My Longing for the Light:
Spiritual Yearning and Its Shadow Side
(excerpt from The Holy Longing)
As a meditation practitioner for more than 40 years, I have been insane for the light. Like a moth diving into the flame, I sought to be consumed in the burning, cooked, turned to ash.
At times, on my knees, arms outstretched to the heavens, I beseeched my god. At other times, sitting still like a yogi for hours on end, my senses switched off, I turned an ear within to hear my god. Occasionally, for moments, the timbre of a celestial voice suggested itself; the horizon of another realm shimmered. But, at other times, disappointed and exhausted, I suffered the indifference of my god.
At age 19, I turned toward the East. The turn back did not begin until 12 years later. Today, in certain ways, I am still struggling to make the turn.
A student at UC Berkeley at the time, enjoying an intellectual, politically active, experimental lifestyle, I learned Transcendental Meditation for no holy reason or higher motivation but to date a man who would not get involved unless I learned the practice. I had no idea how this seemingly light-hearted decision would radically alter the course of my life.
After about a year of sitting twice a day, eyes closed and legs crossed, several internal changes had taken place: My chatterbox mind, usually highly active and alert, was quieting down. At bedtime, it was not full of obsessive or random thoughts, which kept me awake. My breathing, too, was quieter, softer and gentler, so that my body felt calm rather than agitated much of the time. Emotionally I felt more stable inside. Friends commented that I seemed less angry.
As my emotional turmoil subsided, I grew less engaged politically with “the enemy” out there and more engaged with the battleground within. I also grew less interested in saving the world through social activism and more interested in saving myself through the development of consciousness. Increasingly drawn to the meditative state, to the ocean of silence that pulled me away from complicated relationships and toward the simple goal of making that silence permanent — enlightenment — I began to long for god.
I signed up for a month-long retreat that involved meditating for many hours each day and listening to long lectures at night. Sitting in the hall that first morning with several thousand others, whose restless eagerness could not be detected in the stillness, I awaited the guru. I wanted to be calm, yet alert, open, yet unattached — in the correct state of mind for him. I wanted to please him already.
A door opened and a small man with bronze skin that shone through a filmy white Indian dhoti glided into the room. His thin dark hair fell to his shoulders and a bushy beard, just beginning to gray, covered his face. He folded his knees beneath him on the dais and waved a yellow rose in his left hand as he laughed. An infectious giggle rolled through the room.
I beheld the image of serenity, depth, and self-sufficiency. He embodied freedom from suffering, ignorance, even death. A complete, self-realized human being whose mere presence implied that I, too, could be free.
After several weeks, I was at home. I had found a community of dedicated, like-minded seekers, an intellectually sophisticated and compassionate teacher and, most of all, a simple practice that emptied my mind of trivial thoughts and filled my heart with love.
Almost without noticing it, I adopted wholesale a philosophy that ran counter to everything I had been taught: The “real” world is an illusion. The only reality is consciousness. Pure consciousness can be reached only through meditation – this kind of meditation. Enlightenment or liberation from suffering is a result of the regular experience of pure consciousness.
I began to believe that the way I led my life was the source of my pain. My attachment to people and things caused my suffering. The high stimulation of my lifestyle produced the stress in my nervous system, which agitated my mind, which triggered more desires, which led to seeking more stimulation — in an endless cycle of frustration and desire.
Like a key fitting into a lock, this teaching fit into some unknown part of me, and a hole closed seamlessly around it. As this message held a growing numinosity, the rest of life held less shine. The satisfaction of desires through personal love or creative work seemed futile. Working only to save money to go to more retreats, and socializing only with people who shared my worldview and my goal of enlightenment, I burned for god.
Very quickly, the spiritual group became my new family, harmonious and aligned, unlike my family of origin. My parents, from this new perspective, seemed lost to the world of materialism; my old friends seemed lost to the illusions of politics and romance.
I read voraciously in Eastern philosophy, assimilating its ideas until they were a part of me, flesh of my flesh. I found my life purpose and, like an arrow heading for the target, went off to a teacher-training course in Europe. Sitting with 2,000 others in a huge blue tent on a white sandy beach, I meditated . . .and meditated. . .and meditated. When my back ached and my concentration faltered, I wondered what latent, nagging, restless urge led me to shut my eyes to the beauties of the world. But then my mind quieted for a moment, dipping into a delicious silence, and the questions evaporated.
After two months of a rigorous routine, I cast aside any remaining doubts and chose to become a member of a long lineage of Hindu teachers dating back thousands of years. As I bowed before a colorful, deco-style painting of the guru, I heard a whisper from the corridors of my childhood: “Thou shalt have no other God before you.” I turned a deaf ear to the warning.
I could hardly believe my good fortune. Like many before (and after), I felt chosen – and certain that enlightenment would arrive within ten years, if only I meditated enough.
I taught meditation full-time for about eight years in small university towns and large metropolitan centers. Greeting each day with an extraordinary feeling of fullness and a great gift to offer the world, I watched people “transcend” for the first time and listened to their stories of hope. I began to believe we were riding a wave that was sweeping across the planet with the inevitability of a tsunami, washing away suffering and pain in its wake. I was no longer saving myself; I was part of a greater plan that was saving humanity, ushering in a new level of consciousness.
In 1976 I traveled with several hundred American women to Switzerland, where we stayed in a hotel in the Alps for an advanced course for six months. During that time, I practiced yoga, meditated, and ate simple meals. I did not see a man; I did not get distracted by other stimuli. For all intents and purposes, I led a monastic life.
Near the end of that period, I was in an altered state of consciousness: deeply rested, yet hyper-awake inside. I did not need to sleep or dream, that is to go under into unconsciousness. Instead, the inner wakefulness simply continued, whether I was lying down or walking around.
However, something else had changed as well. When I joined this spiritual army, there were no signs of regimentation, authoritarianism, hierarchy, or even rigid adherence to dogma. Perhaps because I knew nothing of the dark side, I couldn’t see it. But I believe that in its early years this meditation movement was fairly tolerant and open-ended.
This attitude shifted dramatically in the mid-to-late 1970’s when the teacher began to offer a new set of practices — yogic powers — and people clamored for instruction. Then, guidelines set in. You had to have such and such meditative experience to receive the next initiation. People lied. You had to give up therapy, bodywork, chiropractic, or any other practice that could interfere with meditation. Again, people lied.
For me, there was no dramatic violation of my rights, no singular spiritual abuse from which to recover. I simply began to grow uncomfortable with what I witnessed on that retreat — spiritual hubris, an insidious competition, secrecy and hypocrisy in the name of god.
I spoke to friends about my growing discomfort. But no one wanted to hear. Growing alienated from those I loved most deeply, I began to question the teachings to which I had devoted my life. The more I questioned, the more the pain increased; and the questions kept coming:
- Why doesn’t this community feel like home anymore?
- What is this gap between the group’s public persona and its inner workings?
- Does the teacher really foster individual choice or is he seducing or coercing us to obey him?
- Why doesn’t anyone else admit that something is morally or ethically wrong?
- What would my life be like without my spiritual family?
- How can I live without the hope of enlightenment or salvation?
- If I leave, can I separate the meditation practice from the organization and its beliefs?
- How do I work through the grief of having invested more than a decade of my life in this community?
Just as upon my discovery of Eastern philosophy the world had become unreal and dreamlike (maya), so now my alternative world seemed like a bad dream.
At that time, I wrote the following poem:
The sacred books are filled
with nothing but words.
The guru is filled
with nothing but water and air.
Even the mantra, holy sound,
is made of vowels and consonants.
What is it that carried me
across the river?
At the end of the training, I stood at a fork in the road, about to make one of those major life choices that quickly rules out other options and forms a certain destiny: to continue my cloistered life with its sole focus on raising consciousness, or to return to the quotidien world, to ordinary people and ordinary dreams. Even then, the choice seemed to mean taking only one of two directions: up to the life of spirit or down to the world of matter; up to god or down to earth.
With a heart clouded by uncertainty, I boarded the next plane home. I never took official action, but other members knew that I had stepped out of the circle. I expected my closest friends to understand; they did not. More than that, they would speak to me no more. I returned to Los Angeles an apostate, without a friend, without a job, without faith.
During the next 10 years, I suffered a deep disillusionment with the meditation community and its teachings. I slowly began to look at each philosophical assumption from every angle, turning it around and around, examining it as if my life depended not on hanging onto it, but on seeing through it. I applied the discipline of mind I had developed in meditation to questioning its premises.
I tried desperately to understand what aroused this intense longing in me, this hunger for spiritual sweets, this thirst for the nectar of the gods – this desire to dissolve. I sought answers in the twists and turns of my family dynamics and in the sweeping vision of transpersonal psychology. I studied the timeless mystical traditions in an effort to find my predecessors there — Krishna’s devoted gopis, the dancing Bal Shem Tov, Sufi poets Rumi and Kabir, the Hindu ecstatic Mirabai, the nuns for god Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich.
And, although my disillusionment with my teacher and his teachings was heart-wrenching, I suffered an even deeper disillusionment with god who, I believed, set me on the path only to betray me. For a long time, I railed at my god, pointing a finger of blame at the heavens.
I had believed that a spiritual commitment would save me from shadow suffering. Like a child who believes that if she prays fervently enough, her petitions will come true, I thought that if I meditated diligently enough, fulfillment would result. And not only that: fulfillment without sacrifice.
I had held a simple image of the spiritual path — do your daily practice, purify your lifestyle, open your heart in love – which ended in certain rewards. How was it possible that my practices, my devotions, would leave me with empty arms? How was it possible that god would give me stone when I had earned bread?
I fell headlong into a well of despair, slipping into the underworld that I had struggled so hard to evade. I disappeared into a great blackness, living for a while at the bottom of a dark hole looking.
Eventually, groping in the dark for a thread to lead me out, I found a guide, a Jungian analyst, who was familiar with the back streets of the underworld, a guide who knew that my next key could be found in the darkness, not in the light. She helped me to pierce the innocence that held me in thrall to my teacher, which eventually enabled me to withdraw the spiritual projection onto him and reclaim my own radiance. She helped me to dissect the simplistic framework that held me in blame, which eventually enabled me to think more independently and to hold a more complex, nuanced view of spiritual life. She introduced me to the many gods living in my own soul, so that my former conception of a singular, all-mighty god appeared naïve and childlike. She initiated me into the sacred shadow side of life, where the hidden power of darkness shines like gold.
Today I see my experience of holy longing as my source, my course, and my goal. I see my awakening to this longing in my soul as my awakening to a conscious life, a second birth. I see it as the fuel that drives my ongoing quest for greater understanding and for ecstatic experience. I see this longing behind my other deepest longings. I see it behind my images; I hear it behind my words. I see this longing before me, before I was, and before I become. My goal is not the end of longing; the holy longing itself is my guide.
Perhaps you, too, feel a yearning beneath your other yearnings that gnaws at you, despite the fulfillment of so many other desires. Perhaps you also fled the traditional religion of your childhood and, like me, joined an alternative community hoping to find spiritual values and practices that would deepen your inner life. Or you may continue to be a believer but find yourself in exile from the traditional forms in which your faith is expressed. Or you may have suffered spiritual or religious abuse and disillusionment at the hands of teachers or clergy, resulting in a loss of faith, hope, and trust.
And yet. . .your holy longing stirs. You feel a restless desire for something more, but you lack the words and images to describe your quest.
I have found in my counseling work with hundreds of clients that this essential yearning – a secret feeling with many disguises — lies hidden at the source of each person’s life story. It is the seed of a soul’s desire, which spurs us to take certain actions, which in turn evoke more desire and again more action.
We respond, even unknowingly, perhaps by pursuing a romantic union that we imagine will fulfill our deepest needs. Or we seek a spiritual communion with a mediator for the divine, in a twinship that promises to surpass human limits. Or we serve a fellowship community, a dedicated group of believers who form a surrogate family in which we feel at home. In this way, the obscure object of our longing, like a hidden compass, determines the course of our lives, pointing us in its direction. And our life story unfolds, invisibly shaping our destiny from moment to moment.
With spiritual shadow-work, we can uncover some of the invisible images at the center of the archetype of holy longing, the fantasies of the soul longing for the divine. Together, they help to account for our indescribable yearnings for something Other, something beyond the bounds of ordinary life. Like Jung, who suggested that the gods are in our own souls and appear to us spontaneously as archetypal images – the beloved parent, the beloved partner, the beloved home, the beloved teacher or god — I suggest that by contemplating our own sacred images of holy longing, we can uncover our own gods.
Is there a transcendent God blazing behind the image? That is a question for theologians and people of faith. I am not advocating a position here concerning the metaphysical reality of god. That is why I use the small “g” to indicate the divine image or imago dei as it lives within our souls and as it mobilizes uncanny power in our lives.
You can begin to detect the whispering call of your own soul. You can begin to acknowledge your longing and to reflect on it. You can explore what fuels it and what derails it, what ignites it and what numbs it.
You can discover the particular ways that you override your religious yearning by misplacing it onto concrete objects – sex, food, drugs, and alcohol. When you fail to discriminate between these “idols” and your true object of desire, you are left feeling forever frustrated and dissatisfied. In addition, you silence the urgent message of your soul and hear only the voices of distraction, addiction, and compulsion. Instead, you can learn to attune to your holy longing, to hear its echoes of the past and its portents of the future.
You also may become aware of the dark side of holy longing — the inherent pitfalls that can result when religious yearning goes awry. Countless recent headlines have highlighted the forces of destruction and annhilation that lie dormant in religious fundamentalisms and blind faith of all types – whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or new age. As a result, today we see the painful consequences of religious abuse and disillusionment on the faces of believers everywhere. I will attempt to shed light on this dark corner of religious life by exploring the roots of charismatic personalities, as well as those who are susceptible to them, and by uncovering universal patterns in spiritual abuse that can be used as wake-up calls for the purpose of prevention.
Clearly, the encounter with spiritual darkness throws believers into the fires of doubt. And these fires can either consume us or transform us. As Fyodor Doestoevsky put it, “The ideal passes through suffering like gold through fire.”
The work of recovery, which I call spiritual shadow-work, cannot save us from suffering. It is not offered as a solution to a problem. Instead, I suggest that when we enter the night sea journey, as Jung called it, we are not off the path; we are on it. In fact, we may be spot on it, right where we belong – ready to face spiritual shadow in ourselves or others.
If that is the case, then our disillusionment or loss of faith is an innate part of the inner journey. And our psychological work to recover our faith and to reclaim parts of ourselves that were sacrificed during periods of spiritual naievete is part of the larger spiritual task. In the same way that our cultural innocence was betrayed by the events of September 11, 2001, and our religious innocence was betrayed by the epidemic allegations of abuse by Catholic clergy, each of us undergoes the betrayal of our own naivete when we face the spiritual shadow.
We also must explore those parts of ourselves that we typically sacrifice in order to participate in a religious community or to obey spiritual doctrine. I suggest that by doing spiritual shadow-work we can reclaim those lost parts and, as the mystics of all traditions teach, develop through the stages of religious innocence toward a more mature spirituality.
By doing so, we can build bridges between our emotional and spiritual lives, which are all too often perceived as separate means for separate ends. Today the inner journey needs to include psychological growth, that is, ego development and shadow awareness, so that our spiritual practices can be augmented with the safeguards of psychology.
With spiritual shadow-work you explore the deeply felt desire for union with the divine in whatever faith or language it appears in you. This hidden yearning lies at the root of religious belief and faith. It is the heart of religion, not the mind. It is a feeling for the eternal, a taste of the infinite that sweetly lingers or emotionally seizes us with rapture or despair.
Religion, wrote William James, is the feelings, acts, and experiences of individuals as they stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine. Theologies grow out of these felt experiences, he added. And I suggest that it is the strength of these feelings of yearning and desire, longing and hope that determines the degree of our religiosity and the depth of our soul’s desire.
Spiritual shadow-work is not about the content of theological or philosophical beliefs. Instead, it examines the inner worlds of those who feel holy longing, the experience of the holy, which promises participation in the greater mystery. Therefore, as the inside story of religious longing, it cuts across denominations and links them to a more universal experience.
William James also wrote that as an individual grows in self-awareness, she may begin to be influenced by another dimension through a longing or desire for it: “There is an unseen order and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves [to it]. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul.”
This inherent need of the soul — to turn to face the holy and to be changed by an experience of it – is purposeful and meaningful, according to Carl Jung. It is an inborn striving to open our limited personal selves to the archetypal and transpersonal realms. Just as Freud posited a will to pleasure, Adler wrote of a will to power, Frankel advocated a will to meaning, and Maslow postulated a will to self-actualization, I suggest that there also lies within us a will to transcend, a longing for the eternal.
Although psychology is my lens, this book does not reduce spirituality to psychology or reduce the ineffable to words. Instead, I intend to use psychology to explore spirituality, rather than to explain it. I believe that our early personal histories and unmet emotional needs influence our adult spiritual quests and religious desires. They are a necessary part of our exploration, but not a sufficient explanation.
The same is true for biology. In the early part of the last century, before the advent of neuroscience, William James pointed out that “medical materialism” attributes St. Paul’s conversion to an occipital lesion due to epilepsy, St. Teresa’s ecstatic visions to hysteria, and St. Francis of Assisi’s asceticism to a bad gene. Today we know that there are neurobiological correlates to our emotional experiences, such as depression and anxiety. And there are brain correlates to heightened spiritual experiences as well.
In Why God Won’t Go Away, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg described using brain-scan technology to map the inner worlds of Tibetan Buddhists in meditation and Franciscan nuns in prayer. Whether the subjects called their experiences loss of self or unity with god, respectively, they felt a sense of transcendence when activity in the frontal lobes increased and activity in the parietal lobes (which define our feeling of orientation to a physical self) decreased. That is, when this latter area is deprived of information for drawing a line between self and other, we feel a sense of boundless awareness.
This machinery of transcendence can be set in motion by ritual behaviors such as chanting, singing, and drumming, as well as prayer and meditation. That’s why, Newburg concluded, god won’t go away even in our age of reason.
Hard-core rationalists may use this data to support the thesis that god is merely a perception generated by the human brain. Hard-core religionists might argue that these findings offer evidence that the brain is wired to experience the a priori reality of god. But I suggest that neuroscience has not explained away the mystery after all. Biological correlations are not the same as causes. The soul’s longing is embodied, perhaps even wired into the brain. But that doesn’t mean it’s caused by fleeting chemical events in the bodymind, even though it is reflected in those events. Thus the revelations of high-tech brain images can deepen, rather than dispel the mystery of god in the human brain.
I don’t romanticize spiritual experience by singing its praises and cleansing it of all dangers and darkness. Instead, I aim to acknowledge the pervasiveness and worthiness of our holy longing and to place it in the broader and deeper context of human evolution: you will see that your soul’s desire is not separate from the vastness of life, but that it participates as an innate and vital part of it.
The late archetypal psychologist James Hillman posed a guiding question: what does the soul want? He suggested that the soul wants something that is not what we think it wants. So, we seek that wrong thing – money, power, sex, food, alcohol, drugs – and turn up empty-handed. We are left, again and again, with the ineffable, the mystery. And our yearning burns in us.
Words – such as holy longing – evoke feelings and images that activate meaning for us. When I first saw those two words in the title of Goethe’s poem, I felt startled. He had found language to signify what I had always felt: my longing was holy; my longing was for the holy.
What does your soul want? Contemplating this question does not involve finding the object of our desire and satisfying our hunger, like being satiated after a rich meal. Rather, it means holding the tension of our longing, returning it again and again to our own souls, so that ultimately it may reveal its secrets. It means tracking spiritual desire like a faint footprint, not to trap an object but to catch its scent and follow it deeper into the landscape of the soul. Although at times it may be frustrating and even painful to hold the tension of your yearning rather than to submerge it, when you align with it you align with the force of evolution itself.