Time spent alone doesn’t have to be lonely. Embrace it as a chance to connect with what’s truly essential.
When I was in seventh grade, the group of girls I hung out with stopped speaking to me. Every time they passed me in the hall, they would turn their backs and giggle. I felt like an outcast. It was my first experience of real loneliness, and at the time, it felt like the end of the world.
That experience hung around in my emotional backpack for years. Even now, the word ‘loneliness’ can sometimes trigger the emotion – part melancholy and part loss of those days. It was only after I had been doing spiritual practice for a while that I began to see that the emotion of loneliness is not only personal. Like anger and fear, loneliness is one of those universal, primal emotions, a groove in humanity’s sub-conscious. Most of us – even those of us who like being alone – cannot help falling into it at one time or another.
Loneliness is more about psychic disconnection than physical solitude. To appreciate time alone, most of us need to feel we have a choice – that friends or family are no farther away than a phone-call. Otherwise, time alone can be miserable. In fact, my suspicion is that the primal feeling of loneliness has something to do with a genetic instinct that equates safety with physical closeness to a tribe or family. On that pre-rational level, loneliness can feel like death.
Perhaps that’s one reason why loneliness, and even the fear of loneliness, can be such a stumbling block on the road to inner growth. Certain journeys cannot be taken unless you’re willing to face loneliness, and yet many of us are afraid of it. Have you ever stayed in a relationship long after you knew it wasn’t good for you, held onto friends who no longer understand the person you’ve become, shied away from meditation and contemplation – because it meant being by yourself?
The irony, of course, is that when you accept loneliness, you discover something powerful and freeing on the other side of it. My loneliness in seventh grade taught me compassion for the unpopular, and inspired me to seek friendships based on genuine intimacy rather than the need to belong. Years later, the extreme loneliness of a rainy week in Big Sur, stuck in a cabin at the end of five miles of dirt road, catapulted me into my first real experience of present-moment awareness; I still remember the surprising joy of hours spent watching the path the raindrops made as they streaked down the window.
Loneliness, like fear, is a threshold emotion – you have to pass through it if you want to enter the inner world. In fact, loneliness is the shadow side of solitude, that magical and transformative state that poets, mystics, and yogis celebrate as the great laboratory for self-awareness and spiritual growth. If loneliness reeks of alienation, and sadness, solitude offers the ground for you to connect to what is essential in yourself. Solitude teaches you how to be with yourself, and without it, you never learn to truly be at home with what you are. “Alone – and the soul emerges,” Walt Whitman wrote in a poem celebrating solitude.
So perhaps the real question when you’re alone during the holidays, or recovering from a breakup, or wondering why your friends seem so distant and unsupportive is not “How can I make this empty feeling go away?” but “How do I turn the painful state of loneliness into the transformative state of solitude?”
A Map of Loneliness
The first step in this is to learn how to identify the kind of loneliness you’re feeling. Loneliness has more than one flavor. Moreover, it has layers. Some of these are purely personal. Others are universal, part of the human condition.
The first layer, which I call Situational Loneliness, is the empty feeling you might get when you’re alone in a strange hotel room, or when Saturday night arrives and you have no plans, or when you have a difficult task to do and there’s no one around to help.
If you’re an introvert, this kind of loneliness may carry with it a painful history, a piggy-bank of memories that swims up when you find yourself alone. If you’ve always been outgoing and popular, it may be the unfamiliar emotion you felt during the first few days of college or a new job – but even then, it can knock you for a loop. Often people on meditation retreats (especially silent ones) go through intense bouts of loneliness before they can settle into being with themselves.
When you’re experiencing this kind of social withdrawal symptom, the temptation is often to dissipate it with some sort of activity. However, finding yourself temporarily lonely also offers a great opportunity to investigate solitude. Instead of turning on the TV or going to look for action, you might want to spend some time exploring aloneness, (see ‘The Power of Solitude’ below).
Situational loneliness is usually a temporary phenomenon, and relatively superficial. Not so the loneliness of true social isolation, which is for many people an ongoing and painful reality. When you’re enduring a failing relationship, when you’ve been rejected or cut off from social supports, when you’re unemployed or homeless or suffering from a long illness – these are times when we can touch the depths of personal loneliness.
In tribal societies, the worst punishment was to be shunned or exiled, not only because of the physical hardships it imposed, but because the social connections of tribal life were basic to most people’s identity. To be cut off or rejected can be deeply devastating. Yet it can also be a wake-up call, and a powerful spur to inner practice.
The Labyrinth of Solitude
Ericka Huggins was in her early twenties when she spent a year in jail awaiting trial for a crime of which she was ultimately exonerated. Like many others, she discovered yoga and meditation in her cell. More than that, she came to terms with the deep roots of loneliness, especially during a month she spent in solitary confinement.
“I did such intense self-inquiry.” Ericka, a member of the Black Panther Party wrote in a magazine article. From the other solitary cells, she could hear women banging on their doors, begging to be let out. Ericka sat in her cell and contemplated the sort of person she was, and came up with a list of qualities she wanted to see in herself. She thought about what truth really is.
She also began to recognize that nothing external would take away the pain of loneliness. “I had never thought of loneliness as an emotion, but it certainly welled up like one! As I contemplated the difference between being alone and loneliness, I would say to myself, ‘Why are you lonely? Look what you have. You have the tree outside your window – a big, beautiful tree… I would have silent conversations with that tree, because after I had been in that room for awhile I began to recognize the unity of human beings and nature.”
But her greatest insight while in solitary was the realization that everyone is in a kind of prison – the prison of our own hearts and minds. “When I realized that, I knew I could begin to break down the prison walls, not the concrete ones, but my own – the gate around my heart, the obstacles in my mind,” she wrote.
Ericka had come right up against loneliness as an existential condition. And like others who have been to the depths of loneliness and been willing to fully engage it, her aloneness became a vehicle for transformation.
Existential Loneliness: A Painful Separation
Even if you never confront existential loneliness as starkly as Ericka did, you can’t avoid facing into it – especially if you’re interested in inner freedom. If you’ve read the literature of different wisdom traditions, you probably have an idea where existential loneliness comes from. It is the direct result of the ego’s feeling of being separate from others and from its own source. Yoga tells us that this feeling of separation is a fundamental misperception, likes thinking that the bubbles in a Coke bottle are made of a different substance from the smooth brown liquid beneath them.
Yet thought teachings and practice can reveal that this feeling of separation is an illusion, the ego has a hard time believing it. Even when you ‘know’ that this sense of separateness is the true cause of most of your pain, the habit remains, and something in you clings to it, and allows its tendrils to unfurl in every corner of your life.
The feeling of separation and the vulnerability it inspires is the absolute heart of our experience of loneliness. It’s always there, ready to be triggered, which is why being alone on holidays can feel so charged, and why having a fight with someone you love sometimes brings up fear and grief far out of proportion to the actual situation. Even more basic are the moments when you really get how incredibly vast the universe is, how seemingly accidental is your existence, and how inevitable it is that you’ll one day die. At such moments, the ego faces directly into the truth of its non-existence, confronting the vastness and apparent nothingness that underlies its illusion of being someone. And that, as poets, philosophers, and mystics have noted for eons, is really scary.
The Antidote to Loneliness
Yoga, however, can show that this apparent emptiness is not empty at all. One of yoga’s deepest goals is to train us see that what looks like scary ‘nothingness” is actually creative, nourishing Awareness or Presence or Beingness, the substanceless substance that is threaded through everything and connects us all. The final antidote to existential loneliness is to get to know the pure awareness that lies behind your thoughts and feelings, and to realize how powerful of full of potential it is. Once you’re in touch with awareness – sometimes called the Self, or Buddha Nature – it’s impossible to feel lonely, at least for long, because you are connected to everything.
But it’s hard to get to that experience (or cure your loneliness) unless you’re willing to meditate, which means giving yourself opportunities for aloneness. Every time you sit for meditation, or take time to be alone in nature, you open yourself to the possibility of seeing past the illusion of ego, and into that underlying connection. Once you’ve tasted it, it’s there to return to – and to remind yourself of – when you start to feel alienated or cut off.
One of the most positive and transformative methods for transforming feelings of separation into feelings of connection is the practice of metta, or loving kindness, or indeed any practice in which you send blessings or good wishes to others.
There’s a variation that I sometimes do when I’m feeling fearful or sad, and it works just as well for loneliness.
Love Your Loneliness
Begin by feeling your own loneliness. Without resistance, tune into it. Then, connect with your breath, and with each one, send these thoughts to yourself:
Breathing in, think, “May I be happy.
Breathing out, ask, “May I feel loved.”
Breathing in, send forth “May all my suffering be healed.”
Breathing out, ask, “May I be at peace.”
Next imagine other people in the world who might be feeling lonely at this moment, people you love, and those you don’t know (lonely children, homeless and ill people, people breaking up with their partners, people in prison, and anyone else who comes to mind). With the breath, send out the same loving thoughts to them: “May you be happy. May you feel loved. May your suffering be healed. May you be at peace.”
Finally, take a moment to send these thoughts to every one in the world. “May all beings be happy. May all beings feel loved. May the suffering of all beings be healed. May all beings be at peace.”
Anyone who does this famous and powerful practice will know how it can soften and change your own heart. When you consciously send blessings to others, especially in this systematic fashion, it forges your connections not just to the people you know, but to all the beings you include in your well wishing. And then, sneaking in with the breath, comes the realization of your unbreakable connectedness. You can’t be lonely when your hearts are joined, even for a moment, to the hearts of all.
The Power of Solitude
When you the universe forces you to be alone – whether its in physical solitude or in the solitude that arises when you’re in a strange city or a failing relationship or around people who don’t support you – take it as an opportunity to engage your (sad, alienating) loneliness and turn it into (powerful, transformative) solitude.
Do this by choosing to spend some time alone. You can practice aloneness for half an hour; if you’ve got more experience try several hours, a day, or longer. Whatever the length, commit yourself to a set amount of time.
To engage aloneness, resist turning on the TV or radio, calling a friend, doing your nails, working on the computer, reading, or any of the other distractions you use to keep from being alone with yourself. You can do asana, especially restoratives that help you relax and release. Sleep is off-limits, though. Meditation and self-inquiry or contemplation are perfect ways to use this time.
When you’re starting to explore aloneness, you might want to create a program for your alone time, including some asana, some contemplation, and some meditation. Keep a journal with you, and write in it when you have the urge.
Don’t get too attached to your program, however; you don’t want to make it another “activity.” It’s there to give you the chance to unwind. Optimally, you’ll end by just being with yourself.
Begin by making an intention. It could go something like this:
“I’ll spend (time allotted) alone with myself, consciously exploring the experience, and making space for insight and peace to arise.”
Along with meditation and asana, you might want to spend some time exploring an issue or question that is ‘up’ for you. Let’s suppose that you want to work with loneliness. You could start by silently asking yourself the question: “Where does my loneliness come from?” or just work with the words “My feeling of loneliness.” Holding the words in your mind, notice the feelings, images, and memories that arise. Write down anything that you want to record about this. The best way to do this inquiry is with gentle curiosity. Now, take the inquiry into what is sometimes called the Contemplative Space. Close your eyes, focus on your breath, and sit for a few moments, centering yourself. During this process, if thoughts arise, label it ‘Thought’ and let it go.
When you feel relatively centered, ask this question, feeling that you are asking it of your deep intuitive self: “What can you tell me about loneliness and its antidote?” Then write in your journal, without censoring, whatever comes up. The words that arise may not be so different than the words that came from your earlier inquiry. But often, you’ll find that when you take the inquiry into the contemplative space, insights arise that are quite surprising.
You can use this process with any question or decision you might have. And as you do, you should notice how much insight your soul is capable of giving you when you allow yourself the time to engage the healing spaciousness of solitude.