“Desire is primal. Desire is whole-body want, and desire is a yearning so formidable and precise that it is nearly a dream state, a vision of the yet-to-come so real that it is akin to faint but treasured memory” (-Danielle Dulsky, The Holy Wild)
I am writing this blog in November 2019, a week+ out from our new moon circle for Scorpio through the Wild Woman Project (theme: Streams of Longing), and in our Naperville circle, we examined the sacredness of longing and desire. Not just the latest toy or superficial materialistic acquisitions, longing is the language of the soul, guidance from those deep spaces of self. The mystics understood desires and longings as something to be acknowledged, explored, and as guideposts for soul work. To them, these longings could be whisper of ancestor – unfulfilled or to be continued longings echoing from the past. Or these longings could all be sourced from our deep need to belong – to self, to other, to community, to nature, to spirit (see writings of Toko-pa Turner, David Whyte, John O’Donohue).
Many religious traditions warn of desires and longings - they’re potential hooks, attachments, keep you from transcendence, inappropriate or sinful, etc. And there’s a subtle sexism here as the consideration of women and desire is often appropriated and hypersexualized, at least as I have experienced it as a cis-gender woman (*restoration of the sacredness of sexuality is important but it is worth noting that sex did not come up in circle*).
“Desire is one of our life forces. To deny desire or to want to cut it off is to deprive ourselves of an incomparable dynamic; it is to head toward becoming dried up and drained of life, the mark of so many of the ‘religious’” (-Daniel Odier, Desire)
Is this ^^^ why we are so disconnected from our deeper longings and desires? The dismissal of the importance of desire by the overculture? Guilt, shame, denial, fear of suffering? What are you longing for, if you really listen in? And when did you last ‘ask in’?
My soul-level desires took about a 2 weeks to isolate (along with a lifetime of bumping against). They are simple, yet solid: sanctuary, deep resounding presence, sobriety.
(‘Wait...what??? is she a drunk?’) No. But let’s start there.
“May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.” (John O’Donohue)
Sober curious (and the merging of sobriety, presence, and sanctuary)
There’s a movement on the fringes and gaining momentum - sober curious. The examination of casual (or more than casual) drinking and substance use. As a means of escape and dulling, superficiality, and potentially toxic self-care, it is rooted in sexism and racism, and doesn’t challenge the systems that make escape so needed and desirable (or worse, reinforces these systems). There are books, articles, and social media posts on this topic so I won’t reiterate their work here. (See resources list for a starting point).
Like most readers, I drank to unload after exams in grad school or release work demands at the end of the week or after a big work event. I drank to manage my empathy and anxiety. I drank to discharge the intensity of my kids. It’s been _____ days/weeks/months/years (insert: none of your business) since I drank. If counting days, weeks, months, years, motivates you, then great – keep doing it. To me, healing is not based on the accumulation of numbers; there is no ladder or ranking to healing. Each moment of avoiding the hook and standing ground in self is a small, brave victory.
When I drank, which historically was a spectrum of never to every weekend or something in between, I was a different person. Sensation and thought dulled, mind quiet, I’d be less available mentally and emotionally as a partner or parent, not listening or really noticing their needs or personhood, but instead noticing them as annoyances and disruptions from my low grade hum of escape. My body protested too. I’d wake up bloated, stomach upset after drinking. My sleep would be interrupted - drenched in sweat at 1 or 2am, I’d wake up after my blood sugar crashed from alcohol. Then I always hated myself in the morning - for missed connections with my partner or kids, for the numbness I chose, for the bloat and calories and slowness, dizziness, and stomach pains that made me feel uncomfortable in my skin for days following.
My spiritual self was impacted as well with drinking. Like a fogged the window or a jammed radio signal, when I consumed alcohol, my sensitivity to the spiritual is hampered, hazy, or completely silenced. As a shamanic practitioner, this disconnect is hugely significant: My spirituality is my home and tether, my source of belonging. With alcohol, I’m unmoored.
I drank to escape, but the escape comes with a price – paid for by body, mind, spirit. I want to cultivate and experience a life I didn’t need to run away from, while acknowledging the privilege here - the means I have to craft my own life to some extent and slip out from and avoid certain forms of systematic oppression that make life-crafting impossible for others.
What was I really desiring from and for my life? What need was being unmet that I wanted to avoid that question and drink to silence the discomfort?
Over a couple weeks of inquiry, I came up with a desire list and had to peel back layers of the superficial as I explored:
Time to read and write and exercise
(ok….all significant but still surface….. dig deeper)
Peace in the moment
Alive and Voltaic
Sanctuary of self, for self and Other.
(….there it is……)
“A desire is anything but frivolous. It is the interface between you and that which is greater than you. No desire is meaningless or inconsequential. If it pulls you, even a little bit, it will take everyone higher. Desire is where the Divine lives, inside the inspiration of your desire. Every desire is of profound importance with huge consequences, and deserves your attention” (-Mama Gena)
One of the meanings of sobriety, from the 1500s, is steadiness and gravity. Not limited to moderation, austerity, avoidance, or whatever you might understand sobriety to mean, it also means presence, groundedness. When I make the choice not to drink or escape via some other means or attentional drain, like social media, it is exactly that – steady presence. I.am.here. Showing up, fully, flawed, human tethered to and aware of my source. Sanctuary, grounded, and open. Home in body and moment. An act of bravery, courage, and heart because now I’m vulnerable to sensation, mine and that of others.
That is the soul-level reverberation that pulls me to alignment - the longing of and for presence. And I’m not in that space unless I’m sober. If ‘casual’ drinking knocks me off my center, un-grounds me, or kicks me out of sanctuary, than alcohol has no place in my life.
“anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you” (-David Whyte, Sweet Darkness)
And it is not just my longing to give: Longing for presence as a gift from others
I have had loved ones escape with consumption of self-altering substances to the point of intoxication the majority of times that we interact. To me, they become shadows of their full brilliance. Physically present but mentally, emotionally, spiritually absent. And with that, I become uncomfortable and restless - who am I talking to? The person or the alcohol? Will they remember my words or our time together? Am I not good enough? interesting enough? loving or loveable enough?, that they are still choosing escape, even with me here?
Those moments feel like minor infractions and small betrayals, unrequited presence and need and love, that collectively and internally, so deeply ache. The ache that makes me want to escape to match their absence, currently or from long ago.....but that’s the practice and the work of self, isn’t it? Not cutting and running, but feeling, allowing, reflecting, integrating, growing, bearing the weight when necessary, resiliency. Learning.....
Learning that presence is a gift. Offering full self to someone - your attention, your time, your physicality when the pressures are always keeping people distracted or in escape mode. That’s.something.worth.everything. Even if these are in small moments: Notice the moments of presence from others, collect them and savor them. Create these moments as well: Put the phone down. Skip the glass of wine. Turn off the TV. Turn on sensation and occupation. Light up, be electric, the flash of flare to others. Be attentive and devoted to the moment. Be sanctuary. For self and for others.
“Attention is the beginning of devotion” (-Mary Oliver, from Upstream)
Sanctuary - Caution: shedding humans ahead
"Wherever you may be, your life is sustained and supported by the whole universe. The main purpose of human life is to maintain this sanctuary. It is not to climb a ladder to develop your own personal life" (-Katagiri Roshi, quoted by Joan Halifax in Standing at the Edge)
Sanctuary – I wanted to be that because I needed it for myself. I longed for sanctuary for years – a safe space of being, a place to be imperfect yet seen and supported. I found spaces that approximated this but never.quite.fit. So I crafted my own, or more correctly, our own, because these spaces are not mine alone. A container for authenticity and self-discovery, processing, burning – all smoke and ash, gestating, birth and rebirth and revenants. A metaphoric cave for shedding and deliquescence, ‘womb and tomb’, telluric and earthy, and in all of this ^^^, so perfect for our Scorpio new moon. This is our Circle that we create as community once or twice a month. This is our yoga class. This is my shamanic practice and offer to self and clients. And to do these things, to be sanctuary and be in sanctuary, I have to offer the gifts of sobriety (steadiness) and full presence. (And, I am so deeply grateful to my community for receiving me and being present for me and my offerings, a reciprocity of longings and gifts – thank you)
Be the longing
“Instead of asking, ‘where do I belong?’ – a question that is based in shortage – consider reversing your definition of the word from a noun to a verb, in which belonging becomes a practice of generosity as in, “I belong myself to that which I love.” A wise teacher once told me that the greatest spiritual practice he knows is to discover what you are most missing in your life…and then give that thing away. In other words, take what little you have, which knows too little about everything big, and make of it an offering. Belong yourself to those who need you…..We are all looking for that presence in another which can shelter us, educe our own stories, make us feel through their engagement that we are necessary in this life. At some point we must come down off those waiting stairs and begin to act as if we are necessary” (-Toko-Pa Turner, Belonging)
Once you discover you longings and desires, be the longing, be Your longing. That is community care, living life as offering, and offering self in service and as sanctuary.
“There is a great longing within each of us. We long to discover the secrets and mysteries of our individual lives, to find our unique way of belonging to this world, to recover the never-before-seen treasure we were born to bring to our communities.” (-Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft)
~ Thanks for reading ~
Self-inquiry and contemplation: Questions for the reader
- What are your deepest longings? Do you allow yourself enough quiet, time, and space to listen for them?
- Do you know the longings of those closest in your life? If not, ask and explore.
- How can you desire without suffering?
- How have you cut off your desires and live less whole/holy?
- Is there an overarching feeling that you are chasing with your longings? As in, it might not be the materialistic goal, but a feeling you are after (see Danielle LaPorte’s Desire Map). What feeling are you seeking?
- Similarly, is your longing for love for or from a person? What if you explored that more – what are you really looking for? Intimacy, meaning, belonging? Can that be met by friends, nature, or does the desire truly need romantic connection?
- How are your ancestors’ desires impacting you today?
- What is your relationship to mind-altering substances like alcohol? Why do you use them? Would you know that edge where casual became addiction? Do you have to hit rock bottom to give up or moderate these substances? What does responsible relationship to substance look like to you? (IMPORTANT: it will be and should be different for all of us)
- What do you think of when you consider the words: sober, sobriety, sober-curious? Sobriety can mean moderation, to others, they have a firm view of abstinence only - what is yours? And how do hard definitions possibly limit the potential of people exploring sobriety?; that is, if individuals understand sobriety as abstinence only, will that limit those willing to try it? Or is a more generous view of sobriety enabling people to continue to "abuse" substances? (explore the book Beyond Addiction by J. Foote et al.)
- How is the consumption or refusal of escape-allowing substances political, radical, revolutionary? Spiritual?
“Look into the nature of desire, and there is boundless light” (-Padmasambhava, Tibetan yogi)
Resources for exploring desire: (All work below contributed to this piece, including the songs. What are ones that you would recommend?)
- To the Wife of a Heroin Addict (from my collaborative website and written by a dearest one) http://getwokecoven.com/to-the-wife-of-a-heroin-addict/
- Beautiful Chorus. Please Prepare Me (song) https://youtu.be/c16yBNhQuqU
- Brown, Adrienne Maree. Pleasure Activism
- City and Colour. Comin Home (song) https://youtu.be/c16yBNhQuqU)
- Dulsky, Danielle. The Holy Wild
- Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run With the Wolves
- Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. You Were Made for This http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=548
- Harjo, Joy. Desire (poem) https://words-end-here.livejournal.com/11719.html
- Laporte, Danielle. The Desire Map
- Morrison, Toni. It Comes Unadorned (poem) https://www.smudgedivorytower.com/2019/08/14/it-comes-unadorned-toni-morrison-poem/
- Pearl Jam. Breathe (song) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5bAawsa7_s
- Odier, Daniel. Desire: The Tantric Path to Awakening
- O’Donohue, John. Longing and Belonging. The Complete John O’Donohue Audio Collection (can be found on SoundsTrue)
- Oliver, Mary. Wild Geese (poem) http://rjgeib.com/thoughts/geese/geese.html
- Plotkin, Bill. Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche
- Tedeschi, Susan. Angel from Montgomery (song) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUSqw0jVZqQ
- Turner, Toko-pa. Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home
- Walker, Alice. Desire (poem) https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/desire-175/
- Whyte, David. Sweet Darkness (poem) https://onbeing.org/poetry/sweet-darkness/
Resources for exploring sobriety, sober curious, etc:
- Coulter, Kristi. Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink https://qz.com/762868/giving-up-alcohol-opened-my-eyes-to-the-infuriating-truth-about-why-women-drink/
- Foote, Jeffrey et al. Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change.
- Gray, Catherine. The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober
- Novotny, Scott. Racism and Substance Use: The Systematic Epidemic of Addiction https://addictionblog.org/treatment/racism-and-substance-use-the-systematic-epidemic-of-addiction/
- Whitaker, Holly. Hip Sobriety https://www.hipsobriety.com/ and the Tempest Sobriety School https://www.jointempest.com/ And https://www.thetemper.com/ Also find her on IG at @thetemper
- Podcast resources: https://www.thetemper.com/best-recovery-podcasts/
- Whitaker, Holly. Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol. Release date 12/31/2019
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT). All written work is copyright protected, please cite according. Pictures from our circles by https://www.janabluephotography.com/ For questions, comments, or collaboration, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: My writing is not meant to speak to all experiences, but to mine alone. This piece is not written in judgement of or to shame or "other" those who indulge casually in substance use or those who are ‘addicted’ (shaming around these issues needs to end - see the book Pleasure Activism for more information). We all have our own ways of being and our own work to do and gifts for this world (life is not one-size-fits-all). Your journey and mine are not supposed to be the same and what is medicinal or recreational for one person can be harmful or poison to another. I honor your experience and your journey. There is no place for shame here.
2 Replies to “Longing for Sanctuary: On Presence and Sobriety”
An inspirational read. It is always opportune to self-examine with open eyes and mind. Thank you dear one for leading.
And thank you, dearest one, for receiving – so much love for you.
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