12 June 2020 | BY ANDJELKA JANKOVIC | Life
Learn to appreciate the void
I once read that hope is the most private of emotions, I would add that so is loneliness.
We can all feel it so much without telling anyone. I’ve often thought they should change the opening line of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence to ‘Hello loneliness, my old friend’.
There are many types of human longing: for a partnership, a pet, purposeful work, a community, a landscape, or your place in the world. I feel it when I glimpse into other people’s homes from the street. It is something unexplainable yet so present.
Add to that being isolated, detached or not having support networks, and suddenly loneliness is a psychologically difficult condition to live with.
One tragedy of loneliness is that lonely people can’t see that lots of people feel the same way they do. — Jill Lepore
I recently listened to a conversation between Brené Brown and Dr Vivek Murthy and I was struck by the concept that there are three types of loneliness:
Intimate loneliness. What you feel when you lack really close relationships and don’t have any people who know who you truly are, and with whom you can be fully yourself. In other words, being single and craving an intimate relationship. Or having a nourishing, loving relationship but not a best friend (I call this person your anam cara — Celtic for soul friend).
Relational loneliness. When we lack close friendships or a circle of friends that we can spend time with outside of work and on weekends. These can be old school friends, a tight-knit group of friends you make in adulthood like a girl gang, a surfing crew, a women’s or men’s circle, or a group of people you share a similar hobby or passion with and emotional closeness.
Collective loneliness. You feel this when you lack a sense of community or don’t have a group of people with whom you share an identity and likemindedness with a truth, mission or interest. This could be a physical community like the neighbourhood you live in, a sangha commonly found in spiritual traditions, your extended family, or a faith-based collective.
When I get lonely these days, I think: So BE lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. — Elizabeth Gilbert
I can relate to all three. As I delved deeper, I did a ‘loneliness inventory’ of my own current life:
Intimate loneliness. I am fortunate to have a handful of intimate ‘soul friends’ who I can truly be myself with and also two ‘best’ friends, and my brother is one of them. My last long-term love was five years ago and since then I’ve had a few notable romances and a lot of alone time. I haven’t run or hid from being on my own. I am not in a relationship at the minute and I’m truly enjoying life. I do crave connection and closeness with a beautiful person and I also dearly miss living with my cat (skin hunger is real, WE ALL JUST WANT A HUG AT THIS POINT). I’ve found a weighted blanket and a heat pillow to be comforting, but nothing can replicate human warmth. I am not pretending to not want a relationship or wanting praise for being cool and bad-ass. I’ve just come too far to settle for anything less than someone who lights up my life, something I am very good at doing.
Relational loneliness. I’ve always loved the virtue of friendship. I have different circles of intimacy from soul friends to social friends to acquaintances such as childhood friends, high school pals, a girl gang, university friendships that span decades, travel friends, tea friends, food club friends, tantra friends, work friends, yoga friends, and so on. I make friends easily (I know this is not the case for everyone). One could say I am ‘friended’ out, but I adore everyone I call a friend. I am very close to my mama and see my dad regularly (although he knows me least in the world). I didn’t grow up with any of my grandparents as they lived in Serbia while I was in Australia so I’ve always missed out on that and have found true elders through other ways. I am also an aunty to two nephews and they are some of the most cherished (and adorable) teachers of my life.
Collective loneliness. Now this one I didn’t understand for the longest time until I lived in an intentional community in New Mexico and it changed me irrevocably. I experienced what it’s like to be a part of a spiritual community with people living in their truth and it made me wish that’s how the whole world worked. I recently started making new incredible friends in a global tea community that spans all the way from Taiwan to London, Colorado and Santa Fe. I didn’t realise how much I was craving this kind of collective connection until I was planted in it. I’ve also been a part of the Couchsurfing community for the past five years and have become connected with beautiful people across the world who let me stay with them when I was travelling and many that I’ve hosted when I am back home. I could tell you stories of the unimaginable kindness, generosity and warmth I’ve received from strangers for days.
In doing this, I realised that a loneliness inventory is really a relationships inventory and I noticed there are actually four types of loneliness — with the missing one being:
Self loneliness. What you feel when you lack intimacy or friendship with yourself. Not knowing your own inner world. Feeling lonely when left alone and wanting to escape your own company. It’s not just single people who can experience this — people in couples can also know this kind of loneliness with the self when they are sleeping next to their partner or in a crowded room.
I know lonely well. It’s a bodily experience. That ouch feeling in your bones or the ache in your chest. I feel it when I go from being by myself to spending extended time surrounded by people like on a holiday, a weekend away, or retreat and then being alone again. I remind myself: it’s okay, you just need to get reacquainted with yourself. Other times loneliness creeps up on me for no real reason and can stay for days, like an unshakeable presence, an unending emptiness or a foreboding melancholy. As I realised, when you start to befriend this feeling something interesting can happen.
In the past three months, I have noticed a state of beautiful aloneness occupying my life. It felt subtle at first, still and quiet; and it surprised me. A place of deep solitude sprung up inside me like never before. It has an easeful quality, a spaciousness. Yet a cozy place inside of myself that I can retreat to. I thought I had experienced the beauty of being alone after many years of solo travel, but this is truly something else. When I am with myself now, I feel I am wholly there, present and playful, like a tender and dependable companion.
You are who you are when nobody’s watching. ― Stephen Fry
I think there is a lot of truth to how you act when it’s just you. Your true essence. You can get to a place where the aloneness feels like home. A place to nourish yourself. A form of belonging no one can ever take away from you. In other words, loneliness makes you a stranger to yourself, while solitude connects you to your own inner friendship.
In my experience, when loneliness shows up, I have to be with it until it passes. Forcing it to end rarely works. Put on a playlist. Order in your favourite dumplings. Watch the movie that always makes you laugh. Go out for a walk. Call a friend. Submerge yourself in a body of water (small or big). Throw yourself at whatever gets you through.
I’m not sure what to say about struggle except that it feels like a long, dark tunnel with no light at the end. You never notice until it’s over the ways it has changed you, and there is no going back. We struggled a lot this year. For everyone who picked a fight with life and got the shit kicked out of them: I’m proud of you for surviving. — Clementine von Radics
This is what has helped me navigate my journey so far from loneliness to solitude:
Music. Some may open a bottle of wine when they feel lonely, I open Spotify. When I think I am the only one experiencing this yucky inner gloom, songs remind me that millions if not billions of people (including the musician) have felt the exact same way before. I make playlists to make sense of and resolve emotional states. Pop on Cozy Longing or Productive Melancholy, or you can peruse the other 131 playlists I’ve made over the years. Send me your favourite ones. As it would be, the aptly named piano instrumental track Solitude No. 1 – Live by Ukranian composer Lubomyr Melnyk is my ‘writing song’ that I play on repeat to get into flow.
Literature. Words from wise humans are a tonic for my soul. I am always fond of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet for understanding how the big questions of life are waiting to be lived through you (I found it in Kyoto, Japan and read it in a mountain cabin eating a big bowl of noodles after a big day hike.) Bill Plotkin’s Nature and The Human Soul changes my life every time I read it, Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love is a glorious meditation on loneliness in love and the reality of relationships (also read The Roots of Loneliness by The School of Life), and Sally Rooney’s Normal People will nourish your soul with excellent storytelling (read this if you’ve finished the TV series). I am an avid reader and so the list goes on and on. Basically, find something that makes you forget yourself (and then often, find yourself again in a new light). You can see my Good Reads list and reviews for book suggestions, or ask me for a recommendation.
The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself. — Michel de Montaigne
Walking. Nothing lifts me out of a spiralling mood quicker than a walk in my neighbourhood, or even better a hike in nature. Its an opportunity for a perspective change, to notice synchronicity and experience wonder. I love seeing the flowers I walked past yesterday blooming today. Being outside is a sensory and sensual experience where you can forget yourself, even for an hour. It’s like a big woosh of fresh oxygen and new ideas into my brain. And there’s nothing like a beautiful sunset to remind you that no matter what you are going through, the sun will rise tomorrow and so will you.
Poetry. Poetic words transcend the thinking brain. One of my favourite poets David Whyte calls aloneness ‘a nesting in your body and deepening a conversation with the inner horizon’. Canadian poet Rupi Kaur reminds us ‘loneliness is a sign you are in desperate need of yourself’ and I think Charles Bukowski nailed the necessity of solitude for creativity when he wrote: ‘I was a man who thrived on solitude; without it, I was like another man without food or water. Each day without solitude weakened me. I took no pride in my solitude; but I was dependent on it. The darkness of the room was like sunlight to me.’
& remember, loneliness is still time spent with the world. — Ocean Vuong
Self Pleasure. The secret sauce of solitude. Playful sexual intimacy with yourself is a way to not be strangers to ourselves. I was a part of a women’s circle studying tantra and the embodiment of healthy masculinity and femininity for several years. This is where I learnt a fun and hugely empowering self-pleasure practice. Self-pleasure is about beginning an honest relationship with yourself where you explore and fulfil your own curiosities and desires freely. Look into the work of sacred sexuality with Elijah Tantra School or nude yoga and a game-changing yoni egg practice with Rosie Rees. I’m loving the erotica short stories app Dipsea and a good friend recommends the science of women’s pleasure at OMG Yes.
Writing. Voila! Writing this piece is a way of being with my beautiful aloneness. Without solitude, it would be hard for me to access an inner place of clarity where my creative ideas come from. Writing is an inherently solitary activity and an attempt to share something to be of benefit to others (the good writing at least). Sometimes the spark or Muse isn’t with me and nothing comes, and other times I get so lost in the flow that I forget to eat (and I am not a gal to miss meals). My point is, as Pablo Picasso also has said, without great solitude, no serious work is possible.
Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life. ―
Rituals. My life is a series of consistent daily practices that ground me immensely. My morning looks like: vedic meditation, lemon and hot water, breakfast, yoga, and a daily tea practise (sometimes the order switches except the first one). I follow rituals personally on the new moon and full moon and share with others in tarot readings and tea ceremony. My wellness rituals include the weekly farmers market, regular acupuncture sessions, baths and infrared sauna when I can find one, sound healing and yin yoga, colonics after I travel, and the heaven that is facials and massages. I also established ‘Solitude Sundays‘ a few years ago as a way to create a container for cultivating alone time and I found my selfhood really flourished.
Collective Aloneness. I remind myself that we are all feeling this together. Some days we wake up on top of the world and other days we want to hide from it. In our private pain is a comforting invisible thread ― that loneliness is in fact a shared experience. You can thrive in your aloneness. I know several people that do, maybe you do too. Use them as your guiding light for how to navigate solitude for yourself. I can easily slip into my hermit tendencies and so I remind myself to also get nourishment from my friends and family. The minute I do, I remember why we need human connection as much as we need ourselves.
But many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone. Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape. ―
Impermanence. Loneliness is not just in your head. It can be a visceral sensation in your body, a coldness in your home, or the feeling you might fall apart or fly away at any moment if someone doesn’t hold you. It’s very personal and private because it traps you in a moment that feels like it will never end. Here’s the thing to ultimately know: it will pass. That is the nature of impermanence. You know how it was raining yesterday and now it’s sunny? That’s how it works. Time changes all things, including this feeling that you think will follow you around forever.
There are so many ways to live and not everything resonates with everyone.
The difference between aloneness and loneliness is a threadbare line, even for me. The best way I can put it is loneliness isolates you from others, while aloneness connects you to yourself. It can swing either way depending on the day, mood, and your emotional state.
The longing for intimacy is profound at times and then it passes. For me, it’s not about needing someone, it’s about wanting someone with certain qualities. There is nothing more attractive than someone who has their own inner life. I have found that my own beautiful aloneness has brought a deep inner comfort as well as a new lightness in my spirit. I love it and I am reluctant to give it up for anything less than someone worthy of inviting into it.
Solitude is one of the most precious things in the human spirit. It is different from loneliness. When you are lonely, you become acutely conscious of your own separation. Solitude can be a homecoming to your own deepest belonging. — John O’Donohue
My hope is that loneliness becomes less of a source of shame and more of a thoughtful self-inquiry. It is uncomfortable and disarming, but it is also an invitation to get to know yourself more: What does it feel like to be by yourself? Can you name what you feel might be missing from your life when it’s just you? What is it that you are afraid to find when you go within?
I’m not saying it’s easy. It requires compassion, courage, and a whole lot of honesty to delve into yourself, but it is one of the most worthwhile conversations you can ever start (you don’t need anybody else to do it!) and getting to the other side is the gift of solitude.
Nurturing your inner life is something you actively have to work on as a human, it’s kind of frightening for a short while.
Make an altar to your loneliness.
Learn to honour is it as something sacred.
Get to know your aloneness.
Build an inner refuge.
You must want to spend the rest of your life with yourself first. — Rupi Kaur
We cannot have true intimacy with anyone else if we don’t have it with ourselves.
You’ll too discover your place of beautiful aloneness, waiting for you all along. Climb in.
A place to always come home to — you.
This is the bright home in which I live, this is where I ask my friends to come, this is where I want to love all the things it has taken me so long to learn to love. 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. — David Whyte