One of my favorite definitions of love is to be at-one-with. I love my wife Becky and feel at-one-with her. I love the sunset and feel at-one-with the sunset. I love the universe and feel at-one-with the universe. I love myself and feel at-one-with my self. Developmentally, when it comes to self-love, we progress through stages:
- When we are in utero, we exist at-one-with our mother, who is our universe. Even though we have no separate sense of self, our nervous systems register unity with the universe, and we are love.
- After birth we are immediately in object relations with people around us who usually love us unconditionally. We have the the experience of, “I am loved.”
- As we become toddlers, we hear “No” frequently and don’t feel loved when we are disapproved of. Instead we momentarily feel shame, fear, anger, and generally separate, not at-one-with. At those moments, subjectively, we have the experience of, “I am loved conditionally.”
- As we learn to self-observe as small children, we can see ourselves breaking rules or customs and feel guilty or ashamed—a major human mechanism of socialization to motivate us to be virtuous, even when alone. As we feel these shame emotions, we have the experience of, “I love myself conditionally.”
- As we progress through life we can learn contemplative practices and a host of other integrative techniques that can cause us to feel at-one-with nature, our family, our country, humanity, life, and all creation. As we progress through these expansions, we have more and more moments of feeling at-one-with everything that exists, has existed, and will exist. During these moments we are back to, “I am love,” but this time not through having no sense of self, but instead through having an expanded sense of self to the point of non-dual unity. We have returned to I am love.