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Why do we feel lonely?

Each one of us at some point in our lives has felt a tremendous sense of loneliness, a sense of loneliness that slithers into our being in our loneliest of our lonely moments, sizzles every inch of our body, and settles in our belly like it is never going to leave. What is clear about this feeling is that it is awfully painful, so when we sense it sneaking up on us, we do everything to escape it, and when we are past it, we want nothing to do with it. Why then should we inquire into this intense feeling when the mere thought of it provokes fear?

While our concern is understandable, we can appreciate the fact that our resistance to inquiring into loneliness prevents us from understanding it, and perhaps bringing it to an end. Having never done that, the feeling looms behind our shoulder, ready to sneak into our wretched being the moment we let our guard down. We distract ourselves from the feeling with our hobbies and ambitions, expending immense energy in the process of escaping. But let us consider the possibility of going into this feeling together, observing our fear as we do it, so that we can inquire both into the fear associated with loneliness, and loneliness itself.

Before we go further, we must note that we are interested in observing and understanding the facts of our being, many of which can naturally provoke intense self-judgement. Therefore, we must remain watchful of this tendency too along with other tendencies we will discover, watching how they move through our being, and bathe them in the light of our loving and compassionate attention, for if we do not observe how self-judgement cascades, it can wreak such havoc in our being that we can remain in denial of the hard truths we discover about ourselves.

In addition to our curiosity about whether we can bring loneliness to an end by understanding it, let us highlight the paradox of loneliness briefly. Observing the world around us, we see that each and every aspect of the world is deeply interconnected. If we are not quite convinced of this inter-connectedness, the Covid pandemic can school us about how easily our bodies exchange organisms. In short, we are in a deep relationship with each and every aspect of our environment: humans, other life-forms, plants, and the earth itself. Yet we feel lonely! We are connected so deeply with each other, yet we feel we are alone. Does this paradox not make us wonder whether we are alive to these relationships, or have we perhaps died to them? So, with bubbling curiosity, we dive in.

We begin by asking ourselves if it is possible to inquire into loneliness with a completely open mind, without invoking any memories of our own experience of loneliness? It seems challenging, but if it is possible to approach the question completely afresh, we could perhaps begin to see all the movements in our being, including fear as it creeps up on us, and understand something about it. But if we do not invoke the memory of our own feelings of loneliness, how can we find out why we are lonely? In that case, does it not make more sense to inquire first into what loneliness actually is, and see if understanding loneliness can reveal something about why we feel lonely?

So let us do that first: what is loneliness? Let us see what arises in our mind: do we find ourselves saying, “hmm, it is a feeling.” If so, is that what loneliness really is, or calling it a feeling is just an idea about loneliness, brought about by thought or memory of our experiences? Can we see for ourselves what loneliness is, such that we do not need words to describe what it is? What we are interested in uncovering together is the fact of loneliness, not our ideas about it. This is a great challenge because our mind has a deep tendency to process our experience in ideas: for example, when we come across a tree, we have a tendency to call the thing a “tree”, which is an idea about what the thing is, hence we never look at the thing for what it really is, a being full of life and intense beauty. Awareness of this deep tendency of ours to think — which constructs ideas in our mind — can help us approach the fact of loneliness with a different perspective, to see what it actually is.

If calling loneliness a “feeling” that “we” feel is an idea and not the actual fact of loneliness, how can we see what loneliness actually is? Let us shift our perspective a little bit. Does it make sense to say: when “I” feel “lonely”, I am loneliness. Let us pause on that expression for a moment. What is the difference between saying “I am loneliness” and “I am feeling lonely?” Is this mere wordplay, or is there an insight in expressing the fact this way? By calling myself “loneliness”, am I not ending the separation between “me” and the “feeling” I feel, realizing that the feeling is not separate from me, that the fact is: I am the feeling. Before we see what this entails, let us explore this expression a little more deeply: is the ocean separate from the waves, is the blooming of a flower separate from the flower? We may also express other emotions in this manner: when we feel angry, we are anger; when we feel greedy, we are greed; when we feel envious, we are envy; when we feel ambitious, we are ambition; when we feel joyful, we are joy, and so on. The rephrasing seems to pack a punch but is that all there is to it?

What does approaching loneliness this way have to do with understanding what loneliness actually is? Well it has everything to do with it, for what we have realized is the fact that I am the feeling, which means there is no “me” separate from “the feeling” who can “act” on the feeling to suppress or accentuate it. Most of us approach feelings this way: we try to extend feelings of pleasure and run away from those which are painful, always making an effort, which brings about a state of turmoil and confusion in our being because it impedes us from observing carefully, and understanding what is actually going on in our being. On the other hand, understanding the fact that I am the feeling, brings this confusion to an end because we begin to observe with lucidity and curiosity every movement of our being as it flowers and withers with one feeling after another. Not reacting to every little feeling and movement of our thought frees up a great deal of our energy, which begins to power understanding. Seeing the fact that we are wrestling with our thoughts and grasping feelings perpetually is a tremendous breakthrough, for it means that the mind has become deeply conscious of its own movements, and begins to understand them.

In inquiring into the fact of our loneliness, we have arrived at a fundamental tendency of our being to separate “me” and “my feeling”, bringing about a “me” to the center of my being, separate from all else, therefore alone and lonely. The perpetual movement of this center channels our energy into self-interested thought and action — my ambitions, my job, my pain, my woes, my joys, my kids, my family, my country, my religion — a tendency that divides us from all aspects of the environment, such that our existence feels entirely at odds with that of everything else. This tendency manifests more narrowly in the form of greed, lust, and ambition when “I” want the thing “I” do not have, comparison and envy when “I” want the thing “he” has. These tendencies wreak intense conflict in our relationships. Running away from the fact of our loneliness deepens the separation and exacerbates our relationships, and as a result, deepens our loneliness: there is no end to this vicious cycle because we begin to take our loneliness for granted. We become numb to the fact that while we have “relationships” in our life, we are not in a meaningful relationship with anything, not even ourselves. We do not even take our own feelings seriously enough to inquire into them, because we fail to see the fact that what we feel are not just “feelings”, but that we are loneliness, anger, greed, lust, and ambition in reality. So what are we going to do about it?

Let us pause to see what that question entails. Once again, the question, what can “I” do about “my feelings” entails that these feelings are separate from “me” such that “I” can act on them to tame or end them. A mind-trick or two may help with one feeling or another, but how do we approach the entire spectrum, the whole lot?

With humility, we begin by observing the facts. We observe every inclination of our being towards self-interest, greed, envy, ambition, and see the disturbance, confusion, and pain these ways of functioning bring about. As we observe our being flower and wither through these states, we begin to experience a great deal of energy opening up for immediate action: do we continue to act in self-interest as we have always done, or bring this tendency to an end, right here, right now? In other words, we can let the tendency die immediately in the warmth of our loving attention, till it rises back from the dead, to let it die an instant death yet again, again, and again. We must note here that we are not practicing anything to execute this one fine day in the future, we are perpetually observing and engaging in the right action. Of course, sitting down for a few minutes to observe the things going through our mind brings a great deal of understanding of our tendencies, so yes, meditate the hell away, but not to “improve” ourselves or make spiritual “progress”, because those too are self-interested tendencies. We can talk more about them in another exploration.

These tendencies, which create conflict in our relationships are the foundations of our society, so by letting them die immediately, we are dying to our past, laying the present society to rest, and coming alive in the moment at hand into a completely new society because “we” are society and society is “us”. In this act of rebellion from the prevailing “ethic and morality” of self-interest, ambition, envy, separateness, and greed, is the ending of loneliness and the beginning of a new relationship with each and every aspect of this most beautiful and precious life, such that the separation between “me” and others comes to an end, annihilating the last stronghold of loneliness.

Who would have thunk inquiring into loneliness could be a source of such immediate change? Not “me”, because this me is the source of “my” loneliness :)


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