The Nothing Place: Searching for Mother

The most important question a person can ask is, “Is the Universe a friendly place?”

—Albert Einstein

Yesterday I went to the beach and felt the hypnotic allure of the immensity of the ocean stretched before me. I was struck by the paradox of feeling so insignificant amid the vastness of life, yet so significant in the mysterious privilege of inhabiting my own unique, intimate part of the whole. I grew quiet as I listened to the wonder, longing, and anxiety of my heart, and articulated these feelings as questions I silently prayed to the universe: “Am I safe? Do I belong? Can I trust? Am I home? Can I let go?”

As someone abandoned by three mothers, one biological and two adoptive, my life has been marked by the relentless search for mother. Fundamentally, this search is a spiritual quest. After all, from whom are we first meant to learn that the universe is safe, welcomes and responds to us in our needs and hungers, lovingly includes us, invites us to let go and trust that we are held, that we are at home, if not our mothers? Because I lack this primal experience of maternal welcome, cherishing, and holding, and hence, because I inhabit the Nothing Place—a foundational sense of radical estrangement from anything that could tether me to the world and to other people—the urgency and challenge of this quest is amplified a hundredfold. At root, my body doesn’t know how to surrender in trust. At root, letting go of the thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and images that constitute my sense of self can feel like a life-threatening descent into annihilating chaos. And yet I must press on, always interrogating, always seeking:  “Is it safe for me to exist, to simply be? Am I meant to be here? Can I trust you, trust me, trust life?”

For me, the occupational hazard of being a spiritual seeker in the Nothing Place has been the persistent, compelling attraction of spiritual bypassing. Because the world seems to offer so little nourishment, because I can feel so radically excluded from the world, I have often sought refuge from the world and the concerns of ordinary life in spiritual pursuits. For instance, when I learned to meditate in my early twenties, I wasn’t satisfied with integrating meditation into the life I was already living. Rather, I had to make meditation a life-choice in itself by living in meditation centers and monasteries. Whatever authentic aspirations lay behind these decisions, in hindsight I have no doubt that, in spending hours, days, and weeks on a meditation cushion, I was fleeing from the world that baffled, overwhelmed, and intimidated me. I felt completely incompetent to enter the stream of life in a satisfying way in the constant rub of relationships, work, and the need to make committed decisions, especially when I had never experienced being valuable enough to someone to be worthy of their commitment. I floated through life, utterly untethered. Meditation and spiritual practice at least held out the hope that, if I couldn’t find myself in the world, I could possibly find relief from the ceaseless press of suffering and futility by going within. But I was wrong.

The unbearability of the Nothing Place lies not only in that the world feels unreachable, unattainable, but that reaching out in itself feels transgressive. I was not wanted, therefore, who am I to want, to need? How dare I burden the world now by reaching out for help, companionship, belonging, purposeful engagement? As if there is an invisible border between me and the world, and my attempts to cross it are met with the threat of the fiercest of punishments—total, humiliating, crushing abandonment. Yet there is no way forward, no way to wholeness, belonging, and safety—to a sense of home—without making the perilous journey across this border.

At times in my work with my therapist, I have felt the presence of this border and literally have to stop and ask her, “Is it really okay for me to need you?”  Surely I must be too much for you? Surely you must think I’m disgusting, repulsive in my need? Can you really want me, care about me? Am I pushing you away? Do you already have one foot out the door?—a nauseating spiral of doubt that can feel like drowning in an abyss. As frightening as this can be, the path to healing in the Nothing Place is precisely learning to enter this borderland between me and the world, this consuming wound of no-attachment, to learn to sustain powerful feelings of shame, hunger, rage, and terror, and most importantly, to give these feelings voice and expression and receive a nurturing response in a safe, loving relationship. In this way, I begin to integrate the vital parts of me that got left behind, that couldn’t live, couldn’t enter the world without a mother. As I allow myself to be accompanied in these places of terrifying vulnerability, I finally begin to experience the world as safe, welcoming, trustworthy, as home. Through this deepening person-to-person trust in the places that hurt the most, I begin to unravel the suffocating tension in my body that inhibits me from surrendering to the loving intelligence I still believe births, sustains, unifies and indwells all that is.

I haven’t given up on the spiritual quest, only updated my understanding of what makes for real growth and maturity. Today, I know of nothing more fulfilling or terrifying than working through my earliest attachment wounds with a wise, compassionate therapist. I know there is no direct path to the Divine Mother, to spiritual surrender, that bypasses healing within flesh-and-blood relationships. Thankfully, today I am not only searching but finding.

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