Q: It seems that the more open and aware I am, the more intense my suffering. For the last several months I have been experiencing a great deal of anguish. I find myself experiencing great longing and need that cannot be satisfied, especially by the human love that I have spent my life trying to secure. The deep knowledge that no one is going to save me can feel unbearable in bad moments, though I believe it is good and necessary for me to let go of this most cherished fantasy. How can I be kind to myself and my husband during this difficult time? Sometimes just dealing with the pain feels overwhelming, and I am tempted to punish him for it, as if it were his fault. Help. — ml, vancouver

A: M.L., I appreciate your beautiful and heartfelt question. I can understand it. While we all need ordinary things in our lives, like work and play and intellectual stimulation, and extraordinary things like love, the truth is, as you say, that at the ultimate level none of these things will satisfy us. Human longing is endless, and only something equally endless can satisfy it. This is why there is religion and all forms of spiritual practice — to engage our endless conceptual imaginations and longings and provide us with a venue for relieving our hearts. Only God can satisfy us, because God is that which is without boundary or ending. We find God (or enlightenment, Buddha, whatever you want to call it) eventually through our practice.

My experience is that this discovery doesn’t come all of a sudden, but gradually, through the course of our prayer and meditation, as we apply it to and deepen it with the events of our lives. Still, longing never ends. If we are alive there is always a limitation, and always a desire to go beyond limitation. But we can accept this — and even enjoy it. It is part of being human. The terrible pain that you describe, however, ends when we understand it for what it is, and when we feel met in it by what is beyond us. (This is one of the things I found in making my translations of psalms — how often the psalmist addresses God with the same sort of painful longing that you describe. See my Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms, Penguin Putnam, 2002).

Given all of this, your pain is very useful! It makes it clear to you that limited approaches will never satisfy. It forces you to go beyond them, to seek satisfaction in your spiritual path.

When you begin to see this and activate it in your life then something wonderful begins to happen: You begin to see that the satisfaction that practice brings is evoked in the very limited things that seemed previously to be so lacking for you. Of course it’s not your husband’s fault! You are right, though, that in the end he cannot provide you what you need. But as your practice develops, you will find that you can encounter the infinite through your relationship to him after all, as well as through many other things in your life. None of these things are the answer, but they can be openings to what’s beyond them. And that’s why you value them — and him. You are grateful for everything in your life, for each thing is a doorway to what’s beyond.

I hope these thoughts are helpful.

Yours in gratitude,

Zoketsu Norman Fischer