates a plethora of emotions of high and low vibrations. So we might ask whether love is indeed a pure feeling, or a collocation of many feelings: ‘love’ is a term we use to describe an experience that involves a range of emotions.
Indeed, we get to choose which emotion or frequency to align with; but because this experience of love involves another person, we are not wholly autonomous in that experience. For this reason, we might call this love ‘conditional’. Indeed, our experience of love in a three dimensional reality is multi-factorial and is often contingent upon circumstance. Unlike love as creation, or love as pure presence, it is changeable, unpredictable. Moreover, the concept of loving another ‘unconditionally’ can sometimes seem at odds with the idea of setting personal boundaries, which are necessary for self-love.
Our boundaries are inextricably linked to our morals, values, and sense of self-worth: what we deem to be right and wrong, and what we will or will not tolerate to protect our hearts from being broken. So for example: you meet your so-called soul mate and they are disloyal and unfaithful, should you continue in a relationship with that person because you love them ‘unconditionally’? Or do you assert your moral boundaries, sever your ties, forgive and move on? Is there then an expectation to love them ‘unconditionally’ once the cord has been cut?
Depending on the severity of their wrongdoing, do they even deserve your love?
For example, say you have an ex partner whom you love ‘unconditionally’, even though they treated you abhorrently. Then you meet someone special who treats you with love, loyalty and respect, whom you also love ‘unconditionally’.
The fact that the person who treated you badly is ‘deserving’ of the same love as the person who treats you well seems to dishonour your current partner as well as mitigating in some sense their decency: and therein lies an inherent risk, that if you subscribe to a philosophy of loving someone (or people generally) without conditions and without boundaries — because no matter what they do you will always love them and forgive them — then they pretty much have free license to do whatever they want, leaving a trail of broken hearts in the process.
In this respect, ‘unconditional’ love, or love without boundaries, in a relationship is potentially disastrous, for ‘unconditional’ becomes synonymous with complication and chaos.
Intimate human relationships have certain boundaries and expectations, often unspoken but instilled in us by the combination of social convention and our own personal values. For instance, in our monogamist culture, our socially accepted moral code tells us that infidelity or unconsented polyamorous relationships are wrong. Therefore, as soon as we put a label on a human interaction and call it a ‘relationship’ (and by extension ‘engaged’, ‘married’ and so on) we impose boundaries, conditions, notions of what is acceptable and unacceptable: essentially, ‘conditional’ love, or love within a framework of received rules and expected behaviours.
Surely, any healthy romantic relationship requires the following:
These are ‘conditions’ for the relationship to work, for without them, the relationship is fated to end. Love is a reciprocal connection whereby each other’s boundaries and values are honoured, and we must have the courage to impose boundaries in order to at once allow the relationship to flourish whilst protecting our own hearts and sense of self-worth. Indeed, love within the parameters of a relationship must not be selfish, but neither should it be to our detriment.
Love can be unrequited and therefore one-sided, and that experience of love is incomplete; or love can be selfish, and involve heartbreak, even if we choose to learn valuable lessons from our experience. All three dimensional love, which entails love for another person, involves attachment, an exchange of energies, which is at the heart of our connectedness to them. For this reason, we cannot love alone: we can exist alone, we can ‘be’ alone — which is the nature of love as being — but we cannot love alone, for our experience of love involves active emotion towards an object. Whilst we can learn to love ourselves without the need for attachment to a person, can we truly learn self-love in isolation? Whilst it is important that we have self-respect, boundaries, and confidence before entering into any new relationship, self-love is not wholly possible without the experience of both the love we give and the love we receive. To love someone, truly, is uplifting. It ignites our hearts, it lights our souls, and it enables us to gain insight into ourselves for learning and growth. What we perceive to be a flaw, another person sees as a strength. What we dismiss as an annoying idiosyncrasy, another person see it is an endearing quirk. We learn to see, embrace, and even love our imperfections: when we are loved, we are empowered to love ourselves.
Perhaps, then, ‘unconditional’ love is only really possible in a ‘universal’ sense, for as soon as we have an emotional, romantic attachment to someone and call it a ‘relationship’ then there are necessary boundaries and conditions for that relationship to function and thrive. The difference? In a relationship we are vulnerable and at risk of getting hurt: we therefore need boundaries for our own self-worth. But if we love universally and have no real emotional attachment to the people we ‘love’ (for they are essentially strangers), then we are at less risk of heartbreak.
Of course, there is a difference between romantic love and ‘humanistic’ love, or what is known as ‘agape’. But the principle is the same: the importance of boundaries and self-worth applies to any sort of human interaction.
To summarise, love within loving boundaries, ‘conditions’, or mutually agreed values is the most difficult form of love and therefore the most precious, for it is the test of true love whether or not those boundaries are respected or transgressed.
Indeed, to be able to respect and stay loyal to someone within a loving relationship requires honouring certain ‘conditions’ and boundaries which ultimately shows strength and commitment. On the other hand, ‘unconditional’ love — love without boundaries — can bring chaos, complication, and heartache.
So what is love?
Love is a deep, mutually enriching connection between people, and love is ubiquitous energy, our life force, and the very principle of our Being; it is the essence of the divine within each of our hearts. Love is Creation itself: our souls are but a drop in the infinite ocean of universal energy, of love.
Love connects us, drives us, and consoles us. Without love there is no true meaning, value, or purpose to our lives. Love is at the heart of belief: it is belief; it represents both our search for answers and the magic of the unknown. It represents the elusive mysteries of existence, and both the dearth and depths of the soul. Therefore it might be said that love is whatever we believe it to be, whatever we choose it to be, for it is unique and personal to us, and to our individual experience of it.
And so if love is whatever we choose it to be, then love fearlessly, love fiercely, and love freely, for love is all that is.