Are you lonely?
Does having to be alone bother you? Do you feel disconnected from others even when you are in a crowd? Does this feeling of loneliness occur often? If yes, then you must investigate deeply into the matter, not to fix it as the problem, but to understand what it really means and why you feel this way, because a person can be by oneself and not feel lonely; conversely, a person can be surrounded by many but still feel lonely. So, what is loneliness? How can we determine whether one is really lonely or not?
What is loneliness
A general understanding
People generally understand loneliness as the feeling they experience when they miss someone in their lives. The person being missed could be one’s parent, spouse, relative, classmate, colleague, or friend among others. Psychology has added to this understanding by categorizing the experience of loneliness into various types, such as- emotional loneliness (wherein the person feels distant from others at the level of emotions and finds it difficult to relate with the people around them for various reasons), chronic loneliness (wherein one feels lonely for a long period of time and suffers from uncomfortable social isolation) or situational loneliness (which occurs as a result of events such as shifting to a new place for work or education which cause changes in the environment and lead to the person getting cut off from their familial and social setting). While psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, motivational speakers and lifestyle coaches suggest various measures to deal with loneliness and people do try applying these measures, this understanding of loneliness has severe limitations as they only seem to scratch the surface. Although there may be many surface level causes for loneliness and such practices may help to a certain extent, there is only one core reason behind all types of loneliness. Let’s look at this in detail.
The core issue
As human beings we all need basic things such as food, clothes and shelter and the company of people around us to live a normal life. But we do not remain content with just the basics and always want more. It is true that we need things and people in the outside world for our survival to an extent, however, there is a deeper level of play that takes place in the minds of people.
Most of us live lives centered around external objects including all material things and people. We do not feel or realize our loneliness as long as these outside things and people are available to us and are providing us a sense of pleasure or satisfaction. But whenever we are away from such things and people for sometime we begin to feel uncomfortable. This discomfort is in fact the result of our inability to be at peace with our own selves in the absence of things and people we cherish in our life. Moreover, there could be another stage wherein one reaches the point of saturation and feels a kind of discontent even in the presence of these cherished things and people. The person then longs for something else with an inner sense that something is missing, but without necessarily being able to identify what it is.
In spite of this vague recognition that something is missing, most of us seldom choose to stay with the feeling or delve into the depths of it. Instead, we tend to keep ourselves occupied all the time in order to remain engaged in interesting bodily and mental activities that provide pleasure or help avoid pain. We indulge in various enjoyable life experiences but start losing interest in the things and people over time as they no longer provide the same feeling of pleasure. We then seek new things and people to feel good again.
This tendency keeps us engaged in new things and people one after another but whenever there is a gap between the saturation point and arrival of new things, people, or experiences, we begin to feel the emptiness which we often interpret as dissatisfaction with the world, ourselves or our lives. This feeling can be overwhelming and we may feel engulfed by it. This is essentially because it requires us to face our fears, insecurities, limited perceptions and beliefs, limiting thought patterns and hidden tendencies which becomes a difficult endeavor because we are unwilling to accept ourselves in totality and so have been either covering up these blemishes or avoiding them in any possible manner.
As a result, we keep running away from reality and carry several unresolved issues buried deep within ourselves and remain entangled in our thoughts and emotions for a long period of time as we try to figure out the reason for the discomfort in external factors. This superficial understanding or resistance may, however, generate a lot of confusion, misunderstandings, irregularities, and distorted thinking which may further result in depression, anxiety and mental health disorders among other issues. Some of us do recognize the inner source of the feelings of loneliness and engage in practices that help us sit with the feeling or related thought. We may engage in therapy, yoga, meditation, counseling or coaching for stress management among others. These practices essentially help us slow and calm the mind and get disentangled from our thoughts and emotions to a certain extent. With continued efforts these too prove to be beneficial in managing unpleasant emotions, thoughts and sensations however in the longer run they are more like symptomatic treatment rather than healing mechanisms that help address the root cause of the issue. (The article on “Chanting and Meditation” explains this in greater depth.)
Subtler forms of loneliness
Alongside the more apparent experiences of loneliness, there are subtler ones too that often go unnoticed as signs of loneliness. One may seem to fare well in a certain aspect of life but struggle in another. For example – a person works for 12-14 hours a day and is good at it but doesn’t feel comfortable at home. There is something with the family that this person is either unable to accept and cannot do anything to change or there is a lack of acceptance in the family towards them for some reason that the person isn’t willing to change. This person is using work as an escape to keep him/herself busy so that he/she does not have to face the family. This too is a sign of loneliness but is seldom acknowledged as such.
We all are busy doing something or the other as we know nothing apart from thoughts and actions. We have no clue how beautiful it is to be silent within. People also indulge in various kinds of entertainment too as an escape such as watching movies & web series, playing cards and gambling, listening to songs, playing video games, social media etc. Many opt for intoxicants as well to deal with loneliness. Superficially, all of these escapes seem to work but they actually intensify the level of dissatisfaction and discontent in the longer run.
Loneliness and Silence
Loneliness is essentially a reflection of something deeper missing in our lives. It is to do with our ability to be comfortable and at ease with ourselves at all times irrespective of our life situation. If we are not comfortable with ourselves and we don’t know what silence is, then we will keep looking for something or the other outside of ourselves in order to be satisfied and to feel alright. When we are alone we have only ourselves. At such occasions one inevitably has to spend time with the self. If we have not worked on ourselves and have not done introspection ever we might not know the reasons why we feel lonely. And even if we know the reasons, what do we do about it? Everyone of us can engage in self enquiry and see what kind of actions we engage in. All are bestowed with this ability to judge ourselves and correct our wrong deeds to lead a pure life. We must investigate ourselves deeply as to what we actually need to be completely at ease. Is it something outside or inside?
loneliness as an opportunity
Loneliness is an indication that it is time to stop the race we are running in the outside world and start the inward journey to first question why am I not comfortable in this situation. Is it because of any thing or person in particular that I am missing or is it due to my inability to remain at ease with whatever I have at this moment? Why am I so dependent on certain worldly things and people that whenever I am away from them I start feeling uneasy? Or what is it that is missing in my life even when I have all the things I need or all the people I want?
Such an inquiry, if done objectively, helps us peel off the discomfort we’ve been experiencing layer by layer and ultimately reach the essential source of all the discomfort. We then begin to feel more and more at ease with being on our own and accepting of our present circumstances as they are. We can begin to feel connected to all those around us whether they’ve held any special value in our lives in the past or not.
Such a state of being coexists with an internal state of silence and when we start getting involved in things that come out of our silence, then it is no more an escape from loneliness. It becomes an expression of something that wants to be expressed. We become a medium to unfold the very change this universe desires. This way of living answers all the questions that we get whenever we are lonely. The feeling of loneliness is there for a reason, so whenever you feel lonely, know that it’s time to stop and look within.
By Kamal Naresh