This month, I did something I never did before. I decided I wanted to eat better and be less dependent on coffee so I went on a detox. Don’t worry, this blog post is not about dieting. The most difficult part was letting go of my daily intake of something yummy that involved chocolate. Well, on one of the 21 days, I had one of those experiences that strikes you the way the low lying sun hits your eyes suddenly turning a street corner on an October morning. I was walking to the subway after a long day and passed a storefront that had a delicious, sweet smell wafting from its open door. In that tempting moment, I took in the aroma and then said something that surprised even me. I said, “what if I could enjoy the smell as much as I would enjoy taking a bite of the actual food; can’t the smell be filling and enough in and of itself?” Now before you roll your eyes and click to close this page, I ask that you stick with me the way I stuck with the diet for 21 days.
Desire. It emerges over all kinds of things and some of its appearances are more crazy-making than others. This past week, it emerged for me in a mild form when I visited my favorite place in Maine. I got there and enjoyed it so much that I was left wanting to move there. I wanted it, more of it. I wanted to “have” it, as if it could fill something in me. The hardest desire for me has been over a person. Have you ever wanted a person that you could not have? It could happen for all kinds of reasons. The person might not be available. Though you connect on many levels, the person might ultimately not be the right one for you. The person might be your husband/wife who is temporarily or seemingly permanently unavailable. The person might be a friend or family member who is far away. In whatever form, when it happens, it leaves you deeply longing. It could even go on painfully for years. For those of you who have ever been here, you know what a hard place it is. For those of you who haven’t, I don’t wish it upon you. Yet, that particular, unfulfilled longing holds open a door of profound insight when we’re willing to walk through. There is no end to desire. But, in the wanting, there is something essentially beautiful.
I remember saying, in exasperation, about the person I was longing for, “but, I can’t have you!” It was a painful, constant refrain that had to instantly call forth a bigger question, “what is it to ‘have’ something at all?” When we eat things, we want to “have” them. That is why we have the expression, “I just wanted to eat him (or her or it) up.” But, I can savor an experience without “eating it” or “having it.” When I eat a pint of Hagen Daz chocolate ice cream, I am not full at the end. In some way, as much as I enjoyed it, I never get the experience of actually having “had” it. (Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d still do it.) We don’t ever own anything anyway, even if we eat it! It comes through us and the craving begins again. If it is an object we can buy, we think we have it, but we eventually come to our life’s end and we don’t get to take the thing with us. Money is another big one, causing us to think if we would just have more, we’d be okay. And sometimes it’s power or status where we can stumble into the quicksand. So, what do we do with an insatiable desire that arises again and again? How can we work with this human experience of wanting so that it doesn’t keep us from missing our life, what we already have, what is right here? Certainly, it’s not about getting rid of it. The answer I’m learning over and over again is to stay with the actual experience. It is what I write about in every blog post. It is what I keep returning to.
What does longing feel like? Not the thoughts that come with the longing, but the actual feeling of longing. Can I feel the constriction in my chest, as if rubber bands were getting tighter across my sternum, drawing the two side of my chest together? Can I feel the ache as it pulls on my heart as if connected from a rope to something outside of me? Can I experience the sensation and not add on the thoughts and judgments about it? If we didn’t have longing, we would never be happy because we wouldn’t know the joy of receiving. Take it even further and we can see that we can’t really “have” a person, a food, a landscape, anything that we desire. All we really have is our experience. The experiences of longing, receiving, wanting, enjoying, fearing, loving, struggling are amazing in and of themselves. No one is greater than another.
It seems like a tall task to ask of myself to be able to view things with such equanimity. But, I have realized that it is a practice, like any other. I can practice with the simple things first like savoring food when I eat it, with enjoying my morning shower and the fact that water flows from my faucets simply by the turn of a knob, when I take in the beauty of someone who smiles at me, or the fact that my train was on time. When I savor these daily moments, I am strengthening my ability to stay present to the bigger, more challenging ones, the ones that pull at my heart, as if it is bound to be taken right from my body. This does not mean I won’t ever complain or cry or get upset. Of course I will, but with a greater understanding.
If that is not enough, there is even more I learned from staying in that painful process of longing for someone I could not have. The reason the desire existed was a good one. I had an experience of the person that made me feel alive, inspired, happy. Of course I wanted more! The gift comes in recognizing that because I know what that experience feels like means that I can recall the good feelings at any moment. Essentially, I already “have” it. I have the actual thing I have been longing for inside myself and it doesn’t get any more real than that. This does not mean I stop trying to have the physical experience, the actual thing or person, but I can rest and even enjoy the process and not wait until I “have” it. Eventually, we usually do get the thing or person or its equivalent in some form, though it may not be what/who we expected. In those moments of finally receiving what we want, if we have been practicing staying with our experience, we can truly soak in the fact that we are now receiving. We know how special it is because we know how to stay present. The longing and the desire are what help us to truly “have” in a more lasting way. This is genuine happiness.
On my drive to Maine, after 25 days of not having dessert, I let myself enjoy a chocolate ice cream cone. I sat down and ate it and savored it in a whole new way. It was even more delicious than I had remembered. I now know that when I do get to have the thing I wanted, if I had let myself long for it and not push the difficulty away, the person or thing can actually fill me, not in the way I thought it would, but in ways I could not have known possible. The feeling comes from within, not from an external source, and comes out in deep gratitude and lasting appreciation.