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The chambers of our longing

by Emma Philbin Bowman

“they say the soul unfolds in the chambers of its longing
And the bitter liquor sweetens in its amber cup”

(Cohen, 2014)

“without a bent for melancholia, there is no psyche”
(Kristeva, 1987: 4)

In every era, particular elements of psychological life get foregrounded. Lately we’ve been leaning into resilience, mindfulness, and gains from neuroscience and attachment theory. All this is hugely valuable, pertinent and necessary; yet it also catches what I will call an efficiency bias that comes at a cost to something more elusive. As if too many fluorescent lights have been switched on, and layers of subtlety and texture have fled the world. Here we are in stark, impressive functioning, hurtling toward our optimally regulated selves.

Sometimes I grieve for the tortured love poetry we no longer write; the atmospheric, melancholic moments in quiet pubs (Covid-aside) we no longer partake of because we are self-regulating so successfully in the gym or the yoga studio, ingesting distilled kernels of generic, easily applicable wisdom from bite-sized TED-talks.

Which brings me to this theme of longing – and making a case for its preservation.

Genie Zeiger: There’s this yearning — I don’t know what to call it.... “Something to go to,” perhaps.

James Hillman:
“Something to go to,” yes. It’s more than wishing, because it comes from the heart and soul. The German Romantics said, “Tell me what you long for, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Not what you do. You go to a party, and people ask you what you do, and you say, “I sell cars,” or, “I’m a gardener.” But for the Romantics it was “Tell me what you long for,” what your yearning is, which suggests something huge….

(Conversations with a remarkable man, 2012)

I want to reflect here on how we relate to longing – both internally and within the wider culture. And to suggest that we reconsider this inefficient inner territory as worthy of our attention, cultivation and care.

To frame this a little: I found myself inadvertently ‘studying’ longing half-way through 2020 for The Art of Wanting, a course I was creating on re-kindling our connection to passion and desire. (The course was focused not on ‘successful wanting’ so much as learning to enrich our engagement with the wanting self). As soon as I started to read up on longing, I sensed a homecoming. The language and territory felt native to me - it was lush, recuperative, soulful. Yet, confusingly, it did not take long to recognise that my own capacity for longing had somehow atrophied - if it was ever there. My longings float adrift of me, casually untended.

Tuning into this, it became clear that I had learned to automatically buffer my longings, somehow seeing this as a gain, a reflection of ‘mature’ capacity to adapt to ‘things as they are’. Some of this is inevitable and probably healthy: If we are lucky, our longings abate to some degree because our lives partake of them sufficiently not to torture us; in addition, according to a superb, technical reflection on the nature of longing and its function at different stages of life (Scheibe et al., 2007), youth and old age are in some ways more conducive to longing. Nonetheless, it made me curious: Why do I neglect territory which calls me so deeply? What is lost when longing lies untended? What might be the value of reviving it?

Cultures hostile to longing – inner ambivalence
It seems to me that our capacity for longing is on the decline for two broad and intermingling reasons: because of the threat it appears to pose to our ‘happiness’, and because the rhythms of contemporary life intrude on the kind of generative interiority required for longing. I’m going to look at these in terms of our inner and outer culture and explore how, for many of us, neither offers receptive ground for longing. Later, I’ll explore how and why we might address this.

Scheibe et al. suggest, perceptibly, that longing involves “the joining of desire and disappointment, and the search for ways to manage this seeming contradiction” (2007: 781). In an era marked by the elevation of efficiency, this is a relatively complex task - one we may not feel we have time for. Coming in touch with true longing can threaten to disrupt our everyday functioning. I am not suggesting here that longing is not enriching; rather that we often grow protective of a decent-enough mundane. For many of us, a functional level of self-regulation within a sufficiently ‘meaningful’ life has been incredibly hard-won. Why throw things off kilter by allowing our deeper yearnings too much room? Why expose ourselves too deeply to lack, to absence, to yearning? Why risk evoking the states we hope to have largely put behind us; the grief, disappointment or despair that many of us once sensed were relentless?

And so we buffer, tending to slough our longings off without quite noticing. And it is only when life intrudes to remind us of an unrequited love or an unrealised hope that we bump into a taste of what we once longed for but have now rescinded. The abrupt shock is hard to bear. We watch someone else hold out for – and sometimes fulfil - yearnings we long-ago abandoned, and for a moment may feel dismay, self-betrayal, or even rage. Or – worse still - we ourselves receive what we long for and feel terrified, compelled to retreat to the familiar, to regulate again. We grow used to not being stirred, more comfortable in the buffered ‘real’.

“But he does look stupid.”
“Yearning. Not stupid. He wants awfully to be on the inside staring out: anybody with their nose pressed against a glass is liable to look stupid.”

(Capote, 2012, section 4)

Longing is not just internally threatening. It also brings the vulnerability of exposure: when we stand in our yearning (especially in front of others) we are, as Capote observes, liable to look stupid. We risk mockery or judgement – as naïve, as losers, as being seen to be ‘unhappy’ or unfulfilled. For many of us, there is something hugely shameful in failing to attain the objects of our devotion. There is a sense in which, from the point of view of material reality, to long is to fail – as if, in acknowledging absence and incompleteness, we reveal our disappointment.

The other thing about longing is that even when it succeeds, it fails. Achieving what we long for may not bring us to the sublime heights the object of our longing represented. Few voices on this are as nuanced as CS Lewis:

Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise…

(2001: 134-135)

From the personal point of view, longing is often unwise, delusional, inconvenient. It threatens to disrupt our hard-won self-regulation; to expose us to mockery or gloom; to reveal our immaturity; to promise failure. From the point of view of realism, efficiency and even ‘self-esteem’, it makes sense to let it subside.

The outer culture: rhythms and couplings
Above are some of the inner reasons we are inclined to shy away from longing. I want to turn our attention to two strands by which our culture may fail to support our longing – in developing rhythms and infrastructures hostile to the formation of longings, and by ‘coupling’ longing with specific territories that may not call us.

I’ll begin with an anecdote that catches much of the moment we are in. Researching longing, I found myself returning to an evocative talk by Sufi teacher, Llewellyn Vaughan Lee, who said something poetic about the mystic’s capacity to be lost in a ‘whirlpool of nowhere’. These words captured me, and I googled them to find their origin. But the search yielded nothing poetic at all, merely ‘I’ve been on the phone to Whirlpool support for four hours and I’ve got nowhere…’

In a weird way, this captures the core threat to longing. As 21st century humans, we are far more likely to spend four hours on the phone to a Whirlpool call centre than dwelling with our longing. So many elements of our collective infrastructure nudge us this way. We live among myriad algorithms cumulatively hostile to interiority. We float about among the detritus of our lost passwords, tax deadlines, impending Zoom calls, broken dishwashers. These are – more than is good for us – the content of our psyches and pull us away from the elemental yearnings and the deeper calls.

All this brings me back to something which, long before the internet came along, Christopher Bollas observed about mood: that we should recognise “the psychic accomplishment of the mood” (1987: 102). It is the same for longings: they can only emerge under certain conditions, can only be felt in certain states. Speaking personally, the very existence of the online world so often draws me into a surface staccato in which longings are unlikely to form. Undisrupted, away from my smartphone for a few hours or days, my psyche starts to feel itself differently – as slower, more interior, more generative. Many studies of the impact of our online life focus on the erosion of our social, relational and cognitive capacities. Few dwell with its subtle erosion of the quality of our interior space. As David Golumbia, an Associate Professor of Digital Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, observes “the effects I consider most pernicious are ones that I don’t think are visible to most of us” (Anderson and Raine, 2018).

Longing holds different status in different eras and cultures, and often becomes coupled with specific objects. When these do not chime with our own yearnings, this too may weaken our bond with longing. This theme arose richly on a recent course, where it became clear how particular such cultural leanings are: in Ireland, for example, our literature of longing often expresses the desire for escape from family or country, or for union with the land itself. We are not taught for example, to long for God or gods; for tantric ecstasies; for Gaia. In contrast, a Turkish participant described an utterly different imprint: longing as inherently precious for its spiritual impact on the one who longs. Thus, as Vaughan Lee reminds us, Sufi Ibn ‘Arabî prayed to be nourished “not with love but with the desire for love” (Vaughan Lee, 1991).

In each of us, longing is intensely personal – and doesn’t necessarily align with the objects elevated by our culture. Confronted with such absence of support, we need to become more resilient, muscular and resourceful on behalf of our longing – to find the mirrors that will validate and support our love. Vaughan Lee – speaking from the standpoint of Sufi mysticism - captures one element of this, in which
“the lover is often left stranded, not even knowing the real nature and purpose of the longing that tugs at the heart”. It can be too easy, in the face of incongruity, “to think that this discontent of the soul is a psychological problem, to mistake longing for depression or identify it as a mother complex or the result of an unhappy marriage…” (Vaughan Lee, 1991).

The case for reviving longing
In a culture that leans shallow, in which longings are so easily converted and displaced by more immediate gratifications before they even form, we need to consciously tend the soil of our longings. Yet few voices encourage us to dwell here: rarely do we experience such encouragement from parents, teachers, priests. Only the mystics, the artists, some of the more maverick analysts and therapists call us to such rhythms and logics, reminding us of other realms in which we might dwell.

Which turns me to why I am writing this piece at all: because the states and processes induced by longing – the quality of self-contact when we learn to dwell with it – is so profound and curative. Longing unites us energetically with our own interior. It does so in a way that not only soothes, deepens, and extends us, but which honours our complexity and uniqueness.

Dwelling with longing – the object and the process
We can see longing as an opportunity for two things: resonance with a treasured object, and immersion in the experience of longing itself. Longings do orient us, keeping us connected (in imagination or reality) to elements of life that move and haunt us. In this sense they function as a kind of beacon for the soul’s vision, and their presence is an ordering element in our lives. They orient us toward what we treasure. As we age, the quality of this changes somewhat: in youth our longings direct our choices and visions; later longing often becomes more subtle, interior and less practical. We find a way to bear experiences of lack or loss via ruminative interior dwelling with things we treasure. “Longing offers primarily imaginary mechanisms to deal with the gains and losses of life. As we age, longing [provides] a pathway to a kind of imaginative compensation” (Scheibe et al., 2007: 780).

Identifying, orienting and recalling us to what we treasure is therefore an essential function of longing. But as I explored longing, my attention was drawn, repeatedly, to the interior experience itself. And when I came across Hillman’s insistence that “the only solution to the longing for union is union with the longing” (Hillman, 2020), I was stopped in my tracks. Because these words captured somehow the true invitation – and resolution – of longing, as captured by Cohen, by Rumi, by the Sufi mystics: that learning to dwell within and bear the thing itself is where the gold lies. As Rumi writes, “there are love dogs no-one knows the name of: give your life to be one of them” (Barks, 2013: 155).

I have come to see – as many mystics know – that there is a craft to longing well. The flavour and qualities of this will be different for each of us, but always this seems to involve a willingness to receive our longings generously, and to find our way to support them as they ripen in us and as us. This is to learn to contain them in generative ways - to be the amber cup, in which the bitter liquor of longing may sweeten.

There is a subtlety and rhythm required to be present with a longing: this yields restorative side-effects in the body, mind and heart, and builds coherence with the soul. This can be visceral, sensual, magical. When we dwell with the physiological essence of longing, a tone comes over the physical heart – a bruised, beautiful, spacious, slowing.

Because we are always shadowed by the possibility of not getting what we want, we learn, at best, to ironize our wishes — that is, to call our wants wishes: a wish is only a wish until, as we say, it comes true — and, at worst, to hate our needs. But we also learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like.

(Phillips, 2013)

When we are inclined to eradicate sources of failure and hope – to live in present moments sanitised by convention and material reality – we lose too much. Can we lean more generously toward the lives that have eluded us, and encourage our unfulfilled yearnings to remain near to us as potent inner objects, as sources of self-return? We need to ensure we keep room for these bespoke, inefficient detours into the interior, to house our hungers and discrepancies. To dwell with them is to allow them to fertilise, dismay and tenderise us.

If this theme touches us, we need to tend the soil in which longing might arise – to live by rhythms in which longings can surface and be tended, to explore our own best ways to receive them, bear with them, and let them reach us. This is the situation I want to highlight: that there is something precious here that risks neglect. There is a courage and majesty required to desire intensely, to yield from time to time to our most unreasonable yearnings. This is the invitation of longing: that we remain intimate with what lies beyond our reach, and let it call, move us, alter us. May we remember to linger, more generously and more often, in the vicinity of our longings.

Emma Philbin Bowman, in addition to her regular teaching and client work, is currently focused on creating deep, potent, flexible online group we-spaces in response to the Covid pandemic. More info: www.emmapb.com


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