I’ve always been fascinated by the stories friends tell of the odd food cravings they got while pregnant. These cravings may be for things that they normally don’t enjoy or for unusual food pairings (like pickles and ice cream) or even for things that they would not normally considering eating (like the story I heard of someone craving dirt while pregnant).
I am fascinated by the stories partly because I have never been pregnant, so I have never experienced such cravings. But I am also fascinated by the specificity of the cravings these friends report. I am well familiar with that sharp edge of craving, but my cravings are too amorphous to identify and name. I hear these stories of specific craving with a bit of envy, wondering what it would be like to know with such certainty what it was that I desired.
I find myself suddenly encountering this sharp edge of craving, of longing, in the oddest moments. For example, as I was driving to work this morning, I was admiring the panoply of vivid colors streaking the sky at sunrise and the faint haze of morning fog blanketing the fields of snow leading down the river as I crossed over it. The beauty of the moment took my breath away. And there it bloomed in a split-second: that knife-edge of longing for something that I cannot even name.
This burst of longing is almost painful in its intensity, and I often feel driven to do anything in my power to satisfy it. But it’s hard to satisfy an unnamed longing for I know not what.
I’ve spent many years trying to assuage this longing through numbing it, distracting myself from it, or by trying to fill the bottomless hole with any and everything I can imagine. I’ve tried alcohol. I’ve tried food. I’ve tried burying myself in books. I’ve tried shopping. Most of all, I’ve tried relationships, trying to fill the hole with friendships and the company of people, whether in person or virtually (like Facebook). None of these work in any lasting way. At best, they dull the sharpness in the moment.
I’ve gradually learned to try something new. As I did this morning when that longing arose, I first stopped to notice what exactly I was feeling. I felt it in my body, and I named it for what it was: longing. The very act of stopping to pay attention began to soften the sharpness of it already.
Next, I asked myself what it was I wanted. I had no answer (I never do), but I pushed on to try to brainstorm different possibilities and noticed my reaction to those idea. I tried imagining all kinds of potential sources for the longing I was feeling: a need for more beauty in my life, a desire for more time in nature, a wish for the freedom from schedules to be able to stop in the moment and just watch the sunrise. None of those felt like the true source of the longing, but the continued attention to and engagement with what I was feeling continued to soften it.
By the time I arrived at work, it had softened enough that I could just embrace it as it was—without that painful edge to it—and move forward into my work day, where it slowly faded away.
It struck me later in the day as I was remembering it that perhaps what I’m really craving in those moments is for some compassionate attention from me. If this is so, it is ironic that I spent so many years reacting to it by avoiding the very thing I was longing for.
What I do know is that this new approach is making a difference. I am less likely to engage in numbing or distracting behaviors. I make better choices (for example, when shopping) that cause less suffering later. I feel clearer and more in touch with my own life.
I may never know what I am truly craving, so I may never be able to satisfy that longing when it comes to visit. But treating myself with compassionate awareness in those moments makes that bearable.
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