Loneliness has more than one flavor and many layers. Some of these are purely personal. Others are part of the human condition.
The first layer, situational loneliness, is the empty feeling we might get when we’re alone in a strange hotel room, or when we have a difficult task to do and there’s no one around to help.
If you’re an introvert, this kind of loneliness may carry with it a piggybank of painful memories. If you’ve always been outgoing and popular, it may be the odd emotion you felt during the first few days of college or a new job—and it can knock you for a loop. Often people on their first meditation retreat—especially silent ones—go through intense and difficult bouts of loneliness before they can settle into being with themselves.
When we’re experiencing symptoms of this kind of withdrawal, the temptation is to dissipate it with activity. However, being temporarily lonely offers a perfect opportunity to explore solitude. Instead of turning on the TV or going to look for action, we might want to spend some time investigating aloneness.
Situational loneliness is usually short-lived and relatively superficial. Not so the loneliness of true social isolation, which is for many people an ongoing and painful reality. Enduring a failing relationship, being rejected or cut off from our social supports, losing our job or our home, or suffering from a long illness-these are times when we can touch the depths of personal loneliness.
In many tribal societies, the worst punishment is to be shunned or exiled, not only because of the physical hardships it imposes but also because the social connections of tribal life are basic to most people’s identities. To be cut off or rejected can be deeply devastating. Yet it can also be a wake-up call and a powerful spur to inner practice.
Existential loneliness is the direct result of the ego’s feeling of separation from others and from its own source. Yoga tells us that this feeling is a fundamental misperception.
But even though teachings and practice can reveal that the feeling of separation is an illusion, the ego has a hard time believing it. Even when we “know” that this sense of separateness is the true cause of most of our pain, something in us clings to it and allows its tendrils to unfurl in every corner of our life.
The feeling of separation—together with the vulnerability it inspires—is the absolute essence of loneliness. It’s always there, ready to be triggered, which is why being by ourself around the holidays can feel so emotionally charged, and why having a fight with someone we love sometimes brings up fear and grief that’s far out of proportion to the situation.
Even more basic are the moments when we really take in how incredibly vast the universe is, how seemingly accidental our existence is, and how inevitable it is that we’ll one day die. At such moments, the ego faces directly into the truth of its nonexistence, confronting the vastness and apparent nothingness that underlie its illusion of being someone. And that, as poets, philosophers, and mystics have noted for eons, is really scary.
Yoga, however, can show that this apparent emptiness is not empty at all. One of the practice’s deepest goals is to train us to see that what looks like scary nothingness is actually creative, nourishing awareness, the substance—less substance that is threaded through everything and connects us all.
The antidote to existential loneliness is to get to know the pure awareness that lies behind our thoughts and feelings, and to realize how full of potential it is. Once we’re in touch with awareness or what is sometimes called the Self, or Buddha-nature—it’s impossible to feel lonely, at least for long, because we are connected to everything.
But it’s hard to experience that—or cure our loneliness—unless we’re willing to meditate, which means giving ourself an opportunity for aloneness. Every time we sit for meditation, or take time to be alone in nature, we open yourself to the chance of seeing past the illusion of ego and into that underlying connection. Once we’ve tasted it, it’s there to return to (and remind ourself of) when we start to feel cut off or alienated.
The practice of metta, or what’s called lovingkindness—or indeed any practice in which we send blessings or good wishes to others—is an ideal way to transform our feelings of separation into feelings of connection.
Begin by feeling your own loneliness. Without resistance, tune in to it. Then, connect with your breath, and with each one, send these thoughts to yourself:
Breathing in, think, “May I be happy.”
Breathing out, ask, “May I feel loved.”
Breathing in, send forth, “May all my suffering be healed.”
Breathing out, ask, “May I be at peace.”
Next, imagine other people in the world who might be feeling lonely at this moment, people you love and those you don’t know (lonely children, homeless people, people breaking up with their partners, people in prison, people in war-torn countries, and anyone else who might come to mind). With the breath, send out the same loving thoughts to them: “May you be happy. May you feel loved. May all your suffering be healed. May you be at peace.”
Finally, take a moment to send these thoughts to everyone in the world. “May all beings be happy. May all beings feel loved. May the suffering of all beings be healed. May all beings be at peace.”
If we do this powerful practice, we will discover how it can soften and change our own heart. When we consciously send blessings to others, especially in this systematic fashion, they forge our connections not just to the people we know but to all the beings we include in our well-wishing. And then, sneaking in with the breath, comes the realization of our unbreakable connectedness. We can’t be lonely when our hearts are joined, even for a moment, to the hearts of all.