In my chosen spiritual ocean, I’ve spent many a pruney year dog-paddling in circles around the idea of unconditional love. It’s an authentically healthy love (I’m told), one that offers complete freedom and true healing to all who experience it. And all, apparently, are equally worthy of it.
It’s a beautiful theory. And to practice unconditional love feels totally great as an abstract exercise—always performed on my own terms, of course, and only when I’m in the mood for it.
But in real-life daily practice? Where it actually counts? I’ve barely dipped a toe into that pool. I’m talking about real, true, healthy unconditional love. I want to see how it applies on a blood-pumping individual, interpersonal human level—you know, the one where we actually live.
What does truly healthy love even look like? I mean seriously—I want specific personal knowledge of how it works. How it feels to do it. (This is where the spiritual books all scurry forward to fill the experience gap, flipping open to well-thumbed pages:
Healthy love, they inform us, is given freely and without a need to get anything in return. It’s a love that holds no creepy crawly strings or hidden clauses: I’ll love you IF. Healthy love is our true identity, they say. We become whole as we remember our own wholly loving nature.)
Yes, I know all that. But I’m tired of letting book-knowledge substitute for lived experience. There’s no liberation in it.
• • •
These days, I’m all about bringing my own interior darkness to light. Historically, some areas have always seemed darker and more persistently painful than others. They refused to go away, so I told myself they were beyond my power to heal or transcend.
But I’ve grown bored with telling myself the lie that I’m helpless to transcend my own crap. In fact I’m not the slightest bit helpless, and never was. (No one is.) In my mostly unconscious misuse of my infinite God-given creative power, I have created my own suffering entirely by free-will choice. I accept this truth; I own it, I take responsibility for it. And having recognized and embraced this unlimited creative force within, along with its unconsciously crappy effects, I am therefore free to un-create those effects anytime I choose.
So there was this black hole of self-hatred and unworthiness that I spoke about last time. I reported that it had miraculously healed all by itself. But I didn’t tell you that in the months leading up to that profound transformation, I had chosen to shine a light into that deeply unconscious black hole for the very first time, to see what was in it.
(A black hole is not a place that readily accepts illumination, by the way. And nothing can escape from it. Which was why I had never seemingly been able to touch its interior in all my years of trying. Until I finally recognized the black hole’s existence depended solely on my permission. I had created it, and my choice to let it endure was the only thing holding it in place. It behaved as a black hole would, in other words, until I saw I was bigger than it was. Upon realizing my own power over it, I found I was suddenly able to access its secrets, because I had granted myself entry.)
Upon examination, I saw that the black hole was a sort of a cosmic bucket without a bottom. And forever falling through that bottomless bucket was a tiny, terrified self in search of a worldly identity. A ‘me’ that was unable to offer itself the smallest crumb of love or compassion. A self that fruitlessly searched the external world for evidence of its own lovability and worth. But even when that evidence showed up, there was no ground to hold it. No matter how desperately the small self grasped at those bits of external validation, nothing could stay. It all fell right through the hole.
That black hole was the very essence of neediness and terror.
We are told in spiritual practice—and in every self-help guide ever written—that real love is within. And it’s clearly true. Real safety, real peace, real wholeness and real validation can’t possibly come from anybody but the self. Trying to get any of those things from another person (who, let’s face it, has their own black hole to deal with) is, in the immortal words of George Carlin, like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body.
It has to be an inside job. The external approach simply can’t cut it. But I knew no other way. I tried doing what the spiritual teachers said. I really did.
I looked very hard for a very long time, searching determinedly within for all that juicy good stuff.
But the black hole just couldn’t love me back.
• • •
I’m married to a gorgeous guy who is delighted to be married to me, and isn’t shy about telling me so. I luxuriate in his loving approval. I know exactly how lucky I am.
He and I find ourselves participating in spiritual retreats together fairly often, either as presenters or attendees.
Retreats are funny things. Due to the nature of the exercises involved, everybody wanders around with wide-open hearts. Beautiful souls who are often starved for true communion (with the Self!) gain temporary nourishment from the next best thing: In the safety of the retreat setting, we all let glimmers of our true beauty out. A bunch of magnificent open-hearted angels, holding up shining mirrors to one other. And everybody falls a little bit in love with everyone else’s light.
Is this a problem? No, of course not. It’s beautiful. It’s an honor to participate in it. But the needy Black Hole Troll has been known to have an issue with it now and then—like when the husband’s light gets admired a little too much, if you know what I mean. Or vice versa.
But how much is too much? Degrees of anything is a fool’s game. I know better. Trying to manage something by degrees is a slippery slope that leads directly toward suffering and away from liberation. There are really only two choices: There’s either healthy, authentic unconditional love (which has no degrees, and means total freedom is extended to the spouse, to give and receive love as he sees fit)—or there’s guaranteed darkness and pain.
I’m not talking about monogamy or fidelity, here, by the way. That is a closely related subject, only because we humans who are so starved for authentic light and purity of love, often confuse its beauty for the kind we’re more familiar with. And then complications ensue. But that’s a topic for some other blog post.
Right now I’m just talking about my own exploration of the perceived danger, the extreme threat that seems to rear its head when a loved one is allowed in fullness, as a sovereign being, to receive love or express open-hearted admiration for the light of others.
Last month, the husband and I attended a retreat workshop at a beautiful monastery in Israel. Our group took over the entire monastery. The only other person staying there at the time was a lovely woman on a personal silent retreat, who spent her days in walking meditation out in the garden.
She did nothing to call attention to herself. She wore no makeup, her hair was pulled back in a simple low ponytail. She wore plain white cotton shift dresses and flat shoes. She was the essence of humility. The women in our group (if they noticed her at all) saw her and smiled at her lovely simplicity, and then gave her no second thought.
The men in our group zeroed in on her like flies to honey, like moths to a candle flame. They obsessed over her, speculating about her, telling themselves and each other stories about her presumed state of elevated ethereal awareness. Some of them even followed her around and made general pests of themselves.
Observing her effect on all of the men, yet none of the women, I would ordinarily be inclined to call it a simple case of pheromones, dressed up in spiritual claptrap. Except for the effect she had on my husband.
The first time he saw her, he didn’t actually see her. He was facing me, and his back was turned to her as she walked quietly past our group. He nearly fell off his chair, swiveling to see who it was that possessed such a powerfully tranquil vibration of stillness and peace. Screw the workshop. He wanted more of that.
I didn’t like it a bit. And I wasn’t entirely sure why. What possible threat was it to me—I mean really? I did quite a lot of conscious spiritual work around it while it was all going on. But I admit it, I was not crazy about Stillness Girl’s effect on my darling spouse.
It wasn’t until days after we’d left the monastery behind that I realized why. Steve and I were playing hooky that day, relaxing on beach chairs beside the Sea of Galilee while everybody else was being carted around on a tour of the area. I was deep in thought on my beach chair, sitting with crossed legs as I often do, one foot swinging rhythmically in tempo with the noise in my head. Steve gently put a hand on my leg to stop its incessant motion, before sitting down on his own beach chair. And as he did it, a flash of insight showed me what the hell my problem was. What it had always been.
I am not still. I don’t exude profound tranquility. If I walked behind you, trust me, no swiveling would occur—not for that reason, anyway. So it seemed to me that the Lady in White had something I lacked. And that’s the part that felt so threatening. That’s the part that felt like a rebuke, a judgment, an accusation, whenever the spouse admired a quality in somebody that I believe I lack.
Stillness. Straight hair. A lyrical recording voice.
Whatever it might be that I think I lack, his innocent admiration or love of it in another felt like abandonment, betrayal and finger-wagging all at once. And that made it the worst possible kind of identity theft—it threatened my identity as the one who is loved. But that’s the black hole that was doing the talking. Not Steve.
Steve actually has never agreed with my troll-self in its unloving assessment of me. So he couldn’t figure out why I would find such a thing threatening. The way he sees it, his open-hearted admiration of the Lady in White (or anyone else) did not in any way take away from his love and admiration for me. And you know what? He’s right.
But I didn’t truly know he was right until the Black Hole Troll gave up its post a week or two after our return from Israel. I’m not 100% free of dark misperceptions about myself yet, but I am truthfully beginning to recognize myself as the Beloved. Yes, the Beloved, with a great big gorgeous capital ‘B.’ And that recognition is a breathtakingly short hop away from seeing everybody and everything else as that, too.
Case in point: The other day in the car on the way to the post office, I suddenly choked up and cried a little. Because the English countryside in bloom is just so fucking lovely, I became overwhelmed with joy.
It—and I!—were indescribably beautiful and perfect and whole. So much tenderly magnificent Belovedness all around, my lumpy little emotional system couldn’t cope.
In those brief moments of authentic Belovedness, I know without a doubt that inside where it counts, I am approved of to an unimaginable degree. And because of this, I now know my safety and my true identity can never be withdrawn. External events can’t touch it.
• • •
So how does all this Belovedness change things, in the neediness/jealousy/control department? I’m not sure yet what the changes will look like, but I’m guessing it will shift the landscape profoundly.
I still observe myself wanting to clip Steve’s wings, to limit his freedom, as a knee-jerk response to perceived threat. But I know it isn’t the way forward. I know it doesn’t lead to safety or happiness. So I immediately bring a “sun of illumination” into that dark desire for constriction. And as this gently brilliant searchlight streams its loving rays into every shadowy corner, I allow for the (terrifying? unthinkable?) possibility that my husband can actually be free to give and receive love as he wishes without it harming or stealing anything at all from me personally.
Is this really true? Am I safe whether Steve’s love is kept for me alone or extended freely like blown dandelion seeds? It’s mighty scary territory, even with the newfound knowledge that the Beloved is within. Because letting love out of the cage is just about the most frightening step imaginable for this tiny little ego self. And once love is out of its cage, I’m pretty sure there’ll be no stuffing it back in.
But I do know this: I have thoroughly clung to the alternative throughout my entire life. And for fifty-something years, my futile attempts to contain and control love have brought me only pain. So I’m setting aside the books and the teachings of theoretical unconditional love, and am finally taking my own shaky steps onto the diving board.
I hope to God I can swim.
PS, if it interests you, I have a free e-book that touches on some of these same topics. It’s called I AM THE LOVE OF MY LIFE (a field guide to unconditional love for self and others). Download it from my website or from Kobo.com