“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Sitting with my godson in an ancient Franciscan monastery in Italy, we stared at the large, austere crucifix over the altar. He said it seemed that the man was glorified, not the otherworldly faith. We talked a lot about what this figure means to millions of people. I told him what I believed…that it has little to do with the man himself and everything to do with what the figure symbolizes: the ultimate self-sacrifice, love and service to humanity. The symbol of the man on the cross stands for the importance of serving and loving each other unconditionally.
And as I sat in 100-degree heat, in an ancient chapel I thought about Christmas.
It’s the time of year when we hear a lot about peace and goodwill. It’s sometimes hard to find it as you get an elbow in your ribs during the big sale at the mall.
In the material frenzy of the season, we often lose sight of what the holidays mean. We worship at the altar of gifts and shopping. We abuse our bodies with too many treats and not enough sleep. We wake up on January 2 feeling lost, lonely and depressed…and we can’t figure out why. Another Christmas has come and gone, with no lasting meaning in its wake. We read story after story about the spirituality of the season, the depth of our hearts and feelings and yet we feel little of it.
What happened? Ah, Grasshopper, we have missed the spirit of Christmas.
If we took the meaning of this season to heart and walked through it compassionately, we would be more like Ebenezer Scrooge after his night of ghostly visits; after he has visited his past and realized that he had the power within himself to be a good man, a man of love, kindness and service.
See, we’re all in this together--and it’s not the size or expense of the gift--or the wrapping. The spirit of the holiday season, whether you embrace Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa (or whatever); the spirit that we talk about during this magical time of year is wrapped in service to each other, taking care of each other…in other words; unconditional love.
How do we do that; love unconditionally? My wise Asian teacher said that to love without condition was the key to never having a broken heart. He taught me that expecting a return on the love we give (he called it ”I’ll love you if…”) limits our capacity for love.
Loving without condition means accepting people for who they are and where they are on their life journey. It means opening our hearts and minds and giving love, even when it’s rejected or unrequited.
To love unconditionally might mean working for a cause that feels like pushing a rock uphill. It might mean loving against all odds. It might mean loving people who do not love you. It means loving every being, without exception, even when they stand passionately for what you have spent your life fighting passionately against.
Do that; love those people. Then and only then will you will see the depths of your heart open and love revealed. Loving without condition is hard. We are more inclined to love when we know (or hope) we will be loved in return. But true love, the kind that changes collective destinies is unconditional and open.
Compassion, service and unconditional love are not selective, but the gifts of all sentient beings to each other.
10 Steps to Unconditional Loving
How do we love unconditionally? These steps will put your feet on the path to loving all beings…no strings attached.
1). Forgive yourself. You are only human.
Because we are human, we are imperfect. Unconditional love means abandoning your list of ways you need to improve to be “good enough.” You’re not in this to be perfect. You’re in this for love. What people need is your full presence and appreciation. Only by loving yourself, can you love others.
2). Unconditional love, like a muscle, needs a daily workout.
Compassion is like heavy lifting. It takes practice. Commit to treating everyone (including you) with compassion. Whenever you feel negative feelings…for yourself or anyone else, stop and find something positive to appreciate about that person. No exceptions. Choosing compassion in every interaction is the fastest path to enlightenment.
Commit to real self-care. When we are connected to our own wellbeing, it overflows into other people. We are more patient, loving, kind, centered and joyful when we feel strong and vital. To love unconditionally, we must keep our own wells full. Life is short. At the end, who is responsible for how you felt and acted throughout it?
4). Forgive your parents. They are only human.
When someone “pushes your buttons” it’s because they were “installed” when you were a kid. If you want to free your heart to love without condition, you have to heal it first. Most of us got the message that we needed to be better, work harder, be more. But our parents were well-intended: they gave us life and they did the best they knew. Your childhood doesn’t have to determine your happiness.
5). Heal your life by healing your heart.
To love unconditionally, you need to work through your unfinished business with the past. It’s time to let go of any anger you hold. Make a quiet space in your home; light a candle and sit meditatively and think about the past. It will put your feet on the path to forgiving yourself and others which opens you to love freely.
6). Accept everyone without condition.
Unconditional love means the object of our love feels love without any strings attached. It means they do not have to be or do anything special to “earn” our love. Our love just is. Harder than it looks, we need to set aside what we might fix about others; see things from their view and allow only tenderness for them. And expect nothing in return.
7). Commit to relating from love, not anger.
It’s easy to love without condition when life is delightful and we feel great. Staying lovingly connected when we feel anger, even justifiable anger is the challenge. Remembering that anger and revenge are never based in love. Learning to manage your anger transforms your relationships. Feel your anger fully, but allow it to move through you quickly, with no lasting ugly residue. Let it go.
8). Lighten up. Be present.
Letting our mistakes guide us toward a better future opens us to self-forgiveness. Knowing we don’t have all the answers; that we don’t have to fix everything opens us to loving acceptance, complete with all of our tangled up feelings. All people need from us is love. Rage, grief, disappointment are all part of a rich emotionally-charged life, but they will pass quickly if we accept them and the people that come with them and love through it. Allow the feelings; feel them fully, but let them pass.
9). Take the high road…the very high road.
We have all been in those situations. We can say what we feel in our moment of rage or disappointment…or we can take the high road and react with love, even when we are challenged by people and their ideas. If we allow ourselves to stay in fight or flight mode, everyone begins to feel like the enemy. Taking the high road means you will never regret your reaction and over time, this will become your natural reaction.
To love unconditionally requires…at first…diligence and commitment. Life throws many curves; we are not perfect. Remember that nothing has to be different for you to love others exactly as they are. It is entirely possible to be a better person each and every day. There are no mistakes; only chances to open to love. Bringing awareness to every interaction will eventually bring you to a place of total freedom of the heart. One step at a time, we walk in the right direction and one day look around to notice that life has changed completely.
I confess to still working at loving unconditionally, but my life has changed dramatically from the awareness that has come from its practice. It has opened my heart and allowed people to come into my world that I couldn’t imagine. I still falter now and again, but we are all works in progress—progress being the key, right?