I have this problem that keeps coming back: I am desperately lonely.
I need to be loved, and I’m not. I feel that in the deepest way possible, nobody understands me: I have nobody I can really, fully trust. I’m ashamed of this feeling. What’s wrong with me?
There are times when I want to cry so desperately for what I have lost, for the feeling of missing a feeling of wholeness that I once had. Something fundamental is missing from me. I had it once, or at least I have the impression of once having once being whole. Now it is gone, I am bereft, grief-stricken, sorrowful and alone.
Are you lonely like this? Have you been lonely? Isn’t this the greatest heaviness?
“Part of the human condition”
Loneliness might be the most universal malady in the western world. We live in cities of millions of people, we are packed into buildings of twelve, twenty, fifty, eighty people, all in separate compartments, all of them lonely.
Loneliness is endemic in our society, to the point where we often call it part of “the human condition.” There are books written about it, movies made about it, and everybody lives it: it even becomes a kind of default state that remains whenever one loses whatever it as – friend, companion, lover, or entertainment – that was keeping it temporarily at bay.
What is it, this loneliness, really? What is lying at the heart of it, this pain of having a big gaping hole inside, where something is missing that should be there; this longing to be loved, and the pain that comes when we fear we are not; this suffering of being alone and wishing to have a companion, a friend, somebody to understand us, to talk to us, to listen to us, to hear us, to speak our language – what is it and what is the cause of it?
In one way, loneliness is a basic feature of our existence. We are all born alone. When you are born, at that moment, as you are struggling to get out of the tight space you’ve been in for the past 9 months: is there anyone there with you? You’re lonely then, as lonely as you can be.
And we die alone. Nobody can come with us, nobody can stay with us at that moment. Even if friends and family surround you, at the moment when you die, all of them disappear, all of them are gone – for when you die, it is as if the universe dies with you. Everyone you know dies at the same time. You are alone then, as alone as it is possible to be.
At the same time, it is possible to be alone without feeling lonely. Solitary confinement is now generally considered to be one of the most painful forms of torture, and yet there are people who spend months and even years in voluntary solitude: monks, Indian hermits sitting meditating in mountain caves, people for whom solitude, even prolonged solitude, is not loneliness. What is the difference between them and the prisoner in solitary confinement going crazy with nothing but his own thoughts for company?
You can surely already see several answers to that question, but before we get into it, let’s see if we can open up this subject a little wider. Who is lonely? Does loneliness really exist everywhere, in every society, in every family, in every city, in every community? Are there places where it is less powerful than others?
Societies of “We” do not have loneliness
For some counterexamples of the type of society where loneliness is less well-known, we can look towards the east, and somewhat towards the past: tribes in India; the few remaining societies of small nomadic communities; or any society in which the basic unit is not Me, the Individual, but the family, the community, the tribe, or the village. Places where one does not talk about “Me, I,” but rather “we, us.” Ajan, for instance, grew up in Iran, in a society that valued the family and the religious community as a more important unit than the individual person.
On top of this, he was born into a family whose father had particularly strong values of generosity, and dislike for egoism. Ajan likes to tell of how, very often when he was young, his father scolded him for using the word “I.” “Who do you think you are? You can say ‘we!’ There is no ‘I’ here!” Thus, he was trained from a very young age to put down his own ego, to see himself as unimportant, nothing but part of a larger whole.
In a world where the individual ego is seen as unimportant, where everything one does is not for Me, Myself, for My gain, but rather for the group – whether that group be family, community, village or tribe – there is no such thing as loneliness; or if it does exist, it is much rarer and much weaker.
From the beginning of the day until the end, everything is done together. Everyone works together. The grandparents often live in the same house as the parents, there are large families with many children, with the older ones helping to raise the younger ones. Before you get the chance to run away to play alone, somebody will grab hold of you and get you to stir soup, or tell you to run to the shop and do an errand, or tell you “here, shell these peas for me.” You know absolutely deep in your heart that you are a link in a chain, a rower in a big boat, not alone.
Of course, there are certain trade-offs in this deal; after all, you cannot have everything. Living in this way usually means you are not free to do whatever you want: as you are taught never to say “I” but only “we” it means that your life does not belong completely to you.
Probably, for example, both sets of parents have to give their permission if you want to get married. There is a hierarchy involved in your community, and you have to be obedient, you have to accept sometimes being a simple soldier and not necessarily having the final say in all the decisions that are made, even those involving your life and the direction it will take.
It means having respect for authority, and if the authority is cruel or incompetent, you might end up suffering. You can choose to be a rebel if you want, but in doing so you lose the possibility of the fellowship that belongs to that life. Whatever you want has a price.
The problem with a society of “I”
We First World People, on the other hand, we of the “Developed World,” live in a self-centred, ego-centric society: a society that runs on individual ambition, pride and selfishness.
Every system we have in this society is built on selfishness and ego. Capitalism relies on it, democracy relies on it; the school system, university system, business world, social world, all is built on competition, showing off, standing out, being noticed, competing for the attention of others. We all are supposed to be Special. We all have to be Different. We all have to be Unique. We all have to be Amazing. We all have to Stand Out From The Crowd.
When you are selfish, in a selfish world, of course you end up lonely. You are in competition with the people around you, not with them. The selfish mind does not want to share his place with anyone, he does not want to be kind or generous; he worries only about himself and his right and what others owe him. How can he expect to have true friends, when he sees everyone as a potential enemy and does not trust anyone?
The spirit of loneliness itself is selfish, at root; or perhaps we should say, self-centred. “Nobody loves me. Nobody cares about me. Nobody understands me.” Me me me me me.
When the mind is lost in loneliness, he has no care for others – he’s busy longing for others to care for him. He has no love for others, he’s sad that they don’t love him. He is not busy trying to understand others, trying to help others, trying to be compassionate towards others, to listen to others – he’s sorrowful because others do not understand him, because he has nobody to listen to him.
This might sound rather harsh, but we are not blaming or accusing those who are lonely nor belittling their suffering, which is truly deep and very painful. All of us who are affected by this want, this hole inside, are victims of our condition; very often we have been taught to be, with loneliness installed in us since we were in our cradle.
Victim of Conditions
In an egocentric society in which the most important and basic unit is the individual as opposed to the family or the community, the values attached to family and community lose their importance accordingly.
One can see this quite obviously in some very simple ways: for instance, firstly, in the fact that it is now rare to find couples who stay together all the life, as opposed to the contrary – the priority is not for the family to stay together but for each person to be free to do what they want.
The second most blatant example is in the fact that it is now very unusual for a parent of either sex to decide to give up their career and stay at home to take care of their children. It’s expected for everyone to continue to work all their lives until retirement (the task of raising children not being considered important enough to be called “work” – after all, you don’t get paid for it in dollars.)
In the first case, it’s quite easy to see ways in which separation and divorce creates the perfect conditions for both selfishness and loneliness in the children of a couple. At four years old, your family is your castle; your home; the rock on which you stand; the solid base from which you make your first tentative forays into the world. It is where you learn about togetherness, unity and trust, how to be part of a whole greater than you.
When the family is broken (assuming it was whole to begin with!), all that the family meant for you is broken too and cannot be repaired, regardless of any efforts on the part of your parents to keep things friendly and feeling like a family.
How do you want to really trust anyone after that who tries to teach you anything? Your sense is that your mama and papa have lied to you and betrayed you. The deepest bone of trust was broken for you at 5 years old, and you learned that even that which you always believed was the one true, solid dependable thing you had – you could not depend even on this in the end. On what basis can you trust anyone else? When your family breaks, you learn that you are alone in the world and can depend on nobody. All you have to really cling to as a child is your teddy bear – he’s the only one that you know will not abandon you, the only thing you can rely on.
The second case, when both parents are career-driven and work full time, is almost as bad. We might not realise how damaging it is because this is something that tends to be accepted and not questioned in our society, but what does a child learn when she spends more hours of her day at a day-care centre than with her mama and papa, and when both her mama and papa are with her only when they are at their least energetic and most burned-out? At the same time, they very likely pay her to do any chores that she is asked to do in the household, like any employee. When does she to get to learn what it means to be part of a family? At every step she is learning that she is separate and alone, and that in life she has to work for herself by herself.
How to fill a hole in the lonely heart
In these, and a hundred other ways, too numerous for us to mention all here, the conditions in which we are raised leave us with this great gaping hole in the heart. It’s a hole that we do not know how to fill, an emptiness where something is fundamentally missing, a part of us that cannot be replaced. Thus, we are right from the beginning so desperately lonely; we need somebody to fill the hole for us. The pain when there is nothing and nobody to fill it is almost unbearable.
Yet, at the same time, our conditions have made us selfish, incapable of truly putting our trust in anyone. Thus we are also incapable of forming good and lasting friendships with people who would raise us up and help us to improve ourselves. We don’t dare to open ourselves to anyone or to be truly honest about who we are with anyone. We surround ourselves instead with superficial friends who talk nonsense all day long, and who “go out” with us in the night. (“Going out,” referring to all those distractions that we can give ourselves in the night to make sure we never have to lie awake with the pain of loneliness we are carrying around. Drink, drugs, sex and thunderingly loud music being the main ones. Passing out. Carrying on.)
Or perhaps we find another way, any way we can to cover up the hole of loneliness inside, trying to find another teddy bear that we can hold onto.
Maybe it’s having a lot of money that gives you a sense of security and makes you feel okay; maybe it’s getting to the top of some kind of business or social ladder so that you have people who look up to you and know you are important. Perhaps it’s charming, seduction and sex, keeping somebody always beside you in the bed at night to hold you in their arms. Or by having a lot of friends that make you laugh.
Or being good at something, or clever, or funny, so that you will constantly get little boosts of praise and approval from people around that add up to a sense of feeling loved and accepted. Any time you fear that nobody is noticing you (“Am I invisible?” is one of the mantras of the lonely mind), you have to make yourself noticed somehow – up the game, draw attention to yourself. The attention of others becomes your food and you feel starved without it. .
Or else you just work desperately to keep your mind busy so that it cannot fall down into that dark hole at night: you can acquire an addiction, or an eating disorder; you can watch a lot of movies or read a lot of novels or even just constantly keep some kind of entertainment going on – tv, radio, podcasts – never should there be a moment when you are not listening to noise, when your mind is free to think.
You dread the quiet moments when you are left alone. Then, you remember the hole in your heart that is still there, no matter what you do to try and cover it up. Nothing you put into it can possibly fill it, because the love you are missing is not something that you can get from other people or from anything outside. Why would you need to ask for love from others if you had it inside yourself? When you don’t even have any love for yourself, how can you give love to others? How do you expect anyone to really love you if you don’t really love anyone, not even yourself?
Turn the wheel backwards, fly against the wind
To remove loneliness, the best way is to remove the cause of it. If it is selfishness that causes loneliness, individualism that causes loneliness, we have to work in the opposite direction of this. We have to go and help other people, do something that is not for ourselves, but for the benefit of others who are worse off than ourselves. In doing so we end up creating communities without even meaning to do so.
We do not need to work so hard to make people like us, to go to great lengths to be clever and funny, to have something to say. Simply being kind, honest and generous is more than enough. When you help others, you help yourself too. When you do work for the sake of a collective “us”, rather than just for “Me,” it is an action that defies loneliness; irrespective even of whether your work is known or not, appreciated or not. It is by such actions that we learn to love ourselves, because by such actions we practice qualities and gain the contentment from inside of knowing we are doing something good in the world.
In meditation here, we aim to go even further: to become like a bird that flies against the wind of all that we have learned, and all the selfishness in the society that surrounds us, and all the loneliness that comes with it.
This takes a lot of work, effort, determination and dedication, and is not always easy. It means unlearning all that we have learned before, and creating new habits for ourselves.
Instead of pursuing our own advantage and always working for ourselves by ourselves, we want to remove from ourselves, give to others, and in doing so become lighter and lighter. Rather than building up our ego and pride, we want to lower ourselves, bow ourselves down and make ourselves soft and small. To be like water, easy to change and hard to break.
Instead of being friendless and alone, unable to trust anyone, we want to search for those true friends who will raise us upward and help us to grow. Instead of trying to get more and more of whatever we want, to get more and more things that we hope will make us happier, we decide to renounce, to give up whatever we depend on for happiness and become independent to ourselves, not needing anything outside.
We now have to start to fill in this hole inside, not with a superficial and easy cover that causes its own problems and does not last, but slowly and steadily, a work that requires dedication and effort. We have to work to become sufficient unto ourselves, to love ourselves, to be independent to ourselves, so that finally loneliness becomes impossible.
Take note, however, that “becoming independent” does not necessarily mean being alone. In fact, the more we learn to love ourselves, to remove from ourselves and to be less needy and self-centred, the more lovable we become.
The less selfish we are, the less lonely we are, the more empathetic and caring we are. When we fill ourselves with goodness and love from inside, now we have energy and light to give to others – as we are no longer so busy looking at ourselves and worrying about our own problems, we can look outward, to see and understand other beings as they really are.
Instead of being a beggar greedy and hungry for love and attention of others, we become a generator of love, energy and compassion for all the world.
Then, how could we be lonely any more?