When I was an undergraduate, I was assigned a little pop sociology book called "The Pursuit of Loneliness". It turned out to be profoundly influential on my thinking at the time and part of what prompted an exploration into the literature of alienation - Elie Weisel's "Night", Jung's "Modern Man in Search of a Soul", Augustine's "Confessions", Erikson, Frankel, Bonheoffer, Huxley - the list goes on. All of it led me to one singular conclusion - one which I abide by and continue to teach - being alone and being lonely are two very different things.
Both of these conditions are a state of psycho-social disconnection. The first - loneliness - is about disconnection from community; the second - aloneness - is about a disconnection from oneself. One can be both alone and lonely, but one is never lonely if one is not alone.
Aloneness is a state of disconnection from the self, from one's core identity. It is typically driven by a poor self-perception, a lack of self-valuation or a sense that one is "less than". An exercise I often have my patients and clients do is to sit still in a chair in the middle of a room with no distractions for 10 minutes - no music, no cat, no book...nothing -- to sit with themselves. Most can't do it.
If we are not comfortable with ourselves, it makes being comfortable with others profoundly difficult. Social anxiety is often less about some diagnosable psychiatric condition that it is about a failure of introspection and self-realization. How can you expect others to like you if you don't like yourself?
Loneliness, by contrast, is a state of disconnection from the community, or a lack of connection to community. This notion harkens back to an earlier article that talked about how our need for belonging is not so much a state of social neediness, but more a hardwired survival mechanism. If we do not belong to the group, we will die; in post-modern society, this is more something of a psychic death.
Here's the dilemma - if you don't like yourself, you are more likely not to interject yourself into a group because of the expectation, whether conscious or unconscious, of rejection. Even when you do, the experience can be profoundly uncomfortable. You create your loneliness by virtue of your aloneness. On the other hand, if you are comfortable with yourself - connected to yourself - you are never alone; you have you.
By extension, then, you become your own "community" and, while the drive for external community remains a primal imperative, the need for external community becomes less and less important. Anyone who has raised a teenager into adulthood - especially a teenage girl - is quite familiar with this sort of evolution.
The logical progression of this dynamic is a recognition of, and connection to, the higher self, whether we characterize that higher self as the superconscious mind, a higher power or God. If we are able to connect our positive self-perception to a notion of something larger, then our sense of community also expands and we develop an even broader perspective on our own belongingness. The foundation upon which this progressive self-acceptance rests is found in the notion of the ego-centric, ethno-centric and geo-centric stages of development described by Integral Psychology, as well as the wisdom teachings of both East and West.
Grasping this sense of connection to the self grounds us, and extending it into a sense of a broader, geo-centric community amplifies our sense of belonging. When we endeavor to deflect our aloneness through our own inner work, then the loneliness of post-modern life can be transformed from a state disruptive psychic disturbance into a nominal social artifact.
© 2009 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved
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