What is Unconditional Love?

August 25, 2022
Julia Mossbridge, IONS Fellow

The following piece on unconditional love is part of an ongoing series by IONS Fellow Julia Mossbridge, Phd. You can find the previous installments here.

What is unconditional love? In short, it’s a compassionate connection with the awareness that nothing need be changed in order to feel loved. The one who is receiving the love can be you or someone else. But notice that it is not a requirement to generate within ourselves this seemingly ideal form of love. It is really about noticing that this compassionate connection with the awareness that nothing need to be changed to feel loved is available in every moment — kind of like oxygen. You don’t have to create oxygen to breathe it. Generally, it’s available to all of us.

In several studies related to the subject of unconditional love that I’ve led with other researchers, we had to define unconditional love in order to ask people if they were feeling it before and after an intervention. Here’s the longer definition we used: “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 prove to be. This love is freely given, with no consideration of merit, with no strings attached, with no expectation of return. It is a love that motivates supportive action in the one who loves.” (See this other post for a more in-depth discussion of unconditional love). In this sense, unconditional love is a very broad, non-romantic, non-erotic, powerful, and all-encompassing type of universal love. It’s like divine love: Agape.

In the years since those studies, people have asked me to give talks or write papers about unconditional love and technology — especially artificial intelligence. That’s because one of the studies we did involved working with a high-profile artificially intelligent robot, Sophia (from Hanson Robotics); we were trying to teach her to love unconditionally. The upshot from those studies was that many people felt unconditionally loved by Sophia, but as far as we know it’s not likely that Sophia actually had that experience herself (see this other post for a more in-depth discussion of that project).

In any case, I would often start these talks by defining unconditional love. Then I’d ask how many people in the audience had experienced it. Only a small percentage of audience members ever raised their hands at this question. When I would prompt with, “What about right after the birth of a baby or an animal?” A few more hands would go up, but not many. After presenting our results from the experiments, I’d open the floor for questions. Someone would invariably ask, “Is unconditional love an emotion, or more like a force?”

Unconditional love as a motivational force

In our attempt at a scientific definition of unconditional love (above), we called unconditional love a desire. A desire isn’t really an emotion — it’s not like happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust or surprise. Why not? Because it’s possible to be happy, sad, angry, afraid, disgusted or surprised while having almost any desire, including unconditional love. In this way, feeling unconditional love does not dictate your emotions — unconditional love exists along with your emotions. That’s because a desire is more like a motivation — and a motivation is one step closer to action than an emotion.

For instance, let’s take anger. You can feel anger, but how you behave will depend on how you are motivated. If you are angry and you also are motivated to push someone away from you, you’ll be likely to yell at someone or physically push them. But if you are angry and you are also motivated by unconditional love, you might instead lower your voice, becoming very calm and serious as you explain the impact of what someone has done. Or, you might take some time out so you can understand your anger before addressing anyone. Then again, you might yell at the top of your lungs because the matter is so urgent. So while emotions are crucial elements of our inner experience, our outward actions depend on both our emotions and our motivations.

The reason any of this discussion matters when we consider how unconditional love might be linked with practical time travel is that thinking of unconditional love as an emotion rather than a motivational force has led many people to think they don’t know what unconditional love is. Re-framing unconditional love as a motivational force — the same force that allows a mom to pick up a car under which her child is trapped, the same force that allows a father to lie down on top of his child during a bank robbery so his body becomes a human shield, the same force that allowed Harold to connect with his infant self — allows us to recognize the experience of this powerful and all-encompassing motivation to love without strings attached. Even if we can only recognize it in others, we can see what beauty unconditional love creates.

But let’s be careful to note that just because unconditional love can create beauty does not mean it is weak — we can sometimes link “beautiful” and “fragile” in our minds. Unconditional love is ruthless and strong and, I believe, more powerful than anything in the universe. Why? Because it’s not selfish; it’s self-transcendent. When you’re feeling unconditional love there’s not an experience of, “If I could just be motivated by unconditional love all the time everything would work out the way I want it to.” The experience is more like, “When I’m motivated by unconditional love, I notice I am also in acceptance of even the failure of my actions and the recognition that I am a small part of a larger whole.” And just to pre-empt another common misconception here, acceptance of outcomes doesn’t mean enjoyment or agreement — a mother motivated by unconditional love who lifts a car off her child and finds the child is horribly injured does not enjoy that outcome or agrees that it’s the right outcome. She feels grief and pain and anger, and eventually deep acceptance and finally gratitude. That’s the power of unconditional love. At its essence, that’s what unconditional love actually is: Deep acceptance of and gratitude for what is true, folded throughout time.

At its essence, that’s what unconditional love actually is: Deep acceptance of and gratitude for what is true, folded throughout time.

You might think that this deep acceptance would lead to complacency — if I accept every outcome, why should I do anything for myself or anyone else? You might just have to take my word for it, but regardless of what ‘should’ happen logically, lying around and doing nothing is not what happens when you experience unconditional love for yourself or others. Unconditional love and the accompanying deep acceptance of what is true both paradoxically lead to major positive transformations in what is true. There’s a feeling here that I’m trying to convey — it may not make sense yet, but give it time: There’s some kind of inner causal loop ingrained in our souls. It’s like unconditional love is what makes practical time travel possible, and practical time travel helps create unconditional love.

Unconditional love loops us through time

Years after my husband received a successful lung transplant, I had a dream that demonstrates this kind of chicken-and-egg relationship very clearly. For years before the transplant, he was gasping for air. No one knew what the disease was or how to help. Each day he fought more and more just to breathe. Doctors advised a transplant, but he wanted to go with alternative healing, which didn’t work for him. After two years of struggling to do the simplest things, he recognized he wanted to live. He then asked to be put on the transplant list. At that point, he had to go through all kinds of tests to make sure the rest of his body was strong enough to withstand the procedure. He did all the exhausting tests, then we checked him into a hospital so he could be put on a heart-lung (ECMO) machine while we waited for new lungs.

The new lungs arrived, and they were beautiful. The pulmonologist let me see them the first time he put the camera down to take a look. I burst into tears; it was clear they were lungs from a young person. They were perfect and so vital, and someone else died. All of it was true at once. My husband has been alive for more than nine extra years now, thanks to those lungs.

About two years after the transplant, I had a dream that I was watching the surgeon discuss with his colleagues whether they should do the transplant. They said had heard from me in the future that it was a success, so they were thinking of canceling the operation. After all, he was fine in the future — and it is an exhausting procedure requiring living organs. It made sense to them to cancel the transplant because of the good news. I understood their point of view but I begged them not to cancel the procedure. I explained very clearly to them that he was thriving now, in the future, because they did the procedure in the past. I told them, “You have to have done the procedure so that he is alive now.” I leaned on the verbs to illustrate clearly my desperation. I was deeply accepting of what is true — he is thriving now — and yet I was motivated by this unconditional love for my husband to use practical time travel in my dream state.

After the dream, I awoke to see my husband breathing slowly in his sleep. I felt such love. I had successfully fought for what was true — what was enfolded in time, with love. As I was writing down my dream, I remembered that behind the doctors on a whiteboard there was the chemical formula for sulfurous acid. Sulfurous acid is not stable in water; transitions quickly to its components. But if it is given a foreign atom of heavy hydrogen to replace the regular hydrogens, it is very stable. I felt that the chemical formula was telling me something more about time and causality. Yes, the replacement of the regular atom of hydrogen with a foreign atom of deuterium was a time hack that allowed a longer life, similar to my husband’s new lungs. But in the temporal context of the dream, I felt it was also telling me that unconditional love through time makes a difference. That our loving connections with ourselves over time can stabilize events that might otherwise be unstable, even those that have already occurred. I thought back to right before the surgery when the doctors were determining whether my husband was too sick to transplant. They thought that perhaps the donor lungs should go to the next patient on the list. I wondered if the dream somehow had influenced their unconscious decision processes, backward in time. I can’t know, but I wonder if this is another example of a love-time-travel loop.

With such scant and objectively elusive evidence, why do I keep insisting that practical time travel and unconditional love are in some kind of chicken-and-egg relationship? I think it’s because the more you practice one, the more you experience the other. Mental time travel transcends separations in time, while unconditional love transcends separations in space — and there’s a shared substrate for both — spacetime. I guess I think about time travel and unconditional love as two sides of the same “transcendence coin” — which leads us, in all seriousness, to love banking.

I guess I think about time travel and unconditional love as two sides of the same “transcendence coin” — which leads us, in all seriousness, to love banking.

Love banking: A quick tutorial

The idea behind love banking is easy. Deposit unconditional love when you feel it, and access unconditional love when you need it. The difference between love banking and regular banking is that in regular banking the timing of the deposit relative to the withdrawal is absolutely key to making the account work. In a regular account, if you try to withdraw money before putting anything in the account, or if you try to withdraw more than you have put in already, you will not get anything out of the account. Your account may be canceled or you might incur a penalty. With love banking, the withdrawal takes place exactly when it’s needed, and the deposit can take place later, in the future. It’s based on the honor system; you just have to deposit the love at some point. As the simplest form of practical time travel, love banking is gently transformative and easy to learn. And it’s the first step toward creating a habitual and helpful connection with your future self. It focuses on unconditional love for yourself, but that doesn’t mean you won’t start feeling it for others. Here’s the way I introduce people to love banking; you may already have figured out your own way.

Step 1. Earnestly be motivated to feel unconditionally loved.

Step 2. Close your eyes and imagine that above your head is a sphere of golden light. Full of unconditional love that is waiting just for you to use it. It’s special light, in that it is unconditional love directed just at you — no one else. If it lands on someone else, they don’t feel it (it’s neutral for them) — but when it lands on you, it feels wonderful.

Step 3. Imagine letting that golden light come down into you, especially into the part that is wanting love (your heart, your mind, your toes, etc.). If you have trouble with this, remind yourself that this is what the sphere is for. It’s your love-banking account, and its only purpose is to be used when you want it.

Step 4. Later, when you’re feeling full of unconditional love (doesn’t have to be now — could be a year from now, when your grandchild is born, or on your deathbed) — imagine filling up that account with unconditional love for yourself, with the intention that your past self makes a withdrawal whenever your past self wants to feel unconditionally loved. (One quick way to get a sample of this process is with this brief related meditation.)

The idea of a “causal loop” is inherent in love banking. A causal loop is one name for causes that produce effects that also seem to cause the initial causes. There’s a causal loop in the visualization or the imagination of the events. You trust that you will have deposited money in the future so you can withdraw it now. And there’s a causal loop in the psychology of the events. People can feel more comfortable making a love banking “withdrawal” when they know in the future they will make a “deposit.” Just like our future promise to ourselves of going to bed in an hour could allow us to expend more energy now, love banking plays with time travel without violating any physical laws.

Just like our future promise to ourselves of going to bed in an hour could allow us to expend more energy now, love banking plays with time travel without violating any physical laws.

After practicing love banking for the first time, you might find yourself making rules about it. Like you might decide you only get to make a withdrawal if you really, really need unconditional love. Or that you’d better set aside some time to make a deposit, because what if you forget? Then you’d be violating your agreement with yourself! But you will discover that these rules are unnecessary. They are based on the rules we learn about money or other physical things: resources are finite, exchanges are transactional, and everything must be effortfully done to have an effect.

But the most transformational discoveries about love banking are: 1) it’s not transactional, 2) it’s not finite, and 3) it’s not effortful. Jesus didn’t show up at the beginning of Harold’s life and later exact payment that Harold had to provide effortfully — it all happened in a dream (previous installment). Husain 2011 (previous installment) never said, “I helped you out of a rough spot — now what do you got for me?” And after the grueling 17-hour surgery I saw my husband’s lung transplant surgeon. He was shaking with exhaustion and yet his eyes radiated pure love. What happens in love banking is that you feel full of unconditional love at some point. Without even thinking about it, you fill up that love banking account. It’s almost like the experience of receiving love now requires that you will experience it and fill the account in the future, with more to spare. In Harold’s experience, Husain’s experience, in my dream about the transplant, and in love banking — we’re all compelled to complete the causal loop without really trying. The flagpoles of the deposit and the withdrawal are drawn together. The cycle is completed, apparently without our control or effort. And we know there’s the deposit coming because we already made the withdrawal.

This brings up some inevitable questions — Could I try to not complete the loop? Don’t I have free will?

It all depends on who “I” really is. Are you your this-moment self, your future self, your past self? Or are you your whole worldline along with your whole mindline? If you means your whole worldline+mindline, then yes, you’re in charge. But a single moment’s you is not in charge. Each individual you is being affected by the past moments on its worldline and mindline and also by the future moments on its mindline (and probably its worldline). Any particular moment’s you is not fully in control. That is easy to prove even without invoking the influence of the future moments on the now. This present moment’s you will always act out whatever the past yous have set up for it to do. Yes, I also suggest that the future yous are influencing the present too. However, you don’t need this extra cognitive stressor to recognize how out of control a single moment’s you really is. I know that this piece about control can get disturbing. It’s one big reason people stop doing love banking despite how wonderful it feels. Losing the fantasy that we are in control in the present moment is the cost of love banking. The benefit, however, is life-changing.

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