Three years ago, I divorced my husband of thirty-four years. Even though I have a strong support network of incredible women, there are times when I miss his companionship and am lonely. In last week’s episode of Casual Buddhism, I asked Venerable Dhammananda about loneliness. She said that we are always alone, from the beginning. This prompted me to think about the difference between feeling lonely and embracing solitude. When I am lonely, I experience a deep sadness that seeps through my bones. When I experience solitude, I feel strong and rejoice in being alone. I wondered what solitude can teach me about loneliness when it arises?
The truth is when I’m lonely, I’m scared, frozen in the belief that the feeling will never end. It’s like I’m uncomfortable in my own skin and all I want to do is run away to escape from my misery. I fight my lonely feelings. I have this expectation that I “should” be happy. It’s almost as if I’m not supposed to feel lonely and there is something is wrong with me.
There are times when I am content to be alone, comfortable in my own skin. I had an experience last summer while visiting Mendocino, a remote seaside town along the Pacific Coast in Northern California. As I sat on a bench overlooking the magnificent Pacific Ocean, mesmerized by the vast expanse of water, I felt as if I were floating in the undulating waves drifting in and out. I was serene and peaceful for the first time in months and comfortable being alone.
Perhaps the keyword here is acceptance. My experience in Mendocino taught me that when I embrace my solitude, I am no longer lonely. If I examine my experience more closely, I see that something quite simple happened—I was totally absorbed in the present moment. I turned off my thinking mind and tuned in to appreciate where I was and what I was feeling. When I am stuck in the trenches of loneliness, my thinking mind is so busy worrying that it’s hard to be in the present.
Venerable Dhammananda said when we’re feeling lonely, we need to shift our mental focus—pay attention to our breathing and tune into our present surroundings. “Come back to yourself, your breathing—it really helps not to be preoccupied with one hundred and one things but come back to this fresh existence.” I love the term fresh existence because it implies that we can always improve our mood and look around with fresh eyes.
For those of us who meditate, she also recommends pausing to meditate. As we meditate, we give breathing room to ourselves and the space that isn’t available when we’re caught in the chaos of our minds. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to meditate when I am so anxious. What really helps is going for a walk or getting out for a hike where I can feel myself moving. Simply getting outdoors improves my mental state. I can also call a friend and arrange to get together, or go shopping at my favorite produce market—anything to quiet the turmoil in my mind.
When I’m feeling lonely, I simply need to remember that there are things I can do to re-frame my attitude like meditating, taking a walk, or visiting friends. My loneliness dissipates when I bring myself back to the present moment. I need to accept with grace and humility the fact that I am human, that I feel lonely at times, and that “this too shall pass.”