~ Loneliness ~
"Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty".
With the Holiday Season fast approaching and the social isolation imposed by the COVID pandemic, I’ve been thinking about everyone who is, or will be on their own and whether they are feeling lonely. There’s always the phone, email 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 family and friends or the physical presence of another living being can be painful, and it's easy to feel empty, unwanted or unloved.
Because it feels unpleasant, we often regard loneliness as an enemy. Something to fear and 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, entertain us, or distract us. But we don’t have to try to escape loneliness. Instead, we can try responding to it differently: We could choose to have a curious and friendly relationship with it. We can investigate what loneliness actually feels like – in our bodies and our minds without making up a story about it or trying to get rid of it. We could begin to have a gentle and more relaxed attitude to it.
If we can simply experience and be with loneliness, we can open to what Pema Chodron calls “cool loneliness”. This type of loneliness is not about trying to change anything – rather it's about allowing the feeling of loneliness and holding it with love and compassion. Sometimes, I think of it as holding the loneliness in the vastness of my heart.
If we can we can be with feelings of loneliness in this way, the pain and aversion that often accompanies them will soften and release over time. Gradually, there’s less fear and less desire to escape the loneliness. You may not like it, but it can become bearable. From being completely overwhelming it becomes more tolerable.
When we can befriend loneliness, there’s less tendency to seek distractions or get trapped in repetitive thoughts that leave 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 our situation.
This is not to say that we shouldn't do anything when loneliness becomes overwhelming, but we can be skillful about choosing what to do. Binge watching Netflix, over-eating and surfing the internet may provide temporary relief, but in the long term they won’t be much help and loneliness will make itself known again.
So if loneliness is a visitor to your mind over the Holidays, I invite you to get to know it and make friends with it. You could take it out for a walk, talk to it with kindness, or give it a hug. Whatever feels most helpful to you. We can also understand that many others are feeling lonely just like us, so we are sharing this experience with them.
I'll end with some words from Waylon Lewis, a self-described first generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat”:
"Loneliness is not a thing to be conquered. It’s a thing to make friends with—then you’ll be with your best friend wherever you go—your sweet red heart."