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Many of my extended family members when they visit the United States from India complain about lack of community, no visitors or large-scale cooking on weeknights, and too much quietude.
They are used to a culture and lifestyle where someone or the other is in and out of the house (and their lives) constantly. The American suburbs are their worst nightmare. “Yahaan koi dikhtaa nahin hai.” Every aunt, uncle, or friends’ parents visiting from the subcontinent have the same complaint: “We don’t see anyone on the streets. It’s so lonely here.”
Those who visit India from the west feel a sense of overwhelm because everything feels nonstop in India—be it the hospitality or the noise or the over-stimulation of the nervous system. Boundaries are blurry along with the sense of time.
I had the opportunity to spend a month in India in the fourth quarter of 2022. I was interning at an Ayurvedic hospital in the southern part of the country and visiting family for a few days in the eastern and western part of the country. The stay and experience were phenomenal. But I noticed that people rarely spent any time alone. They ate together, practiced asanas together, went shopping with someone, walked together…you get the gist.
When one of my friends invited me to a midweek, late night party, I said a no. First: I didn’t have time off from my job, so I had to log into work when it was evening in India. Second: I can’t handle a late night in the middle of the week and be fully present for my dad or my in-laws or myself the next day. I admired the hospitality when people offered to pick me up and drop me off, but I felt equally puzzled when they asked, “What will you do alone in the evening?”
I felt puzzled by the question. Why do we need to be entertained every single second of the day? What are people running away from when they choose to be constantly surrounded by some kind of noise? Why do they fear being unaccompanied even for a few hours? What are they numbing?
Like I said, I wasn’t alone. My dad was there, and I was working remotely. Even more importantly, despite being an extrovert, I enjoy my quiet, alone time. After seeing friends or family during the day and exploring the city, I quite appreciated the stillness of the evenings. I like reflecting, reading, and calming down my nervous system. I don’t need to constantly engage with others or exist in a heightened state. The country that brought yoga and Ayurveda to the world…I noticed…doesn’t practice silence or solitude.
During this time, when I was talking to a few friends in the U.S., they felt triggered during Thanksgiving. Some people were drinking too much to drown their loneliness. If you have an emotionally stable family or reliable set of friends then this holiday weekend can feel rejuvenating. But if nothing and no one feels conducive to your mental health, holidays can feel cruel.
I still remember, a few years ago, one of our neighbors passed away around the holidays. He had been dead for two and a half days before the building management found his body. That too because there was a foul smell coming from his apartment. I distinctly remember telling my husband, “What a sad and disconnected life if not one friend or family member worried about not hearing from this person for two to three days. Did he even have a close friend or relative?”
In my conversation with clients, community members, and friends in the United States, I realized that we over-talk and over-hype boundaries and self-love. Yes! It’s important to protect yourself and surround yourself with people who uplift you. It’s imperative to take care of your mental and emotional wellness. But are we, maybe, overdoing it? The fear of ending up alone or experiencing loneliness in the future prevents so many from reaching out or taking the initiative to make deep connections in the now. The self-fulfilling prophecy adds to further pain. What doesn’t help is that the media and gurus preach and romanticize perfectionism, which is a myth. We don’t ever talk about patience or tolerance or holding space for unintentional human errors. We expect our friends, romantic partners, or family to be a certain way. If they don’t meet the criteria, it’s reiterated that there’s someone better waiting out there.
Reality is that people and relationships are messy. Period. We all make mistakes. If the focus is finding faults, you miss out on finding anything good in any person. If you walk into every relationship or friendship over-guarded, how will you ever connect with anyone? Then the mind goes down the spiral of: am I worthy of love?
I have a client whose binge-drinking would start right at this moment of questioning herself. Then she would get into a victim mindset, and you know how that plays out. I suggested to her that she start to take classes (for fun) and attend them with an open mind. The likelihood of finding like-minded people would be higher there. Eventually, she created a group of friends who meet once a week for meditation in her home. From drinking half a bottle of Pinot Grigio every night, she has cut down her drinking to two glasses of white wine once a week over weekends.
Be your advocate, but reality is that being in any relationship (be it platonic or romantic) requires a level of compromise. Remember, if we want to be loved just the way we are, we might want to extend the same courtesy to those who matter. If we navigate the world with a paucity mindset, believing everyone is looking to exploit or hurt us, how will we ever form a deep connection? Life is about taking chances and allowing ourselves to experience authentic relationships. I am obviously not speaking about abusive situations, people, or relationships. Some relationships die a natural death while others start to decay. We should honor both those conditions and let them go as they create loneliness.
All I am saying is that we are all broken in our own ways. A little loneliness is good (not at debilitating levels where it starts to hurt your well-being). The west teaches people to focus on the cracks while the east is focused on not making any time to pause to look at those cracks. In the western world, we hold tightly to our feelings and emotions and make room for loneliness instead of people. In the east, a large majority are constantly hanging out with people—even the ones they don’t like because they fear being alone.
In India, the noise is to drown out any sense of loneliness. In the U.S., the silence creates a sense of loneliness. Find your balance. If we can learn to belong to ourselves, the little bit of loneliness becomes rocket fuel for self-growth, self-reliance, and spiritual exploration.
“Sometimes you need to be alone. Not to be lonely, but to enjoy your free time being yourself.” ~ Anonymous