It’s a blessing if you can harness it and be inspired while reveling in it. If not, it is the root cause of persistent restlessness and emptiness. It makes you feel everything is out of place and that you are not complete as an individual or that you must do something or find someone and fill the void you are feeling. Maybe you need to be in a new or different relationship, perhaps you need to change your job or move to a new country, or who knows, you may just be depressed. That feeling of falling into an abyss or just staring at a wall, not knowing where you are heading or ought to go, all of that stems from one’s inability to handle it. By it, I mean loneliness.
Loneliness is what you experience when you feel utterly directionless in your life, when you find everything pointless (even if for a short while). It is remarkable how an increasing number of people are being plagued and pestered by feelings of intense loneliness.
I read an interesting passage by Matt Haig in Notes on a Nervous Planet:
Have you ever heard a parent moan about their kids’ need for constant entertainment?
“When I was young I could sit in the back of the car and stare out the window at clouds and grass for 17 hours and be perfectly happy. Now our little Misha can’t go five seconds in the car without watching Alvin and the Chipmunks 17 or playing game apps or taking selfies of herself as a unicorn…”
That sort of thing.
Well, there is an obvious truth to it. The more stimulation we have, the easier it is to feel bored.
And this is another paradox.
In theory, it has never been easier to not be lonely. There is always someone we can talk to online. If we are away from loved ones then we can Skype them. But loneliness is a feeling as much as anything. When I have had depression, I have been lucky enough to have people who love me all around me. But I had never felt more alone.
I think the American writer Edith Wharton was the wisest person ever on loneliness. She believed the cure for it wasn’t always to have company, but to find a way to be happy with your own company. Not to be antisocial, but not be scared of your own unaccompanied presence.
She thought the cure to misery was to “decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone”.
I couldn’t agree more. Just like fulfilling your desires gives birth to more desires, trying to fill loneliness by having company does not really work in the longer run. I am not denying that human interaction, companionship, community and so on are essential to our wellbeing. They cannot, however, be the center of your life without great personal inconvenience. Socializing and all may help you diminish your feelings of aloneness, or momentarily make you forget about how lonely you actually are, but at the end of the day, they won’t let you get past your loneliness. A majority of self-help books say that an absence of a passion in life makes you lonely. That, if you are feeling lonely, chances are you don’t have any plausible reason to live or go on in your life. There’s perhaps nothing that excites you to wake up before your alarm goes off in the morning and so on. Hence, common wisdom says fill your life with something or someone.
From a yogic perspective, these are still temporary measures. I can be passionately crazy about something or someone, that does not mean I won’t feel lonely. Look at some of the most successful artists and musicians who breathed and lived their art, and yet they slipped into depression. Yoga says that loneliness is a beautiful opportunity to explore yourself, to reflect on not just what you can do but what you have done. When you maintain mindfulness in loneliness, you discover this vast reservoir of calm and peace. If anything, loneliness is a calling of the soul.
Intense awareness in great loneliness is nothing short of nirvana. In ordinary loneliness, you are simply flowing with your thoughts and feelings which are often negative when unchecked. In a more pristine form of loneliness, which I refer to as yogic loneliness or solitude of the mind, you maintain an acute awareness of every little thought, of each passing moment. You begin to realize that you are truly unborn, undying, unalloyed, that you are beyond the aging body you are wearing or the chattering mind you are carrying.
The wisdom of life begins to dawn on you in such quiet moments. All those you love or hate, want or detest, crave or avoid, these people including yourself are here for a short period only. Avyaktadini bhutani vyakta-madhyani bharata avyakta-nidhanany eva tatra ka paridevana. “What are you grieving about O Arjuna!” said Krishna. “These people did not exist in the past, they will cease to be in the future. Just for a little while now that you are here, they are there in your life. What’s the attachment then?” (Srimad Bhagavad Gita, 2.28. IAST: avyaktādīni bhūtāni vyakta-madhyāni bhārata avyakta-nidhanāny eva tatra kā paridevanā).
Everyone we meet in our life is on their own individual journey, we simply cross paths. The cure for loneliness, therefore, is not to find someone or something that keeps you engaged, happy or busy. It is but to find your center of awareness and realize that to taste lasting happiness, we must turn inward and embrace the beauty of loneliness.
Yogic texts called such loneliness supremely liberating. They gave it the term kaivalya: you in your own company basking in utter peace and absorption. Due to our conditioning, desires and actions, there exists a chasm between the intellect and the soul. With self-enquiry, reflection and mindfulness, this gap starts to narrow and as it does, it brings you closer to you. Sattva-purushayoh shuddhisamye kaivalyam iti. Thus, when the purity of intellect equals the purity of soul, one reaches the final state of emancipation. (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 3.55. IAST: sattva-puruṣayoḥ śuddhisāmye kaivalyam iti).
A beautiful girl was drinking coffee at a café when Mulla Nasrudin approached her.
“Are you alone?” he asked her with an unmistakable shyness in his voice.
“I’ve been alone for a long time,” she sighed.
“In that case, may I take this chair?”
If you are seeking someone in your life because you are lonely, you will be disappointed. You are seeking a seat in their heart and they, perhaps, simply want your chair. Granted that having another person will keep you busy as most worldly relationships do but busyness does not equal fulfillment or bliss. Two lonely people do not make a festive crowd.
When you simplify and declutter your life, when you devote time to the wellbeing of your mind and soul, when you live in harmony with feelings of love and kindness towards all sentient beings, you bridge the gap between your intellect and soul. Walking past your conditioned intellect, you realize that you are beyond all that grieves you, far above all that you crave, that you are not just a shining star in the universe but the universe itself. Who can then make you feel lonely or snap you out of loneliness? No one. If anyone, only one person wields the power to pull you out of your loneliness once and for all. And that person is you. The complete you, the beautiful you, the indestructible you that is seated in you, that being of boundless glory and magnificence who is forever away from anything even remotely close to ordinary loneliness.
The only true and eternal relationship you have is with your self. Live it. Love it. Value it. It’s worth it.