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Unlearning to Unlove, an Unorthodox Path to Love

Love is not a learning, but a growth. All that is needed on your part is not how to learn the ways of love, but how to unlearn the ways of unlove.” ~Osho

Unlearn the ways of unlove.

Let that sink in for a minute.

It’s a peculiar phrasing, I know, and one worth re-reading a few times, but I’ve been deeply impacted by these words since first reading them a few of weeks ago. The gist of this is that we shouldn’t necessarily put our efforts into trying to learn how to be more loving. Instead our focus would be more wisely placed on learning to stop acting in ways which are not loving. It turns pretty much everything we think about loving upside down. In a way, it’s the spiritual equivalent to standing on your head until all the change falls out of your pocket. “Learning to love” is not really the way to go about becoming a more loving person. The real trick is to learn to recognize our unloving ways and then to stop doing those things. Once we stop doing that which is unloving, then perhaps all that will remain is love.

One of the greatest gifts of a path of self-awareness is the transformation within us that can occur over time. We change. We really do. But that change largely happens only when a true and deep desire for change is present, a desire that manifests most effectively in the form of an inwardly directed curiosity, an intentional awareness of our actions and beliefs which we can hold up to the light and investigate. And so here, with this concept of unlearning to unlove, comes a sincere invitation to pay close attention to the ways in which our own actions may be unloving in nature.

Change is actually rather simple. You simply stop doing something. The realizations that are the precursors to change can be much more elusive. As an example, it took several decades for me to come to the realization that eating animal flesh was antithetical to the love that I naturally have in my heart for living beings. Once that realization became clear, stopping was completely simple. I simply stopped.

So what is “unlove?”

Being loving is one of the fundamental qualities of being human, yet we are constantly acting in ways that are contrary to that loving nature. “Unlove” is any behavior, thought or action which is antithetical to love. Unloving actions aren’t neutral, they are actually harmful to one degree or another. As an example of unlove, lets look at the words we use when speaking about someone else. Do we say things about others that puts them in a negative light? If we do, we are at least obliquely causing harm to the people we speak of, influencing how others perceive them, and digging the subject of our disparagement a deeper hole to climb out of than they may already have. Not only are our words harming the person about whom we speak, but we are also helping to further a culture of what I would call “harm-speak” by supporting others through our own actions/inactions to partake in similarly harm-inducing behavior. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, by acting in a manner that is harming to others, we are absorbing some of that harm into ourselves. Our behavior, our speech in this example, when positive in nature, supports the development of an inner belief in our own goodness and value. When our behavior is unloving, we inadvertently affirm a subconscious belief of our own lack of deservingness.

I’m currently in Nepal as I write this and I just lived a good example of what I’m talking about. Recently while walking about 4.5 miles across a big chunk of Kathmandu with my camera gear and a more minimized travel pack, I stopped in the middle of a busy intersection of the Asan district. Here the pedestrians and a broad array of transport from about six different thriving shopping alleyways converge in a nexus-plaza of small temples, power wire nests, rickshaw drivers waiting for their next fare, and incense stands. While twirling in this eddy of humanity, scanning about for perhaps something to photograph, a woman holding an infant approached me saying she didn’t want any money, just could I buy some food for her baby? I am well and personally aware of a simple scam where someone asks you to buy baby food or grocery staples which they later return to the shop, splitting the proceeds with the shopkeeper. I told her I knew what her game was and I that wasn’t going to play. She denied it so I explained how I knew it to work. In that moment, I recognized that my actions with her were “unloving.” 

Just because she was likely trying to play out a scam on me doesn’t give me the right to prove to her the wrongness of her ways and thus reinforce both a sense of my superiority and of her own failings. I’m fairly certain that she could use the money as well, regardless of her methods for obtaining it. Recognizing my “unloving” ways, I immediately set about my own “unlearning” and apologized to her, which she gently received. We casually chatted further and she agreed to pose for my lens in return for a payment. The end result of this entire interchange is that she left the interaction feeling loved, valued and appreciated. And so did I. As a wonderful aside, not only was I able to capture this beautiful portrait, but the portrait is beautiful almost entirely because her eyes are imbued with a glow which comes in no small part from the positive nature of our connection and interaction.

Through many years of living this life, I have acted countless times in ways which were unloving, some very subtle, some more overt, and almost all of them blinded by a degree of unconsciousness. I have regrets too, especially for the times that people dear to me have felt less than seen, loved and appreciated. I make mistakes and fall short and I strive to do better. In doing so, I’m no different than perhaps you or most every other human on this planet in that we sometimes act in ways that aren’t in alignment with our true spirit of goodness. So what to do?

The Art of Unlearning

Most every behavior and thought pattern we have has, in one way or another, been learned or introjected. Our parents, friends, family, teachers, neighbors, community, celebrities and politicians all model unloving behavior at times. As such, unloving thoughts and behavior become normalized and we in turn participate. Humans learn largely through absorption and it doesn’t serve anyone for us to get down on ourselves for this. Like every other human on the planet, we all are, rung by painstaking rung, climbing the ladder of our own personal evolution.

We do, however, have an opportunity and perhaps a responsibility as well to “unlearn” our behaviors that are unloving. As I mentioned earlier, stopping a particular behavior itself is not really so difficult. You simply stop doing it. The more challenging part of this process is in becoming a person who is committed to identifying our own unloving behaviors. I unfortunately don’t have a magic elixir for invoking this perspective in people. An individual simply must really want to be willing to let go of the person they have been and hold themselves to a higher personal standard. Once that inner commitment is there, the transformation can begin. It may initially take the form of regret which emerges after the fact when we see that our behavior did not live up to our new standards. Over time, we start to see our unloving behavior as it arises. Eventually the loving/unloving filter gets applied prior to acting and we can begin to experience the cessation of our unloving behavior. We keep practicing, that’s all, and we learn the joy and healing power of making amends along the way.

Everyone’s soul has the true emancipation of its heart as its pre-eminent yet often latent desire. Wherever our heart may find itself on that path of emancipation, the key ingredients for change are a desire for real transformation and a sincere commitment. “Unlearning the ways of unlove” seems to have firmly planted itself in the very center of that path for me. Perhaps you may find it growing there for you as well.


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