A Better Way to Be Alone: Loneliness from Buddhist’s Perspective
Lonely? Loneliness is a condition we all experience. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. For example, there’s a German word combining the word for forest, ‘wald’, with ‘einsamkeit’, the word for loneliness or solitude. But loneliness or solitude aren’t negative, and ‘waldeinsamkeit’ doesn’t mean being morose or frightened. Rather, ‘waldeinsamkeit’ refers to a sense of being at one with nature, as in walking alone in the forest. Tranquil and peaceful.
By understanding our natural feelings about being alone in the world, and our responses to them, we can recognize how to cope with loneliness. Wonderful resources exist for recognizing and dealing with unhealthy symptoms of loneliness — drawing from wisdom both modern and ancient.
Sometimes we feel so lonely, we feel we could die — but can you die from loneliness? Well, not exactly, but recent studies have found that feeling utterly all alone can actually be harmful to your health. It can increase your risk of premature death by 14% … by reducing your brain’s ability to learn, remember, and make decisions … diminishing immunity, which then leads to inflammation … promoting hardening of the arteries, which leads to high blood pressure … and boosting the “fight-or-flight” chemistry of debilitating stress.
There’s a negative feedback loop here that’s physical as well as emotional and mental. When we feel If I feel as if we’re the only person in the world, this feeling of self-isolation, alienation, and chronic depression is not just in our mind: this manifests in our body by increasing chemicals which lead to further anxiety and stress, causing more depression, and so on. Through this vicious cycle, we can see the mind, body, and spirit are intertwined and condition each other. Fortunately, feelings of belonging and contentment, likewise, create positive feedback loops, amplifying our natural well-being.
Another window upon loneliness is found in our social make-up. In the past two decades, neuroscientists have been learning that we’re born with a brain wired for interpersonal connection. After all, humans have banded together since the Stone Age. Yet our emphasis on individualism can cause deep suffering as people become remote, cut off, disconnected from each other, their families, and society. Moreover, when people try to stuff or cover up their loneliness, they often cling to ephemeral pleasures and goals which, time and again, prove unsatisfactory, leading to further frustration.
A simple solution is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness means being aware of whatever’s present … with a curious and kindly attitude … open to the stream of consciousness in which we swim … without adding judgment or a storyline to it. A common beginning technique is to anchor awareness in the experience of breathing. Our mind may be going in 10,000 directions, but our body and our breath are always right here, right now. We can always pause, breathe, smile.
When we’re not mindful, we often react out of habit. Being aware, we can reflect and respond with discernment as to what would be harmful versus beneficial in any situation. Psychologist Viktor E. Frankl put it very well when he wrote,”Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Given how great is the need and how powerful a solution this can be, it’s little wonder that mindfulness has become the fastest growing wellness trend since yoga. Actually, it originates from a Buddhist path, called Vipassana, or Insight Meditation. Drawing upon the rich wisdom teachings of Buddhism, we find yet further guidance for combatting loneliness.
Several times, the Buddha taught what he called “a better way to live alone.” Whether living in a community, with a partner, or by yourself, with a partner, “living alone” here means having sovereignty over your life. Only you know if it’s hot; only you know if it’s cold. Nobody has mastery over your mind but you.
Moreover, you’re not pulled away by the past, nor anxious over the future. You’re completely in the present — the only moment ever available to us in which to live. If you pause to review something that already happened, or rehearse what you might soon do, it’s a conscious choice, done while still grounded in whatever’s at hand. I can attest this is a wonderful way to live alone.
We are a species capable of being aware of ourselves. If we don’t appreciate this heritage which is deeply hard-wired into each of us, we might tend to become overly self-absorbed. Then we behave like a diva, the star of our own soap opera, in which the whole world revolves around Me-Me-Me. Or, in terms of loneliness, we might feel we’ve been singled out for special punishment for feeling alone. To combat loneliness such as this takes using that marvelous fact of human self-awareness to realize we ourselves are the ones spinning around in a cage that makes the world seem dizzying. Slowing down, we then can observe how the door to this cage has been open, all along, and can then step into freedom.
So what’s all this got to do with dating? Well, for another person to add value to my life, and for me to be good for someone else too — I need to be solid and comfortable in my own being. Otherwise, my presence cannot be anything authentic in anyone else’s life, nor can they be really meaningful for me. Yet when a person on the path of self-realization meets another fellow traveler, then you can’t go wrong. Both support, nurture, and add space to each other’s lives. Then understanding deepens, giving us the capacity to offer and receive true love.