On Spiritual Longing
Updated: Sep 14, 2022
Bitter can be sweet and sweet poison.
It's a question of what your tongue wants.
It's hard work to tell what it wants, but keep going:
the city you're dreaming of, it's at the end of this road.
Call it desire, wanting, or longing. It’s always, it seems.
Want. Looking towards and looking away.
Dreaming of The Solution, perpetually.
We’ve wanted something for as long as we’ve been here, think naked babies and that first drink of air. Naked babies imbibing first drink of air are made of desire, want, of longing: for physical contact, for affection, for an outlet for affection, for approval, for release of tension, for continuation, for distraction, for another body on the farm, for purpose- sperm meets egg catalyzed by something like one of these.
I want to talk about the deep of spiritual longing. To sort out the difference between want, desire, and longing is beyond the scope of this piece, but let’s just say that longing would be a long winding, deep stitched thread through your days of being a body-heart-mind.
Spiritual longing’s thread has shifting textures. A bright heartache, a dull throb. Sometimes it is like being lonely and connected at the same time. A sadness that doesn't want to flow as tears? Sometimes a confusion about what to do to scratch the itch, knowing that the usual, won't. What to do about this itch!!?
Suppose that after meeting basic needs, all our desire is, at root, spiritual longing. We don’t need to name what the longing is for, and we don’t need to name what will satiate it. Then why call it spiritual longing?- nothing but practices of opening and raw presence bring relief. Some meeting, something of the longed for kiss of mystery.
Sometimes I try to respond to this longing by purchasing spiritual objects. I did in fact recently buy a fantastic new Kim Krans Oracle Deck and various books. If you’re like me, conditioned by this culture to mistaking purchasing for actual power, power for love, bigger for better, or contact with desired objects ( people, places, things) as intimacy, when spiritual longing flares strongly, especially in the form of bewilderment or untethered heart-ache, you might think about buying something beautiful, scheduling another meet-up, some moment of physical encounter approximating what the heart is called towards. And that's ok. But.
Consider the desire for uplifting experiences. Even the daily draw to a cup of coffee could be said to be an expression of this longing- for wakefulness, for earthiness, to be ground down into something delicious that authoritative studies show prolongs your life when consumed in the right amount. Or other desires, other substitutes for Love. Perhaps everything we desire is an emblem of this longing. Each new song, beautiful landscape, good conversation over a meal, etc.- the briefest kiss of It, but not quite.
Dissatisfaction with your current experience of life- feeling that ‘this isn’t right’ may itself be a gate into spiritual longing. Dissatisfaction with life can be misdiagnosed as ungratefulness, restlessness, addiction, escapism, lack of having it together, an inability to regulate or cope. No so fast. As long as there is dissatisfaction, if you can say, ‘i am dissatisfied’, then your life is dissatisfying, something in you has not been fed what it needs to be fed. In other words, dissatisfaction as accurate truth, searingly accurate thirst, signaling, catalyzing and ultimately quenching its own extinction.
People can misdiagnose spiritual longing, it takes one to know one.
Am I or you or the contemplatives and mystics of the past crazy, deluded, or just starry eyed for wanting wonder, sacredness, transparency, a not-flimsy kindness, unbreakable connection with life? Dissatisfaction with conventional, status-quo reality is not a mistake. Deep resonance or belief in the teaching of Sages about ultimate, timeless, blissful realities is not a mistake. Sages have said that this want, this longing, for Spirit’s transfiguring touch, is worth wanting, a want worth cultivating. You could long for spiritual longing, crazy as it may feel, and from their side of awakening to do this is sane as sane can be. Drinking this wine that quenches by making you more thirsty.
Lest this get abstract, you could check in with yourself - what’s desired now at this very moment? An uplifting statement, a confirmation, a new perspective? Deeper, is there a desire for something to pass, to go away, to no longer have to experience some experience? Read your body, its tension or relaxation or texture of yearning, read your mind for the language of ‘getting away from’, listen for restlessness or anticipation. Or is there a desire for something to come? If so, what is it? What image or label does mind have for the desire of what you want to come? Read your body and your mind for the language of ‘i want, I need’.
If you find anything you want to leave you or anything you want to come your way, try for a minute turning it over in your mind like a mantra - “i want _______”. Feel your body as you do that, underneath the outermost layer of sensation. Maybe you feel a hint of your longing, the intimate fire beneath the smoke the fire gives off. This longing can be missed if we don't stop to feel it, slow down to read it, don't take the care to listen.
Longing is a vulnerability. Maybe we feel we have enough problems and letting in this incompleteness is a weakness we can't add to our liabilities. Why invite another problem? But suppose this problem is there all the time. As long as there is time there will be this problem: longing to no longer labor under its (time’s) weight, immutable, mouthless thirst for the unsayable, for connection beyond disconnection, to be free from fear and alienation, death as not a problem.
Inhabiting our longing can make us vulnerable, a body of raw. You know you can’t go to Target and get an effective fix, despite the fine fashions you might find there. Your heart has a break in it not cheaply filled. To open to spiritual longing is to open to how incompleteness is true. Thus we encounter a contradiction, a spicy, sparking tension in the teachings: we are whole and complete yet not able to wholly and completely experience that.
In response, there is the relative truth of purifying the heart and simplifying the mind - all the classical practices that are time-tested means of decreasing self-centeredness: joyful service to others, atonement, prostrations, meditation and other activities that break addiction to self centered thinking, that bad mantra of alienation. There is a limit to what we can do through our own effort to respond to this longing that we don’t hit until after we’ve undergone devoted, sustained immersion in the aforementioned. This effort means stepping away from narratives of domesticated, conveniently packaged products of simply be here now, weekend workshop, awakening- for-sale diminishment of awakening’s path. Basic contact with your sensory experience and watching how it arises and passes is a start not an end.
One thing that is precious about these practices and the limit of them is that we may begin to ask for help. We realize that non-relational means to resolving our heart’s fissure are non-starters, or can only get us so far. Everyone, without extensive training in self honesty, tends to interpret and filter teachings and practices through self-biased view. The evidence of doing that is that they don’t work. The Fox is in charge of the Hen House so we’re not actually changing. Asking for help is a crucial gesture of opening. Humility is not an artifact of Asian culture or Christian monasticism but, in a sense, the life-blood of the path itself.
Here’s where I humbly (shamelessly?) plug what I do! Parts work and meditation coaching can be useful in understanding, sorting out and finding warm space with what arises in us in response to embracing (or even approaching embracing!) spiritual longing. There might be parts of us afraid of giving up any control ,rational-mind parts that can only place confidence in material experience of the senses and what can be understood, parts that respond to spiritual longing with striving, perfectionism, or despair, a part that fiercely and fearfully clings to the familiar and comfortable. And you may already have in your life all the understanding, method and support to work with these if you choose to turn towards.
Spiritual longing might be there ready to fill our hearts, bellies and brains with its quenching fire when junk food is not taking up its space. We might fear its demands and believe a story that we’re not up to the task and work out a way to ignore it, weaving a wet blanket of comfort, distraction, conceptual consolation ( “there is nothing to attain!” ), or contrived busyness. I’ve certainly done and do this stuff. All the ways.
But the thing with spiritual longing is that the thread keeps stitching, regardless.
*Solution - that which by enveloping and permeating, breaks down solidity.