Do you dare to be brave? Do you dare to remove barriers and allow life’s flow to abundantly flood your heart? Do you dare to be shaken to the core? Do you dare to be truly seen? Do you dare to be vulnerable? Do you dare to confront fear, to discover the treasure beyond?
Do you dare to explore these qualities outside of romance? To cultivate intimate connections with friends, family, colleagues, strangers on the street? What about those you dislike, disagree with, resent, judge? Could you love generously, knowing the most profound expression of love doesn’t discriminate?
Unconditional love is daring. It’s bewildering, breathtaking, exhilarating, exquisite, magnificent, life-affirming — and completely terrifying! All of us want to love and be loved. Love is the foundation of life. The more we love, the happier, healthier, more connected we feel.
Last Valentine’s Day, I explored the myth of romantic love, its illusions, restrictions and misguided messages. Moving on from the myth, my goal main goal for 2019 is to cultivate unconditional love, to open my heart to intimacy in all areas of life. I’ve learned and adjusted accordingly. One year on, I’m excited to share these insights with you.
A Boundless Supply We All Deserve
“Ecstatic love is an ocean. And the Milky Way is a flake of foam, floating on that ocean.” — Rumi.
Unconditional love is our birthright. It’s innate, and, despite the myth, isn’t acquired in the external world. However, tapping into its rich supply isn’t straightforward. We all protect our hearts to varying degrees, a common defense mechanism in response to the heartbreak and hurt life throws our way. Perhaps our parents neglected us. Our peers teased us. Our one true love rejected us. Our dreams fell apart.
Barriers are built with good intentions, but they don’t serve us. If we want to open our hearts and enrich our lives, we have to remove them.
It takes courage to be open-hearted. The path of least resistance is to cut ourselves off, to retreat, to create a shield of protection from the intensity and uncertainty of the outside world. But these barriers are a prison, enhancing our sense of separateness. Removing them is scary, because the floodgates are wide open, and we can’t selectively experience love without also experiencing the full emotional spectrum.
Heartbreak and hurt is really felt. Sadness and grief consumes. To blossom we have to forgive those who have hurt us, and forgive ourselves for hurting others. We have to relinquish control, to encounter trauma, embrace uncertainty and face our fears head on. Yet when love pierces through, its radiance is transformative. Its healing power and unlimited scope is understood.
Love — The Foundation Of Spirit
Our world is obsessed with love, yet diminishes its true potential through the prism of romantic love. In the West, we tend to flee challenging emotions, to distract or numb ourselves. This numbs pleasant emotions, too. The process of opening our hearts is exquisite and tender, but uncomfortable, too. As we move away from discomfort, we also move away from the one thing we truly desire.
Unconditional love is the essence of all spiritual practices for good reason. It’s what the Christians call agape, Buddhists metta, Hindus bhakti. Language and intellectual understanding can’t capture its magnitude. If experienced, even for a moment, it’s enough to shift our entire worldview, jolt us awake. It’s ecstatic and peaceful and calm and overwhelming.
Our culture doesn’t provide the framework for experiencing this type of love. As a man, I matured alongside a chorus of “don’t be so sensitive,” “man up,” and “emotions are weakness.” This warped perception of masculinity doesn’t give men much chance of opening their hearts, fully. School banter dictates emotions are gay and only girls are sensitive. That’s it then. Job done.
Sexual Relationships And Fragmenting Love
Regardless of gender, by the time we leave college, our hearts are battered and bruised. We love friends and family, but maintain unconscious distance, most of the time. As the myth dictates, we funnel love and intimacy into romance. It’s easier to let guards down. With the green light of sexual intimacy and rush of dopamine, fears of vulnerability are confronted, cushioned by pillow talk.
For years I reserved my most authentic expression for sexual relationships. Like an addict, I chased relationship after relationship, but I wasn’t addicted to sex. I was addicted to the comfort pillow talk provided. I mistakenly fused sexuality with sensuality, intimacy with sex. Romantic relationships became the safety zone where I could be myself.
I am grateful for these moments of intimacy. However, the safety zone contributed to my addiction, codependency, and neediness. These behaviours and defense mechanisms stretch back to my days of severe social anxiety. In order to be as expressive and authentic as I’d like, in all relationships, I’m separating sexuality from sensuality, intimacy from sex. I’m attempting to express vulnerability and tenderness in all relationships. It’s challenging and rewarding, in equal measure.
Tenderness Is Overwhelming
“When the lover is annihilated in Love, his love becomes one with the Loved of the Beloved.” Sufi Proverb.
When you experience genuine connection, you know. These moments are incredibly moving. The unfamiliar terrain can lead to fear, resistance, shyness. There’s nowhere to hide, but hide we will. These connections have an intuitive magnetic pull, maybe because they’re a rare source of nourishment. If we want to cultivate more intimacy, it’s important to understand the nature of this type of attraction.
Attraction is not exclusively sexual. Again, the myth dictates we should only be attracted to our romantic partner; any attraction experienced outside of those relationships is unacceptable. Believing it is somehow wrong to be attracted to others — “I’ve only got eyes for you” — causes suppression, because attraction will always happen. It’s part of our nature, a way we bond.
Denying this, we bury our ability to love and experience intimacy under a blanket of guilt or shame. Experiencing attraction for others becomes a misguided interpretation a current relationship. We succumb to the idea of perfection and feel it isn’t right. I’ve done it. Believing attraction is exclusively sexual and reserved for romance has caused me to reject a part of myself, suppressing free expression, stifling authenticity.
Opening up to intimacy forced me to investigate this suppression. I want to be empowered to fully express, whether in a romantic relationship or not. I want to empower others to do the same. Yet denying a part of our experience stifles our potential. It is, therefore, crucial to separate intimacy from romance, allowing us to experience enrich relationships with others, without falling into the trap of the myth.
The Ego’s Storyline — It Must Mean Something, Right?!
The myth’s prominence, combined with a hyper-sexualised culture, can result in intimate moments triggering the ego’s storyline. Our forever-processing minds will attach all types of narratives to rationalise and explain and add significance to intimacy. Bringing awareness to storylines allows us to stay heart-centred without becoming caught up in thought.
For example, the storyline of intimacy being exclusively sexual is a huge barrier. Risk of oversharing, but for me, the conditioning of the myth manifests differently for women and men. With women, I’ve noticed a tendency to hold back, fearing the “cultural contract” these connections must always precede romance.
Warped conditioning extends to men, too. The myth powers the belief men don’t share intimacy (though strangely acceptable during sporting events and when inebriated) and if they do, intimacy is sexual, therefore gay and, therefore, asking your hairdresser who you really get on with if he fancies a coffee at the weekend must be gay. But it’s not gay and it’s all so confusing and easier to just close the heart and say “nice fade, mate.”
Moving on swiftly…
Acceptancing The Myth’s Restrictions To Move Beyond
Collectively, we desperately need a new framework for intimacy and love. The dynamic between sexes is traumatised, insecure, frayed. Unacceptable and harmful behaviour is rightly being called out post-#MeToo movement, and now we find ourselves with an opportunity for healing. I’m hopeful nourishing dynamics will form, from love and mutual understanding, not fear, ownership and fragile power-plays.
Exposing the myth’s limitations benefits everyone. What we accept in ourselves we accept in others. The opposite is also true. I’ve had relationships where dependency led to a sense of possession. I’d experience jealousy at the thought of my partner being attracted to someone else. This arises from mistaken beliefs around attraction, intimacy and connection — plus relying on my partner for a sense of self-worth.
This type of conditional possession is constrictive. I shudder recollecting how anxious I felt during a particularly unstable relationship. Conversely, unconditional love is freeing and expansive. It doesn’t fit within the confines of a single relationship, but its immensity increases intimacy in all relationships. This then filters back to romance, which flourishes with increased spaciousness and less expectation. Then, physical intimacy is an added bonus, not the be-all and end-all.
Barriers To Opening The Heart
“Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.” — Chogyam Trungpa
It’s not all sunshine and roses — at least initially. Pandora’s box of trapped trauma and emotional history is well and truly opened. In Meditation for Dummies (a genuinely brilliant summary of meditation), Stephan Bodian identifies a number of common barriers to opening the heart, including fear, resentment, unresolved grief, jealousy, pain, grasping and attachment, self-clinging.
Holding on to heartbreak or resentment keeps us stuck. Processing and cleansing emotions allows us to move on. “By cultivating caring, loving feelings, you can actually provide yourself with the nourishment you seek,” Bodian writes. “At the same time, by radiating those feelings outwards to others, you can touch their tender hearts and naturally elicit the same feelings in them, creating a flow of love that keeps circulating between you and building on itself.” Doesn’t that sound wonderful?!
Bodian refers to the place in the tender place behind all barriers as the soft spot. “You’ll know the soft spot when you get there because it has a tender sweetness to it that’s often tinged with a certain sadness or melancholy about the human condition,” he writes. It appears life is best lived on the verge of tears.
Facades, Authenticity and Rejection
As we make ourselves vulnerable and move towards the soft spot of our hearts, we have to let go of facades. Psychologist Carl Jung calls this the persona, a metaphorical mask hiding our true nature. Masks cannot exist with genuine intimacy. The mask has to be removed to connect on the deepest level. Although initially scary, it’s uplifting to authentically express.
Allowing ourselves to be truly seen bursts our hearts open; we are thrust into the vastness of existence. Moving beyond fear in unison with another, holding eye contact, allowing ourselves to dwell in pregnant pauses and intimate silence, swaps separation with solidarity. It requires a leap of faith to connect soul-to-soul, not role-to-role. But the leap is worthwhile.
Facing The Fear of Loss
“The real work is in the Heart: Wake up your Heart! Because when the heart is completely awake, then it needs no Friend.” – Rabia Basri (8th Century Sufi mystic)
It’s normal to experience retreat when accessing the soft spot of the heart. We may tell ourselves our hearts are primed to be broken once we’ve experienced this level of intimacy. We fear loss will lead to grief in equal measure. Historical heartbreaks may bubble to the surface. Anxiety sets in. The barriers are up and the ego returns, cloaked under the guise of self-protection.
It’s important to remember unconditional love is beyond acceptance or rejection. It is not dependent on how it is received — it just is. Rejection is an illusion of ego. Cultivating unconditional love relinquishes attachment to outcome. Loving wholeheartedly, while expecting nothing in return, takes a lot of courage. Grief will follow loss, but we won’t suffer unnecessarily when we do not confuse the recipient of our love with who we are.
We build courage through self-love and self-compassion. When we feel whole, we open to genuine intimacy, free from conditions. We don’t seek connection for fear-based neediness (oh, I’ve been there), hoping someone else will boost our esteem, validate our existence, give us permission to be, make us happy.
Without neediness, we have more room to communicate freely; another skill required for lasting intimacy. Openly expressing barriers and fears as they arise creates an empowered dialogue in each relationship. Expressing all of our experience, from ecstasy to the shadow, is part of the rich experience of intimacy. Allow your light to shine, but don’t be afraid of the darkness.
The Illumination Of Unconditional Love
I’m some way from cultivating these qualities in all of my relationships. If my ego is triggered, my heart closes in an instant. When I feel threatened. Unsafe. Insecure. Defensive. Judged. Prideful. However, I’m learning, I’m growing, I’m increasingly able to notice when the barriers are up, and remove them. These experiences of enriched intimacy have propelled me forwards, giving me the foundation to live open-heartedly for longer durations.
When living this way, love burns like wildfire. It fills our veins, drenches every word, fuels our actions. Better yet, it ignites the fire in other souls, too. It is contagious. And the more we give, the more we get. There are no limitations. Hearts are designed to brim with fullness, ease, joy. We are the universe experiencing itself, and we are here to experience the world with love.
Love emanates, liberates. It is buoyant, spacious, invigorating, energising. It is an experience we all deserve. Cultivating the courage to love unconditionally and increase intimacy is a lifelong process. It’s a commitment to try our best to remain strong, to open our hearts, to consistently navigate barriers, to relinquish heartbreak, defy rejection, to surrender to vast uncertainty, trust our inner strength.
As our days draw to an end, what better conclusion than to reflect on a journey of courageous commitment, a journey fearlessly embracing unconditional love and intimacy, in all its power, in all its beauty?
Isn’t that what lies beyond the myth of romantic love?
Isn’t that the mark of a life well lived?