Deepest Longing Deepest Fear

Having just returned from three weeks of teaching in the UK, I am filled with gratitude for the opportunities I continue to receive to practice with many wonderful and dedicated people. From the chilly Lake District in the North, to the rollings moors of the Peak in the Midlands, and finally on to the warmer fields of Sussex in the South, wholehearted students encouraged each other in practicing the dharma. I led two three-day non-residential retreats, one five-day residential retreat, a sangha day on engaging Buddhist practice, a therapist training day on IFS and Applied Mindfulness practices, and an evening for new students on the fundamentals on Inquiry. It was a fantastic experience which I could not have done without every person’s kind support and gentle care.

A strong theme emerged from the various events. Over and over I found this tension revealing itself in the conversations among students in every event. They spoke with me about how much they longed for authentic love and deep connection. In doing so it was as if they were letting me in on their most precious secret, but this secret seemed to be universal. The other side of the tension was that with this longing came an equally powerful struggle to engage and accept love when it was offered. I began to see that our greatest longing calls forward some of our greatest fears, and that the willingness to sit in silence and stillness alongside others somehow called the secret out of the shadows. This vital intersection of longing and fear is a rich place for practice because embodied, relational practice invites both our most primitive instinct for connection and care to surface while, at the same time, evoking our deepest emotional vulnerabilities. Longing and fear are intimate practice partners.

Most of us hold a secret hope is that if we could somehow satisfy our incessant longing for connection and finally get the love we want, that this would quiet our fears. But this is not how it works. Instead, we often find ourselves oscillating between a fear of abandonment (loss of love) at some moments and the discomfort of engulfment (being overwhelmed by love) at others. Back and forth we go seeking our personal “middle way” — a relaxed body, a peaceful mind, and a warm heart. I would wager that few of us grew up being shown by clear example how to navigate this vulnerability. Were you patiently mentored by someone who guided you by revealing their own tender heart while also demonstrating how to sit with the natural longing for secure attachment? Were you helped to understand that clinging to the idea that you can be certain of satisfaction in your longing is a painful fantasy? Were you helped to realize that rejecting the unpredictability and chaos of human relationships is another sure way to suffer? Instead we are more often taught—even encouraged—to expect a sure and certain proof of love and also to be vigilant for the ways in which it is denied, distorted, withheld or forced on us in ways we dislike. Ignoring the whole messy thing doesn’t help either. To ignore this core dilemma is to slowly dry up, both emotionally and spiritually. This is the intersection where vitality swells and recedes depending on our response to life’s difficulties and joys. Practice helps us become a larger container for life energy so it can flow more freely and fully. Ultimately will not get everything we want in just the way we want it, but we can learn not to contract in the face of this reality in ways that are designed to protect us but end up ensuring that we are relatively “safe” but inevitably and deeply disappointed. We hope to be less vulnerable by trying to manage this turbulent boundary between longing and fear, but more often end up feeling small and empty. However, there is an alternative. Steady, well-grounded practice, with the help of patient spiritual friends (and teachers), does offer the freedom we long for, but it does not come in the form of personal satisfaction. It arrives as a freedom from the demand that we are personally satisfied. In this brief Inquiry we begin to touch on this universal theme of longing and fear.

Inquiry recording: