(I wrote this piece as a test article for a potential online advice columnist gig. They didn’t want me, but I think it’s a decent article nonetheless; it’s got some dharma in it).
There is a secret to embracing loneliness, and it will take half of the sadness away, maybe more. We are taught as children that people come in pairs, and belong in pairs; but that’s only one view. Although relationships can be very good, being alone is an equally worthy way to live, and just as fulfilling.
Like all living creatures, we come out of the world alone; consciousness can only fit in one being at a time. And we leave one at a time; living alone shouldn’t have any stigma attached to it. If you find yourself feeling very lonely, either in a relationship or out of one, there are steps to take that will ease your loneliness and draw you back into the light.
The best way to change your opinion of and experience with loneliness is to reconnect with your body. When we get stuck in our heads, it’s easy to forget what feels good, and how to connect with simply being alive. A way to reconnect which people have been doing for thousands of years, is to sit quietly and focus your attention on your hands. Really allow the feeling to pulse through them, gently sending your awareness into your fingers and palms. Some people experience a light tingling in their hands when they do this. This practice, when refined, is remarkable; Buddhist monks use it to change the temperature in their hands, by ten degrees.
You can also place your awareness in your feet, and even in your organs, like your lungs and your heart. This practice decreases loneliness because it restores the sensation of simply being alive. Your aliveness is not dependent on another person, or on what you’re wearing, or what you do for a living—the same consciousness that rushes through the universe rushes through you.
The secret to embracing loneliness is shifting perspective. Instead of thinking “I’m alone again tonight,” say to yourself, “I have the whole night to myself, I’m free to do as I please. I think I’ll work on my novel/floral arrangement/giant robot.” Although your budget may be tight, there’s no end to cheap entertainment in our modern age. Or take the night off from the TV and sit quietly, just experiencing the sounds of the evening, the rhythm of your neighborhood. If you start to see your life as good, instead of limited, it opens up. And if you’re in a relationship and feeling lonely, there are other steps to take.
First, have you always felt lonely in this relationship? Or did it just start up, kind of out of nowhere? If you’ve always felt lonely with your partner but kept going on in the hopes it would get better, or were afraid to leave and be alone, fear not; changing your perspective will help here too. Look beneath the loneliness; are you lonely because you’re not connecting with your partner, or because they (or you) are preoccupied with work or sickness or some other challenge? Stress, anxiety, anger, shame—all of these can lie not far beneath loneliness. If you can look at these, and observe them without judgement, you might feel a little less lonely; everybody on earth feels stress, anxiety, anger, and shame—if you can let these emotions rise up and wash over you, without getting sucked in, they lose their power. Psychological studies have shown that emotions are only very intense for about two minutes; if you don’t engage with them in that time, they’ll die down.
And if you realize you’re lonely because the bond between you and someone else is deteriorating, congratulations, you’ve identified a tricky spot; now, go to work on repairing it, through gentle communication and the gift of your full attention. Reconnecting with someone, be it a new lover or an old friend, is a way to offer of yourself, and this offering chases away loneliness.
If you can get past society’s talk that loneliness is the human condition (it isn’t), and investigate the feelings underneath it, you’re more than halfway through the struggle of being lonely.The rest is learning how to treat yourself well, and this doesn’t require vast sums of money. If you find yourself lying awake, obsessing over your day and feeling, well, lonely, review what you did before you went to bed. Sitting up and staring at a computer screen, especially at night, makes it harder to wind down and fall asleep. Likewise with late night eating and drinking; if you can keep from eating for an hour before going to bed, your body won’t have to contend with new digestion, which is a pretty active process.
To fall asleep easier in a bed by yourself (or in a bed with someone else), stick to late evening activities that stimulate the slower waves in the brain—in other words, no electronic screens or loud noises (also, studies have shown that hanging around social media sites when you’re feeling lonely increases the isolation). Try reading a book or a magazine at night, or learn to knit; small, repetitive actions (like knitting or writing in a journal) calm the mind and body. Exercising, even ten minutes of walking twice a day, helps the body settle down at night and sleep better.
Another way to feel better in your body, and so connect to the sense of being alive and full of energy (instead of lonely and enervated) is to practice meditation. The easiest way to meditate is to sit on a pillow or cushion on the floor, with your knees lower than your hips, in a quiet room. If you’ve never meditated before, try five minutes of sitting with your eyes open and slightly downward, with a soft gaze four to six feet in front of you. Sit with your back straight but not too tight, and your hands placed gently on your thighs. If sitting on the floor is not possible for your body, a chair is fine, but don’t lean all the way back, keep some energy in your spine.
Meditation is a good time to examine loneliness—when it comes up, notice it then let it go. Many meditation techniques, including samatha vipasana (“peaceful abiding”), involve labeling your thoughts “thinking,” and then letting them leave your mind. Breathe in and out, and place some awareness on your breath. Gradually, if you find meditation is helping your physical and mental health (as countless studies and millions of people agree), you can sit for longer, or find a group of people to meditate with.
Another way to be okay with loneliness is to examine your relationship to food and alcohol. If eating dinner alone requires three martinis to be successful, then, surprise, you’re actually not alone, many other people are doing the exact same thing, you just don’t know them. Try making your dinner more of a ritual, rather than just a bowl of cereal in front of the TV. If you eat at the same time every night and put a little mindful effort into what you make, even if it’s just ramen noodles, dinner tastes better. Alcohol is a depressant; it amplifies what you’re feeling. If you’re lonely, a beer will pick you up for a few minutes, then drop you down harder. Awareness of how you relate to food and alcohol is a way to respect your body.
Embracing loneliness is like walking a tightrope; you find your footing and walk for ten or twelve feet, then you look down and see it’s a long way to the earth, and it might be tempting to just fall off and return to hating loneliness. But it gets easier; keep walking.