Can you remember the last time you felt lonely?
If you can, you are not alone! Reminds me of that Billy Joel lyric from Piano Man:
They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it’s better than drinking alone.
We crave companionship, closeness, union, but the irony is that we are not actually alone in the first place. To appreciate this, we first need to understand the actual reasons we feel so lonely.
It is not because we are on our own that we suffer from loneliness. We can be sitting on the same sofa as someone, been married to them for years, and still feel totally isolated. We can be standing next to someone feeling half a world away. Or … we can be half a world away feeling like we are not separated at all. My teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso spent 16 years strictly on his own in the Himalayas on retreat and didn’t feel a moment’s loneliness – had his compassion and teacher not prised him out so he could come help us, he’d probably still be blissfully there. I even spent the larger part of 3 years moreorless on my own doing retreat, and have never felt more connected or peaceful. Some of the happiest and friendliest people I know are monks and nuns, who have renounced coupledom.
Some days we can feel that we have an abundance of supportive friends and family, other days we can feel that there is not a single life form on this planet that really gets us.
Loneliness says far more about our world view or outlook on life than about who is or who is not around us. Whether we are in a relationship or not, whether we have many friends or only a few, we all need to learn the same things. Looking at loneliness is quite profound as it can teach us a lot about our existential situation, and understanding the illusion or hallucination behind it can help us attain liberation not just from loneliness but from other delusions too.
Understanding the illusion of loneliness
Over the course of a few articles I thought it could be helpful to look at loneliness, starting with what causes the feeling of loneliness, namely self-grasping ignorance exacerbated by attachment. The feeling of being isolated is an illusion created by those delusions, especially as we are not in fact alone at all but entirely connected to everything and everyone. We don’t have to create relationships with others, those relationships are already there. Love and wisdom are a natural response to that recognition, and the very antidote to loneliness.
Some thought experiments
To help you go within and look at what’s going on, you can begin by sitting down to meditate — settling your mind with some kind of meditation on the breath or the clarity of the mind, and generating a good motivation wanting to get to the bottom of loneliness for your own and others’ sake.
Then you can do this:
(1) Examine the last time you felt really lonely. What is loneliness? Who felt lonely? Answer: “Me”. Did you have a strong sense of self and other? Did you feel isolated, alienated? Did you feel like the only person in the universe, surrounded by other independent people all separate from you, going about their business? Did you feel you were over here and everyone else was over there, quite possibly having a whole lot of fun without you? Did you feel homesick, as if you were not in the place or with the people you wanted to be, as if your life was on some kind of hold? Did you feel a sense of lacking, of loss? Did you feel a yearning for connection to someone outside of yourself?
(2) When did you experience this loneliness? Was it in a relationship or out of one? Or both?
(3) What would it take to satisfy you so that you wouldn’t be lonely? When wouldn’t you be lonely?
All this is coming from a misconception of who we are and who others are, called “self-grasping ignorance”. We feel we are independent, existing solidly and from our own side, the only real me. Then other people feel really “other” and so apart from us — there is by necessity a gap between us. Then we develop attachment and craving to be close because we don’t want to be all alone in here.
In your meditation you can breathe out the ignorance, attachment, and loneliness, it is not who you are any more than clouds are the sky. Breathe in the blessings of wisdom and love understanding your profound and vast connectivity, riding these light rays into your heart where they join the inner light of your Buddha nature.
Based on this, perhaps some working description of loneliness might be: an unhappy feeling based on a feeling of isolation and a yearning to be with someone and/or elsewhere.
In Ocean of Nectar, a beautiful big book on the ultimate nature of things that is a commentary to Chandrakirti’s Guide to the Middle Way, there is a verse near the beginning:
I bow down to that compassion for living beings
Who from first conceiving “I” with respect to the self,
Then thinking ‘This is mine’ and generating attachment for things,
Are without self-control like the spinning of a well.
This is part of a motivational teaching on generating compassion for others – but we can also use it on ourselves because to have compassion for others we also need compassion for ourselves, namely renunciation, wishing for ourselves to be free from the actual root of suffering.
What is this root? Within our body and mind, yet also strangely independent of them, we apprehend an I that is us – solid, real, permanent — and we want the best for it. My possessions, my family, my views, my job etc are very important because they are MINE. I am the only real me – everyone else feels distinctly like “other”, regardless of what name they may call themselves. Who do you think of first when you wake up in the morning? And for the rest of the day?! This attention to self may seem just normal, but it is in fact it is entirely exaggerated and blinkered, and the cause of all our suffering.
A strong sense of self leads to a correspondingly strong sense of other, and we are immediately split off, isolated. Our nature is in truth whole, unified, blissful, in communion; but this feels ruptured by our self-grasping and attachment. These cause a black hole in our heart that nothing and no one can fill.
We seek union, awakening and bliss, perhaps wanting to connect to the truth of our Buddha nature, and there is nothing wrong with this at all. What doesn’t work, however, is doing this with the mind of attachment, which, because it is based on real me and real you, can only reinforce our sense of a gap between us. Due to attachment we feel we are in opposition to others instead of in harmony and communication. We feel disconnected.
Society is a reflection of our attachment. Hollywood and match.com set us up to feel lonely as we believe that there is someone out there who will make us feel complete; therefore, loneliness is justified as Mr. or Ms. Right is waiting. There is no shortage of songs to support this view, eg, Neil Young’s “I am lonely but you can free me in the way you smile.” In NYC, London, Denver, and every other urban area, your soul mate is waiting — so we stay lonely as it is to do with finding someone.
Who is alone? I am. Attachment is a natural response to that and so it is not the root problem, though it aggravates it. We have to identify the self that is lonely — a limited, isolated self that is in a state of need. Attachment exaggerates that need by convincing us that happiness and togetherness really ARE to be found out there. It makes the situation far worse in the guise of trying to make it better.
Although Guide to the Middle Way is a profound philosophical treatise, there is nothing abstract or airy fairy about this verse or the commentary to it. Chandrakirti and Geshe Kelsang are describing the very building blocks of our suffering, saying “It is like this”; and, if you have ever felt really lonely, you’ll understand what they are talking about. You’ll know the truth of suffering and origins (the first two of Buddha’s four noble truths).
If we understand these, we will also understand that there are many doorways to exit from suffering — paths leading to cessations (the second two noble truths). We will develop renunciation, or the wish for liberation, because we will understand our existential predicament as well as the way out of it. If we see what we are up against, we can then see how a real self and real other is a complete illusion.
Part 2 coming up soon 🙂
Meantime, I would love to hear your comments.