Most people are familiar with the heart-aching pain of grief. Most people can identify the empty thud of loneliness. Most people know when they’ve been pricked by the green-eyed monster of jealousy, or taken under the thick, gray blanket of shame. But how often do we talk about longing?
In the container of my virtual office, I hear about it many times a week:
I long for a baby.
I long for a partner.
I long for my mother.
I long for my father.
I long for the parents I never had.
I long for my childhood.
I long for a house.
I long for community.
I long for a best friend.
I long for God (or spirit, connection to something higher, whatever term works for you).
I long for a different climate.
I long for a different city.
I long to be single.
I long to feel alive.
I long to feel in love.
I long to feel desire.
What composes the hymn of longing? What notes comprise the sonata that stirs the soul like a great piece of music, rising up from the depths of oneself like a hand that commands our attention until we grab hold?
Until we decipher its code and learn its language, how to meet the longing often remains a mystery. Just as we must learn the difference between healthy grieving and intrusive pain, so we must learn to discern between root longing and secondary longing. Root longing calls our attention to a whole and real need inside that, when met, can point us toward a new direction or experience in life. Secondary longing contains whispers of a root longing that must be deciphered so that we don’t follow signs that point us in misguided direction.
For example, the longing for God (spirit, connection to higher self) is a root longing. When we feel that longing, there’s nothing to decipher or decode; we must simply listen and learn how to bring more of that connection into our lives. When my clients sit in church and describe the longing that arises as they listen to the music and gather in community, that’s a healthy, root longing that says, “This feeds my soul. I need more of this. Listen.”
The longing for father, on the other hand, is primarily a secondary longing. If you didn’t grow up with a healthy, loving, clear father-figure, the longing for father often arises during adulthood. This longing, when unexamined, can then lead a woman to seek relationships with older men as a way to try to fulfill the absence. This never works, of course, and often only leads to more longing. To break apart this secondary longing is to arrive at the core longing, which often contains a longing for God, and also a longing for one’s own clear, masculine, inner father.
The same is true with the longing for mother. Many people who were raised by a narcissistic mother suffer from a mother wound, which leads them to seek false mother figures or project their unworked feelings about this primal relationship onto their partner. When we break apart the longing and examine the wound at its core, we learn that there is grief contained inside it: the grief of not having had a mother that knew who to put your needs first. This needs attention. Then there is the invitation to create a sustaining, daily relationship with both the Great Mother through nature and active imagination and a relationship to one’s own inner mother: the place inside that tends to ourselves with compassion and gentleness. If we only follow the original longing we miss the deeper underpinnings that can guide us toward healing and growth.
We can deconstruct the list of longings at the beginning of this post in the same manner. And, of course, some of the longings – like the longing for a baby – contain both a root longing and a secondary longing. When a woman longs for a baby we must take it at face value, as for many women becoming a mother is one of the most primal needs she has. But when conception doesn’t occur quickly, she’s then asked to deconstruct this immense longing into its disparate elements. There she often finds a longing for her own wholeness, a need to connect to the fertility and the juiciness of being a fully creative woman that extends beyond conception.
Let’s take a look at another longing from the list: the very common longing for more desire that appears in many stable relationships. I often hear statements like, “I wish I wanted to be physically close to my partner like I was in the beginning or with my ex,” or “I long for more sexual desire for my partner.” Taken at face value, these statements easily activate the anxious mind, and it’s a not far leap to jump on the “I’m with the wrong partner” train of thought. The minute you jump on that train, you’re headed down the slippery slope that lands you in relationship anxiety torment. But if you can approach the longing with curiosity and discern between root and secondary longing, you’re on the road to building your own self-knowledge, which then culminates in more inner wisdom.
The root longing here is the longing for more closeness and desire in an intimate relationship. This is a healthy longing and one that, when followed and nurtured over time, will result in a deepening of intimacy. In other words, the longing for more desire is a healthy one. If you didn’t long for more closeness you wouldn’t be healthfully attached! So we see the longing as evidence of a healthy attachment style and then ask, “What’s interfering with our closeness?” We also keep in mind that when relationships are nurtured in healthy ways, the effortless flow of affection and sexuality arises naturally. And we must remember that this a dance that can take many, many years (decades, even) to find the steps that lead to more flow and desire.
Then we go deeper and ask, “Where do I feel desire in my life separate from my partner? How is my relationship to my own aliveness? Where do I feel turned-on and excited by my life? Am I having enough fun? Am I connecting enough to my own creative and spiritual wellsprings? Are these channels of passion open and vital, awake and pulsating with a desire to explore, create, and connect with my version of the divine? Am I connecting to a wild, abandoned, ecstatic part of me?” If we’re not passionate about our own lives we’re going to feel a certain stagnancy in our partnerships, as it’s not our partners job to ignite this passion. We must take full responsibility for our primal needs for ecstasy and wildness.
If the longing for desire is directly connected to sexuality, we ask, “How is my own sexual relationship with myself, separate from my partner? Do I feel awake and connected to my body? Do I feel my own arousal? What is my relationship like to touch?” If you know that you struggle in any of these areas, then the work is to turn inward and explore your own blocks that prevent you from being in fluid and active relationship with yourself and your partner.
So the longing for more desire contains both a longing for your own aliveness/wildness and a longing for closeness with your partner. What is does not contain is a push toward finding a different partner.
The trap – the achilles heel of the anxious mind – is to believe the thought that says, “I would have effortless desire with someone else.” Desire is tricky because it’s often intimately connected to longing, so if your ex was someone who wasn’t emotionally available and you were in the pursuer role of the pursuer-distancer dynamic, desire would have come more effortlessly. But I don’t consider this the true, healthy desire that arises when two people are in the same place at the same time, desire the originates from a full well of Self and overflows to meet the reliable presence of a loving partner. No, I consider it longing-induced desire, akin to what our culture calls “being in love.”
If we are to be love-warriors, we must find the courage to meet all of our emotions with tenderness and curiosity, understanding that they originate inside of us and, thus, can be resolved inside of us. The culturally-conditioned habit is to jump ship when longing arises and fall prey to the belief that the answers lie “out there”. The love-warrior stays the course and turns inward to discover the true source of longing.
There is wisdom in longing, a message from the underworld of psyche that longs to be known. If we take the longing at face value, we often find ourselves on a wild-goose chase punctuated by increasing anxiety that culminates in despair. But when we learn to read the impulses from psyche as messages from the underworld, and avail ourselves of the archetype of Persephone, the priestess who is a go-between the worlds of seen and unseen, we become the our own Wise Woman or Wise Man, our own oracle that can divine our paths without needing to seek answers from other so-called experts. For contained in the messengers of longing, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts are pearls of wisdom that, when deciphered, can lead us onto our own empowered path where we deeply know everything we need to know.