In her book “When Things Fall Apart”, Pema Chodron likens sitting with our own loneliness to going into detox.
“Boy, that doesn’t sound like fun!” I thought when I first read her words.
But it sure made me curious.
Is it? Is the experience of my own loneliness really that uncomfortable – or transformative?
So I sat with it. I had a perfect opportunity the other night in my meditation class, so I marched right into that space where I often feel inexplicably lonely, and I sat down to wait.
It didn’t take long. Before five minutes had passed I started to squirm. To fidget. To THINK.
Oh god. The thinking. That’s the worst.
Pema writes that trying to escape from our own fundamental human loneliness is like trying to find lasting comfort while sitting cross-legged. We settle into a position and hunker down for a relaxing rest. But then our knee starts to hurt. So we shift positions. “Ahhhh, much better,” we think. Then our foot falls asleep. So we shift again. “Yup, this is the ticket. I’m fine now.” But then our lower back starts to spasm…
You get the picture.
She writes, “Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.”
What she means by resting in the middle is avoiding the temptation to do something – anything – at the first twinges of loneliness. If we have an eating disorder, we might look to the refrigerator – or stay away. If we are a drinker we might reach for the bottle. If we have an intense job we might throw ourselves more deeply into our work. But if we are not at ease in the presence of our own loneliness, what is sure is that we will do something to try to escape it.
Pema urges us not to do this.
She says, “The point is that in all these activities, we are seeking companionship in our usual, habitual way, using our same old repetitive ways of distancing ourselves from the demon loneliness. Could we just settle down and have some compassion and respect for ourselves? Could we stop trying to escape being alone with ourselves?”
When I first read these words, I realized that I didn’t know.
So what did I discover – after forcing myself to just sit still, to observe and experience what it feels like to be “lonely me?”
I discovered that it is possible. To just sit. To be with myself. To feel lonely and not die from it. To feel lonely and survive it without doing one single thing to distract myself or try to push it away.
I also discovered that, behind the space where the lonely feelings hang out, there is a peace. Pema draws a direct comparison between loneliness and contentment, and I had never thought of contentment in that way before.
But when I took some time to not just think about it but feel my way into it, I found it to be true. Contentment is accepting and enjoying what is, right in this moment now. Another word for contentment might be mindfulness. And another word for mindfulness might be loneliness. We are often – always – alone with ourselves. This will never change. Pema draws another parallel between loneliness and discipline. The discipline of mindfulness and the discipline of loneliness and the discipline of contentment are one and the same.
In other words, loneliness can be a true friend and a mentor to us….if we will let it. Loneliness can teach us that our own company is not a last resort, our only option, or something we should strive to avoid at all costs.
Loneliness can offer a comfort that nothing else can match, as we relax into what is, and begin to enjoy each moment just as it is, whether we are keeping good company with others or with ourselves.
Today’s Takeaway: Where would you rank yourself on the “comfort meter” when it comes to your own experience of feeling lonely? Are you able to sit with it as you would with a friend? Or do you run shrieking away the moment it arrives? What can loneliness teach you about where you still need to work on strengthening your relationship with yourself? How can making peace with loneliness strengthen your relationships with others as well?