Plenty of mystics, saints, and religious thinkers have deeply examined unconditional love, but only recently have scientists begun studying it. I’m one of them, and I’ve been wondering lately what gets in the way of more research into this profoundly transformative, self-transcendent, and motivating human experience. I have come to believe it’s because scientists are trained to think unconditional love belongs squarely in religion’s camp, a camp we are trained to ignore.
As an academic, I was raised in a secular humanist tradition that wouldn’t touch the G-word unless we were trying to understand why people would ever believe in such foolishness. After lots of personal experiences, I am grateful now to say that I have a private relationship with God that I treasure.
But I still spend time with many people who assume that by claiming such a relationship I am basically implying that my brain doesn’t work right.
So to be inclusive of diverse feelings about God, I won’t say the G-word again once I’ve finished this sentence: If anything can be said to matter to God, what matters most is working towards whatever improves our capacity to access unconditional love.
Said in a secular way, I think boosting awareness of how to access unconditional love will lead toward positive outcomes for humanity.
Toward that goal, here are five provocative ideas about unconditional love — some can be tested by any scientist willing to go there, others are probably not testable. Some of these ideas arise from work we’ve done at TILT: The Institute for Love and Time with our collaborators and partnering institutions, and others are from my own experience as a mystic-scientist.
1. Unconditional love is an inside job.
Unconditional love is related to agape (divine love) and evolutionary love (transformative love), both of which have many definitions of their own. These have been combined into a definition that, as far as I am aware, is the only secular definition of unconditional love to have been used in multiple psychology experiments.
Here it is:
Unconditional love is the heartfelt benevolent desire that everyone and everything — ourselves, others, and all that exists in the universe — reaches their greatest possible fulfillment, whatever that may be. This love is freely given, with no consideration of merit, with no strings attached, with no expectation of return, and it is a love that motivates supportive action in the one who loves.
— Smartphone Time Machine 2021, p. 6.
According to this definition, unconditional love is not a behavior, it’s an experience. You can’t really judge from your own or someone else’s behavior whether either of you are experiencing unconditional love. What you can do is ask yourself, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much have I had this experience (defined above) in this moment? This week? This month? This year?”
Neuroscientists, psychophysicists and psychologists have learned how to carefully ask questions about inner experiences that don’t consistently correlate with behavior (learn more by reading a great review of neuroscience and phenomenology here), so a science of unconditional love is doable. But it must include careful methods of asking people about their experience, rather than just observing behavior.
2. We access unconditional love, we don’t create it.
Just like we’re not in charge of creating the sun or the moon or the color of the sky, we’re also not in charge of creating unconditional love. Think of it as a force like electricity — we are in charge of whether we access it, and that is all. Here, “accessing” unconditional love means finding ways to notice it working inside of you.
The definition of unconditional love given above can be misread as a prescription instead of a description — when we access unconditional love, that definition describes how we feel. But how do we access it? In a scientific sense, we don’t know a lot about how to access unconditional love consistently. Anecdotally it seems that prayer, pets and babies, positive intention and meditation help.
At TILT, we have examined two intriguing methods of helping people access unconditional love.
One is mental time travel. We conducted a month-long study in which people were given technology to support them in making positive connections with inner representations of their past and future selves. The results suggest that such “time-travel therapy” has a positive impact on people’s ability to access unconditional love — what’s more, improvements in the experience of unconditional love were directly correlated with increases in overall wellbeing (Smartphone Time Machine, 2021).
In a robot-human interaction study, we found that when humans feel authentic connection and meditate with a non-judgmental and positively-appearing humanoid robot, they report improvements in their ability to access unconditional love (Sophia as a Meditation Teacher✎ EditSign✎ EditSign, 2018).
Studies like these — and those to come in the next few years — begin to suggest that careful use of technology can heal and grow humanity’s access to unconditional love.
3. Unconditional love is its own thing.
Unconditional love is not the same as happiness, enlightenment, awareness, awakening, or acceptance — to name a few terms that are often confused with unconditional love. I like to use the example of a woman I know who is in her 40s but who has the intellectual capacity of a 9-year old. She experiences unconditional love a lot; she talks about it. Sometimes people weep with joy when they look into her eyes and see her loving smile.
Her awareness of the world and herself is low. It is not clear that she would be called “enlightened” or “awakened” — as they usually apply to people who have reached adult intellectual capacity and have become reacquainted with feeling alive. I don’t even think she could be called an accepting person, as someone really needs an adult understanding of the world to accept it.
She is a reminder that unconditional love is not about skill or intellect or knowing the right thing to do. It is more like gravity than intelligence — anyone can access gravity, only some can access intelligence. When we access unconditional love, it feels like a heartfelt desire for the best for everyone, even and especially if you have no idea how the best could be accomplished.
4. Unconditional love is boundary-blind.
When you feel unconditional love for someone else, you also feel it for yourself, and vice versa. If you’re a software programming nerd like me, think of unconditional love as an “or” statement — you don’t need to know how anyone else feels as long as you know you feel unconditional love.
This makes it very different from romantic or platonic love, in that you can access it suddenly and completely without a waiting period. It’s like when the sun comes out from behind a cloud — you’re there, standing in the sun while the sun shines on you no matter what you’re up to or how you feel.
This idea seems to bring up fear in many people — the feeling is like, “If we don’t withhold love, how will we keep ourselves and others in line?” But paradoxically, it turns out that unconditional love is one of the best change agents. It doesn’t seem logical, but there’s nothing that supports positive change like loving ourselves and others without a requirement of doing anything differently.
There’s nothing that supports a garden like watering it and giving it sun, and that goes double for the wilted sprouts.
5. Unconditional love allows healthy boundaries to arise.
While unconditional love itself is boundary-blind, it inspires healthy boundaries when we access it. That’s because accessing unconditional love applies to yourself and others at the same time, so when you access it you have a deep heartfelt desire for your own greatest positive fulfillment as well as everyone else’s. This desire motivates setting healthy boundaries — for example, it frees you up to avoid being around people who are currently not good for you, while loving them unconditionally.
Many people think that feeling unconditional love means accepting all behavior, including abusive or violent behavior, without any consequences. This is a misunderstanding linked to the myth that unconditional love is the same as acceptance.
But when you experience unconditional love as a force that exists in the universe, and when you recognize that accessing it feels like a heartfelt desire for the best for everyone, you can see that unconditional love allows the courage to build good boundaries. Those boundaries actually support you in accessing unconditional love more deeply and consistently.
This last point suggests that unconditional love would be a more effective negotiation or interrogation tool than fear, self-preservation, anger, or a desire to dominate — in the sense that once unconditional love is accessed there is nothing remaining in a conflict-prone interaction except the hard work of determining the best for everyone.
Recent revelations about the dynamics of torture at Guantanamo Bay suggest that both the captors and captives felt simultaneously tortured by what went on there. Everyone is included in the effects of cruelty, so what would it be like if everyone were included in unconditional love, instead? Would interrogation be more effective? Would negotiations between warring countries come to resolution more quickly?
I’m not sure, but because unconditional love can be unilaterally accessed, we don’t have to wait for our sparring partners to find out.
Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise
Someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a
Full moon in each eye that is always saying,
With that sweet moon language, what every other eye in
This world is dying to hear?”
– Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky
None of us has a full understanding of unconditional love, but here are some efforts to more fully support people in accessing it.
Evolutionary Love and the Ravages of Greed — Adam Crabtree
Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West — Interpreted and translated by Daniel Ladinsky
If God is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk — John Pavlovitz
Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship with The World — Hartmut Rosa (translated by James Wagner)
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row — Anthony Ray Hinton
Love for No Reason: 7 Steps to Creating a Life of Unconditional Love — Marci Shimoff with Carol Kline
“The ethic of revolutionary love” — Valerie Kaur
“Justice is what love looks like in public” — Kris Hermanns
“Love needs to be a part of our action” — Talki Folkins
“The radical healing power of indigenous love” — Andrea Landry
“Solidarity, unity, and unconditional love” — Mahsa Keikha
Love as a Force for Social Justice — Stanford Online course by Anne Firth Murray