“Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly. Let it cut deeper. Let it ferment and season you…” – Hafiz
What does it mean to not “surrender loneliness so quickly”? For most of my life, I would have preferred to surrender my loneliness yesterday. Loneliness felt like a painful, aching, hollow feeling at the core of my gut. It was my constant companion and I most certainly did not want it there. At some point in my twenties, I decided if I was going to spend so much of life being lonely, it was worth investigating what loneliness actually was. What I discovered didn’t stop me from ever getting lonely, but it helped transform my relationship to loneliness from something miserable to a powerful source of information.
Loneliness Hack #1: Make Friends with Desire
My first revelation was that at the center of loneliness was desire. It was a powerful longing for love. And yet, I had learned that that kind of longing was unattractive. I was told that I should stop looking for love and that it would “happen when I least expected it”. I told myself that I better stop wanting things because not getting them made me feel desperate, pathetic, and disappointed. I told myself that I was too old, too ugly, and just too late for love, and then I told myself that love wasn’t real anyway (given the divorce rate). I tried anything and everything to get me to stop wanting love. Nothing worked. I continued to feel lonely.
One day, I was at the beach with my crush and my crush’s new girlfriend. As they snuggled together on the shore, I morosely wandered into the waves, feeling lost in a haze of loneliness and frustrated desire. Suddenly, I decided that instead of fighting off my yearning, I was going to try and open up to it. With each wave that crashed over my head, I called out a new desire. “I want the dress I saw on 5th Avenue,” I started. Crash. “I want to be pretty.” Crash. “I want real love.” Crash. Instead of feeling depressed or lonely, opening up to each desire felt liberating. It felt strong and brave and exciting. Nothing guaranteed I would get these things, but just saying them felt almost as good. Within loneliness is a deep and powerful desire to connect. Trying to get rid of it won’t help. Opening up to the longing will.
Loneliness Hack #2: Learn the Difference Between Your Stories and the Truth
Everybody’s stories are different. Mine sounded like this: “I am so lonely. There must be something wrong with me. I’m too picky. I choose the wrong people. I must be immune to real love.” Sometimes another voice would swoop in: “You will find love! You just have to join a different dating app, cut your hair, and buy some new clothes. You can do this!” And on and on. These voices were part of the overall chorus of mental chatter that accompanied me throughout my day. Much of this “self-talk” was developed as a child to try and navigate my world, and much of it has stayed at the child level in terms of its maturity and problem-solving skills.
So what do we do when we realize we are lost in a maze of depressing self-chatter? First, congratulations! Noticing you are lost in thought (and not just living inside of it) is 80 percent of the battle. Next, notice if there is a feeling underneath the chatter that you don’t want to feel. Desire? Grief? Sadness? See if you can rest and breathe in the feeling itself, not in the mind’s attempt to cover it up. Finally, rather than fighting stories with other stories, try to just notice what is real. The chair underneath you. The wind on your face. Your body as it breathes. These things are real. Wake up out of your circular thoughts by sensitizing yourself to the here and now.
Loneliness Hack #3: Come Home to Yourself
Sometimes loneliness comes to visit us when we are surrounded by people, in a relationship, and/or scrolling through the social media posts of 1,000+ of our “friends”. In my experience, this type of loneliness is a result of being alienated from ourselves. We are not experiencing the richness of life. We have left the building.
There is a Zen quote that says, “A picture of a rice cake cannot satisfy hunger.” In other words, living life glued to our phones, saying things that others want to hear, or being lost in our thoughts leaves us feeling hungry, empty, and alone. If you are experiencing this type of loneliness, stop whatever you are doing, and come back to yourself. Meditate. Unplug. Exercise. Have an honest talk with a friend or a date with your journal. Your loneliness is a sign of your life calling out to you. Answer it. Come home.
We are deeply interconnected to one another. We breathe the same air, influence one another’s moods, and are made up of the same raw materials. Loneliness is a difficult mind state, but practicing these hacks whenever we feel lonely brings us back to ourselves, to our hearts, and to the interconnected present moment that holds it all. This is how we let loneliness “season” us, emerging more tender and open-hearted on the other side.