It was in childhood that I had my first taste of a lifelong longing I have come to know well.
From age seven, I lived near a honeysuckle-dappled “lonning” – the Cumbrian term for a short lane. Leaving behind the town with its ubiquitous school and factory so common to the Northern England landscape, I entered Cuddy – as it was known locally – and began to run. The lane dropped steeply, and I thrilled in the sense that I might either take off or be engulfed by the grass-split tarmacadam.
Coming to a standstill at the bottom of the hillside, I would gaze down the hedged and nettle-rich lonning towards a view of the mountainous shoulders of Skiddaw. In this place, the intense magnetic tug of the known of the town countered the mystery of the mountain – a tension that many of my peers whose families had lived in the town and worked in the factory for generations felt acutely.
It was here that I first became aware of a dull, fluttering ache within – what C.S. Lewis called “the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.”
For me, whose family was an import to the area, it was a precursor to the tension I would later feel between my past, current and future selves. Each self sensing and longing for a phantom version of the other selves, either shadowing or foreshadowing the layers of who I had been and would yet be, overlapping in close proximity.
“This longing, too large for heaven and earth, fits easily in my heart.”
In walking the path of life, I have delved further into the mystery of these longings – a continual theme of tension between separateness and connection, within and between self, others and the world. While in many ways I am beautifully connected, there remains a hunger – a greediness for more – within me.
I’ve had glimpses – a sliver – of this deeper connection through visceral experiences.
As an athlete, I would find it in the intensity of physical training and competition. Everything slowed and the sense of being anchored to my body faded, so I felt both stillness and flowing energy in the same moment.
Giving birth with the support of hypnosis, I again experienced that sense of losing my body. A folding out, as I became part of the room and connected to the everything.
In witnessing and supporting the process of death with my father, there it was again. I could feel him reaching out, before he turned to look me straight in the eyes with an expression of euphoria.
My regular, spontaneous experiences of sleep paralysis included out-of-body moments. I separated from my body, which remained on the bed unable to move as another part of me floated above. Although at first this sensation was scary, the rejoining was ecstatic, leaving everything multicoloured and connected to the energy of the world for days.
The longing feels like a buzzing, an intermingling of gratitude and awe.
It strikes in everyday moments – when I feel and smell the breeze while hanging out washing, or driving into the evening light with mountains ahead of me. In Tanzania, I felt it when walking in the rainforest, or drifting off to sleep in my home in the Usambara Mountains to the chirping of cicada and the echo of drums carried from distant villages.
Even now, I can step back from the noisy throng of family, friends or colleagues at an event and find stillness in the hubbub of music and voices. From this place of quiet, I observe in appreciation of those around me.
In these everyday moments of awe and gratitude, I am connected with something bigger. It is related to what psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt described in their 2003 paper on awe – a sense of vastness simultaneously combined with a feeling of connectedness to others.
The mystery continues to unfold, as I enter a stage of searching for understanding about connection and collective consciousness. This is partially propelled by life experiences, as well as training in ego development and certification in Leadership Maturity Coaching and MAP debriefing.
In a season laden with memory and expectation, these longings are pulled to the surface and reflected in my solstice reading, listening and viewing.
“Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”
• Matt Haig
These lines from The Midnight Library resonate, as I’m fascinated by developmental journeys as well as the metaphor of libraries, books and chapters representing people at differing stages of their lives. Exploring the stories of others and how they shift through every later-stage maturity meaning making holds deep connection for me.
“My consciousness expanded at an inconceivable speed and reached cosmic dimensions. I lost the connection with my everyday identity. There were no more boundaries or difference between me and the universe. I felt that my old personality was extinguished and that I ceased to exist. And I felt that by becoming nothing, I became everything.”
– Stanislav Grof
A recent intense breathwork experience at a retreat has me curious about Stanislav and Christina Grof’s work into Holotropic states of consciousness, described in Stanislav’s books The Way of the Psychonaut: Volumes One and Two.
The Holotropic technique derives from “holos” (whole) and “trepein” (to move toward) – moving toward wholeness, Breath is used to create a psychedelic experience without psychoactive substances. These explorations inspire questions in me about how the inner spiritual quest might support collective consciousness, and a greater capacity to lead through more complexity together.
Questions arise about how much of this experience is embedded in the innermost workings of our brains.
“Religious belief, like any belief, is a phenomenon of the human mind and therefore of the human brain. Like all of our mental experiences, it emerges from the electrical and biochemical activity of our immensely complex neural circuitry.”
• John C. Wathey
My curiosity sparked again in listening to an interview with John C. Wathey, author of The Phantom God: What Neuroscience Reveals about the Compulsion to Believe. Research speaks to the sense of believers that they are in the presence of God, which reveals itself to be a ‘mother-shaped phantom.’ As vulnerable newborns, we are hard-wired to depend on a responsive, nurturing parental figure – a need that fires up the nucleus accumbus within the brain. In adults, the same neural circuitry lights up In moments when we feel deep connection to God.
This “mother-shaped phantom” speaks to me specifically. While an atheist, my longing for deeper connection to others and the universe also connects to the profound desire to be connected to others in the same expansive ‘soul’ way I was with my father.
Looking at this urge from a scientific perspective, Wathey compares it to turtles who innately search for the light on the beach to find the sea. What lights up this ancient neural circuitry? The activity of the nucleus accumbus is tied to an instinctive quest for connection. in which some find God, some find addictions and some (like me) collect unusual experiences and small everyday moments of awe.
The sense of differentiation and separation is part of vertical development. We explore possibilities of how we can assimilate and become one again, with both physical and ego deaths as an apparent doorway.
For me, the quest for wonder, connection and even awe will be lifelong – a search for moments like that childhood recollection of the place where the known and unknown compel in equal measure. In coming together to explore individual and collective themes of the simultaneous contracted smallness of being human with internal expansiveness, we gather in relationship to glimpse the infinite.
As director of Novalda,Kerry Woodcockdevelops core, collective and change leadership capacity in leaders, teams and organizations.