“I’m lonely. How can I feel less lonely?” Loneliness is one of the worst feelings in the world… but also one we must come to understand and accept if we are to have meaningful relationships with others.
Too many people decide to pursue relationships simply because they’re lonely.
It’s a sad fact of our current society that we aren’t well-prepared to deal with loneliness. Extroversion and an active social life are preferred over introversion and a more gregarious lifestyle. Although we require social interactions to be really healthy, we haven’t learned how to handle the loneliness that comes, sometimes, when we seek social interaction but aren’t able to get it (or even when we do.)
Our desire for connection is innate; I’ve been watching Mr. Robot lately (I know, late to the party) and I hear Elliot crying, begging for some sort of connection with someone, anyone, but because of what he does, he needs to keep his walls up and not let anyone in.
And the tragedy is that he is forced into an unwanted loneliness, a life mostly devoid of connection.
And he can’t deal with it.
Our lives may not be as dramatic as Elliot’s, but we all deal with loneliness at some point. And loneliness can make us do stupid stuff, just so we can end the suffering.
Why write about loneliness?
This is a relationship blog. Why did I feel like writing about loneliness?
Because loneliness is a big factor in how we start and manage relationships. Fear of loneliness makes us do things that we wouldn’t do if we had a fulfilling social life. Fear of loneliness drives us to drugs, or alcohol, or risky sex.
Fear of loneliness makes us stay in abusive relationships, or ones that are simply bad for us. Fear of loneliness makes us accept things that wouldn’t be acceptable if we weren’t so damn lonely all the time. Fear of loneliness puts us in dangerous situations, because the dangerous distraction seems better than dealing with the emptiness.
Fear of loneliness can destroy your life, if you let it.
And so today, with my humble words and small experience, I’m going to try to help you deal with “I’m lonely” feeling that you can’t seem to shake. Because I’ve had to deal with it a lot myself, I’ve thought about it, and I’ve learned ways to calm and soothe my soul and not do stupid stuff just to fill up that hole in me.
Learn what loneliness is
If we know what loneliness really is, it already has less power over us. Pema Chodron 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.
Loneliness is an unfulfilled desire. It’s boredom, or anxiety, or an indescribable feeling of something missing. It’s when the emptiness that we all have, as humans, becomes so big and all-encompassing that our usual distractions don’t work. TV doesn’t work. Reading doesn’t work. Running doesn’t work. So we sit there in that empty space, and we scream for something or someone to make us look elsewhere, anywhere but in the deep dark hole we’re sitting in.
We want to escape.
But avoiding loneliness at all costs—including turning to drugs, alcohol or sex for escape—is the worst thing you can do. If you cannot be lonely, if you cannot sit in the loneliness and feel it, pregnant with possibility and desire, you will never be able to deal with it. Avoiding it is like avoiding any other pain.
You can be lonely. You can withstand the feeling of engulfing darkness.
You can sit with your loneliness and learn about yourself, and become more resilient.
How to tame loneliness
I want to go back to Pema Chodron’s article I quoted earlier. In it, she offers six ways to tame loneliness—not taming in a sense of getting rid of it, but taming in a sense of simply teaching ourselves to calmly be with loneliness, so we don’t throw ourselves in a drinking binge, or an unaffordable shopping spree, or whatever way you have of distracting yourself from your uncomfortable corners.
The first thing she mentions is less desire. As someone who blogs about sex (and therefore desire), it might seem strange to advocate less desire. But trust me, desire (or at least the uncontrollable kind) only leads to suffering.
Less desire is the willingness to be lonely without resolution when everything in us yearns for something to cheer us up and change our mood. … After we practice less desire wholeheartedly and consistently, something shifts. We feel less desire in the sense of being less solidly seduced by our Very Important Story Lines.
The second thing Chodron discusses is contentment. Contentment is realizing that we have nothing, and so we have nothing to lose. It’s about being able to sit in the middle and not seek resolution, left or right. When there is nothing to seek, there is no reason to strife or to distract ourselves. There is only the moment.
When we draw a line down the center of a page, we know who we are if we’re on the right side and who we are if we’re on the left side. But we don’t know who we are when we don’t put ourselves on either side. Then we just don’t know what to do. We just don’t know. We have no reference point, no hand to hold. At that point we can either freak out or settle in. Contentment is a synonym for loneliness, cool loneliness, settling down with cool loneliness.
The third technique for taming loneliness is avoiding unnecessary activity. Unnecessary activity is what we do when we get restless and look for something to distract us: our phone, our TV, our addiction. Meditating teaches us that we don’t need unnecessary activity when we’re able to just sit with the moment, that we’re all capable of simply being with seemingly unbearable loneliness… which dissolves as soon as you let it go and stop focusing on it so much.
When we’re lonely in a “hot” way, we look for something to save us; we look for a way out. We get this queasy feeling that we call loneliness, and our minds just go wild trying to come up with companions to save us from despair. That’s called unnecessary activity. It’s a way of keeping ourselves busy so we don’t have to feel any pain.
Fourth is complete discipline. Discipline doesn’t mean iron will; discipline can be gentle and yet uncompromising. In this case, complete discipline means being able to go back to our breath at every moment, to return to the present moment as soon as our minds get distracted by its usual narrative.
Complete discipline means that at every opportunity, we’re willing to come back, just gently come back to the present moment. This is loneliness as complete discipline. We’re willing to sit still, just be there, alone. We don’t particularly have to cultivate this kind of loneliness; we could just sit still long enough to realize it’s how things really are. We are fundamentally alone, and there is nothing anywhere to hold on to.
The fifth aspect of taming loneliness is not wandering in the world of desire. When you get lonely, it’s easy to think about all the things you don’t have that you want: a better partner, more sex, more money, a bigger house, whatever. But whatever it is you want, getting it won’t fundamentally change your nature. You will still be alone. You will still have, from time to time, no matter how fulfilled you think your life is, this bottomless well of discomfort and loneliness.
Wandering in the world of desire involves looking for alternatives, seeking something to comfort us—food, drink, people. The word desire encompasses that addiction quality, the way we grab for something because we want to find a way to make things okay.
The last element is not seeking security from one’s discursive thoughts. In simpler words, it means not retreating into the stories you tell yourself about yourself: the stories we tell ourselves about what deserve or not deserve, the stories about what we are or aren’t, the stories about the people who are helping us or hindering us.
We don’t even seek the companionship of our own constant conversation with ourselves about how it is and how it isn’t, whether it is or whether it isn’t, whether it should or whether it shouldn’t, whether it can or whether it can’t. With cool loneliness we do not expect security from our own internal chatter. That’s why we are instructed in meditation to label it “thinking.” It has no objective reality. It is transparent and ungraspable.
I’m lonely, but it’s okay
I’m an introvert. I live alone. I like to be alone most of the time, and seek social interactions less often than many others. But still, I can feel unbearably lonely sometimes.
I used to pry it away with alcohol, only to have this loneliness cling to me again like a hot piece of gum on fabric. It wasn’t until I stopped drinking that I truly faced my loneliness. Sometimes I even force myself to shut my phone down so I don’t seek the distraction of Facebook or Twitter. Meditation helps, too.
We’re all lonely once in a while. We’ve all felt the fundamental brokenness and disconnection that is at the heart of human suffering. The way to happiness, or at least contentment, is not to veil this brokenness with activity, or distractions, or feelings of anger and entitlement. It is to plunge head first in the dark waters, to swim in loneliness and let it bubble up around you.
If you see it, if you accept it, it won’t hurt you. It won’t drown you.
So stay with it.
This is how to be lonely.