How long this deep loneliness had haunted me I don’t know. I only became consciously aware of my inner self when I was about fifteen, and have few memories of how I felt as a child. Probably I repressed many feelings. I remember as a teenager at boarding school feeling very separate, unable to join in. After I came to the group these feelings were again surfacing, together with the impression that those around me in the group had an ability to relate, to be together in friendship, that was somehow denied to me.
There were two sides to these feelings. One was a deep inner aloneness in which I was quite content with my own company. I have always liked myself, and later in life was astonished to discover that many people do not like themselves. I have since wondered how someone can live with herself if she does not like herself. Because we see only through our own eyes, conditioned by our own character, other people’s problems are often a mystery. But my own aloneness also carried an arrogance, a feeling of superiority to those around me. This arrogance was not just compensation for feeling separate, but egotistic pride. My first years on the path when I was unable to sleep, unable to eat ordinary food, unable to join in with others, was a time of painfully grinding down this arrogance, teaching me the wisdom of humility and being ordinary.
But there was another aspect to this aloneness which I remember surfacing with my teenage years. I felt unable to participate in superficial social interaction. This was partly an adolescent rebellion against my middle-class background with its codes of superficial talk and social politeness, in which, according to English custom, no feelings are ever expressed. But there was also a hunger for a real inner connection with something deeply meaningful. I could not accept the emptiness and superficiality I felt around me, and the only path was inward into aloneness.
I hungered for meaning, for relating from the depths, and at times I found this in individual relationships. My first girlfriend was partly Greek and did not have the English inhibitions about expressing feelings. Also our deep inner connection allowed a depth of relating beyond the level of personality. After she left me I was in deep despair and terribly alone. Then, within my meditation group I again found the intimacy of real friendship. However, even in the midst of this deeply nourishing friendship, I still carried a sense of being cut off, isolated. Often this isolation evoked a sense of despair, and I would think of going out and relating, being with people in order to fill the emptiness within me. But at the same time I instinctively knew that this door was closed—there was no point in picking up the phone. Even when I was together with friends whom I loved, after a time I would find myself exhausted and would withdraw.
Now I understand why I carry such a strong imprint of aloneness, how I need to be alone in order to live out my destiny. The mystical path is a one-to-one relationship with God, and as such demands a degree of aloneness that most people would find frightening. Ultimately the mystic needs to be free from any attachment; the lover must look only to the Beloved. The instinctual aloneness imprinted into the soul forbade me from becoming attached to the outer world. It had the effect of making empty any relationship that did not help bring me nearer to God. The ninth-century Sufi Dhû -l-Nû n tells a story which has always touched me:
I was wandering in the mountains when I observed a party of afflicted folk gathered together.
“What befell you?” I asked.
“There is a devotee living in a cell here,” they answered. “Once every year he comes out and breathes on these people and they are all healed. Then he returns to his cell, and does not emerge again until the following year.”
I waited patiently until he came out. I beheld a man pale of cheek, wasted and with sunken eyes. The awe of him caused me to tremble. He looked on the multitude with compassion. Then he raised his eyes to heaven and breathed several times over the afflicted ones. All were healed.
As he was about to retire to his cell, I seized his skirt.
“For the love of God,” I cried. “You have healed the outward sickness; pray heal the inward sickness.”
“Dhû-l-Nûn.” he said, gazing at me, “take your hand from me. The Friend is watching from the zenith of might and majesty. If He sees you clutching at another than He, He will abandon you to that person, and that person to you, and you will perish each at the other’s hand.”
So saying he withdrew into his cell.
Infinite longing and the feminine
The path of love takes us from our own aloneness into an embrace which fulfills our deepest need. In my aloneneness I have felt unbelievable nearness, such intimacy, love, and belonging that any sense of separation dissolves—walking, feeling His companionship, going to bed to know that He is waiting to take me to Him. I have almost felt guilty, wondering why I am being given so much. I know that the Friend wants me for Himself, could never allow another to come between us. But I also remember the times in the desert, the agony of isolation, the desolation of loneliness. Even when I was deeply in love, entranced by Her beauty, the soul’s hunger was also present, underlying every physical embrace. Reading through a book of old poems I discovered a few lines that I wrote at the time, words that speak of the painful solitariness of a wayfarer seeking what cannot be found, knowing that the journey is infinite and the real Beloved beyond reach:It was not really because he was lonely, but just there seemed to be an ocean without end.
Longing is the mark of the lover, the soul’s song of separation. Deeper than any worldly loneliness is the sense of separation that haunts the mystic, the separation of the soul from the Source, the lover from the Beloved. Looking back, I know the journey is worthwhile because I now know what awaits the traveler. But then there was no such knowledge and the path seemed to stretch forever, the goal just a distant dream beyond the horizon. All I knew was my need and the sense that no one person could answer it. I wanted what the world could not give, and this evoked a quality of aloneness beyond imagining.
Yet I was also in love and at times deeply happy. There is no contradiction, because just as there are different degrees of closeness so are there different qualities of aloneness. On a human level, as a man, as a lover, I had found my heart’s desire. I had found the one woman whom I would love for the rest of my life, the one person with whom a certain closeness and intimacy would be allowed. But if I looked closely I also knew that this was not enough, that I longed for a deeper and more complete union than could ever be reached with another person. And I came to know that Anat shares this stamp of the mystic, that she can never give herself completely to anyone but the Beloved. For both of us something pointed beyond what was given, towards the innermost chamber of the heart that belongs only to God.
In every human relationship, however close and loving, there are always two. The mystic is born with a memory of a different love in which there is only oneness, in which lover and Beloved are united forever. In a human love-affair we sense this possibility. In the deepest human relationship there can be a meeting of souls, a sense of intimacy that is beyond the physical. To experience this for the first time is intoxicating. Making love is more than physical orgasm, for one merges into the beyond, into the infinite inner space which feels like the cosmos itself. Physical closeness becomes a doorway to the inner worlds, to mysteries which have always belonged to the feminine. These were part of the mysteries taught in the temples of the goddess, whose priestesses were trained to initiate a man into the sacred spaces of the feminine. In the moments of merging, of being taken beyond oneself, it seems as if an ancient promise is being fulfilled, that we are being touched by finger of our Beloved. There is also a sense of real wonder that a human lover, a physical embrace, can take us into this inner ecstasy.
But there is also a danger for the wayfarer, and I think in particular for a man. The world of the Great Goddess is in essence a world of unconsciousness, the instinctual round symbolized by Orobouros, the serpent eating its tail. Every man has a primal pull to return to this unconscious oneness, the archetypal world of the mother from which he feels banished. There is a reason why, in primitive cultures, at puberty the boy has to leave the women’s hut or the home of his mother, never to return. The feminine mysteries hold the instinctual attraction of returning to the unconscious oneness which allows us to lose the burden of consciousness. I found this pull almost irresistible. To lose myself in a woman whom I loved was like a doorway to eternal childhood, to be forever in the arms of the Great Mother. There I could receive the nurturing and warmth I had always desired, and every instinct would be fulfilled.