Being Alone Without Being Lonely: How Buddhism Helps Us Come Home to Our Selves
A lot of us struggle with being single. Whether you’re single by choice or going through a divorce or break-up, the ego has a field day when we’re not coupled. This time is often very fertile ground for our mind’s greatest fears and negative self-talk to plant seeds. The ego tells us stories about how we’re broken, unworthy and unloveable. Our minds run wild with tales of being a social outcast, never finding a romantic partner and then eventually dying alone.
The result of all this mind chatter? Debilitating loneliness. Loneliness so vast and unbearable that we literally want to jump out of our skin to get away from it. Pema Chodron refers to this experience as “hot” loneliness, describing the emotion as being “pregnant with the desire to escape it”.
The Illusion of Being Separate
When we’re lonely, we feel disconnected. We can experience this sense of disconnection in the midst of other people just as easily as we can feel it when we sit in solitude. So if loneliness isn’t about the company of another human being, then what’s it all about?
I’ve come to believe – through personal experience, research and working with clients – that loneliness is about being disconnected from our SELVES. Not from our mind or ego – because that’s not who we really are – but from our Source, our Soul, our Highest Self. The place within us that is calm and peaceful, that is able to observe the chatter of the mind, that we refer to when we say the word “Namaste”: the Light in me honors the Light in you.
It is a disconnection from this Light – from our own internal Home – that results in feeling lonely. When I’m caught up in my ego, when I identify with the voice in my head and I take myself to be “Rachel”, THEN I might feel lonely. Why? Because of separation. My ego likes to compare, it likes to tell me that everyone else has something that I’m missing. The ego believes that we are inherently broken and that in order to feel whole or complete, we need something or someone outside of ourselves.
So if I’m single and I’m caught in the trap of my mind – a “limbic hijack”, as Tara Brach would say – I could start to believe all the stories in my head about how everyone else is in a relationship and how I’m the only human being on the entire planet who has no one and that I will never find an intimate partnership again. If, however, I’m able to drop out of my head and down into my heart – if I can reconnect with who I REALLY am – then suddenly the loneliness is gone. Why? Perhaps because that place within me is pure, unconditional love. There’s no room for negativity there. Another reason could be that when we remember who we really are – when we find that place within us that feels like Grace – we blow up the illusion of separateness. Because in connecting with that Source, I’m saying that who I really am is Light. I am made of the exact same Spark of the Divine that everyone and everything else is made of. So there’s no sense of being disconnected; rather, when we connect with our own Soul, we connect with the entire world. We become one with everyone and everything around us.
That being said, it’s possible to simultaneously reconnect with one’s Highest Self and feel a longing for an intimate relationship. Something extremely refreshing about Buddhist psychology is that it allows us to hold conflicting emotions at once. It’s not “either/or”, but rather, “both/and”. I can be filled up with my own Light, no longer lonely, AND simultaneously feel sadness over not having a partner. We are inherently social creatures and we need each other as much as we need food and water.
So then what? What do we do with that sadness, that longing to be with someone when we’re single?
Staying, Non-Resistance and Non-Grasping
We simply stay. We stay present with our experience, saying “yes” to all of our messy, complicated thoughts and feelings. We accept, allow and notice. We notice how the ego wants to resist pain; we notice how our minds grasp at some notion of happiness, how we cling to an idea of who and what will make us feel at peace. We watch how our mind begins to frantically search for something outside of ourselves to numb the pain, how the ego ping-pongs from resistance to attachment and back again. And we remain centered, rooted in our Highest Selves, aware of the Truth. Aware of what the ego will never know:
That you were created PERFECT. You are whole and complete just as you are, lacking in nothing. And you are infinitely more capable, stronger and more resilient than your mind will ever tell you.
So the next time you’re feeling lonely, connect with the place within you that feels like coming Home. Because then – and only then – will you remember that you’re already there.