“Wander alone, like a rhinoceros,” advises the Rhinoceros Sutra, one of the earliest Buddhist scriptures. The pratyekabuddhas (enlightened beings who attain liberation without the aid of a mentor) of prehistory might have trodden their paths alone, however for most of us, wandering alone for too long will make us lonely. It is natural to feel like this every now and then. However, if the loneliness begins to choke off our sense of being connected to others, or to chip away at our hope of belonging, then we know that it has become an existential malady. Not all who read this article might be religious, but the worst kind of loneliness cuts deep into our very core and makes us lose our sense of meaning and place in the world, a very spiritual concern.
There is obviously a distinction between solitariness and loneliness. We all need space to be alone, to enjoy privacy, and to attend to our interior being, and this differs among people. Many introverts, for example, hate being thrust in social situations not of their choosing or timing. They need their time alone to recharge, prefer the company of a few good friends, and can feel lonely or isolated when surrounded by a sea of people at a party. Extroverts might thrive in social situations, but often feel lonely and more anxious when they are not with people. They can even be lonely while apparently having numerous friendships that might in reality prove to be rather shallow. Indeed, ignoring or filling up our interior with too much noise and interaction is just another route to loneliness.
Everyone has encountered loneliness in one circumstance or another. One might have family or friends who do not understand one’s mindset and aspirations. This can be isolating in a frustrating way. When we feel that no one cares, as if we are deprived of human contact and relationships, or if we do not feel understood or accepted among those we are in contact with, we might start feeling stuck and unable to reach out for relatable company or help.
The fact is that one’s wellbeing dramatically drops once feelings of isolation become a regular pattern. There is no small number of people in both developed and emerging economies who feel lonely or isolated. Loneliness is a true emotional pandemic: in one poll, nearly half of people in the US say they are “sometimes” or “always” feeling alone (46 per cent) or left out (47 per cent).
Loneliness has become such a concern in modern life that Britain has appointed its first minister of loneliness, Tracey Couch. Couch told the HuffPost that a couple of particuar cases she had come across since taking up the post had resonated with her. One was a professional who had moved to London for a good job but felt “incredibly lonely because she gets up, she goes to work, and then when she gets back there’s nothing.” She also mentioned one of her constituents, an older man whose wife had died years ago, who, although he felt extremely lonely, was unable to articulate that loneliness until he could put it into words: “The announcement [that he was feeling terrible from his wife’s loss] helped him identify that he was lonely and he wanted to know if there were any projects locally that he could get involved in.” (HuffPost)
There is no doubt that certain traditional mindsets about community or lifestyle can inform ways of alleviating loneliness, such as through face-to-face interaction, communities of common interests or causes, and being rooted in the present encounter. It is also interesting that despite society being more connected than ever in a digital sense, it is people of the millennial generation that feel loneliest. Crouch says: “One of the possible causes of loneliness, particularly among young people is the advent of digital connectivity. We have one of the most digitally connected generations and yet what we are seeing is an increase in loneliness.” However, Crouch also points out that apps and mobile technology can be harnessed to connect lonely people, such as a service connecting and facilitating communication between young mothers, who often feel isolated after giving birth. (HuffPost)
While there might be very general rules of thumb to follow when dealing with loneliness, each case of isolation is unique and needs tailored attention. Some general approaches include: understanding the unique context in which the person in question is feeling lonely—whether they might feel isolated by the people around them for instance—and trying ways in which they can break through their isolation, for example via activities that might help get them connect with others or a wider cause beyond themselves.
One might feel lonely in a remote country home, or amid the bustling, brightly lit skyscrapers of a large city. It can be triggered in different ways, from the incidental, such as returning to a beloved locale from a happier time, to the significant, like the passing of a loved one. Loneliness can last several months or a lifetime. Everyone has their own reasons for feeling the way they do. How deep the loneliness is, be it a case of the blues or a deep psychological wound, is up to the confidant to assess.
Ultimately, in all these situations, we are compelled to consider the best skillful means (upaya) for addressing loneliness. This is as tender a subject as any, for the sufferer, for their friends, and their chaplain or counselor.
Engaging with loneliness is to engage with a truly raw aspect of the human condition: the aversion to being alone. For Buddhist chaplains, one important objective is to help the subject view their life from a different vantage point; specifically, how deeply interconnected they really are with the universe. With the existential realization that we are never alone, we might hopefully reach out to others with an open heart that is free from the fear of isolation.
Thich Nhat Hanh expresses this in one of his memoirs about his mother:
Walking slowly in the moonlight through the rows of tea plants, I noticed my mother was still with me. She was the moonlight caressing me as she had done so often, very tender, very sweet . . . wonderful! Each time my feet touched the earth I knew my mother was there with me. . . . From that moment on, the idea that I had lost my mother no longer existed. All I had to do was look at the palm of my hand, feel the breeze on my face or the earth under my feet to remember that my mother is always with me, available at any time. (Thich Nhat Hanh)
Hanh, Thich Nhat. 2002. No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life. New York: Berkley Publishing Group.