“We live as we dream--alone....”
~ Joseph Conrad
I have been thinking a lot about loneliness lately, and I have noticed that it’s not what most of us think it is. Loneliness is a common complaint, even among those who are married or living with someone. After working with many clients struggling with it, and noticing it inside myself, I have come to believe that loneliness is not a problem to be addressed, or a symptom to be relieved by learning new coping strategies or medications. It has little to do with how many people are around, if we are in an intimate relationship, or how many friends we have. It is not caused by a lack of connections with others.
Rather, more and more, I believe loneliness to be a direct experience of who we are; a fundamental aspect of our human nature. Aloneness is our natural human state. In this life, we simply are alone. Think about it, no one else has had our exact experiences, or sees the world in just the same way, or thinks the same thoughts that we do. Our reality is unique, our experience of life unlike anyone else’s. No one else can possibly know what it is like to be us.
We are thrust into this life alone, go through all our adventures essentially alone, and die alone. We have companions along the way to keep us company, but there is always this fundamental separation between us. We are physically separate from all others, different, not on the same path.
I believe it goes back to the nature of our existence on this planet. At our essence, we are infinite spiritual beings, connected to, and an expression of, God. One with everything. This is our absolute nature. The large Self. Simultaneously, we are finite, discrete, limited, mortal human beings. Separate from everything else. The small self. Both are true; this the paradox of being human.
When we are born, we incarnate out of the Great Silence, and are plunged into the human experience. We move from unity into duality, our plight as humans. The fall from grace. But as if to soften the blow of this jarring transition, we are (hopefully) merged with our mother for some time. We get all our needs met by others, and are kept safe and warm and well-fed. Not quite the bliss of unity perhaps (ahh, my diaper is wet!), but not too bad. Any discomforts are taken care of forthwith. I love the world, and the world loves me.
Alas, this merged, undifferentiated state can not last. Eventually, we begin to separate from our mother, to individuate (Mine!). We gradually realize we are separate beings, and we begin to experience unpleasantness such as disappointment, pain, rejection, loss, and frustration. This is a necessary step in our human development, and ideally it happens without undue trauma. But for many of us, we’re not so lucky. We have early unpleasant experiences that overwhelm our ability to cope, and less-than-perfect caregivers contribute to us creating survival strategies such as dissociation, suppression, repression, perfectionism, obstinance, pleasing, and others. Through this unpleasantness, we realize, to our horror, that we seem to be all alone. No one is there for us, no one to talk to, no one to help us. We are on our own, and it is an absolute horror.
I think of that still face experiment video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0) where the mother is right there, but goes still and stops interacting with her baby, and within one minute the baby completely decompensates and freaks out, losing control of her body in her distress of “losing” her mother, even though she is still physically present. I think of a toddler with his mother at the grocery store, when he loses sight of her for a moment, how it terrifies and shocks him, taking some time to recover after mother reappears. That we are so vulnerable, so needful, such is our fragile condition, our humanness, our vulnerability.
~ Janet Fitch
Because of our vulnerability in our youth, many of us develop a real aversion to aloneness. It feels so unpleasant to us, so overwhelming, so deeply threatening and painful, that we will do almost anything to avoid feeling it. Enter addictions of all kinds. I am convinced that many of our addictions exist primarily to help manage these feelings of aloneness. As long as we are looking at our phones, watching TV, getting high, or eating something yummy, we don’t feel alone.
So because of our traumatic early experiences of being alone, and long avoiding feeling aloneness all our lives, it becomes part of our shadow, the disowned, rejected part of our selves. We hate it (It’s so painful!), judge it (People who are alone are losers!), and avoid it (Hello, iPhone!).
So, as with all polarities, in order to heal, we must live out both poles of opposites. Most of us greatly prefer one pole (We are God, infinite, one with everything) and reject its opposite (We are human, separate, alone). Welcoming, accepting, and integrating the rejected pole is what is needed here. We must eventually accept aloneness as part of the human experience. Embrace it. Live it out. At the beginning of this process, experiencing the aloneness may be quite unpleasant. After all, we have been suppressing these horrors for many years. When they are allowed to come up to be felt, there may be a fair amount of charge behind them. It has been that way for me. But once the feelings have been sufficiently acknowledged and felt, the way is clear to embrace aloneness as a necessary and healthy part of our life experience.
The healthy expression of loneliness is solitude, a deep, abiding presence we experience within ourselves. Solitude is an honoring of our true nature, the Stillness from which everything comes. In this place, there is no self and no other, therefore there can be no loneliness. Only love, only presence; all that is. In solitude we can cease to identify with our small self, and it is only the small self that is capable of feeling lonely and separate. We accept and honor our human nature, our ego or small self, and accept it fully, but remember who we really are, our true nature. In this way we relax with the paradox of this human experience.
~ Hermann Hesse