Solitude, choosing to take space from the distractions of the day to day to contemplate, experience and quite simply be. It is a foundational piece of the practice of self-inquiry. Take time, take space and get quiet. You will begin to hear the great teachings of your own heart.
– CLARA ROBERTS-OSS
Always lonely; the tattoo Florence Welch got on her left arm as a reminder to accept her loneliness and create joy from her despair. Loneliness is perceived as a sad state and something to avoid through cultivation social networks and relationships with others. In exploring loneliness and what it feels like to be alone, we may discover the quiet teachings of the heart and a deep inner solitude where creativity, courage, and compassion reside.
Hiking in the woods last week, supported in the silence of the trees, I felt a deep longing inside. I’ve used fitness as a form of escapism for years (swimming, running, cycling, yoga, dance) as a coping mechanism when I’m feeling anxious and unsettled. It’s easier for me to push my body and burst with sweat and hyper-stimulation than it is for me to be with the less-dopamine fuelled sensations that arise when I’m alone. This is my cycle. This is how I/we may avoid being with our loneliness. Fitness, food, drugs, booze, Instagram, shopping, sex; the list of ways we distract ourselves are numerous and multifaceted.
The path I refer to is one we will always walk alone. It’s transforming your loneliness into solitude. Walking your own path is listening to your heart and fostering the most important relationship you’ll have in your life: the one with yourself.
Loneliness without Despair
The first relationship you have is with yourself. Feeling cut-off, lonely, and disconnected from others and your environment is a symptom of the complexity of longing we each carry within. The world and our relationship to it is in constant flux; many variables contribute to how we feel moment-to-moment.
In The Taming of Solitude: Separation Anxiety in Psychoanalysis, the authors show how the root of loneliness is a separation anxiety unresolved since childhood. As adolescents, our growing pains extend beyond the biological demands of puberty as we learn how to set boundaries, communicate, and negotiate space in our private and public spheres.
Exploring the vastness of what it means to be alone is made more complex when we consider the online echo-chambers and realities we’re presented with through online communities where we seek external validation. As a species, we create meaning through social context. Our perceptions are based on the environments and relationships we develop and exist within. It’s a lot harder today than it was before the SmartPhone to remove oneself from social spheres and develop an individuated identity to explore our own thoughts. I was at the cusp of my teenage years when the cellphone evolved into a piece of technology where we could access the internet in the swipe of a thumb. As a teenager, I grew up in a world where I could be immersed in my aloneness once I left the public realm. Today, teenagers have iPhones, Tablets, iPads, MacBooks, and dozens of social media apps that allow them to connect and engage with people all over the world. It’s exhilarating to be heard and seen and liked by so many people. The trade-off is our time spent alone and what it means to be alone in the era of virtual technology.
Loneliness is only
an opportunity to
cut adrift and find
yourself. In solitude
you are least alone.
– BRUCE LEE
Jack Fong, philosopher and sociologist, said it best when he stated, “When people explore solitude, they will be confronted with who they are.” The precarious balance between your inner and outer worlds will continue to test your capacity to be alone. The ongoing exchange of internal and external relationships will have you feeling like a yo-yo as you strive to negotiate the needs and desires of others against your own. Developing the awareness to be alone and observe all the facets of the self is uncomfortable and requires patience, compassion, and idle time to explore. This process is one that never goes away; you’ll constantly be challenged with the task of fostering relationships with others in your societies, and you’ll constantly be asked to make time to come back to yourself. If technology translates one thing beautifully, it’s in how the world is constantly changing and your relationship to it will continue to evolve with or without your conscious consent.
Surrender to Your Hearts Longing
Know thyself, truer words were never spoken. Greek Poetess Phemonoe spoke thus at the Temple of Delphi in Ancient Greece, and later a little more loud and clear by Socrates and Shakespeare. Observing, understanding, and accepting what motivates you and why you do what you do is essential in understanding how to navigate the world. We’re driven by our emotions: an unresolved formula that hinges on our hormonal complexities and past experiences.
The yogi strives to break this chain of events; questioning habits, forming new patterns, and ultimately, admitting to the utter lack of knowledge of our existence. The best you can do is what Kurt Wolff calls the surrender and catch theory: give yourself over to moments of personal epiphany, surrender to what is, observe the totality of self, and give so you may receive.
Surrendering to what is allows for space to accept yourself and all of the events in your life exactly as they are. Observation leads to greater awareness of self in body and mind. Giving is living a life of love and compassion and trusting in the reciprocal process of nature. Personal moments of epiphany arise spontaneously when you make space to be alone. We fill our lives with so much external noise to avoid being alone and investigate our inner longing. You don’t have to look very far to see it. Technology is a great device if you know your intention. The incessant use of social media and search for fulfilment through external applications is crippling to not only our self esteem, it takes us away from developing the confidence, creativity, and comfort in being alone.
We all need space to let our subconscious wander. To breathe. To be. Without external stimuli; without external provocation or validation. A good friend, mentor, and fellow yogi, Sandra Stephanson, has termed her alone-time as, Solita Time. Solita is the spanish term for lonely. Solita is also a name for a female in Spanish, this origin is from a variation of Soledad, or Solitude. This interconnectedness of loneliness and solitude is captured beautifully as Solita Time.
Wisdom through Accepting the Emptiness
The Sanskrit language illustrates the essence of loneliness beautifully as sunyata: emptiness, loneliness, desolation, distraction, nothingness, non-existence, non-reality, illusory nature of all world phenomena. The essential idea of sunyata is that the world is in constant flux and nothing is entirely independent from anything else. All is connected, nothing is permanent. Acceptance of sunyata, according to the Buddha, is the cure for all suffering.
Emptiness is the central teaching of Buddhism. Buddhists have a very practical and accessible approach to meditation and what it means to exist. There is no Atman (soul). There is no Dharma (greater purpose for your life). Things just are as they are, and that’s it.
In 2015 I took a Vipassana Meditation where I became acutely aware of the impermanence of all things by observing the sensations of my body and the goings-on of my mind. In Vipassana I would witness how an itch or irritation would eventually pass with or without my active involvement and how the rapid, reckless, and whirling thoughts of my mind would spin stories and attempt to rationalize each moment. In Vipassana you sit for approximately 9 hours a day in meditation. It’s hard to escape who you are under such conditions. In this setting I was able to identify and appreciate the flux and emptiness of the Buddhist teachings of the Heart Sutra. You don’t need to sit in the extremes of Vipassana to become aware of this process. Seated meditation at home, walking in the woods, being alone; each could be a practice of observing the impermanence of self.
Emptiness in terms of sunyata, is the idea that we’re all connected and part of something much larger than ourselves. The Dalai Lama calls this dependent origination, or in Sanskrit, Pratītyasamutpāda. Dependent origination is a Buddhist concept that the basic law of the universe comes down to cause and effect: nothing exists independently and all comes from earlier circumstances. If you start to think of your existence and actions as influenced and influencing everything around you, you begin to see and understand the interconnectedness of all things. You’ll see how what we do now directly affects others and our future. In this context, we are never truly alone.
We’re all a part of a greater tapestry, a grand mosaic where you cannot separate the one from the many, or the many from the one.
Transform Your Loneliness into Solitude
In my experience of loneliness, it seeps into my heart when I’m disconnected from myself; when I haven’t made time to be alone and luxuriate in activities that bring me joy. Reading, writing, and being in nature ground me and bring me back into a space where I trust, accept, and love. Loneliness is a signal to me that I haven’t fulfilled my needs in someway, that the inner lack/longing I’m experiencing is causing me to reach outside of myself for the answers. Svabhava is the Sanskrit term that would relate this process. Svabhava is a poetic expression of solitude in that it represents the intrinsic nature of the self, the becoming of a particular entity in the fullest capacity of truth and love.
Love is a practice. When you focus on something that engages your entire interest, the mundane world dissolves and all your troubles are transformed. – LORIN ROCHE
Project your wildest fantasy onto your current reality; this is possible when you transform your loneliness into solitude. There will always be moments of ache and longing. Cherish these as gentle reminders from your heart, little nudges that point to where your attention is needed.
Questions for Quiet Consideration
When I feel lonely, where does this feeling live?
(Belly, Heart, Bowels).
What is the emotion attached to this feeling?
(Fear, Sadness, Angst).
What are my actions (if any) that I’m unsettled by?
Do I have the capacity to sit with what I feel and accept my past actions, my guilt and/or shame and/or betrayal, in order to move forward and be filled with loving compassion.
Do I act from a place of love and integrity in my relationships?
Do I have things that I do just for me, to create ritual and honor my relationship to myself?
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