Unconditional Love, Conditional Access


I’m in love with this Alanis Morrissette song “You Owe Me Nothing in Return.” In fact, I have a girl crush on Alanis in general, especially after I heard her speak with one my spiritual influences Adyashanti. For a long time, I used the lyrics to this song about unconditional love as a sort of sacred contract I proposed between friends, family members, and romantic partners. It was my benchmark, the ideal of perfect love that I strove to achieve.

Years later, I’d love to sit down for tea with Alanis and ask her if she still felt the same way about unconditional love as she did when she wrote this song. I still love it and resonate with a lot of it, but I feel like there might be an additional verse. Maybe I’ll have to write my own song some day . . .

The Privilege of Intimacy

It’s no small thing, this commitment to radical soul growth via relationship. It’s a privilege to be invited into someone’s most intimate heart spaces. It’s an honor to have our own heart touched and explored, with tenderness and curiosity. It also can be scary as hell, especially when your heart has been hurt, as most of ours have.

I’m an intimacy junkie. It’s part of why I went to medical school, so I could have a front row seat on the most intimate and vulnerable moments of the human experience—birth, illness, and death. I ponder what it means to be invited into these intimate spaces, not just medically, but in all the ways love shows up. I’ve come to believe that we have to be careful who we let all the way in. Taking risks is part of the journey from the head to the heart, but it doesn’t seem wise to be reckless with something as vulnerable and tender as the heart. Yet, there’s nothing stronger than the heart. Does it really need protection?

Protecting the Heart

These are the inquiries that I ponder when sitting beside waterfalls and gazing at stars. I’m curious about how we guard and protect the heart and what makes us feel safe enough to take down our armor. I’m curious how to keep the heart open when you feel like a turtle without a shell in a briar-patch world.

What happens when love has no conditions? Surely, we must still limit access to the innermost sanctuary of the heart, to invite others to earn our trust, even if love comes without needing to be earned. In other words:

Don’t let anyone into your garden who stomps on your flowers.

I don’t know how these things work, but I suspect that in order for the heart to feel safe enough to open all the way, we need to be with people we really trust. As I wrote in Part 2 of this blog series, building trust with someone enables us to be brave enough to dive deeper into true intimacy, not the false intimacy of over disclosure and premature vulnerability, but the real intimacy that comes with slowly disclosing the tenderest parts of ourselves and having them met with gentleness and respect.

The Intimacy Dial: A Tool

Let me share with you a tool I learned from my spiritual counselor Ted Esser. If access to your heart, your email, your phone, and your body lives on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being complete inner circle access, those who are 10’s require what Brene Brown calls “a full jar of marbles.” In other words, they need to have earned your trust. If the jar of marbles gets half full—or plain old empty—because of betrayals of trust, access needs to go down—not necessarily all the way to 1, but maybe to 3 or 5. Maybe they don’t get to call you every day or sleep in your bed or spend Christmas morning with you. If you dial down access and trust builds again over time, you can dial someone back up. The dial becomes a sort of trust meter, governed by intuition, attention to loving action, and what feels true and resonant in the present moment, informed by past choices but always open to restoration, forgiveness, and redemption.

That way, if someone isn’t treating you with impeccable respect, you simply limit access without making up a story about it. No point becoming the exploding doormat. Your heart stays wide open. The gates into the tenderest regions of your innermost heart sanctuary close up though. Unconditional love, absolute freedom, but conditional access to your vulnerable places.

Then it’s not someone else’s job to treat you right. It’s YOUR job to treat you right with appropriate boundaries that limit access based on whether or not someone can be trusted with complete inner circle access.

An Act of Self Love

When relationships are approached in this way, those we invite into our most intimate spaces reflect our self-care. Abusive relationships fall away as a natural side effect of self-compassion, while respectful relationships built upon kindness and genuine intimacy are magnetically attracted into your field. If you keep attracting people who disrespect you, you can be sure that somewhere underneath, you’re disrespecting yourself. When you’re able to love and nurture the tender parts of yourself, you’ll be teaching others how you deserve to be treated, modeling the kind of nurturing self-care you have a right to ask from those in your inner circle. This isn’t some kind of entitled demanding of being treated well. It’s an invitation.

In Sally Kempton’s book Awakening Shakti about the goddesses of yoga, she discusses the goddess in terms of the fierce goddesses (think Kali) and the gentle goddesses (like Lakshmi). If you disrespect the fierce goddesses, they’ll cut off your head. But if you disrespect the gentle goddesses, they simply take their gifts and disappear, leaving the disrespecting one wondering where all the abundance and blessings and beauty went. Using the intimacy dial is like that. You don’t have to cut off anyone’s head to demonstrate what works for you and what doesn’t. When you feel respected, you bless someone with your gifts. When trust is betrayed, you simply withdraw into a nest of self-care and surround yourself with those who can hold your vulnerable hurt parts tenderly. When you recover and can implement your spiritual practices, you’re likely to find yourself bolstered, able to restore yourself with your inner work, move beyond any victim story and take any inspired action to lean in or lean out as dictated by your heart, your intuition, and your discernment.

I have been exposing some of the tenderest places in my heart publicly since I started blogging in 2009, so I’ve been playing with this idea of intimacy for a long time now. Who gets access to my innermost secrets? Where is it safe to expose what scares me and what feels vulnerable? I’m still exploring that edge. Over 100,000 people subscribe to my blog, and sometimes that feels like too many. Sometimes I wish I had a private blog for just a few people. One of my friends does that. She writes an incredible blog, but only 9 people get to read it. My roommate and I are lucky to be among the 9, alongside literary luminaries like Anne Lamott, Rachel Naomi Remen, and Wayne Muller). My friend only feels safe having a few people who know how to hold her heart read her work. I think that’s brave—and discerning. I could learn a thing or two from her.

Each of us is unique. We all have the opportunity to find our own way of practicing unconditional love and conditional access. What will it take for you to open your heart all the way?

With love and boundaries,

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