Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Befriending Moments of Loneliness

I was sitting with a friend who has recently separated from her husband of twenty-nine years. I’ll call her Bonnie. After six months of separation, Bonnie was telling me how difficult she is finding the loneliness.

Being an introvert with a chronic illness I don’t often have the energy or inclination to do a lot of socializing and I’ve assumed that this is why loneliness sometimes arises for me. But, Bonnie is one of the most extroverted people I know. She has a plethora of close friends, an extensive community, supportive family members and an extraordinary ability to reach out to connect with others. She runs her own successful business and is a generous, resourceful woman. I get tired just hearing about Bonnie’s week of social contacts, work with others and staying in touch with friends.

But, despite all this, I hear how genuinely lonely she is. As she told me about a business contract that had not work out as she’d hoped and her need to take this into consideration around future plans, I had an insight into the kind of ordinary loneliness that even extraordinary people experience. Because for many of us, the hardest loneliness is not a­­­­ lack of support around the Big Challenges- the sudden serious illnesses or death of a family member, the loss of home or livelihood. In moments of acute crisis many of us are lucky enough to be surrounded by friends, family, and sometimes even caring strangers offering concern and support.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean we do not experience loneliness.

As Bonnie is discovering, if you live alone it’s often about the ordinary daily challenges- the adjustment of plans to logistical changes and cancelations; the nervousness about unexpected expenses; the minor illnesses that just make you feel crappy; the insignificant irritations like traffic jams, line-ups and bureaucracy. It’s about carrying the daily uncertainties alone­­­­­­.

When you live with someone you often share these small daily challenges. Someone is there to listen to your tiny tales of woe, calm you down, commiserate, make you to laugh, give you a hug or just let you rant. You’re not in it alone. Your fortunes, your health, your moods and your circumstances, your small joys, disappointments and fears are intimately shared with someone else. And theirs are shared with you. And this can make the burden feel a little lighter when the day feels a little too long and the world seems just a little too overflowing with crazy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been married. I know that just because you live with someone doesn’t mean they will always be there at the end of the day in the way you would like them to be- or in any way at all. Sometimes we can be acutely lonely when we are with someone. But for most of us, if we've stayed with someone for any length of time, it was because there was a some degree of comfort and comfortableness in the way we shared the tasks of daily living with a fellow human being. Even when we might have been in disagreement about The Big Things or the deeply intimate things, many of us continued to find companionship in sharing laundry and car repairs, good meals and bad television.

And it’s weird when no one else is there, when there is no companionship at the end of the day unless you arrange it- and even then, eventually you will be going home alone. Again, don’t get me wrong. It is often with great relief that I come back to my tiny apartment that fits like a nest around me, where everything is exactly as I left it and there is silence and blessed solitude. What I missed when I was married was often my own company.

But I also know what Bonnie is talking about when she speaks of the loneliness, of feeling a kind of ache, a sadness and weariness, at being on her own with the daily concerns and challenges of a human life.

I don’t have a solution. Certainly my experience of a sacred Presence that is greater than but also within me is a reminder that I am always participating in an inter-dependent wholeness. But I don’t think even an impossibly constant sense of the Mystery would shield us from moments of the loneliness.

So lately, when loneliness arises, I just sit with it. I ask myself, What is this thing I call loneliness? Where does it live in my body? What is its colour, its texture, its taste? I turn my attention to it and explore. I remind myself that this is bearable, this will not kill me so I do not need to run from it.

The loneliness does not instantly disappear but my fear of it dissipates, and it. . . softens. I can be with it, befriend it, know that it is part of being human particularly when we do not have companionship in the small things of daily life. As I stop trying to move away from it, it often slowly dissolves, the way mist on the lake in the early morning dissolves in sunlight. It becomes, after all, just a ripple of loneliness. Not death, not agony, not an indicator of sinister news about my being. Just a ripple of loneliness, a little discomfort. Observing and allowing it, the loneliness becomes just one more thing arising in awareness, like the feel of my beating heart, the temperature of the air on my skin, the sound of the city going to sleep around me, my inhale filling me and my exhale leaving my body.

Loneliness becomes just one of the many experiences of being human. And I am grateful for even this.


  1. Oriah, I have only just discovered you and am comforted already. It's a reassuring moment in a life when the universe knows the lesson you need to work on, and a simple blog post opens and talks about the issue. Loneliness in or out of a marriage is just as you said, a life experience common to all. What we need to learn is how to 'be' with it and move on. Thank you for this, Oriah. I will be learning much from you.

  2. feeling blah today and lonely, i decided to spoil myself with a favourite lunch and a naughty hot chocolate and i blogged about it and felt a little less lonely...sometimes just reaching out into the ether can help - it's one of the great wonders of the internet, and it's been a life-saver at times...
    so thank you for this :)

  3. Thanks. I needed that.

  4. I've been relistening to David Whyte's 6-CD set, "Clear Mind, Wild Heart", which I first discovered through your references to his poetry in "Your Heart's Prayer", and reflecting on the idea of aloneness ... and the idea of connectedness or belonging.

    In Revelation Must Be Terrible, he writes:

    Being far from home is hard, but you know,
    at least we are exiled together.

    And in The House of Belonging, he writes:

    This is the temple
    of my adult aloneness
    and I belong
    to that aloneness
    as I belong to my life.

    There is no house
    like the house of belonging.

    On the one hand, aloneness seems to be a fundamental property of being human. However much we may feel connected to others, on some level, we are each alone.

    This post is about loneliness, and I'm pondering the differences between loneliness and aloneness. It seems that loneliness is a potential emotional response to aloneness (one that I sometimes feel - poignantly, at times), and I like the practice of acceptance that you share here.

  5. Joe, thanks for those lovely bits of David's poetry- have not looked a them in awhile. Yes, I think loneliness can be there when we are alone, but I think it is also often there when we are with another. Perhaps it is one of the many responses we humans have to that aloneness that is part of our existance even, as you point out, when we know we are inter-connected.

  6. Oriah - I've been an avid lover of your book "The Invitation" for years. It is such a beautiful treat that I just discovered your blog. And such a heartfelt story on loneliness. I agree with your comment to David that we can have loneliness that comes from deep within and isn't based off of if we are in proximity to other humans - it's in proximity to how close our souls are to another. These days, I'm trying to push sitting with happiness (or loneliness) whenever it comes to me - especially after I had a bit of a major health scare last year.

    Life is too brief to not have a good barometer on if you love yourself. I choose to always love myself first - moods and all.