The Buddhist View of Loneliness as a Good Thing.

Via on Feb 16, 2009

buddha love

Photo: “Buddha Heart,” June 16, 2009 by Lynn Park.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche & Pema Chodron.

From 2009: Tonight in Boulder there’s a Valentine’s Ball, which elephantjournal.com is proud to be sponsoring (it’s 80s style, and benefits the Women’s Bean Project). There’s hundreds of gorgeous in-and-out people going to St. Julien, friends partying at b.side, and all the other restaurants and bars will be full of sweet lovers and banded-together loners alike.

But the ‘shadow’ side of St. Valentine’s Day, is, of course, similar to the ‘shadow’ on Christmas, that other warm and bright holy-day all about togetherness. For tonight more folks than not find themselves alone. And whether we’re ashamed of that loneliness, or fine with it, we have Hallmark to thank for this day which reminds us that loneliness, uncovered, is at the heart of being a true, full human being. At least, that’s what I was taught.

My first love was a girl named Susannah Brown (a common enough name that revealing it will not enable anyone to google or FB her). We met when we were in high school, and had a glorious, tragic, intimate year and a half together. After we broke up (all my fault), I missed her every day, for years. Every single day.

It helped somewhat that I’d been raised in the Buddhist tradition. I’m sure other religious and agnostic childhoods would bear other helpful fruit, but what I know is my own experience. Reading a teaching by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun who was an early student of Chogyam Trungpa and now studies with Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, I was amazed that in the Buddhist view the feeling of loneliness is identified as the feeling of Buddha Nature. In other words, loneliness is not a lacking of something, but rather the aching fulfillment of our open, raw, caring nature. I remember thinking about this under the moon up at Rocky Mountain Dharma Center, in 1992, and my friend Jenny comforting me. I missed Susannah so badly that night, the stars and moon and silhouetted mountains seemed to prick little holes in my silly red heart.

Other Buddhist texts remind us that when we fall in love with our teacher, or the Dharma, it is only a recognition of our own enlightened nature in others, or externally. We have only to realize, in such open, empty moments, that the love that we seek is present, now.

But over to the experts.

Pema Chodron:

‘An analogy for Bodhicitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic, sometimes to anger, resentment and blame. But under the hardness of that armour there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.’ (The Places That Scare You, p4)

For a talk by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on Loneliness, Relationships & Ruling Your World, click here.

Chogyam Trungpa on “desolation, relationships, and loneliness as consort.”

Student: I’d like to ask a question about loneliness and love. In my experience, the kind of love where two people try to be together in order to protect themselves from loneliness hasn’t worked out too well. When you come in contact with loneliness, it seems to destroy a lot of things you try to pull off in trying to build up security. But can there be love between two people while they continue to try to work with the loneliness?

Trungpa Rinpoche: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think anybody can fall in love unless they feel lonely. People can’t fall in love unless they know they are lonely and are separate individuals. If by some strange misunderstanding, you think you are the other person already, then there’s no one for you to fall in love with. It doesn’t work that way. The whole idea of union is that of two being together. One and one together make union. If there’s just one, you can’t call that union. Zero is not union, one is not union, but two is union. So I think in love it is the desolateness that inspires the warmth. The more you feel a sense of desolation, the more warmth you feel at the same time. You can’t feel the warmth of the house unless it’s cold outside. The colder it is outside, the cozier it is at home.

S: What would be the difference between the relationship between lovers and the general relationship you have with the sangha as a whole, which is a whole bunch of people feeling desolateness to different degrees?

TR: The two people have a similarity in their type of loneliness. One particular person reminds another more of his or her own loneliness. You feel that your partner, in seeing you, feels more lonely. Whereas with the sangha, it’s more a matter of equal shares. There’s all-pervasive loneliness, ubiquitous loneliness, happening all over the place.

Student: Would you say that loneliness is love?…

…for the rest, and much more, go to Chronicle Project.

Pema Chodron via Shambhala Sun magazine. Excerpt:

In the middle way, there is no reference point. The mind with no reference point does not resolve itself, does not fixate or grasp. How could we possibly have no reference point? To have no reference point would be to change a deep-seated habitual response to the world: wanting to make it work out one way or the other. If I can’t go left or right, I will die! When we don’t go left or right, we feel like we are in a detox center. We’re alone, cold turkey with all the edginess that we’ve been trying to avoid by going left or right. That edginess can feel pretty heavy.

However, years and years of going to the left or right, going to yes or no, going to right or wrong has never really changed anything. Scrambling for security has never brought anything but momentary joy. It’s like changing the position of our legs in meditation. Our legs hurt from sitting cross-legged, so we move them. And then we feel, “Phew! What a relief!” But two and a half minutes later, we want to move them again. We keep moving around seeking pleasure, seeking comfort, and the satisfaction that we get is very short-lived.

We hear a lot about the pain of samsara, and we also hear about liberation. But we don’t hear much about how painful it is to go from being completely stuck to becoming unstuck. The process of becoming unstuck requires tremendous bravery, because basically we are completely changing our way of perceiving reality, like changing our DNA. We are undoing a pattern that is not just our pattern. It’s the human pattern: we project onto the world a zillion possibilities of attaining resolution. We can have whiter teeth, a weed-free lawn, a strife-free life, a world without embarrassment. We can live happily every after. This pattern keeps us dissatisfied and causes us a lot of suffering.

As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity. To the degree that we’ve been avoiding uncertainty, we’re naturally going to have withdrawal symptoms—withdrawal from always thinking that there’s a problem and that someone, somewhere, needs to fix it.

The middle way is wide open, but it’s tough going, because it goes against the grain of an ancient neurotic pattern that we all share. When we feel lonely, when we feel hopeless, what we want to do is move to the right or the left. We don’t want to sit and feel what we feel. We don’t want to go through the detox. Yet the middle way encourages us to do just that. It encourages us to awaken the bravery that exists in everyone without exception, including you and me.

Meditation provides a way for us to train in the middle way—in staying right on the spot. We are encouraged not to judge whatever arises in our mind. In fact, we are encouraged not to even grasp whatever arises in our mind. What we usually call good or bad we simply acknowledge as thinking, without all the usual drama that goes along with right and wrong. We are instructed to let the thoughts come and go as if touching a bubble with a feather. This straightforward discipline prepares us to stop struggling and discover a fresh, unbiased state of being.

The experience of certain feelings can seem particularly pregnant with desire for resolution: loneliness, boredom, anxiety. Unless we can relax with these feelings, it’s very hard to stay in the middle when we experience them. We want victory or defeat, praise or blame. For example, if somebody abandons us, we don’t want to be with that raw discomfort. Instead, we conjure up a familiar identity of ourselves as a hapless victim. Or maybe we avoid the rawness by acting out and righteously telling the person how messed up he or she is. We automatically want to cover over the pain in one way or another, identifying with victory or victimhood.

Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.

There are six ways of describing this kind of cool loneliness. They are: less desire, contentment, avoiding unnecessary activity, complete discipline, not wandering in the world of desire, and not seeking security from one’s discursive thoughts.

Less desire is the willingness to be lonely without resolution when everything in us yearns for something to cheer us up and change our mood. Practicing this kind of loneliness is a way of sowing seeds so that fundamental restlessness decreases. In meditation, for example, every time we label “thinking” instead of getting endlessly run around by our thoughts, we are training in just being here without dissociation. We can’t do that now to the degree that we weren’t willing to do it yesterday or the day before or last week or last year. After we practice less desire wholeheartedly and consistently, something shifts. We feel less desire in the sense of being less solidly seduced by our Very Important Story Lines. So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn’t sit for even one, that’s the journey of the warrior. That’s the path of bravery. The less we spin off and go crazy, the more we taste the satisfaction of cool loneliness. As the Zen master Katagiri Roshi often said, “One can be lonely and not be tossed away by it.”

The second kind of loneliness is contentment. When we have nothing, we have nothing to lose. We don’t have anything to lose but being programmed in our guts to feel we have a lot to lose. Our feeling that we have a lot to lose is rooted in fear—of loneliness, of change, of anything that can’t be resolved, of nonexistence. The hope that we can avoid this feeling and the fear that we can’t become our reference point.

When we draw a line down the center of a page, we know who we are if we’re on the right side and who we are if we’re on the left side. But we don’t know who we are when we don’t put ourselves on either side. Then we just don’t know what to do. We just don’t know. We have no reference point, no hand to hold. At that point we can either freak out or settle in. Contentment is a synonym for loneliness, cool loneliness, settling down with cool loneliness. We give up believing that being able to escape our loneliness is going to bring any lasting happiness or joy or sense of well-being or courage or strength. Usually we have to give up this belief about a billion times, again and again making friends with our jumpiness and dread, doing the same old thing a billion times with awareness. Then without our even noticing, something begins to shift. We can just be lonely with no alternatives, content to be right here with the mood and texture of what’s happening.

The third kind of loneliness is avoiding unnecessary activities. When we’re lonely in a “hot” way, we look for something to save us; we look for a way out. We get this queasy feeling that we call loneliness, and our minds just go wild trying to come up with companions to save us from despair. That’s called unnecessary activity. It’s a way of keeping ourselves busy so we don’t have to feel any pain. It could take the form of obsessively daydreaming of true romance, or turning a tidbit of gossip into the six o’clock news, or even going off by ourselves into the wilderness.

The point is that in all these activities, we are seeking companionship in our usual, habitual way, using our same old repetitive ways of distancing ourselves from the demon loneliness. Could we just settle down and have some compassion and respect for ourselves? Could we stop trying to escape from being alone with ourselves? What about practicing not jumping and grabbing when we begin to panic? Relaxing with loneliness is a worthy occupation. As the Japanese poet Ryokan says, “If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.”

Complete discipline is another component of cool loneliness. Complete discipline means that at every opportunity, we’re willing to come back, just gently come back to the present moment. This is loneliness as complete discipline. We’re willing to sit still, just be there, alone. We don’t particularly have to cultivate this kind of loneliness; we could just sit still long enough to realize it’s how things really are. We are fundamentally alone, and there is nothing anywhere to hold on to. Moreover, this is not a problem. In fact, it allows us to finally discover a completely unfabricated state of being. Our habitual assumptions—all our ideas about how things are—keep us from seeing anything in a fresh, open way. We say, “Oh yes, I know.” But we don’t know. We don’t ultimately know anything. There’s no certainty about anything. This basic truth hurts, and we want to run away from it. But coming back and relaxing with something as familiar as loneliness is good discipline for realizing the profundity of the unresolved moments of our lives. We are cheating ourselves when we run away from the ambiguity of loneliness.

Not wandering in the world of desire is another way of describing cool loneliness. Wandering in the world of desire involves looking for alternatives, seeking something to comfort us—food, drink, people. The word desire encompasses that addiction quality, the way we grab for something because we want to find a way to make things okay. That quality comes from never having grown up. We still want to go home and be able to open the refrigerator and find it full of our favorite goodies; when the going gets tough, we want to yell “Mom!” But what we’re doing as we progress along the path is leaving home and becoming homeless. Not wandering in the world of desire is about relating directly with how things are. Loneliness is not a problem. Loneliness is nothing to be solved. The same is true for any other experience we might have.

Another aspect of cool loneliness is not seeking security from one’s discursive thoughts. The rug’s been pulled; the jig is up; there is no way to get out of this one…

…go to Shambhala Sun’s web site for the rest.

About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now elephantjournal.com & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. elephantjournal.com | facebook.com/elephantjournal | twitter.com/elephantjournal | facebook.com/waylonhlewis | twitter.com/waylonlewis | Google+ For more: publisherelephantjournalcom

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34 Responses to “The Buddhist View of Loneliness as a Good Thing.”

  1. Valerie says:

    Hey Way,
    Lovely article as always, and a perfect topic to address on a day such as this. I needed to remember these things and rejoice in my loneliness. You brought me back.

  2. John Joseph says:

    Poignant telling of your childhood love. I know that I engage in all these ways of avoiding loneliness at times, but I’m really happy I have a life partner – it is good to share the journey with someone special.

  3. [...] we will buy our rice.” So the people became owners of their land! It was administered by the Buddhist monks, who were instrumental and [...]

  4. [...] by excerpts from the Dalai Lama’s teachings and Freedom in Exile, his autobiography, The Buddha Prince is at once an unfolding of his coming of age and a series of essential Buddhist teachings. [...]

  5. [...] would be a key ingredient in the introduction of Buddhism to North America. Allen Ginsberg and Rinpoche met in a famous episode in New York City, competing for the same taxicab in 1970. And in 1974 [...]

  6. [...] 2. You’ve been looking for it all your life and it’s right here. Right here is boring, hard, lonely. [...]

  7. [...] I love sadness, as my mom’s Buddhist teacher said it’s the most genuine of human emotions, though we’re not to covet [...]

  8. [...] is basically good. It’s square one. Home base. Loneliness is our first and last true friend. We’re not talking a hard, brittle, self-pitying or proud sort of loneliness. The kind of [...]

  9. Greg says:

    Waylon, what a wonderful blog post. Thank you, thank you. Elephant Journal accrues substantial merit.

  10. [...] Fact is, they do. Feminism vs. objectification, + humor is core to our mission. Sex and love and loneliness are all vital parts to a life well-lived. Passion and clinging, attachment and confusion, are all [...]

  11. Tara says:

    Loneliness is not a good thing. It causes depression, increases risks of various physical health problems such as heart attack, low immune functioning, etc. It is not good at all. Temporary solitude can be good, but not social isolation.

    • Chelsea says:

      This article is about learning to let those depressive feelings go. By learning to accept loneliness as a feeling that we actually have the pleasure to feel. We are lonely, therefore we are open to love. We are lonely, and it is ok. We do not need to be one way or another, we can simply be. Just as this life has many other trials, loneliness is a stepping stone of realization. Rather than feeling that we must be one way or another, we can accept ourselves for who we are, without expectations.

      Namaste.

    • Heather Morton HeatherM says:

      This is true. As humans we are social creatures However, people don't really understand loneliness and this is the real problem to then feeling depressed, disconnected, etc. If people were to better understand their a-lone-ness then probably they would not grasp for so many things to cover it up (re: gossip, useless entertainment, TV flipping, etc.). People usually fear being it and have come to think of it as bad, not right, something went wrong and all the rest. I would say, however, if people could re-learn and be reeducated into really understanding loneliness, etc…then things like depression, etc…would not occur because of it. So we really have to step out of our black and white thinking. No state lasts forever even if it looks and feels like it.

  12. [...] This article was inspired by this 2009 post by Elephant Journal founder Waylon Lewis. [...]

  13. Joe Sparks says:

    The essence of rational human behavior consiss of responding to each instant of living with a new response, created afresh at that moment to precisely fit and handle the situation of that moment as that situation is defined by the information received through the senses of the person.

  14. AMO says:

    "For tonight more folks than not find themselves alone."
    Where do you get this factoid? I don't think it's true. I think more people are grouped or paired than are alone. Humans are social creatures and we join with other humans for many reasons on many levels. I think it's highly unlikely this sentence is in any way factually based…

  15. Fouhy says:

    Of course if you don't want to be lonely you could http://befouhysvalentine.com

  16. [...] thing is, loneliness isn’t such a bad thing. In Buddhism, it’s thought to be the root of openness to one’s true Buddha Nature: you now, … Waylon Lewis, founder of elephantjournal.com and host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, [...]

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  18. [...] pedestal. Our projections are our responsibilities—no woman, or man, is perfect, or the answer to our loneliness or [...]

  19. [...] yoga playlist has been full of those bittersweet beauties lately. It’s good to keep that raw, broken open heart. That’s keeping it real. It’s too easy to be jaded and hide under the armor of slick [...]

  20. [...] interesting is how closely the accounts of being smitten by Divine Love mirror one another from faith to faith. Much is made of the parallels between St. John’s Canticle and the Hebraic Song of Solomon, or [...]

  21. [...] loneliness. Luckily, I had the Buddhist teachings as a reference point, and they emphasize that loneliness isn’t a problem. In fact, as a gentleman from another tradition entirely says: There’s a [...]

  22. [...] I don’t think anybody can fall in love unless they feel lonely. [...]

  23. nuitgoddess@gmail.com says:

    I am lonely for enough money to live when i cant work anymiore. Worked hard all my life and ended up losing it all just before retirement. All my hard work was for the nothing i have now. A wasted life so far potentially with the final optiin to live under a bridge in a cardboard box. Somehow i am dead before my body is dead.

  24. palaceofmuse says:

    I truly love your mind.

  25. Stacey says:

    I'm about 3 years too late on commenting, but I literally googled Buddhism on loneliness and found this amazing website and such great wisdom from the lovely Pema Chodron, so thank you Elephant Journal. For me the dilemma is always: needing to be alone to meditate, practice yoga, to write, to research, to rehearse (I'm an actor, teacher, and playwright), wanting to be in service to others, to my practice, to my craft…but wanting connection and relationship, wishing that I could subsist on the love already present in my life, in myself… Recent article in the New Yorker about the late writer Mavis Gallant who never married. A friend told her: "You want to put yourself in a box…is that the life you want? Do you want every day to be just like the next? Now you are free…you haven't a man…have all the adventure you like." Mavis: " But what is to become of me?" Friend: " Nothing. You are a writer. Why do you want to be anything else? Why do you want to be anything but Mavis?"

  26. Revvy says:

    Very interesting that this has popped up on my feed at this moment. I was just thinking about this very topic about 45 minutes ago, and sort of looking for "signs." Or something. They say that you can't love another til you love yourself. Those same mysterious "theys" say also that love finds you when you aren't looking for it…when you're content with who you are that's when love will find you….I have a dilemma… I'm a New Thought/Unity Minister, so I'm supposedly a "spiritual leader" in my own right (hah.) I'm usually the person giving out these plithy spiritual maxims about loving ourselves, etc.. I've also been single the majority of my nearly 50 years….I have wonderful friends in my life. I have several hobbies that I have become accomplished at, that feed my soul; I am a gourmet cook, I am an award winning home brewer, I am an accomplished mead maker, I am involved in vintage base ball. I think I have a good life… no great life. I do all sorts of interesting things, and have had wonderful experiences. I'm also exactly, over several years of testing, exactly 50% an introvert, and 50% an extrovert. I am perfectly comfortable either way…and get fed either way…though I feel that I tend to lean more to introvert, I seem perfectly content by myself.
    It's taken a lot of years, decades to get to this point of self acceptance (including going through near suicidal depression in my late 20s) and self love. And to be comfortable in my own skin….
    In the past…for decades I sought relationships to fill holes in myself…to make me feel "complete" to boost my self esteem….to make me feel good about myself, yadda yadda yadda. To prove I was handsome, etc…All those reasons you and other places say NOT to get into relationships.
    But now I accept myself, warts and all, love myself, am content with myself.
    Now I want to have someone in my life, not to fill any holes in me, but simply to share the fun that is my life, someone who appreciates my gourmet cooking, and to cook for me….to share all the cool/wonderous things that I get do now being me, and to learn, share and experience all the cool things she does as well. Whoever she may be….just to live, love and have fun…not to heal or fill each other's holes.
    So here it is on a Saturday evening, I preach usually only once a month, and the Saturday before I tend to stay pretty low key…I don't paint the town vermillion or anything.I stay home, work on my talk, cook, and in this case today, made some meads, and had a few as well…a really delightful evening.
    And that's what got me thinking….Am I TOO comfortable in my solitude…am I too complete, too fulfilled in all those ways that we, your site, and my advice giving says to be to bring love to us? Am I, by being totally comfortable in my skin, and my alone-ness, sending a message to the universe to NOT send me a partner? Am I sabotaging myself by NOT being needy in even the slightest?
    Yes, I WANT a partner, a lover, a soul mate, a friend, a fellow traveler on this awesome journey called life…but I learned awhile ago that I don't NEED one..so is that awareness somehow holding me back?
    (I can't believe I wrote this just now…Like I said I had this conversation to myself not more than an hour ago…and then I see this. I believe and teach that the universe sends us signs, so I guess I'm just happily blown away by seeing this.) I was thinking that, I, in my own way am a guide, a spiritual leader, a mentor for many people…but like a ladder where everyone at different levels helps each other out…lifts each other…it's quite difficult to find people to pull me up…to guide and mentor me….this posting really helped…

  27. Revvy says:

    Very interesting that this has popped up on my feed at this moment. I was just thinking about this very topic about 45 minutes ago, and sort of looking for "signs." Or something. They say that you can't love another til you love yourself. Those same mysterious "theys" say also that love finds you when you aren't looking for it…when you're content with who you are that's when love will find you….I have a dilemma… I'm a New Thought/Unity Minister, so I'm supposedly a "spiritual leader" in my own right (hah.) I'm usually the person giving out these plithy spiritual maxims about loving ourselves, etc.. I've also been single the majority of my nearly 50 years….I have wonderful friends in my life. I have several hobbies that I have become accomplished at, that feed my soul

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