Sweet Solitude


By Sally Kempton  |  

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. It was my first experience of real loneliness, and at the time it felt like the end of the world.

That experience stayed in my emotional backpack for years. Even now, just the word “loneliness” can trigger the emotion—part melancholy and part loss—of those days. It was only after I had been doing spiritual practice for quite some time that I began to see that the emotion of loneliness is not just personal. Like anger and fear, loneliness is one of those universal, primal emotions, a groove in humanity’s subconscious. Most of us (even those of us who like being alone) can’t help but fall 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. If not, 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.

Home Alone

Maybe that’s one reason why loneliness, or 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 to do so. Have you ever stayed in a relationship long after you knew it wasn’t good for you, held on to friends who no longer understood the person you’d become, shied away from meditation and other contemplative exercises—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 those who are unpopular and inspired me to seek friendships based on intimacy rather than the need to belong. Years later, the extreme loneliness of a rainy week in Big Sur, when I was stuck in a cabin at the end of five miles of dirt road, catapulted me into my first genuine 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 truly 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,” wrote Walt Whitman.

So perhaps the important question when you’re alone during the holidays, or recovering from a breakup, or wondering why all your friends seem so distant and unsupportive, is not, How can I make this empty feeling go away? but, How do I turn this painful state of loneliness into a transformative state of solitude?

A Map of Loneliness

The first step is to identify the kind of loneliness you’re feeling. Loneliness has more than one flavor and many layers. Some of these are purely personal. Others are 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 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 piggybank of painful memories. If you’ve always been outgoing and popular, it may be the odd emotion you felt during the first few days of college or a new job—and it can knock you for a loop. Often people on their first meditation retreat—especially silent ones—go through intense and difficult bouts of loneliness before they can settle into being with themselves.

When you’re experiencing symptoms of this kind of withdrawal, the temptation is to dissipate it with activity. However, being temporarily lonely offers a perfect opportunity to explore solitude. Instead of turning on the TV or going to look for action, you might want to spend some time investigating aloneness.

Situational loneliness is usually short-lived and relatively superficial. Not so the loneliness of true social isolation, which is for many people an ongoing and painful reality. Enduring a failing relationship, being rejected or cut off from your social supports, losing your job or your home, or suffering from a long illness—these are times when we can touch the depths of personal loneliness.

In many tribal societies, the worst punishment is to be shunned or exiled, not only because of the physical hardships it imposes but also because the social connections of tribal life are basic to most people’s identities. 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 cleared. Like many others, she discovered yoga and meditation in her cell. And it was there 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,” Huggins, a member of the Black Panther Party, later wrote in a magazine article. From the other solitary cells, she could hear women banging on their doors, begging to be let out. Huggins sat in her cell, contemplated the sort of person she was, and came up with a list of qualities that she wanted to see in herself.

She also began to realize that nothing outside her would take away the pain of loneliness. “I had never thought of it 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 a while I began to recognize the unity of human beings and nature.”

Huggins’s main insight while in solitary was the realization that everyone is in a 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.

Huggins 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 solitary state became a vehicle for transformation.

Even if you never confront existential loneliness as starkly as Huggins did, you can’t avoid facing it—especially if you’re interested in inner freedom. Existential loneliness is the direct result of the ego’s feeling of separation from others and from its own source. Yoga tells us that this feeling is a fundamental misperception.

A Painful Separation

But even though teachings and practice can reveal that the 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, something in you clings to it and allows its tendrils to unfurl in every corner of your life.

The feeling of separation—together with the vulnerability it inspires—is the absolute essence of loneliness. It’s always there, ready to be triggered, which is why being by yourself around the holidays can feel so emotionally charged, and why having a fight with someone you love sometimes brings up fear and grief that’s far out of proportion to the situation.

Even more basic are the moments when you really take in how incredibly vast the universe is, how seemingly accidental your existence is, and how inevitable it is that you’ll one day die. At such moments, the ego faces directly into the truth of its nonexistence, confronting the vastness and apparent nothingness that underlie 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 the practice’s deepest goals is to train us to see that what looks like scary nothingness is actually creative, nourishing awareness, the substance—less substance that is threaded through everything and connects us all.

The antidote to existential loneliness is to get to know the pure awareness that lies behind your thoughts and feelings, and to realize how full of potential it is. Once you’re in touch with awareness—or what is 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 experience that—or cure your loneliness—unless you’re willing to meditate, which means giving yourself an opportunity for aloneness. Every time you sit for meditation, or take time to be alone in nature, you open yourself to the chance of seeing past the illusion of ego and into that underlying connection. Once you’ve tasted it, it’s there to return to (and remind yourself of) when you start to feel cut off or alienated.

The practice of metta, or what’s called lovingkindness—or indeed any practice in which you send blessings or good wishes to others—is an ideal way to transform your feelings of separation into feelings of connection. There’s a variation 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 in to 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 people, people breaking up with their partners, people in prison, people in war-torn countries, and anyone else who might come to mind). With the breath, send out the same loving thoughts to them: “May you be happy. May you feel loved. May all your suffering be healed. May you be at peace.”

Finally, take a moment to send these thoughts to everyone 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.”

If you do this powerful practice, you will discover how it can soften and change your own heart. When you consciously send blessings to others, especially in this systematic fashion, they forge 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.