This article is part of a series on overcoming loneliness. Click here for part 1, part 2, and part 3.
I miss you!
When did you last miss someone?
Missing people is of course related to loneliness. When we say we “miss” people, it seems like quite a good descriptor, because we are “missing” also in the sense of not getting it, missing the mark, not realizing that they are still in our hearts, that they haven’t really gone anywhere.
Attachment is a cover up of isolation that increases our isolation. It looks for love but blocks us as the object is outside ourself, unreachable – we’re like that donkey chasing the carrot. Futility and frustration are endemic in attachment for we’re looking for relationship while grasping at an independent, ie, unrelatable, self and other. We are holding ourself and others to be poles apart (||) as opposed to poles dependent (/\). This means we cannot be together, however hard we try.
Uncontrolled desire, or attachment, takes us out of the here and the now. Have you noticed how, when you are attached, you are always wanting to be someplace different or with someone else, never content or satisfied in the present moment with the people around you?
And do you not find it ironic that the less dependent we are on externals, the less needy–for example through open-hearted equanimity and love–the more others seem to enjoy sticking around?! With grasping, sooner or later we lose everything.
Try this thought experiment
We can use Chandrakirti’s verse as an object of contemplation, and see how our self-grasping ignorance sets us up for attachment, asking ourselves:
“What or who is that I or me who is lonely? How am I holding myself and the object of my ignorance and attachment apart, like the two poles (||), unable to bring them together?”
Then, when I try to bridge that gap, ‘I need you to make me happy’, what is that sense of me?”
We can see how we yearn to be close and yet our attachment pushes us further away from others. Frustration is guaranteed. The gulf between self and other grows greater the harder we try to bridge it with attachment.
Does attachment work? It’s what we’re turning to!
We need to bridge the gap through love and wisdom instead, effectively. So we can make the determination to overcome ignorance and attachment and increase our love and wisdom – this can be the object of our meditation.
This mountain, that mountain
The title of this article is “Why do I have no friends?” But the point is, you DO have friends, lots of them.
If we understand we are poles dependent (/\), we know that we are ALREADY in relationship. We don’t have to create relationships that are already there. We can however improve our relationships enormously by recognizing them.
There are various ways to understand that we are already dependent on others, and therefore in relationship with them. One is by contemplating “this mountain, that mountain.”
The stronger our grasping at self, the stronger our isolation. We can seek more and more lovers, drugs, extreme experiences; but we remain in a state of lack. The happiest moments are when we forget ourselves and dissolve the gap between self and others through wisdom and love.
When we feel alone, we can feel like the only point of consciousness in the universe, the one and only actual “me” surrounded by an alien sea of countless actual “you’s” or “them’s” (or on a good day “we’s”). However, whoever is me is also you, and whoever is you is also me.
Living in Colorado at the moment, I get to hike the Rockies and witness the truth of what Buddha says … that if I am standing on a mountain the West and looking at one to the East, the mountain I am standing on is “This mountain” and the one over there really seems to be “That mountain.” No two ways about it – it really feels like it, as if it is inherently or intrinsically this mountain. However, if I walk down the mountain in the west and up the mountain in the east, what happens!?
This shows that this mountain and that mountain are relative, depending entirely on our perspective, not absolute truths that have a reality unto themselves independent of perception. If this mountain was real, existing from its own side, it would remain this mountain even when I moved.
This is the same for self and other – they are relative truths, not real or absolute truths, not independent of the mind but entirely dependent on our perceptions. If I walk down the mountain of self and up the mountain of other, other becomes self and, looking back at my previous self, it now feels like other.
This is just one of many insights Buddha gave us to help us understand the relativity and interdependence of all things — an understanding that blows up the bedrock of our ignorance and self-absorption, setting us free.
Attachment to anything seems to aggravate our sense of isolation. Someone told me that they feel especially lonely when they’re looking for someone to share their samsaric enjoyments with, and not lonely while they’re enjoying Dharma. “I wish they were holding my hand in this movie” is a more likely craving than “I wish they were sitting next to me generating compassion and renunciation.” When I am meditating, for example, I never feel as if I am all on my ownsome, even if it may look like that from the outside.
The other day I was strolling in Denver Botanical Gardens, which just happens to be close to where I am living, very lucky me – and the flowers were breaking through after the winter splashing gorgeous color everywhere.* I was on my own, as is often the case, and I was loving being in the moment; but then I found myself wanting to show these exquisite flowers to my man friend and my parents all the way over in England, as if that would mean that they were there with me too. So I whipped out my handy Smartphone camera to endeavor to capture a paltry fraction of what was going on, and was about to send the photos over via Viber, when the following thought occurred: “This is so precarious and distracting – they are seven hours ahead, they are probably not online, plus the Martian for some reason cannot see the (to me, blindingly obvious) point of texting back and forth all day long, and my dear mother, smart as she is, is not the world’s most technically able individual and will likely send me back a blank email. This could end up being frustrating, and even exacerbate my sense of being alone!”
(As an aside, what about the wonders of modern technology! The distractions of modern technology!? The feeling that Smartphone gives us of being so close and yet paradoxically so far!?)
So, instead, I decided to simply imagine that they were here with me already, part of my heart-mind, seeing all this; and imagined their delight. There is no real separation in time or space. You cannot find, or point to, time or space anywhere existing from their own side. Time is simply a characteristic of impermanent objects — not existing over and above them, or around them, or even before and after them! Space and distance, however seemingly vast, are likewise imputed, appearances to mind, as in a dream. The mind can be at the moon in an instant, as Geshe Kelsang explains in How to Understand the Mind. Buddhas are everywhere and with everyone all the time; and we can be too just by putting our minds there.
Contemplating this, I found myself offering up all these gardens, plus much more, to the kind holy beings who have taught me this, who also abide in my heart and pervade space and time; as well as to the lovable strangers passing me on the path. This took away any hint of the loneliness of trying to enjoy myself “on my own”; and in fact the gardens no longer felt like deceptive samsaric pleasures held by my self-grasping ignorance to exist “out there”, at a remove.
Instead, I felt very blissful, which is the opposite of attachment, I find. Attachment is like a black hole that can never be satiated whatever you throw at it; whereas bliss is like the sun — complete, present, all pervasive, and radiant. These kinds of experiences show me that it is possible to enjoy without attachment and clinging, and in genuine communion with others. This is good, as we are aiming at having uncontaminated pleasant feelings full-time!
Lonely as a cloud?
At this point, since I have mentioned my mother, and today indeed it is Mother’s Day, I feel like mentioning her favorite poem by the natural mystic Wordsworth, as I think she’ll find it relevant to what I am saying here:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils …
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Being in the here and the now
Talking about attachment, and about time and space, I grew up on the classic British Benson & Hedges line:
“Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet.”
The famous commercials used an excerpt from a jazz rendition of Bach’s Air on the G String. A distinguished fellow would find himself in a variety of awkward situations and remedy them by lighting a cigar and smiling. (I can’t say it worked for me — whenever I tried a puff of my dad’s cigars I just felt sick …)
The moment we externalize happiness, as we do with attachment or uncontrolled desire – whether in another person, a house, a career, a reputation, or a cigar – we have instantly distanced ourselves from it. We may think, “To be happy I need to be on a Caribbean beach with a beautiful person, sipping a pink martini,” in which case our happiness is literally miles away. Or we may think, “To be happy I need to win this promotion and be free from my money worries,” in which case we are always separated from our happiness by the gulf of time.
Truly though, happiness is here within us right now. Remove all distorted, delusional states of mind and happiness will spontaneously flood into every part of our being, day and night. This has been the true-life experience of countless people who have trained their minds.
*ps. Denver is odd. Today, May 11th, winter is back already — five inches of snow smothering those poor spring flowers. It’s lucky I took these photos 😉
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.
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.
Due 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.
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.