Last revised: 5 April 2008
What keeps us moving ever onward toward God?
As we journey outwards from God and into the world and then away from the world and back to God, what ensures that we continue moving in the right direction?
The sages say that we are driven onward by a kind of homing device - a low-level, steady, and eternal thirst, an undying but sub-sensible yearning which a considerable number of the enlightened masters are very familiar with. I consider it to be another design feature of life.
This thirst or yearning operates on us continuously, but so subtle is its impact and so powerful are our desires that we often misinterpret it and think that we are longing for a relationship or an experience connected with the material life of the body and the mind. Thus misinformed, we seek one relationship or experience after another in an endless cycle of desiring, acquiring and experiencing. Yet none of our acquisitions or experiences finally satisfy that endless longing. And this is as it should be because that endless longing can only be satisfied by spiritual union with God and not by anything material.
The masters use various terms to denote it. In these pages, I follow the Hindu Vedantist Shankara’s lead by calling it "the longing for liberation." He describes it thus:
[The] longing for liberation is the will to be free from the fetters forged by ignorance -- beginning with the ego-sense and so on, down to the physical body itself -- through the realization of one's true nature. (1)
Realizing one's own true nature is another way of saying uniting with God. We have seen that realizing ourselves is the purpose of life. Therefore, the longing for liberation is only satisfied when we realize the purpose of our lives. Nothing else affords us final relief. We may be temporarily satisfied by the thrill of falling in love, exploring a new locale, or acquiring a new possession, but the longing for God will reassert itself and we will find ourselves again dissatisfied.
Shankara was a Hindu from India; Pseudo-Dionysius, living around two centuries earlier, was a Christian from Greece. But Pseudo-Dionysius also knew this phenomenon. He tells us that “all things long for" God. (2) Their longing, if properly understood, is for the spiritual and not for the material:
It is a strong and sure desire for the clear and impassible contemplation of the transcendent. It is a hunger for an unending, conceptual, and true communion with the spotless and sublime light, of clear and splendid beauty. Intemperance then will be an unfailing and unturning power, seen in the pure and unchanging yearning for divine beauty and in the total commitment to the real object of all desire. (3)
Adyashanti is a contemporary American teacher. I have never heard him refer to either Pseudo-Dionysius or Shankara. Notwithstanding, he knows the longing. He calls it the "impulse to evolve."
The impulse to be free is an evolutionary spark within consciousness which originates beyond the ego. It is an impulse toward the divine, unity, and wholeness. It is an impulse originating from the Truth itself. This impulse to evolve is often co-opted by the ego, which then creates the illusion of the spiritual seeker. This impulse, which is inherently innocent, is something, which in and of itself, has nothing to do with any seeking to attain. It is only when the ego co-opts the impulse and then tries to attain something that the seeker is born. This impulse, this spark of evolution, becomes almost instantly corrupted by a wanting which gives birth to the seeker. (4)
To my way of thinking, it is vital that we understand how this longing operates or we can easily mistake its pull for something else. Without that understanding, we will find ourselves in relationships we find we never truly wanted or with possessions that never quench our thirst. We will fall into the countless pits that people do who try to fill a spiritual void with material things.
Responding to our inner ache this way, we set in motion an endless cycle of desire and spend countless lives trying to satisfy our cravings. We fail to realize what Pseudo-Dionysius called “the real object of all desire.”
Consumed with longing for God
One of the most ancient of spiritual texts, the Upanishads, says that God, who is our own true Self, will only make Himself known to the one who longs for Him.
The Self is not known through study of the scriptures; nor through subtlety of the intellect, nor through much learning; but by him who longs for him is he known. Verily unto him does the Self reveal his true being. (5)
If we wish the final consummation of union with God, we must fan our longing until we are nearly consumed by it. Says Shankara:
When renunciation and the longing for liberation are present to an intense degree within a man, then the practice of tranquillity and the other virtues will bear fruit and lead to the goal. (6)
Speaking from the fourtheenth-century, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing emphasizes that, if we are serious seekers, then nothing must be allowed to overtake the longing of our heart for God. Satisfying it must be our only concern.
Your whole life now must be one of longing, if you are to achieve perfection. And this longing must be in the depths of your will, put there by God, with your consent. ... Hate to think of anything but God himself, so that nothing occupies your mind or ever will but only God. Try to forget all created things that he ever made, and the purpose behind them, so that your thought and longing do not turn or reach out to them in general or in particular. Let them go, and pay no attention to them: it is the work of the soul that pleases God most. All saints and angels rejoice over it, and hasten to help it on with all their might. (7)
The nineteenth-century Avatar, Sri Ramakrishna, used many homely metaphors to awaken in his devotees that degree of yearning.
This yearning is like the state of mind of a man who has someone ill in the family. His mind is in a state of perpetual restlessness, thinking how the sick person may be cured. Or again, one should feel a yearning for God like the yearning of a man who has lost his job and is wandering from one office to another in search of work. If he is rejected at a certain place which has no vacancy, he goes there again the next day and inquires, “Is there any vacancy today?” (8)
Always he can be heard ending his talks or summarizing his teachings with an exhortation to long, yearn, or weep for God.
Nothing whatever is achieved in spiritual life without yearning. (9)
The gist of the whole thing is that one must develop passionate yearning for God. (10)
Can you weep for Him with intense longing of heart? Men shed a jugful of tears for the sake of their children, for their wives, or for money. But who weeps for God? So long as the child remains engrossed with its toys, the mother looks after her cooking and other household duties. But when the child no longer relishes the toys, it throws them aside and yells for its mother. Then the mother takes the rice-pot down from the hearth, runs in haste, and takes the child in her arms. (11)
If the devotee but once feels this attachment and ecstatic love for God, this mature devotion and longing, then he sees God in both His aspects, with form and without form. (12)
Is this the degree of longing that Jesus had in mind when he blessed those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” (13) or who “mourn: for they shall be comforted”? (14) Given that Jesus discussed only what belonged to God, and not to Caesar, could the people he is describing be thirsting for anything other than God and mourning for anything other than their separation from Him?
My soul fainteth for Thy salvation
Can we point to other examples of an intensely-yearning heart? Indeed, we can. There are many saints and sages from all ages and traditions who weep for God. All who have been touched by the Divine hunger for more.
O Lord (my) God, these two things I long for -- a Vision and a Talk with Thee. (15)
My soul fainteth for thy salvation....
Mine eyes fail for thy word, saying, When wilt thou comfort me? (16)
For we that are in this tabernacle [of the body] do groan ... that mortality might be swallowed up of life. (17)
When a deep consideration had from the secret bottom of my soul drawn together and heaped up all my misery in the sight of my heart; there arose a mighty storm, bringing a mighty shower of tears. ... I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig tree, giving full vent to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out, an acceptable sacrifice to Thee.
And ... I spake much unto Thee: And Thou, O Lord, how long? how long, Lord, wilt Thou be angry, for ever? ... Why not is there an hour to end my uncleanness? ... I seized [the Bible], opened, and in silence read that section, on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in spite and envying, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in concupiscience. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away. (18)
Blessed Henry Suso (of himself)
When I sang these venerable words sursum corda at mass, it usually happened that my heart and soul dissolved in tearful longing for God, a longing that immediately caused my heart to flee out of itself. (19)
At this same time an immense fire was sent into his soul that inflamed his heart utterly with love of God. (20)
Sri Ramakrishna assures us that, when we can match these profoundly-yearning devotees of God, we too will surely see Him.
He who from the depth of his soul seeks to know God will certainly realize Him. He must. He alone who is restless for God and seeks nothing but Him will certainly realize Him. (21)
After the dawn out comes the sun. Longing is followed by the vision of God. (22)
We now know how to look upon this eternal yearning in our hearts. Let us take our next step on the endless journey of enlightenment: What is the one indispensable move we must make to bring us onto the straight and narrow path to illumination and liberation?
For full details on these sources, see “Bibliography.”
(1) CJD, 36
(2) CWPD, 54.
(3) Ibid., 151.
(4) IA, 3.
(5) UPAN, 19.
(6) CJD, 36.
(7) Anon., CU, 52-3.
(8) GSR, 96.
(9) GSR, 96.
(10) Ibid., 183.
(11) Ibid., 149
(12) Ibid., 173.
(13) Matthew 5:6
(14) Matthew 5:4.
(15) GZ, 201.
(16) Psalm 119:81-2.
(17) II Corinthians 5:4.
(18) CSA, 170-1.
(19) SUSO, 79.
(20) Ibid., 70.
(21) GSR, 777.
(22) Ibid., 83