Can You Tell the Difference Between Wanting & Longing?

Something I’ve become aware of in recent months - and, full disclosure, that I am not at all proud of - is my tendency to turn to external things to soothe some kind of emotional hurt or emptiness or need. Sometimes it takes the form of what our society so casually refers to as “retail therapy” - buying new things as a form of comfort. Other times it’s emotional eating - burying my feelings in food, not because I’m hungry, but because snacking feels good. And not as often anymore, but still occasionally, it’s having a rough day and telling myself I “need” an alcoholic beverage in order to unwind and feel okay again. I know I’m not the only one. Why do we do this? I’m sure we all know that shopping trips and food and booze aren’t going to fix any problems. In fact, they’re more likely to exacerbate those problems. Still, we justify these behaviors - and society enables them. Buy this - it’ll change your life. Eat this - it’ll make you feel better. You need to have this. Right now. Don’t wait - you deserve it. You’ve had a rough day. Drink up. Treated as a one-off, these little moments of consumerist indulgence don’t look like much of a problem. But what about when these isolated incidents become a pattern of behavior? At that point, we’re looking to the physical world to solve problems rooted in the emotional realm - and that method simply isn’t going to cut it.

Since becoming aware of this tendency in myself, I have made a lot of progress in curbing my consumerist habits. I watch what I buy much more closely, and I have drastically limited my alcohol intake, often opting for a cup of hot tea instead when I want to feel soothed. I also try to practice intuitive eating, which is really hard for someone who’s spent her life mindlessly eating her feelings, but all I can do is my best.

That said, there are still times when I succumb. How can you not, after all, when you go to Target to buy toilet paper and dish soap - oh Target, how I love you and loathe you, simultaneously - and all these beautiful colorful things are winking at you from the shelf, whispering at you seductively, asking you to please, pretty please, just take them home? How can we resist the temptation - temptation that was very intentionally created by experts who have spent their careers perfecting the science of desire and the subsequent release of dopamine in the brain when we give in to it?

How can we opt out of that daily post-work drink when we live in such an alcohol-riddled culture? You guys, it’s 2019, and it still seems like a revolutionary idea to quit drinking alcohol simply because it doesn’t serve us. I used to believe the only reasons to get sober were A) crippling alcoholism or B) debilitating health problems. It never occurred to me until recent years that some people may choose to abstain from alcohol, rather than be forced to. And why would it have occurred to me? I’m only a product of the culture I was raised in - a culture which leads us all to believe alcohol is a necessary ingredient in the pursuit of fun and relaxation.

What it all comes down to is the wanting. We want so many things, every day of our lives, and we spend a lot of time, money, and energy trying to satisfy the cravings. We want, want, want, so often paying little attention to what we actually have. My focus, for the last several months, has been to curb the wanting - a process which has proved quite difficult.

I’m part of a meditation circle that meets regularly, and during a guided meditation earlier this week, the moderator invited us to visualize all our longing. After class, I kept thinking about the word - longing. Compared to longing, wanting seems shallow, weak, and impulsive.

A thought occurred to me: what if, when I find myself wanting something, I asked myself if I am truly longing for it?

When I think about the things I long for, something happens in my body and my mind. I feel instantly relaxed, and a sense of peace and joy comes over me.

I long for a vacation home in Italy, and when I close my eyes and picture this, it becomes so real I can almost feel the warmth of the Tuscan sun on my skin and hear the clucking of nearby chickens (because of course there will be chickens).

I long for a completely clutter-free space in which to create, and when I imagine it, the whirring in my brain stops, I experience a sense of calm, and I can even feel the cool, refreshing breeze blowing in through the open window, white curtains fluttering gently.

I long to travel the world, and when I allow myself to daydream of it, I feel adventurous and abundant and expansive, full of so much gratitude for the incredible experiences I’ll have.

I know what longing feels like. My body, my mind, and my spirit have all experienced it. Longing is visceral. It comes from a place of possibility, abundance, and opportunity. Wanting, on the other hand, is momentary, superficial, and rooted in a lack mindset.

Am I actually longing for that gin and tonic?

How about that set of adorably mismatched dip bowls that would look so cute in the china cabinet?

The fast food lunch that will be quicker and easier than going home and cooking?

No, no, and no.

This, then, is my new process when I find myself tempted to succumb to want. I will ask myself the simple question:

Do I really long for this? Or do I merely want it?

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© 2020 by Ali Owens​