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The Meaning of Loneliness: 2/ what happens when we call loneliness solitude?

“Loneliness is no particular colour – a mountain of black pines on an autumn evening.” Bashō.

As I proposed in the earlier blog, loneliness is co-created by the society we live in. There are other cultures, for example, where solitude (loneliness’ twin) is considered highly-prized. The early Buddhists saw sitting alone under a forest tree or in a mountain cave as being a perfect place to be. Similarly, the 17th century Zen poet, Bashō made much of the quality of Sabi. Which he saw as the underlying quality of all human existence; a bitter-sweet solitude that was colourless and profound. Thoreau, living alone out on Walden Pond in the America of the 19th century, also prized his experience. Turning our idea of loneliness upon its head: “I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls.” But there is a world of difference between chosen solitude and enforced loneliness. Or is there?

Feel a spread of positive energy in your body and you will momentarily feel happy

Undoubtedly, there are members of society who are unable to leave their home through age, illness or incapacity, and enforced isolation can be scary and frustrating. But, in the spirit of enquiry, I might say that a lot of the pain of loneliness comes from our own conception of it.

Mindfulness teaches us (amongst other things) that events in the thinking-mind affect the body-mind and the emotional-mind. Imagine a loved one, laughing and smiling, (thinking mind action). And you will if you have pictured them consciously, feel a spread of positive energy in your body and a smile play on your face (bodily result) and you will momentarily feel happy (emotional result).

The same is – sadly – true for negative thoughts. If you wake in the middle of the night and think someone is trying to break into your house – all your body and emotional circuits are switched to red-alert: heightened heartbeat, sweat, black-and-white thinking. If, after exploration and several repeated nights’ broken sleep, you realise that it is the garden gate banging in the wind or a fox squealing in the garden, then your body doesn’t respond in that way and your emotions stay relatively unruffled. It’s the same loud noise but the mental re-labelling has changed the effect.

We can further dignify it by labelling it ‘rich solitude’

The same might be true of loneliness. When we in the West use that word to describe the feelings we have then something sets solid. For us it’s a negative word and when we call ourselves names than a vicious cycle of negativity sets in. We feel sad and abandoned and then we call it loneliness which is a harsh label. We then feel ashamed of being lonely which adds a third barb to our already-barbed bouquet of emotions: sadness, abandonment and now shame. The shame prevents us from sharing our sadness or exploring the resonances of our abandonment and we are stuck – silent and isolated – with our ‘loneliness’.

What happens though if we are home alone on a Saturday night and – instead of a) papering over the feelings by sitting in front of the telly or internet or b) intensifying our emotional negativity by calling what we’re experiencing ‘loneliness’ – we create space to feel what is happening in us? That space is called mindfulness and we can further dignify it by labelling it ‘rich solitude’. In this way, we remove at least one of the barbs.

By consciously re-labelling the evening as ‘solitude’ we take the boiling shame away. We have dignified what we’re experiencing enough to be able to sit with it. And there is something profoundly empowering about allowing ourselves to feel sadness or resentment or abandonment deeply. They’re all unpleasant quadrants of the emotion-mind but they are real and human and full of information.

I was troubled by a peculiar quivering anxiety

I have recently moved house out into the countryside – which I love – but, up until a month ago, whenever I didn’t have house guests or loved ones staying and sat down to do some work or just relax, I was troubled by a peculiar quivering anxiety. This core ‘quiver’ seemed to agitate me, no matter what I did, and for months I let it pass but fretted that there was something wrong with me physically.

Eventually, however, I sat with it (as I’m always telling other people to, finally tasting my own medicine!) and discovered in the quiver, a profound echo of a childhood terror of abandonment.

My childhood was fairly lonely, my brother was older and not much interested in playing with me, my Mum and Dad were both busy working to keep a roof over our heads and so I spend a lot of time on my own. (I would be interested to know whether those 10% who profess to be regularly lonely got into the habit when they were little.)

I was able to ‘uncouple’ that ancient infant fear from the adult situation of being alone

In sitting with the ‘quiver’, I was able to access a store of real infant horror at being left alone – (remember for an infant abandonment is like a death sentence) and in naming that I was also able to ‘uncouple’ that ancient infant fear from the adult situation of being alone in my lovely, cosy house. It worked and the quiver receded.

I might suggest that all persistently troubling adult states have their radioactive core in unacknowledged infant terror which no one thought to turn off. And I might further suggest that loneliness almost always has its core in fear of abandonment.

As functioning adults – often with families of our own, relatively secure incomes, roofs above our heads, – we can gently reassure that infant part of ourselves that has been on red alert for so long that what we’re experiencing is not fatal abandonment but a relaxing night in, a night of pleasing solitude not horrible loneliness.

Again, I hasten to add that I’m not speaking from a position of authority. Much of what I write on this subject – at this early stage of the project – is a surmise and hunch. But some of the responses coming in seem to suggest that I’m not a million miles off.

I’d love to know your thoughts about solitude. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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