‘What you seek is seeking you.’ Rumi
When I was a little boy I used to long for the open spaces around my grandparents’ house in the countryside of Sicily, near a little village called Santa Croce. There, I could make up a whole world where a wooden stick could become a magic wand and a bunch of rocks in a field an invisible house with herbs and spices to create magic potions. Looking at the hills around me, surrounded by nature, it was as if the whole world was my playground and I was free to explore and go on long walks. My play mates were all the plants and objects I could find on my adventures. I can still remember the song of the crickets, the smell of the pine trees and of wet soil after it rained.
Being normally a lonely child who really craved for someone to play and spend time with me, I found solace in those summer days in the countryside, when that unspeakable desire for connection could temporarily be satisfied. Growing up, what remained of that old longing was a hunger for something to fill an inner emptiness I could never define, a place inside that could, seemingly, never be filled.
There was something vital in the feeling of desire that moved through me in my quest for love and freedom. It gave me a curiosity around spirituality and learning new things, helped me learn new languages and discover the world of music and creativity. It made me travel. The searching, however, was at times, hard to contain and it often led me astray, spending hours playing computer games when I was a teenager, maybe hiding away from life and from myself, or as a young adult, following the senses into a path of addiction that ended up creating more loneliness and isolation than it managed to overcome.
But even in those dark times, in hindsight, there was a hidden treasure. It was as if the longing was inviting me to integrate those qualities I had disowned and to reconnect to the parts of my soul I had left behind. This was, at least, the outcome of my search, that the very things I so desperately looked for outside were, arguably, inside me all along.
‘Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.’ Rumi
What this treasure is might be different for different people. According to Christina Grof (1994), the longings and cravings experienced by people with addictions so intensely could be viewed as a more universal ‘thirst for wholeness’ that everyone experiences. A desire for something greater for one’s life, maybe provided by a re-connection to a sense of personal purpose and meaning and to one’s values. For some, this might be experienced as a spiritual longing or desire for connection with others and nature.
After having to distance myself from my own longing for a time, in order to learn how to contain it, what a relief it has been to find out that I can still feel desire and curiosity and be a lover of life without being overtaken by it and without shutting down my feelings altogether.
Although sometimes frowned upon by some spiritual disciplines and linked with feelings of guilt and shame in many cultures like the one where I grew up, desire could also be viewed as precious. I very much love the words of Anodea Judith (2004) when she writes of desire as a ‘spiritual/emotional impulse that inspires us to move to something greater, to embrace change. […] Desire is not the trap, but the fuel for action. It is the object of our desires that often gets confused. When we understand the deeper needs behind our desires, we are more able to satisfy ourselves at the core level.’
From my own experience and work in addiction treatment centres, I am also intrigued by the impact of early adverse experiences and trauma and neglect on the experience of longing. Janina Fisher (2017), a trauma expert, highlights the survival value of a part of the personality having learnt to run away from overwhelming feelings, through cravings and addictions, to protect more vulnerable, younger parts of the personality. It is these younger parts that the adult self can learn to look after and be curious about.
This was perhaps the biggest treasure in my longing. To remember the little boy in me, still looking at the hills around him and yearning for the warmth of the sunshine; sometimes wishing for the embrace of the sounds and smells of nature. If I look at him now, in my mind and heart, I can still see some innocence and beauty.
Fisher, J. (2017). Healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors. New York: Routledge.
Grof, C. (1994) The Thirst for wholeness. USA: Bravo Ltd.
Judith, A. (2004) Eastern body. Western Mind. USA: Celestial Arts.