February 4, 2021

Maitri: a Tool to help us Cope with that All-Pervasive Longing.

cope with our loneliness

It’s a Sunday evening, after a busy, productive week.

It’s been a good week, largely free of demons. But as this day winds down, it sets in: the longing.

It’s been building since Friday night, creeping in around the edges of my conscious perception. Saturday’s day-long hike through the majesty of old-growth Redwoods kept it at bay as I soaked in the serenity and wisdom of those ancient beings.

But now I’m looking down the barrel of another evening alone in my RV—with Netflix, Facebook, and my bass as my only companions—and the longing hits me like my bones are made of steel and a giant magnet is irresistibly pulling me…somewhere. Anywhere but here.

I’m currently taking Elephant Journal’s Maitri course, learning to accept myself—all of myself—with loving-kindness. The longing was my main motivator for signing up; I need to slay this demon once and for all, or rather, make peace with it.

In the first class, I asked how to deal with the longing, particularly the physical aspects of loneliness, when the craving for the feeling of a soft, warm body pressed against mine is so all-pervading it makes my teeth ache.

Waylon Lewis, Elephant’s Editor-in-Chief, answered something about how once I get through it, I’ll be better able to actually have a relationship, and pointed me to a couple of articles on how loneliness is good, from a Buddhist perspective. They’re all articles I’ve read before, and words that make sense intellectually, but they have yet to sink down and affect my subconscious, the elusive source of these unbidden desires.

The message I took away: lean into it. We’ve all heard these lessons before, we know the concepts, and the theories behind them, but how do we actually put them into practice?

This time I’m f*cking determined. I’m not going back down the road of re-activating my OkCupid account and spending hours mindlessly scrolling through profiles. That has never done me any good.

I’m going to face this motherf*cking longing head-on: the gate is shut, we’re locked in a cage match now, and only one of us is coming out alive.

More words come back to me, from Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright—a fascinating book I recently re-listened to. Wright describes the process of leaning into a strong emotion: we can allow ourselves to fully, deeply feel, and examine the emotion. What is the “texture” of the sensation, how exactly does it feel—sharp, dull, aching, diffuse? Where in the body do we feel it?

So I sink into the longing, open myself to it completely, instead of holding it at arm’s length while desperately searching for something else to distract me.

I surrender to it. Where do I feel it? All along the front of my body. I imagine spooning with a lover, that deliciously warm feeling of her body tucked in against mine like two perfect circles intertwined. My skin tingles in a mix of anticipation and remembered sensation.

There’s also a deeper feeling of warm, utter contentment in those perfect moments—especially after lovemaking—when the bliss of cuddling envelopes us in unconditional euphoria.

For a brief instant, the memory and the longing are one, single, absorbingly profound physio-emotional sensation, engulfing my being like an exploding sun…and then it breaks. I emerge through the other side and the longing subsides.

Whoa, that was intense. But the miraculous part: now, I actually feel better.

Emotions arise when something in our subconscious is trying to bubble to the surface. If we fully embrace the emotion, instead of repressing it by distracting ourselves, then it evaporates. When we give our complete attention to an emotion, then it has done its job and can flitter off into the ether, instead of constantly fighting to rise to the surface of our conscious attention.

My subconscious has been trying to send me a message: what I am really craving is that sensation of complete contentment, those moments when everything feels okay. Cuddling, especially with one particular ex, often brought that sensation.

But that wasn’t enough for me. Even in that relationship, when I was living with her and had easy access to that sensation, I was still dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the relationship, and with life in general.

That’s the thing about the subconscious: it’s supremely wise in some ways, yet kinda dumb in others. It can’t see the big picture. It fills me with this all-consuming desire for her, but the conscious part of my mind knows that will not really fulfill me.

We just keep going in cycles, craving something, desiring something, desperately seeking it out.

But then the gratification of getting that thing is fleeting at best, and then we fall back into desiring something else. This is one of the main ideas Wright presents in Why Buddhism is True, that our brains are programmed by evolution to intensely desire stuff, but also programmed to quickly become dissatisfied with it. Our ancestors who constantly desired more stuff were driven to gather more resources and have more offspring, thereby propagating this tendency of craving and dissatisfaction. (I discuss this idea in more detail in this video.)

But that’s the message I’ve been missing in my spiritual journey so far, that we can’t “conquer” desires, we need to lean into them instead, surrender to them, allow ourselves to fully feel them and uncover the root, the message our subconscious is sending us.

Instead of denying our hidden urges, pretending they’re not there, we must embrace them, accept with loving-kindness—maitri.

It’s now five days later as I’m finishing up this article, five days of feeling freer than I have in a long time. I’m sure I’ll need to repeat this exercise in the future, with the longing and with other subconscious drives, but with this newfound tool of maitri and the enforced isolation of COVID-19, perhaps moving forward, I can hold on to this awareness instead of slipping back down into a samskara. Stay tuned to find out what happens.

For a video on this topic, check out this clip from my recent mindfulness class:

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