Virtually all spiritual or religious paths teach unconditional love. But everybody I know grew up experiencing love as conditional, with our parents generously expressing love for approved behaviors and clearly withholding it for disapproved ones.

It’s pretty simple conditioning: children learn to move away from disapproval (rejection) and toward acceptance (love). Love is extended or withheld based on judgements and polarities of right and wrong, based on behaviors rather than inherent value. For most people this works out as intended; socially acceptable behaviors become the norm.

Society, of course, shows us these same values: approval and acceptance for “positive” behaviors, disapproval and punishment for “negative” behaviors. When these value judgements are generally agreed upon and broadly applied across communities, they become major elements of cultural definition, of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable within these communities. At least some of these social mores also join the inner critic that dictates limits on personal behavior and achievements.

Learning to love unconditionally usually begins with accepting the mistakes and imperfections of those you already love. Serious students learn to move this same softening and love on to others, to begin realizing the spiritual unity of all beings, and to treat all beings with love and respect. It’s a tough sell as we begin to actually consider loving someone who deals with life differently than we do, who maybe really pisses us off. But like those friends or loved ones who make mistakes and choose values unlike our own, people outside of that valued circle should also be dealt with from a basis of love. The extent of our ability to do that is a measure of our spiritual progress and growth.

The real point is to develop this same love and respect for one’s self, to neutralize or release our earlier rejection experiences, and empower self with love — then to extend love outward from there. From Jesus’s admonitions that we love our enemy, our neighbor and ourself, to Lama Palden Drolma’s newly released book, Love on Every Breath — and all the 2,000 years in between — the teachings have been essentially the same, love. In order to love unconditionally, we must give up judging others and give up judging self.

The next developmental step is to love all of life, all of it, unconditionally. Life, itself, the very gift that we all share, exhibits some really messy aspects, including diseases, pandemics, poverty, war, corruption and more.

But life, itself, is magnificent and immeasurable.

All those disfiguring issues can be held like the many mistakes we’ve learned from, like our own reactions in fear or rage, all based on the need for and the absence of love. This is a pretty high level of mastery, but it’s worth reaching for. It offers an equanimity removed from the negativity of the daily news cycle, the craziness of crooked electioneering and tribalism and xenophobia, all dominant in our current society. And instead, we can ease into love and compassion and understanding.