Loneliness: A Problem or an Opportunity
Loneliness, especially in Western psychological contexts, is generally associated with depression or low mood states and is regarded as a negative quality. Today’s post examines the construct and feeling of loneliness from several different perspectives, and discusses whether loneliness need always be regarded as a negative experience.
It’s probably fair to say that most people experience different degrees of loneliness at some point in their lives. This could be a short-lived sensation of loneliness that lasts for only a few minutes whilst waiting all alone at an old and run-down train station, or it could be a more chronic and deep-seated form of loneliness that lasts for many years following a relationship breakup or the death of a loved one. Although these two different types of loneliness affect people in very different ways, from the Buddhist perspective, the underlying causes are actually not too dissimilar.
According to Buddhist philosophy, and as we discussed in our post on ‘Searching for Happiness’, any kind of psychological pain, distress, or confusion, arises due to us developing very entrenched and mistaken views about exactly who and what we think we are. In other words, because we continuously reinforce our sense of self and become highly involved with our self-preservation, we construct and then harbour various ideas about what we think will make us happy. Generally speaking, unless we have chosen to fully immerse ourselves in (authentic) spiritual practice, then these ideas and plans are often governed by mundane and worldly aspirations, and only lead to further suffering.
Within the psychological literature, loneliness (and related negative mood states) are frequently associated with a feeling of total voidness – a big black hole that threatens to swallow people up into everlasting oblivion. Accordingly, most people believe that to avoid feeling lonely and to keep this voidness at bay, they need to spend most of their time in the company of a partner, family, and friends, and to surround themselves with other forms of company such as wealth, a successful career, and perhaps pastimes such as writing on a blog, working out at the gym, or playing computer games. However, when these ‘anti-loneliness strategies’ breakdown or become too boring, then people invariably revert to more extreme measures in order to avoid the feeling of emptiness and being all alone. Examples of such extreme (and maladaptive) behavioural strategies might be the excessive use of alcohol or drugs, becoming addicted to work, excessive use of the mobile phone, self-harming, going on a religious trip, diving head-first into the latest health trend, jumping into relationships, going on shopping sprees, or having meaningless one-night-stands. Needless to say, all of the above behaviours are not a solution to loneliness, but generally tend to keep us eternally distracted in order to avoid having to confront loneliness at its source.
Thus, loneliness, in whatever form it arises, ultimately represents a rejecting of the present moment, and a desire to be somewhere else or with someone else. Feeling lonely means that we are not satisfied with the present moment and that we want to modify it in order to live in some fantasised future, or in the ungraspable past. This is a little bit like the astronaut who goes into space to try to find new planets and life forms, whilst not appreciating the beauty and diversity of life on this planet. So to overcome loneliness, rather than the astronaut who explores external space, we should really be aiming to become a ‘psychonaut’ who explores the internal space of our own mind. You would probably be really surprised at the number of Western psychologists that we meet who have never earnestly begun to explore their own minds, yet who on a daily basis offer advice to others about how to overcome mental health problems or other issues of a psychological nature.
Our mission as a psychonaut is to be courageous enough to explore the seemingly empty voidness that exists within our own being. You see, it is in the very heart of this voidness, or the very heart of the feeling of loneliness, where we can encounter and then be bathed by the company of our own spiritual awareness. By finding and then awakening the spiritual presence that lies dormant within each and every one of us, our whole perspective on life begins to change. When we start to truly find and make friends with ourselves, the desire to fill our life with meaningless activities and superficial interpersonal transactions naturally starts to disintegrate. We begin to find that everything we ever needed and everything we ever wanted is right there inside of us. We begin to feel absolutely grounded, unequivocally alive, and continuously nourished by the company of our own spiritual presence. This friendship that we start to make with ourselves is completely unconditional, and when we have cultivated that friendship a little bit more, then we find that profound peace is available on demand. At this point, we can start to see other people and phenomena exactly as they are. We no longer allow the changing moods of others to influence our happiness, and we are just as content with being alone as we are when in the company of others.
Thus, with meditative practice, we can begin to understand that it is within emptiness or voidness where we can find total fullness and contentment. As human beings, and as we discussed in our post on ‘Do We Really Exist?’ we are essentially empty of an inherent existence. For example, the human being comprises the elements of wind, water, fire, earth, and space. If we examine our existence deeply, we find the wind, trees, rain, clouds, ocean, sun, minerals, plants, animals, and so on. We find all of these things but we do not find anything that we can call an independently existing self. This is the same as saying that we are empty of an inherent ‘I’. However, it is for this very reason – our being empty of an intrinsic self – that we can also say and realise that we are full of absolutely all things.
It doesn’t matter whether we read the teachings of the early sutras, or the essence tantric writings by the likes of Longchempa – all of the Buddhist teachings emphasise the importance of not relying for our happiness on the company of family, partners, and friends. You see, it might be difficult to accept, but the truth is that every single one of us comes into this world all alone, and we leave this world all alone. At the time of death, family, friends, and partners mean absolutely nothing. Just like waking from a dream, the memory of such people rapidly begins to disintegrate. The only thing we can take with us at death is the spiritual awareness that we have managed to cultivate whilst we were alive. In this manner, spiritual realisation is really the only reliable friendship that we have the possibility of cultivating. So cultivate that friendship now, my dears. Make the choice of being born into the family of noble beings whose friendship is pure and unconditional, and that outlasts even time itself.
Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon
Chah, A. (2011). The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Northumberland: Aruna Publications.
Dalai Lama & Cuttler, H. (1998). The Art of Happiness. London: Hodder & Stoughton
Segal, S. (Ed). 2003. Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. New York: State University of New York Press.
Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Buddhist philosophy for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 63-71.
Acknowledgment: This post was used as a platform for developing themes, insights, and elucidations to be included in an expanded article written for the Mindfulness in Practice section of the journal Mindfulness.