When I became chronically ill over a decade ago and had to trade the busy life of a university professor for the isolation of my bedroom, the loneliness was palpable. At times, it was hard to distinguish between the illness and the loneliness.
One day, a friend I'd met online, sent me this quotation from the theologian, Paul Tillich:
"Language...has created the word 'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word 'solitude' to express the glory of being alone."
I was such a social animal that I found being alone anything but glorious. It wasn't even remotely sweet. But Tillich's words planted a seed and I began to investigate the meaning of "being alone." I realized that being alone in and of itself is neither positive nor negative. It was just a fact that now described a good portion of my life. If Tillich was right, it could be experienced as painful loneliness or as glorious solitude.
So, I went online to see what people treasured about solitude. Here's a sampling of what I found:
"I love solitude because no one is making demands on me."
"When I'm alone, my senses are sharpened and I feel part of the rhythm of the universe.
"Solitude refreshes my spirit."
"I make my wisest decisions when I'm alone."
These statements were inspiring (and I filed them away as possibilities), but they didn't replace the pain of loneliness for me.
As I do when I'm stumped, I turned to the Buddha for help. I thought about his first and second noble truths—that we suffer when we desire for circumstances over which we have no control to be other than they are. I was stuck-like-glue on the desire to have my active social life back. But I can't. It's the nature of my illness that socializing for very long exacerbates my symptoms.
I saw that if I could let go of that desire, I might be able to open my heart and mind to the possibility that solitude could be sweet, maybe even glorious.
I asked myself, "What might I treasure about being alone?" Here's my list, as it's grown over the years:
The quiet soothes my mind and sometimes even reduces the intensity of my physical symptoms, especially if I mindfully follow my breath coming in and going out of my body.
Being alone heightens my powers of observation. I notice details around me that I'd otherwise ignore, like the play of sunlight on the ceiling or leaves floating in the air on a breezy day.
I'm more productive when I'm alone because I can follow a train of thought more easily, especially when I'm trying to write. (My illness can make concentration difficult.)
Being alone allows me to let my body dictate the rhythm of the day—when to nap, when to eat, when to write or crochet.
I can watch whatever I want on television!
Being alone so much makes my forays out into the world special, as if I'm seeing the world afresh, with new eyes.
Once I opened my heart and mind to being alone, solitude did indeed become sweet. And occasionally, it's even glorious: I'm able to rest in that state of equanimity that the Buddha described—allowing the world to unfold without grasping at the pleasant or recoiling from the unpleasant. When this happens, I, too, feel part of the rhythm of the universe—a "flow-through of matter, energy, and information" as the eco-philosopher Joanna Macy so beautifully expressed it.
I should note that caregivers are subject to loneliness too, cut off as they are from an active social life and often from the company of their loved one who may be too sick to visit.
If being alone is a source of suffering for you, see if you can think of a few positives that come from solitude (even if it's just having sole possession of the remote control!). Maybe, like one of the people I quoted above, you can get those "creative juices flowing" to help you make a list.
I still get lonely on occasion and long for the company of others. When Tillich's "pain of being alone" overtakes me, I don't resist it. Resistance just makes the loneliness harder to bear. Instead, I direct compassion at myself, sometimes repeating a phrase such as, "It's hard to be alone when you want to be with people," or "It's tough to feel like you're missing all the fun."
Cultivating self-compassion softens the loneliness and makes it bearable. Then I remind myself that the pain of loneliness, like all mental states, comes and goes. It's painful now, but if I'm patient, it will pass and the sweetness of solitude will take its place.
I think that novelist Ann Packer was getting at the same feeling when she wrote in Dive From Clausen's Pier: "Lonely is a funny thing. It's almost like another person. After a while it will keep you company if you let it."
I like to substitute "solitude" for "lonely" in her words: "Solitude is a funny thing. It's almost like another person. After a while it will keep you company if you let it." Solitude as a companion is one of the reasons it has become so sweet.
Note: Chapter 16 of How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow includes a practice specifically designed to help ease the pain of loneliness. In addition, my newest book, How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide, contains an entire section on isolation and loneliness.
© 2011 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of three books:
How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (Fall 2015)
Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information.
For more on loneliness, see my article, "10 Quotations and Reflections on Loneliness."