Why do I feel so lonely?


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.

Loneliness 2

Lonely, or in seventh heaven?!

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

lonelinessOver 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. 

Self-grasping ignorance

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.

i me mineDue to strong sense of I, me, and mine, we generate attachment to things we think can please us and aversion for the things that don’t.

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.

Attachment

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.

Comments

  1. Only we need is Dharma…

  2. Just someone says:

    Hi Luna, I really enjoy reading your all articles. This one particularly interested me because I have been practising meditation (or trying) for many years now and can say my delusions are much more controlled but yet, I feel a lot of loneliness from time to time. Whilst understanding intellectually that having people around us or a relationship with a partner is not the true source of happiness, and knowing very well from experience that it can bring a myriad of problems, there is still a fixation in my mind thinking it’d be better when I am I find someone beautiful, nice and kind to share my life with, to care for, to practice with, to growth with, to learn from, or to just rest beside… This longing, yearning, simply hurts. I find that the renunciation, wisdom etc teachings help me see the fallacy of this stupid state and I also know by experience that working on cherishing others can help fill my days and nights with joy but yet, it is when I lie alone in bed alone (my perception clearly) for yet another day, another month, another year, soon a decade, that apparent gap comes back as does my strong tendency to think that life as a pair would be better than life alone. The karma teachings help me, for it is evident that the causes I created to be in a ‘happy’ caring relationship are simply not manifest and how I carry a strong tendency to be mislead by the societal concept that happiness could even arise from exterior sources. I almost feel I need simpler tools to work with, something really tangible for someone walking along the path without any realisations or wisdom. A strong purification practice springs to mind!

    • Hello Just Someone, You have kind of answered your own question, and you voice what many people experience!! But I would add that there is nothing wrong per se with wanting companionship, or seeking a partner, if we are lay practitioners. All that is wrong is the attachment (yearning etc) and the ignorance, which cause us both pain. “Remain natural while changing your aspiration” is the order of the day. If we can learn to be happy on our own, and have a good motivation, this puts us in a strong position to have a good partnership.

  3. Ike Lichtenstein says:

    My favorite quote from Chandrakirti’s Guide to the Middle Way and you present it so well. I struggle with the thought of future loneliness if I was separated from my partner of 50 years. We met in high school and married after college we never went steady and dated others while in school. But, she has been my teacher and refuge all this time.

    I had a scare of my own making the other day and found myself in a controlled panic until I got home opened the door and saw her at her sewing machine.
    She was so absorbed she forgot to undo her DND on her phone. Of all the catastrophic things I imagined happening that never crossed my mind.

    ATTACHMENT was the problem and although I have studied it and meditated on it for years I was not prepared for the loss. Now I think of this each time we speak and I am careful of each word as it may be my last. To have said a mean or careless remark and for it to be our last is really dumb.

    I now better understand how being in the moment is so important. One breath I was speaking to her, one breath in between and at the next breath I thought she was gone. This has brought meditating on the breath to a whole new level. One day there will not be an in breath so I need to be familiar with that. My only thought over and over until I reached her was ” I don’t want to be in this samsaric nightmare without her she is the fun one, the smartest one, the artistic one, the really kindhearted one. Now I know in this area the specter of loneliness thrives off my attachment and going to refuge to a living being(a very nice one) but not the refuge that will prevent the suffering of loneliness. It is taking the teachings deeper in practice and finding refuge there.

    I also, took the list off the fridge and went vegetable shopping which she normally does. I have to begin to familiarize myself with the future possibility of living as a single person. I went vegetable shopping with her eyes and got thumbs up! Except for one box of plumb tomatoes that had mold – I had to return them!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Until a few years ago I’d never experienced loneliness as an adult. It’s likely true that I experienced loneliness as a child but with a limited repertoire for describing my feelings to myself I probably characterized it as sadness back then. But it’s certainly true that as an adult loneliness wasn’t something I’d had to deal with. I didn’t really understand it. That changed a few years ago. After some very difficult life changes the entire landscape of my life was irrecoverably altered, and almost over night. But here’s the thing, separation from others was the least of it. While it’s certainly true that at that time I was very much alone in terms of social support, it wasn’t my isolation from other people that caused my loneliness, but my separation from myself. The best way I can describe it is to say that I simply wasn’t there anymore. I couldn’t make decisions, couldn’t deal with change, and couldn’t move forward on anything – which was totally unlike me. Previously I’d used fear to propel me forward. During this time i was paralyzed by it. I was unrecognizable to myself. I can’t tell you how disturbing this was and how it impacted every area of my life. Thankfully this ruptured identity thing eventually resolved and with the return to a whole, cohesive, and dare I say it strong sense of self, the loneliness lifted. It took a long time. It took way too long.

    I don’t know how to reconcile what I’m saying here with the Buddhist point of view on the causes of loneliness, but I have a feeling that they aren’t actually as disparate as they sound. Maybe it’s just a discrepancy in the way we use the word self to describe our internal experience. I know that i’m not not alone in my confusion on Buddhism’s view of the self. Regardless, my experience of the value of a strong sense of self is too pronounced for me to deny its value.

    Thanks again. Great post, as usual. 🙂

    • That makes sense to me and doesn’t seem to be contradictory to what is being said here. When i get more time, I’ll have a go at responding to some of your points. Thanks!

  5. Gayle Schaefer says:

    Luna, some of us were contemplating why we feel let down after a few hours or days of happiness/bliss following an empowerment like we received last Saturday from Khedrub. I read your article on loneliness and think this is exactly why: self-grasping ignorance exacerbated by attachment followed by developing craving to be close, to close the gap just as we had experienced a little from the Empowerment. So breath out ignorance, attachment, loneliness and breathe in the blessings of wisdom & love understanding my profound & vast connectivity riding these light rays into my heart where it joins the inner light of my buddhas nature…correct? (With a little help from White Tara) Gayle

  6. manjushrigirl says:

    Sometimes when I am teaching and trying really hard to find an accessible way to understand what we mean by ‘self grasping’, I will say ‘separateness grasping’. Your article here captures what I had been trying to convey just perfectly.

  7. VenerableLady says:

    Keep wielding that wisdom sword, Luna. Such a clear teaching. Much love and respect xxxx

  8. wonderfull… looking forward to part 2

  9. Thanks for lovely early morning teaching. Once again, you put into words thoughts, contemplations of mine over the years. I wrote a song a few years ago which speaks to this issue. Finally we recorded this song (one of my favorites on the CD)…..”Nobody to Know” last week so thought I would share the lyrics and the link so it can be listened to:

    http://jemhobbsseanhunt.bandcamp.com/track/nobody-to-know

    Nobody to Know

    There’s no one to know, no body to see
    No fairweather friend, and no enemy
    There’s nothing to do, no body to be
    There is no you, and there is no me

    I´m so alone, with no one to see
    I’m so alone, I can’t even find me
    I’m so alone, I can’t be more free

    No hero will come, in the nick of time
    No numbers to sum, no mountain to climb
    There is no reason, there is no rhyme
    No moment to seize, ’cause there is no time

    I´m so alone, with no one to see
    I’m so alone, I can’t even find me
    I’m so alone, I can’t be more free

    No god on my side, to chide me with wrath
    No guru to guide, ’cause there is no path
    There is no birth, there is no breath
    Then at the end, there’s even no death

    I´m so alone, with no one to see
    I’m so alone, I can’t even find me
    I’m so alone, I can’t be more free

    Not much from your touch, no sound from your bell
    There is no heaven, and there is no hell
    No eye to see, no nose to smell
    No hero to hail, no tale to tell

    I´m so alone, with no one to see
    I’m so alone, I can’t even find me
    I’m so alone, I can’t be more free

    It is a liitle jaunty, upbeat…maybe people will like it and think it relevant to the theme here.

    Sean

  10. Thank you so much for this article. I love how you included quotes from geshe-la as well as references to todays culture, like match.com and song lyrics about finding ‘the one’. It’s great to see these types of things, that are so prevalent in our society, examined through the lens of Dharma. Looking forward to part 2!

  11. Such lovely Dharma teachings, always! Thank you xo

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