How Loneliness Can Show Us Where We Need to Heal

A few weeks ago, the person closest to me here⏤my only real local friend for the past six years⏤moved 1,000 miles away.

I did not want that change to happen. Yet at the same time, I recognized it was what this person needed, and I wanted them to be happy. Loving someone means wanting them to follow their path wholly, even if it leads away from me.

That’s a lot easier said than done, though. I had this split reaction of being aware that this was something this person needed to do for themselves, that only they can follow their path, and maybe it’s an essential part of this person’s life path. Who am I to say? That was the skillful response.

But let’s be real…

The unskillful response was nearly begging this person to stay and feeling utterly devastated and bereft when they left… followed by a huge (and I mean really massive) insight that I needed to give myself all the things I’d been getting from them. This person’s presence had been a salve over many, many old wounds, and all of them began bleeding profusely the day they left. In my mind, I got so angry with this person, ranting that I was strong and funny and resilient and kind and generous and open-hearted…and I suddenly realized, I needed to tell myself those things. I needed to be my own best friend. So cheesy⏤I mean, I really thought I already was my own best friend⏤but meditation has a way of showing us where we’re stuck…and there it was.

I began wondering what it was about a person’s physical presence that made me feel differently. After all, we live in an age of texting and video chats; distance isn’t nearly the barrier it once was. Why did I suddenly feel emptier, like the whole city was less interesting? And more importantly, once I identified what I felt was missing, how could I learn to provide myself with that nourishment?

The benefits of solitude

Many people have said they couldn’t endure living in the isolation I experience. I choose to look at it as my own personal ashram, my own (mostly) silent retreat⏤though of course, it’s not really like an ashram or retreat. But often, I go days without having a real conversation with anyone⏤maybe small talk at the coffee shop, or the grocery store, but not deep conversations.

The power of deep conversation lies in our recognition of each other as parts of the same whole. Seeing another, and being seen⏤especially when the other person knows us well, including our flaws as well as the good stuff⏤is powerful. Feeling cared for is powerful.

Making every connection matter

I try to make every interaction with a cashier or barista a moment of authentic connection, taking the time to ask small-talk-appropriate things, yet really listening to the answers, consciously reminding myself that we are part of the same whole. I’m not sure I’d be quite as inspired to do that if I were on social overload, or even if I had “enough” people around me to fill my need for connection.

No person is an island. My sister says that a lot, and of course, we are all interdependent. Yet in my experience, we all have different levels of need for in-person interaction. Extroverts need more interaction; that’s how they get their energy. Introverts (like me) need solitude. I don’t need much face-to-face interaction⏤after about an hour, I start going “into the grip” as Jung called it, becoming uncentered and a bit manic, my energy flailing all over the place. That happens when I go to a big city; I have about four hours before that sets in. When I feel my energy start to shift, when I can no longer stay present but begin to babble and chatter, I know it’s time to go home and re-ground.

I am an alchemist, transforming loneliness into solitude.

The benefits of not talking

Not everybody needs to talk through their emotions with others. I have less of a need for it now than I used to (20 years of therapy did help me learn to process my own experience). Sometimes, sitting with a situation is far more powerful than talking about it. By keeping the energy internal, we can observe it and learn more about ourselves and our experience – and learn how to care for ourselves.

“I don’t have any close friends who I see on a regular basis” is the fact. “I’m lonely” is a story, an interpretation of that fact. It’s my choice how I want to handle not having close friends here. (That one friend filled so much of my life that I didn’t want or need others.) I could join social groups to meet people. I could go to local events. I could volunteer. When money permits, I could take a class. I’ve done all of those things in the time I’ve lived here, and for various reasons, they didn’t fill my needs in the way that I’d have liked.

Coping with stress in solitude

Without human interaction, the mind begins to spin a lot. I definitely feel calmer on days when I wake up knowing I have a project to focus on, or a call. Otherwise, I often wake up with cortisol coursing through my system, my mind itching to make stories about all the things that are “wrong” (socially, financially, etc.) It’s like my mind knows that’s when I’m at my most vulnerable. In reality, it’s simply my mind trying to make stories to explain this increase in cortisol, which is a natural part of the waking-up-in-the-morning process.

It’s not that difficult to soothe over⏤a podcast, book or music distracts the mind; a text provides proof that I am not utterly alone in the world. But the power is in sitting with those moments of fear or existential despair, with watching what the mind does, how it tries to keep me feeling separate from the whole of Life. If I can do that – and honestly, I’m not always willing to – it has the power to transform fear into wisdom, loneliness into solitude. I become strong enough to feel the connection with the greater whole regardless of what’s happening in my life.

Impermanence. Again. Always.

People die. Friends move away. Everything on this planet is impermanent, except what’s inside us, the energetic fabric of which we’re all made.  It’s in working through this isolation that I learn to be the love I seek in others. It’s been in me all along. I may feel love more strongly towards a select few people, but that love is within me; it doesn’t require any catalyst to emerge. My challenge is to allow that love to flow all the time. That love is the fabric of humanity; it’s in all of us, but it takes quietness and deliberation to access it.

Photo by Toni Reed on Unsplash 

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Sarah Chauncey

For more than two decades, I struggled multiple treatment-resistant mood disorders. I spent more than 20 years in psychodynamic therapy and tried 18 different medications. In 2010, I began searching for ways to rewire my brain naturally for inner peace. I write about the practices and insights that have improved my mental, physical and spiritual health.

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