~ Reflection on Loneliness ~
"Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty".
Lately, I’ve been thinking about everyone who is living on their own during this time of social distancing and I’ve been wondering how they are coping with any loneliness they are experiencing. Of course, there’s the phone and Zoom, so no-one needs to be completely shut off from all human contact, but even for introverts, isolation can be distressing and even overwhelming. Living without the comfort of hugs from friends or the physical presence of another living being can feel painful and raw, and it easy to feel empty, unwanted or unloved.
Even if you are not living alone, you may be experiencing loneliness. Emotional loneliness can be just as distressing as physical loneliness or even more so. As Amelia Earhardt said “Being lonely is scary, but not as scary as being alone in a relationship”.
Because of its unpleasantness, we often regard loneliness as an enemy. Something to fear or avoid as much as possible. There’s a feeling of aversion – a disagreeable emotional or physical restlessness combined with a desire to find something or someone to keep us company, to entertain us, or to distract us. But we don’t have to try to escape loneliness. Instead, we can respond to it differently. We could choose to have a friendly and curious relationship with it. We can investigate what it feels like – in our bodies, our minds and our hearts without getting caught up in fear or avoidance. We could begin to have a gentle and more relaxed attitude to it.
If we can allow loneliness to be itself without trying to get rid of it, we can open to what Pema Chodron calls “cool loneliness”. This type of loneliness is not about trying to change anything – rather it allows the feeling of loneliness to be with compassion and equanimity. Sometimes, I think of it as holding the loneliness in a large and loving container.
And in my experience, if we can we can hold our loneliness in this way, the pain and aversion that often accompanies it softens and releases. Gradually there’s less fear and less desire to escape the loneliness. I may not like it, but I can bear it. From being completely overwhelming it becomes more manageable.
I also find that when we befriend loneliness, there’s less tendency to seek distractions or get trapped in ruminating thoughts and emotions that proliferate, leaving us with an even greater sense of discomfort about the situation. A steadiness and a quiet determination to stay the course arise. This isn’t an optimistic outlook that everything will turn out fine and we will get back to normal, but more of a willingness to be with whatever happens.
Working with loneliness in this way takes courage and bravery. It isn’t easy but it can help us to accept ourselves and what is happening in the world.
This is not to say that we don’t take any action when loneliness arises. There are lots of things we can do, but the important thing is not to do things as an escape mechanism but rather to be skillful in our choices. Binge watching Netflix, compulsive house cleaning, or over-eating may offer temporary relief, but they won’t help in the long term and loneliness will make itself known again.
So if loneliness is a visitor to your mind, I invite you to get to know it and make friends with it. You could take it out for a walk or listen to what it wants to say, or you could talk to it with kindness. Whatever feels helpful to you. Most importantly, we can recognize that a lot of people are feeling lonely at the moment and that we are sharing this experience with many others all over the world. As has been said many times recently, we are all in this together.