Monday, January 19, 2009

absence and longing

This is my first memory: a photo not of me. It was taken by a newspaper photographer when I was 31/2 years old. My absence is branded in my heart. The occasion was my father's swearing in as a judge to a labour court, with a fancy name: The Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. My father later became President of this court, and remained there until retirement at age 70. He was involved in and presided over cases of great significance to Australian history, such as equal pay for women; he was known for a period as "the hippie judge" because he wore bright ties and his hair touched his collar. He was knighted for his contribution to society, was often featured in the newspaper and made the front page of The Bulletin magazine in the 1970's.
In 1959, when he was appointed to the court, it was considered inappropriate to have a 3 year old child in the court room during the hearing; I might have made a fuss. Instead, I am told, I remained outside, cared for by the driver of my father's official vehicle. This is erased from my memory. What is startlingly clear, however, is the recollection of the newspaper feature the next day, this photo of happy family smiling from the page. Although details are lost, the memory of exclusion is vivid: this is my family, but I am not there. Amazing to me that such a momentary event - one photo - could have left such an imprint on a very small child.
Longing to be loved, feel secure and cherished is something familiar to many of us. We search for people, places, states of mind in which to feel held, happy. And sometimes we do lead lives of contentment and love, at least for a time. But even within that life, we may know moments of longing for something more, undefined.
The first essay I had published was titled "the hollow inside"; it explored my topsy turvy desire to have a child, to satiate a longing for love. In the essay, the perspective was that the longing was in fact not for a child, but caused by a perceived hollow inside that could be filled instead by some deep innate strength or knowing. Ironically, some years later I truly did yearn for a child, and spent years on a fertility program, living and re-living every month the painful loss of a child never borne. Tears and great anguish marked the moment that dream was finally relinquished and allowed to dissipate forever.
Jetsunma has spoken so beautifully and eloquently about this longing:

You were born with the longing to awaken. You were born with a longing to know your own nature, to taste that nature. You were born with a longing and a homing instinct to find your Teacher. You were born with a longing to find a pure path, and there were no words like that when you grew up.

This longing is the call of our heart, our primordial nature, to awaken to that which we truly are. But we have forgotten the language, we do not recognise its echo in our lives, and so we interpret that longing, that hollow, in different ways. Sometimes causing ourselves even greater pain, as we search for happiness in all the wrong places, or numb ourselves with transitory pleasure.

That great compassion is never absent, it cannot be. It pervades every breath, every blink of our eye, every moment. We may look at the snapshots of our lives and imagine something is missing, but if we open our minds and turn just a fraction, we can glimpse the truth for which we have unknowingly be searching. And if we recognise our Teacher and surrender to that truth, the potential is even more potent.

Things are not the same as in 1959. Some years ago, my brother was sworn in as a judge to a labour court, I think one which replaced my father's court. His second son was also very young, just as I had been, but he was allowed to attend the ceremony. When he saw my brother on the bench, I am told, he cried out with joy, "That's my daddy!" Far from expressing displeasure, people smiled at the happiness and pride of a small child for his father.

Each and every one of us will lead lives filled with landmarks, seared into our memory. Some painful, others a reflection of great joy. But hidden within all of these - good and bad - is always that longing, that echo, that possibility to know the vastness of compassion alive in our hearts. And when we do awaken, we will surely recognise that the longing and absence were simply mistaken views of a photograph of something we held to be true, but which never was.