This continues on from Why do I feel so lonely?
So close and yet so far
I have recently been in New York City for a week. People often say they feel lonelier in the middle of a huge city surrounded by millions of people than in a rural area with hardly anyone around. A friend of mine who used to live in London said he always felt somewhat alone there. Then one weekend he did a Buddhist meditation retreat “in a field with a bunch of hairy men” and “never felt happier or more connected.” There was no turning back!
I think this is because, when we are surrounded by others, we are holding even more tightly to our own sense of personal space, trying to protect ourselves from uncomfortable intrusion by strange “others”, increasing that gap. It can be useful though — as mentioned in this article, in huge cities like NYC we have microseconds to connect to the waves of humanity walking past us, and if we pull it off it can feel wonderful.
Crammed like sardines on the Path train to New Jersey, trying to assert some sense of control over their environment, everyone was vigorously avoiding eye contact, even as we were forced to bump up against each other around every corner (the sense of powerlessness not helped by being diverted to Holboken where the doors wouldn’t open.) I found this a useful opportunity to connect to my fellow suffering commuters in my heart, the only place we can be in control of our experience and, ironically, feel we have enough space to relax.
Story of a broken heart
I am going to give an example now of an ill-fated romantic relationship; but problems, mental pain, and loneliness caused by self-grasping ignorance and attachment can arise in other relationships too, with friends, family, children, pets, etc. And, as I said in the previous article, loneliness is not about whether or not we are in a relationship, or even about whether or not we find someone attractive; it is about whether or not we are controlling our ignorance and attachment. For any partnership, or friendship, to work, we need to reduce these, and increase our love. With a wise motivation and a heart full of love, it is possible to have strong, enjoyable, and helpful relationships.
Have you ever been having fun in a restaurant with friends when someone gorgeous walks in and, before you know it, your happiness dives out of your body, under the floorboards, and into them?! We were having a smooth, harmonious, warm time with our friends, not really fixating on ourselves, finding everyone interesting, feeling connected – and then what happened?! One minute we are enjoying everyone without grasping, the next minute we are clinging onto one person for dear life.
It is now up to them to make us happy and we have to get their name, phone number, lifelong devotion …
At the beginning of this love affair, we set ourselves up in need. We didn’t need them before, and they didn’t make us need them; that is all on us, or our mind of attachment. We are no longer the whole orange – we are half an orange and we need the other half to feel whole or complete. We give our power away – “There goes my happiness, it just walked out the restaurant door,” we give them the key.
If we do manage to get it together with them, we then need to receive approximately 20 texts a day, (perhaps a few less if we’re from Mars), or we feel lonely. If happiness depends on a text or seeing them, then it’ll never be enough – there’s a brief relief if they call, and then the anxious waiting starts again.
We can check out our sense of self when we are thinking, “You make ME happy”. There is a strong sense of me, “What about me”, which is isolated, and therefore vulnerable to separation anxiety.
These Lifehouse lyrics seem to sum it up quite nicely, as do a million other song lyrics:
Every time I see your face
My heart takes off on a high speed chase.
Don’t be scared it’s only love
Baby that we’re falling in.
I can’t wait ’till tomorrow
This feeling has swallowed me whole
And I know that I’ve lost control…
Won’t be easy, have my doubts too,
But it’s over without you, I’m just lost, incomplete
Yeah you feel like home, home to me.
Herein follows a few weeks or months of bliss (or days or hours, depending) … there is a lot of attachment but it is seemingly in synch in that neither of us can get enough of the other, though if you check there is already tension in the mind. Sooner or later, one person starts to pull away. And whether that affair flames out or develops into a long-term meaningful relationship depends on genuine love and respect.
Attachment puts our life on hold – if we are not in the other person’s physical presence, life is what is happening while we wander around missing them, feeling alienated from our environment, homesick, wanting to be somewhere else. Even when you’re with them, the other person can never do enough, can never reassure us enough. Meanwhile, you may notice if you look around — no one else is bored out of their mind watching the clock, waiting on tenterhooks for the weekend, sulking and/or playing emotional games, or tapping feverishly into their smartphone; they are just getting on with their day.
Have you ever been a waiting mode, wanting badly for someone to call you, email you, or return a text? Hours, perhaps days, go by and … nothing?! And you feel increasingly powerless? That is attachment at work. Every day brings new ways in which we can torture ourselves – in the old days, we could at least have some time out with the mental excuse that they might have missed us on the phone while we were shopping (or, even further back, the horse was taking a few weeks with the letter); but now we are glued to our smartphones and there are a hundred ways they could, and yet are NOT, contacting us.
Here’s a word of advice:
Never invest your happiness in something you cannot control.
This clearly includes other people’s behavior. We can hardly control our own behavior, let alone anyone else’s. Attachment, or uncontrolled desire, is based on an hallucination that happiness comes from OUT THERE. So we want power and control over our external environment and other people, but the only power or control we have any hope of gaining is over our own mind.
There’s nothing wrong with finding someone attractive, even incredibly attractive — the mistake we make is when we grasp at them as inherently attractive!
With uncontrolled desire, we often defer our happiness, “I’ll be happy when they finally get here!”; or else we try and get back to what once was, “We had such a great time then, why can’t we be like that now?!” Love is always in the present moment. Attachment ranges over the past and the future, missing out on the real bliss of being fully here, now, connecting to our pure and peaceful nature, real union. We can make plans and even have desired outcomes, but as soon as our happiness depends on those plans, we’ve lost control of it.
Attachment is conditional and therefore vulnerable – I once heard a song lyric, “For as long as we’re together, I’ll love you forever.” Love is unconditional, we just want them to be happy regardless; and we get to choose who we love, so love can last.
Attachment makes us act oddly, like a bumbling idiot desperately seeking attention. Someone told me the other day: “I was so cool at first as I could tell she loved me. Then she showed interest in other things, her own life and friends, and I felt excluded, and started to act oddly to get her attention. It didn’t feel like me, but I couldn’t help it.” Through his insecurity and loneliness, he said, she felt less and less close to him, and the relationship ended. Who cannot relate to that? Who hasn’t either heard or said things like: “I can’t give you what you seem to want from me! I feel cornered by you! You seem to expect my undivided attention!”
“Why don’t you love me anymore?” soon becomes “You selfish b****.” A vicious circle ensues of one person trying to get more attention and the other person feeling claustrophobic, closing off, and pulling away. And as the rose-tinted attachment specs come off and the feelings of aversion and betrayal begin, what was quirky, fascinating, original, or cool in our partner becomes strange, peculiar, weird, and distant.
A friend showed me a joke in the New Yorker, a man talking to a woman:
“When, exactly, did all the stuff you love about me become all the stuff you hate about me?”
There are endless self-help videos on how to get and, even harder, how to keep your man or woman. Some of them are pretty amusing, especially when it comes to the differences between Martians and Venusians; but they don’t seem to be addressing the root cause of the difficulty, which is the self-isolation of ignorance and exaggeration of attachment.
Of course, addressing these delusions completely doesn’t happen overnight, but as soon as we get started, the better our relationships with others are going to become.
If our love affair ends due to attachment, our heart literally aches. Attachment is “sticky desire”, it is like peeling sticking plaster off a hairy arm. We were already lonely when we were in the relationship, and we are still lonely now that it is over. We can’t live with someone, but we can’t live without them either.
Seeking union and connection is part of our Buddha nature. We are just going the wrong way about it, projecting and externalizing the source of our happiness while holding tightly to a sense of a real self and other. We need to seek union through love and wisdom, bliss and emptiness, not ignorance and attachment.
More next time, in Part 3! Meantime, your insights into this subject are welcome in the comments.