“Alone, alone. I am alone — I ache … Yet for the first time, despite all the anguish and the reality problems, I’m here. I feel tranquil, whole, ADULT.” ~Susan Sontag
“That yearning inside you that seeks for fulfillment — does it still burn?” ~John Geddes
What do you yearn for?
To yearn is to have an intense feeling of longing for something, perhaps something that we have been separated from or have lost.
We yearn to be known, to be loved, and to belong. We yearn for freedom, for connection, and for peace. Our yearnings are distinctive yet they are also common, like a key that fits a lock.
Yearnings are a pathway between our deeper, authentic self and our external life.
What we yearn for gives breath to relationships and wind in the sails of our life’s purpose. The proximity of a relationship or life decision to the site of our heart’s yearning is a measure of meaningfulness. It is a key to knowing our deeper self in relation with the world.
How do we lose track of our yearnings or struggle to give them voice?
If our yearnings were not sufficiently met as a child, then likely we sacrificed expressing or even feeling these yearnings in favour of securing attachment and safety from our caregivers.
In the language of Dr. Gabor Mate, we sacrificed “authenticity for attachment.” Over time, we learn to ignore our yearnings and eventually no longer recognize their voice when they call.
Being cut off from what we truly desire, we seek external reinforcements. We build false idols to speed and consumption: we move too fast, we eat too much, we please and impress others. Or, we retreat: we feel sluggish, we restrict our food, we make introversion our religion.
Our yearnings are wily and persistent though. Having been dismissed, they show up in disguised form. That anxious feeling in the pit of our stomach. That uneasy sense of misfit. That fog in the face of decisions. That craving for a cigarette. That jealousy of a co-worker.
Our yearnings become symptoms, preoccupations, conflicts and crisis. We become adept at both feeling and not feeling what we truly want and need.
Expectations are Yearnings in Disguise
One of the most common disguises that yearnings adopt are expectations about how others, ourselves or the world should be. Lay a close ear to expectations, especially those that have big emotions attached, and you will hear the heart of your unmet yearnings beating.
Maybe you expect to be appreciated, for life to be fair, to always be happy, for others to be kind, for their behaviours to make sense, or for them to provide for you. Maybe you expect to never make mistakes, to always be there for others, to forgive and forget.
Expectations can wrap themselves in a tight story of blame directed towards self, other or the world.
When an expectation is not realized, notice how you react and what feelings arise.
Bring mindfulness to these feelings and thoughts and sense into the underlying yearning.
Jack Kornfield says:
“Through mindfulness training we can recognize….habits learned long ago. Then we can take the critical next step. We can discover how these…. cover over grief, insecurity, and loneliness. This underlying suffering needs to be held with compassion.”
Maybe you yearn for safety, understanding, support, truth, self-expression, love, respect or acceptance. There are many words for what we yearn for. When you land on the right word it feels satisfying like that key turning in a lock.
Share yearnings with a partner, friend or therapist. Expressing yearnings in a caring relationship helps to clear the obscured pathway between our external life and our deeper self. This brings us energy and courage. And, when your yearnings are acknowledged, you feel validated and your self-worth improves.
In time, you will receive more in your life that resonates with your yearning.
Beware the Spiritual Bypass
Sometimes we are told that it is because we have expectations in life to begin with that we set ourselves up for disappointment. We come to believe that expectations are the problem. It’s our own fault for feeling disappointed, the logic goes.
These disappointments that we experience as adults can trigger the scarier disappointments experienced when we were young in the form of our yearnings not being met.
One common way that we defend against these big feelings is by engaging in spiritual bypassing.
Psychotherapist John Welwood, who coined the term, says that “spiritual bypassing involves imposing on oneself higher truths that lie far beyond one’s immediate existential condition.” It’s a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”
Instead of feeling the disappointment of an unmet expectation and becoming aware of the yearning that sparked it, we try to “let go” of the expectation and shut down the feelings.
This might sound like: let it go; chill out; it is, what it is; let go and let God!
We tell ourselves that we are now accepting “things as they are.” And, if after this, we are still upset or frustrated? Then we resent our feelings for not getting on board with our ideal self.
It’s a sleight of hand. We appear to be accepting reality (it is, what it is!) while in fact discounting our actual experience (the feelings of upset and frustration sparked by a deeper yearning).
There is nothing wrong with having expectations.
Expectations of self, others and of the world are but smoke signals though sent up from the scorched earth of our unmet yearnings.
Follow the smoke of your expectations back to the fire of your vital energy and self.
True acceptance of what life brings comes through bringing gentle awareness to our actual experiences and honouring the yearnings that dwell within.
Kornfield, J. (2008). The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology.Random House.
Welwood, J. (2000). Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation(pp. 211–212). Shambhala.