Updated: Sep 16
"The greatest need of a child is to obtain conclusive assurance (a) that they are genuinely loved as a person by their parents, and (b) that their parents genuinely accept their love.... Frustration of this desire to be loved as a person and to have this love accepted is the greatest trauma that a child can experience." --W.R.D. Fairbairn
Longing, or despair that awakens desire, is a seemingly simple and yet profoundly intricate human emotion. It has this remarkable ability to act as a wellspring from which compassion and the capacity for connection expand and flow. In the depths of longing seeds of vulnerability and curiosity are sown, sprouting from the fertile soil of pain and discontent. It is a journey within, a yearning for something or someone that transcends the material world, and at its core, a quest for a sense of belonging. Longing can lead us on a journey to rediscovery and reconnection with our tenderest, most unprotected, and thus truest self. It is a multifaceted power like the contraction of the ocean as it draws itself inward and upon release expands of itself back out to a different place than it began. The result of destruction or creation from this power is not a function whether we are being pulled deeper into our darkness or pushed closer to the shore, but rather our capacity to be with the emotion and sensation that undergoes continuous and changing movement of contraction and expansion.
Longing as gateway to our Selves
Longing is an emotional state that transcends mere desire. It is a profound ache for something that is not present in our lives; be it a person, a place, an experience, or even a different version of ourselves. Longing can manifest in various forms: the longing for a lost love, the longing for a homeland, the longing for a purpose yet to be discovered, or the longing for a better world. While often associated with desires that are external to ourself, longing also awakens a profound urge to reconnect us to our innermost self. The sensation longing often evokes in us is an undeniable sense of emptiness and hunger that compels us to seek fulfillment. It is an undeniable thirst that is not necessarily meant to be immediately quenched. It is only through the longing that we confront our most intimate desires, fears, and thus vulnerabilities. The burning of emptiness motivates us to explore the depths of our soul, as we seek to understand what it is we truly ache for. Through this courageous process, we find the strength to start building a bridge from the self we know to the self we long for. Along the way, we are asked to willingly embrace our own imperfections and insecurities. As we reconnect to our own warmth, we realize that softness or vulnerability is the substance that bridges the face we show the world and the emotions we feel deep in our heart and gut. Forging this connection is the first step in becoming our truest self. This can be profound, chaotic, transformative, and mystical. In this way, longing serves as a catalyst for self-reflection and values, self-actualization, self-compassion, unconditional love, and an awakening to the divine being with in.
At its center, longing is the recognition of a void between ourselves, urging us to take action to shorten the gap between who we think we are and who we desire to be or desire to be connected with. The pain and discontent associated with longing is that potential energy which when liberated pushes us out of our comfort zones and propels us to courageously seek that connection. It is this very discomfort that becomes the breeding ground for the manifestation of yearning to come to life. From this place, compassion and vulnerability become palpable and tangible resources helping us form deeply fulfilling connection to self and others.
As we learn to navigate the depths of our discontent, we develop resilience and the flexibility to vacillate and dilate alongside varying degrees of discomfort. This resilience allows us to be more open, softer, slower, and warmer toward ourselves and others undergoing such distress. Longing, with all its accompanying anguish, gives shape to the boat that is big enough to gently and nurturingly hold all pain without recoil or judgment and create profound connection.
“Don’t seek for water, be thirsty” -Rumi
I remember many years ago being told: “Leslie, you just have so much potential.” At the time of hearing that a crushing ache feverishly came across my body. I was flooded with feelings of helpless sadness and agony. That moment helped me to realize the vastness of the gap between who I found myself to be at that time and who I knew myself to be or the me I longed to offer myself and the world around me. In reflection of that moment, I now realize that what was being reflected back to me, was that within me, a great power existed. I was given the gift of breaking open my own heart to touch again the pain and potential power that lived there. As I write this now, I am reminded to have great respect and reverence for the vessel of longing. While it can create magnificent beauty, awe and wonder, it can also be a force of death, destruction, and loss. The relationship I have with this power inside me was and continues to be mine to choose, will I be a vessel from which longing creates chaos and confusion as its primary function, or a space where love and compassion can be grown from those seeds of suffering.
The fruits of Longing
Self-Reflection and Values: Longing invites us to delve into the depths of our consciousness, prompting introspection and self-examination. When we long for something or someone, we are spurred to ask ourselves why we feel this way and what it is we truly seek. This process of self-reflection often reveals hidden aspects of our personalities, unmet needs, and unexplored dreams. It encourages us to confront our most private desires and fears, fostering a deeper understanding of ourselves and clarification of our guiding principles. A classic example of such a journey is found in Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens' novella "A Christmas Carol. Scrooge undergoes a profound self-examination of his past, present, and future, which led to growth and change.
Unearthing Passions and Self-Actualization: An invitation to the unknown, longing has the power to uncover dormant passions and aspects of ourselves. When we allow longing, we become familiar with the feeling and can be guided by an energy of curiosity that leads us to explore and develop new insights and talents. This exploration can be exciting, frustrating and ultimately transformative, as it allows us to tap into previously undiscovered sources of joy and fulfillment. The pursuit of our longings can also serve as a driving force for autonomy, expanded perspectives, as well as beauty and awe inspired states of continuous presence and process that reinforce and strengthen our capacity for connection. Many protagonists in famed tales over time have represented the passage through self-actualization. Some characters like Harry Potter, who undergoes significant personal growth as he matures from a young, inexperienced wizard to a confident and self-assured individual that comes to understand the importance of love, sacrifice, and his own identity. An unlikely hero who becomes a symbol of inner and virtuous strength as he faces challenges and temptations. Such journeys often involve overcoming adversity, questioning beliefs and social norms, as well as some kind of homecoming to a self that finally resonates.
Reconnection with Emotions and Self-Compassion: Longing often stirs a source of emotion within us, from joy and hope to sadness, apathy, and rage. These emotions provide valuable insights into our intimate worlds and can help us reunite with long-buried feelings that beg for our attention and care. As we embrace these emotions and allow ourselves to feel them fully, we become more attuned to our emotional landscape, fostering a deeper relationship with our heart-centered self. Longing also teaches us the importance of self-compassion, reminding us that it's natural to have unmet desires, connections, and aspirations, while encouraging us to be kinder to ourselves along the way. One of my favorite stories of reconnection is Andy Dufresne in Stephen King's "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" (adapted to the film "Shawshank Redemption). Andy, despite being imprisioned for a crime he didn't commit, revitalizes his hope, rage, innocence, determination, and resilience to seek freedom and liberation.
Love and Compassion: In the vessel of longing, we discover the capacity to love unconditionally and to extend a presence of grace to those in need. When we long for the well-being and happiness of others as much as our own, we cultivate a form of love that is boundless and experientially knows the oneness from which we will all return. Longing for a better world or the alleviation of others' suffering becomes a force to expand our sense of open tenderness. Born of our virtuous discontent with the world's injustices, compassion becomes a tangible expression of our desire and action for a more gracious and harmonious world. Atticus Finch is celebrated as one of literatures most beloved and iconic characters of this because of his embodiment of gentle strength and vulnerability in his unwavering commitment to justice, empathy, and kindness.
Many stories, created by the potential and realized energy of longing, have surpassed time and circumstance to exemplify the truth of what beauty and mystery, art and science, design as a result of this momentary alignment of mind, body, and heart. The path of following our longing often goes from: 1. an invitation to the unknown, 2. a receptivity and trust of the situation and the one who chooses it, 3. loss of the predictable and entry into the unpredictable, 4. loss of who we think we are, 5. fear of the new beginning, 6. embracing the fear, 7. active surrender, 8. profound and often sudden realization or insight that can bring about significant change in one's perspective, understanding, or way of thinking, 9. restoration and recreation of personal identity, 10. re-entrance to the known world with more understanding and lived wisdom, and 11. integration of experience into ordinary life. If we are lucky, this happens over and over again throughout our lives, with certain peak experiences. Such force and transformation is our birth-right: to move, perceive and experience from our own originality. These moments occur at even our earliest stages. For example, a baby’s rooting reflex as they are cut off from the umbilical chord and search for the breast is one of the first examples of following the path of longing as the baby moves from completely depended to co-dependent. Then again with their first step as they move from co-dependent to independent. It is also heartbreakingly embodied in the book, A Man’s Search for Meaning, in which an intense aching gave a man strength to endure and overcome horrific experiences. These tales of longing are also what ancient traditions would call tales of dharma or virtue that reveal certain truths of our own reality as we interact with the pang emptiness within and hope for the felt presence of a matching piece.
In essence, longing or dharma is the vessel that contains the felt agony of separation and the bliss of union. This capacity for yearning can create connection between our external desires and our internal truths. It prompts self-reflection, clarifies the worth of ourselves and others, unearths passions, rekindles emotions, fosters self-actualization, encourages self-compassion, and ultimately, leads to a more profound acceptance and appreciation of our selves, as individuals and a collective on different and similar quests. As we embrace and explore our longings, we nurture pain into a fertile place of growth for affection. At its most challenging, longing brings us into contact with our deepest suffering, and at its best, stretches and grows us into the person we thirsted for. Longing, in its dual capacity, becomes a transformative force that alchemizes our inner world and influences our relationships with ourselves, others, and the world around us. Longing is a beginning where wholeness is an end to a loop that spirals on, infinitely. Trauma often gives rise to profound and intense longing. That same longing, with the capacity for vulnerability and compassion to bear its pain, gives rise to the completeness that has and will always be our soul or truest self. Longing, then is our heart beckoning us to come home with the feeling of sadness and despair communicating that we have separated from ourself, and the felt experience of joy and bliss communicating reunification.