This column was written in the fall of 2019 before we were sheltering at home. I thought this was an important time for a contemplative look at our time alone.
Sometimes being alone is a wonderful break from the noise of crowds, from the expectations of others. We all need time alone, and it nourishes us like food or water or sleep. But sometimes being alone is uncomfortable. Sometimes it feels lonely. Remember-- every human feels that, from time to time. The next time you feel lonely, try this:
First, feel whatever feelings arise. Sometimes we had feelings simmering unnoticed just beneath our consciousness, and they are rising to the surface now that we have a moment alone. Sigh. So we do the practice of just feeling them. Not clinging to them, not pushing them away. Just letting the feelings rise and then letting them go. If there were a lot of feelings, this might take a while, but somehow taking time to feel helps.
Sometimes we feel “lonely” instead of just “alone.” Loneliness is a survival drive like hunger or thirst that reminds us that humans need one another. For mammals our need for others is hard wired. We are pack animals and need our pack. We need them for safety and support. Loneliness sometimes says “do you know where your pack is?” Take a moment to remember your pack- your family, your friends, the neighbors who would feed your cat if you asked, the firemen and police who would come if you needed help. Type “Volunteer” and the name of your town into your favorite search engine, and see all the folks who give their time to support your community. Perhaps your loneliness is reminding you to connect to and strengthen your pack.
Loneliness also sometimes says “I need companionship.” And like being thirsty when your water bottle is empty, being alone when you want companionship is uncomfortable, and can be scary when you are not sure where your next drop is coming from. Loneliness is asking you to make a plan to find companionship. Just as it might take time to walk to the next water fountain, it may take time to find your companions. I have noticed in the past that if I start texting and calling and reaching out, it may take time for things to come together, but most of those efforts yield companionship sooner or later.
Sometimes, even when I’m with other people, I feel
lonely. But sometimes I feel something really joyful and sweet even though I am
alone in a crowd of strangers. Recently I went to see live music on the town
square, and though I was alone I didn’t feel lonely. I felt proud of the great
town I live in. I felt the joy of all the folks listening to the jubilant music.
I was moved by the musicians, working so
hard, and all the people supporting them. Sometimes I feel my connection to
everyone, and sometimes I don’t. The connection is real either way.
When you think about it, being alone is just an illusion, just a feeling. In fact we can never actually be alone. Even when there are no humans nearby there are birds and trees and bugs and a crazy network of fungus and microbes linking all to all. We are part of an interconnected web of life from before we are born until after we die. Know that you are never alone.
Please remember that even though we may not be able to hug right now, there are still many ways to connect. Please reach out, keep reaching out. You are never alone.