When longing comes on, it seizes me sweetly by the throat and weakens my knees. It blows heavy electricity into my chest, takes my reason hostage and impels me. But then again, perhaps it’s not the longing at all that impels me, but my stories about the longing. “I must be with this person,” “I need to get out of this job,” and “I’ve got to have that guitar” are some of my personal favorite stories about longing. It’s easy to lose the longing itself among the flurry of stories that can rise up around it. I’ve been sitting with these lines as a koan:
Footsteps in the hallway,
is that you, my love?
I am not convinced that longing is an absence of something, although I tend to notice it when I think I want something I don’t have. Longing is a positive rather than a negative, has a life and a presence all its own, plays second fiddle to none. I might have longing without even knowing what it is I’m longing for, and all sorts of questions can arise in that space: What is missing here? Why am I feeling this? What is this feeling and how do I get to the end of it?
These days I have a healthy respect for impossible situations, because I have noticed that they provide unusual opportunities. My usual reaction to longing is the same as to any emotion, which is to manage it (this doesn’t leave very much room for something interesting to happen). I might gather together all of my resources in a single-minded attempt to acquire whatever it is I think I’m longing for or use clever strategies to deny or dilute the feeling, but either tact is a kind of rejection. This is nothing new. People have traversed oceans, waged wars, and founded spiritual traditions in response to longing, and while there’s nothing wrong with those responses, they are not the only way. Perhaps the best thing when I have longing is to be unable to resolve it. It turns out that when I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place, there is some value in really sinking into what it is to be stuck rather than scrambling to escape. Here is the story of a friend (paraphrased) whose impossible longing led him somewhere surprising:
Every year I visit friends for the holidays, and every year I see a friend that I have deep romantic feelings for. The very first time I met this woman, I felt drawn to her. My heart swelled and beat hard, and my vision narrowed. The shadows disappeared from the room. Each time I looked up from a task or rounded a corner, something in me hoped she would be there. Sometimes I would wander the house late at night, pretending to have a purpose, but really just hoping to run into her. I thought all the clichéd being-in-love thoughts, that I’d never met anyone like her, that we could live happily ever after with no problems of any kind ever, that I had found my soul mate. How could I go back to my old life after having these feelings?, I thought. But alas, we were both happily married when we met, and have been ever since. Every year when I see her, my heart is broken open anew. At times, this has seemed like torture. But there was something different about this last time I saw her—I felt the same longing I had always felt for her, but this time I didn’t try to deny it, I didn’t have any stories about how I shouldn’t be feeling it or that I had to do something about my feelings–they were just for me. I can’t even say now that my feelings for this woman are romantic, because somehow that description makes them too small. It seems like meeting that feeling opened something in me. I feel more compassion and concern for others and myself, I feel a longing for friendship that I’ve always tried to deny, and I tend to assume the best of strangers. I have also become more interested in my own emotional life, not just dealing with my emotions, but experiencing them as they are. I am more patient and my sense of humor is right on the surface. The world just seems more open and kind now.
Just as my friend found, longing can be an invitation to step deeper into the experience of being human. When the heart opens to longing, it opens a little bit to everything. The wind and sun come closer, my memories are more vivid, and my whole body rocks when I laugh.
I remember feeling an acute sense of sorrow while working with my first koan at a retreat some years ago. I was struggling mightily to create an experience of “oneness” like the ones I had heard about, but my efforts only seemed to push the world farther away. I would sit out in the forest, concentrating, staring down the redwoods and inviting them to merge with me, but it didn’t work. I remember looking out the window at a tree after dinner one night and feeling such a heavy sense of loss, as though I knew we were intimately related but had somehow been tragically and irreconcilably separated. When I have longing, I can think that I’m longing for closeness to something or someone else, but it might just be my own life calling. Spending time with koans can be like a romantic comedy in that way: the hero pours his heart and soul into an attempt to win the love of the prom king (or queen), but in the end it turns out his ordinary friend was his true love all along.
What we love can take us by surprise. If we allow ourselves to be unsure about love, to let our stories fall away, who knows what we will find? Really, mysterious things happen without our consent: acquaintances who irritate us end up being intimate friends and songs that grate on our ears the first time we hear them suspiciously become favorites when we are not looking. But it might also be simpler than that. If we allow longing to open our heart, we might find that we are in love with the birds at the feeder, the beep of the microwave, or the smell of burning engine oil. It’s good to have companions, whoever they are, and if we’ve run out of sugar there’s nothing wrong with black coffee. Whatever we have, it is good to have it.
It might be helpful to say that when spending time with a koan, we have the opportunity to embody each of the roles in the scene that is playing out. And so with this pseudo-koan, like any koan, you can enter from any point, whether it be, “my love,” “is that you?,” or “footsteps in the hallway.” Whatever arises, you can trust it. You might follow it like breadcrumbs left by a mysterious helper or keep it warm like a mother hen. Or maybe just forget all about it and let it come to you.
Questions to Begin (or end) With
2. What does “footsteps in the hallway” feel like in your body?
3. Do you remember a time when you were in love with someone whose feelings you were unsure about, or someone you knew was out of reach? What was that like?
4. Have you ever waited for something so eagerly that it seemed as though everything was a sign of its approaching (or not approaching)—a call about a big job interview, news about a loved one who is ill?
5. If you listen closely, can you hear something approaching? Feel something? What does it sound like, look like, feel like, smell like?