I live alone. I’ve lived alone for six years now. In that time, my state of being has evolved from not knowing what to do next, to a mix of daily routine, work, activities, social encounters, plans, travel, fulfillment and a life with meaning. Of late, however, the occasional, unexpected wave of loneliness has begun to wash over me once again, unpredictable in its arrival and in its impact. This is without a doubt a consequence of five seemingly interminable months of ‘sheltering’ in my home; a daily walk in the park my only foray into the outside world. Do I feel lonely? Yes, sometimes. Isolated? It seems that way! Do I feel sorry for myself? The answer is yes, on occasion, if I’m honest with myself. I’m a “people person,” and being by myself can be quite difficult.
I was ensconced in my couch late one evening, indulging in a little self-pity, when a vague memory straightened me from my slouch. Pushing up, I walked into the next room to scan my bookshelf for a couple of slim volumes of poetry. Thumbing through them, I soon found the verse from Hafiz of Shiraz that had shaken me from my little pity party:
the sun admitted,
“I am just a shadow.
I wish I could show you
The infinite Incandescence
That had cast my brilliant image!”
“I wish I could show you,
When you are lonely or in darkness,
The Astonishing Light
Of your own Being!”
I had been feeling lonely and in the dark. What made me seek out these words? What was the 14th century Sufi Master trying to say? A thought flickered, then flared. Was he telling me that I need not be lonely or feel lonely when I’m alone? Suggesting that I embrace my aloneness? Thrive in it? Exploit it?
Loneliness left unchecked can be dangerous for the body and the soul. Just a few short months ago, I talked about its ill effects in my article Lonely in a Crowd, describing how this hidden and largely unobserved epidemic had been sweeping through our society long before the coronavirus reared its deadly head. And now here I was, ironically, fighting off its symptoms! I expect some readers will recognize my symptoms. In that respect, I’m not alone!
What’s the difference between Loneliness and Aloneness? “Loneliness is a lack, a feeling that something is missing, a pain, a depression, a need, an incompleteness, an absence,” says Pragito Dove, “aloneness is presence, fullness, aliveness, joy of being, overflowing love. You are complete. Nobody is needed, you are enough.”
The Sufi Master, it seemed, was suggesting that I should seek my own light. Handing me the key to turn an absence into a presence, pointing me to the path away from the perceived pain of an unfulfilled want, towards a joyful exploration of an infinity of life and being that existed within me and around me. A universe waiting to be discovered, in which I would never feel lonely even in my aloneness.
A number of writers describe the power of aloneness; of solitude and the opportunity, it provides to draw strength, peace, and connectivity with oneself and with nature. Introverts thrive on being by themselves, says Sam Woolfe; they feel energized by focusing on their own inner world. Why can’t we give ourselves the same power? In Walden, a classic account of an experiment in essential living, Henry David Thoreau writes “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.” Naturalists who spend long stretches of time by themselves have learned about the power of aloneness and the value of solitude. Some claim that solitude reinforces a secure sense of self, and with that, the capacity for empathy that is so necessary in society.
Those moments when we’ve had a difficult, trying, or exhausting time, or feel that wave of loneliness approaching provide the perfect opportunity to reach within ourselves. That instant when we begin to feel sorry for ourselves or have the urge to get away from it all, is the ideal time for quiet introspection, to be alone and replenish ourselves. Constant “connectivity” in this digital age has driven many of us to a need to always “be with” or engage with someone; this has become so reflexive that we’ve lost the ability to be by ourselves, focus on our surroundings or turn inward to reflect, and connect to our inner selves. Let’s listen to Hafiz once more:
“Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly
Let it cut more deep
Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can …”
I’m learning to embrace my aloneness; to find comfort and ease in my own company. It’s difficult. I still have a way to go. I see that light now and then, and experience the peace aloneness brings, as I sit in my front-row seat and observe and absorb the universe within me.
Are you ready to walk on a path towards the astonishing light of your own being?
Sukham Blog – This is a monthly column focused on health and wellbeing.
Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides information, and access to resources on matters related to health and well-being, aging, life’s transitions including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death in the family, and bereavement. To find out more, visit https://www.sukham.org, or contact the author at [email protected].