Loneliness is a modern epidemic. COVID-19 has forced the world into isolation – closing centers of human bonding, trapping us in our homes, and leaving loved ones to die alone in hospitals. While social media has in some ways made us more connected than ever, it has simultaneously left us feeling never more alone. The aftershock of the baby boom of the 1940s and 1950s is a gray tsunami of loneliness today. Our individualistic societies offer the promise of self-actualization, but they also erode all sense of solidarity and human connection. We live in an age of extreme loneliness, and humanity’s heart is aching.
Diagnosis matters. If we don’t identify what exactly is the problem, we will waste our energy chasing after the wrong solutions. Loneliness is not being alone. Being alone is a physical state whereas loneliness is a mental feeling of isolation – a state of mind. Being physically alone is neither a cause of suffering nor a cause of happiness. In and of itself, it is neutral – indeed it is nothing. Loneliness, in contrast, is a mental feeling or reaction to being alone. It can arise – and often does – even when we are surrounded by others. Loneliness is a form of deep inner suffering. But it is perfectly possible to be alone without feeling lonely, indeed it is possible to be alone but feel inseparably one with all living things. In this post, I will try explain how. I pray that all those who read this find relief from their inner sorrow.
The Suffering of Loneliness
Loneliness is a feeling of deep inner sadness and wanting. We feel as if everyone else is off with each other while we are left alone to suffer. Merely seeing others together reminds us just how alone we are, and instead of being happy for them, we become jealous or depressed. We feel that we lack something we need – namely companionship or human support – and we can’t be happy without them.
Loneliness makes us feel helpless, burdened by problems we cannot overcome on our own. Life’s struggles are endless, and we are left to confront them on our own. People who we think normally should be there to help us in our hour of need are too absorbed into their own lives to pay us any bother, much less offer a shoulder to cry on. Worse still, they become frustrated with all our tears and judge us for our pitiful state. We then can sometimes lash out at those around us in a misguided cry for help, only to find those closest to us avoiding our presence even more. We feel like a failure because nobody wants to be our friend and our sadness is so heavy we struggle to even get out of bed.
Loneliness robs us of any feeling of purpose in our life. We wonder what is the point of even trying when we have nobody to enjoy things with and nobody really cares what happens to us? Even when people do reach out to us or we are with others, it never feels enough to fill the seemingly bottomless void in our heart. Lacking motivation, we feel ourselves sinking ever deeper into despair, worried we might not ever get back to feeling normal.
When we are plagued by loneliness, we can easily become trapped in feelings of self-pity. We exhaust our mental energy feeling sorry for ourselves and feeding our hopelessness that no matter what we do, it will never work. We see no end in sight to our solitude and convince ourselves we will never make it through. The more lonely we feel, the more despondent we become when even the slightest thing that before we could have taken in stride occurs. The more lonely we feel, the more tightly we grasp at ourselves as being separated from others. All of this then reinforces our feeling of loneliness in a vicious spiral.
Those who are lonely will often turn to negativity in an attempt to fit in with others. This can take many forms, such as joining others in criticizing and indeed developing hatred for some other social group. Or we can start to drink, take drugs, or “hook up” with others as a way of creating a feeling of belonging. But in the process, we lose any sense self-respect and deep down we know such bonds with others are shallow and toxic to our soul. Later, after we become addicted to these things, we will face the terrible choice between leaving our so-called “friends” or remaining incapable of escaping our life-destroying addictions or hatreds.
Loneliness often ends in death. Researchers have found that loneliness is just as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than the non-lonely. More people die from deaths of despair – suicides or self-poisoning – than nearly any other cause of death. But this can also take more subtle forms, such as those consumed by loneliness simply giving up trying to get better, leading to slow-motion decline. Such pain is often invisible precisely because those experiencing it are either doing so away from others or inside their broken hearts. Loneliness is even one of the primary causes of extremist violence, from terrorism to school shootings. From a Buddhist perspective, loneliness – or grasping at ourself as being separate from others – is actually the cause of all death because it is the very motor of samsara.
The Many Forms of Loneliness
Loneliness has many forms. There is the loneliness of feeling unloved and abandoned. Some children are neglected by their parents or made to feel no matter what they do, it is never good enough. Middle school children the world over obsess over what others think about them and feel that nobody likes them, which for many is a fate worse than death. In part due to social media and photo filters, millions are growing up today feeling un-“liked” and unattractive on their own. Whereas before, people would get together with their friends, now we are all glued to our phones even when we are physically together.
Teens and young adults now have the lowest rates of romantic relationships with others than any generation before them. Marriage rates are falling, divorce rates are rising, lasting and deep relationships are fast becoming a thing of the past. Because all of society tells us we are not good enough, we no longer feel good about ourselves, and without that we can never feel loved even if the whole world did love us. Friends we used to have never call, and if they do reach out we rarely get more than a superficial text message or comment on our social media posts.
There is also the feeling of loneliness in the face of our struggles. Life is one endless series of difficulties. Children with learning differences are made to feel dumb and nobody wants to be in groups with them. Going off to college or leaving home for the first time feels as if we are thrown out into the world alone and unsure. New parents are often shocked to find out just how isolating it can be to care for young children without adult companionship. When financial difficulty strikes, no one is there to help. When our parents become incapable of caring for themselves, we face the burden alone and, even when we have time to get away from such responsibilities, we have nothing to talk to others about besides our burdens which they don’t want to hear. When our parents die, we feel truly on our own without anybody we can unconditionally fall back on.
Many also suffer from the loneliness of physical isolation. Social distancing related to COVID-19 has massively increased the amount of physical isolation in the world. Some people find themselves alone because they have no friends, others find themselves alone sick in bed or in the hospital, incapable of doing anything except enduring their discomfort. Our partners are sometimes called away from home due to work, leaving us alone looking after the kids and other family responsibilities on our own. Sometimes we are alone because our partner leaves us for somebody else, and many old people return to an empty home after the death of their lifetime partner.
We can even feel alone while surrounded by others, such as going to a new school, beginning a new job, or being at a party where we don’t know anybody. We can even feel alone when we are surrounded by people we know and who love us, but we cannot feel their love because of the want in our hearts.
Getting old is a frequent source of loneliness. We are no longer able to get out and do the things we enjoy and nobody wants to come see us because all we can do is sit in a chair or talk about the past. And when death comes, we must face it alone. Our friends and relatives cannot help us. We all march to our death alone.
The Inner Causes of Loneliness
As discussed above, being alone is a physical state, but loneliness is a state of mind. We might think the solution to loneliness is not being alone, but if we still have the mind of loneliness, we will feel just as alone no matter how many people we are with. In Transform your Life, Geshe-la makes the distinction between out outer problem and our inner problem. Our car breaking down is our outer problem, but our actual problem is our deluded mental reaction to this occurring. We need a mechanic to fix our car, but we need to change our deluded way of responding to fix our mind. If we solve our inner problem, outer situations will no longer be a problem for us. Thus, the only real solution to our problems is doing the inner work necessary to change our mind.
This is equally true with loneliness. When we understand our loneliness is an inner state of mind, we will realize the only solution to it is to change our mind. Correctly diagnosing the problem is the essential first step to any treatment. A failure to correctly diagnose the exact nature of our problem will mean we never actually find a solution. We just continue to grasp forever at the wrong belief that because we are alone, we must suffer. We might not be able to change the fact that we are alone, but we can definitely remove the feelings of loneliness from our mind.
From a Buddhist perspective, loneliness arises from a toxic brew of the ignorance of grasping at ourself as being somehow separate from others, a false belief that we need others to be happy, an obsessive concern thinking what we feel is supremely important, and a lack of self-confidence in our ability to transform our aloneness into something spiritually useful. Let’s unpack this.
In Buddhism, we say the root of all of our suffering is our self-grasping ignorance. What does that mean? It means we think the self we normally see – our present body and mind – is actually us. We think we are this and not that. We impute our “I” onto this very narrow, isolated thing failing to realize that we are in fact inseparably one with everything. In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says we are like a cell in the body of living beings. We are inextricably linked in a web of kindness providing everything needed to support our life. Ultimately, everything is a dream like creation of mind, so everything is equally part of our mind – part of us. We currently feel as if there is this giant chasm separating us from everything else, but this feeling is an illusion, a mistaken perception. In truth, all things share the same ultimate nature, like different waves on a single ocean. When we realize the ultimate nature of things, there is no basis for feeling alone because all feeling of distance between ourselves and others simply vanishes.
Loneliness hurts because we have attachment to others, thinking we need them to be happy. What precisely does this mean? Attachment is a mental mistake that thinks our happiness depends upon some external condition. We convince ourselves we can’t be happy without this external condition. We don’t even want to call this belief into question, and reject anybody who tells us otherwise. We then dedicate all our energies to bringing about the external change we seek as a solution to our mental pain. If we are unsuccessful, we feel we have no choice but to be miserable. And even if we are successful in obtaining what we desire, it doesn’t actually ever satisfy our inner want because the problem is actually coming from inside. As explained above, loneliness is a feeling of sadness and wanting. Attachment is what creates the feeling of wanting – a feeling of needing, but not finding. Specifically, loneliness is pervaded by an attachment to others. We convince ourselves we need companionship, a partner, a lover, a friend, or a shoulder to cry on to be happy. And without these things, it is impossible for us to be happy. Sometimes we will have no prospect of ever being re-united with others – or at least not for a long time – and then fall into despair that there is no end in sight to our sorrows. But all of this is completely wrong. Just because we think it is true and we have always believed it is true doesn’t mean it is, in fact, true. Being alone, in and of itself, is neither a cause of happiness nor a cause of suffering. It is just a condition, a state of affairs. It is our mental reaction to this state that is the real cause of our suffering. Whether we are happy or not depends not upon our external circumstance, but upon the peace within our mind. Inner peace is a dependent-related phenomena. In other words, if we create the causes for inner peace, our mind will be peaceful, and we will be happy. If we don’t create these causes, our mind will never become peaceful, and we will never be happy no matter what our external circumstance. We must be clear about this otherwise we will never get better.
Loneliness hurts because of our attachment to others. How much it hurts depends upon our degree of what in Buddhism we call “self-cherishing.” Attachment is the mistake creating the feeling of loneliness, and our self-cherishing is like the volume knob that amplifies how much our loneliness hurts. Self-cherishing is an exaggerated sense of importance of our own feelings and well-being. When we feel bad, we think it is a very big deal. Why? Because we think our own happiness is supremely important. In the grand scheme of things, we are just one person and what we feel really doesn’t matter that much. Yet to us, it is of utmost concern. Why? Because we have been fooled since beginningless time by the inner demon of self-cherishing. When others are unhappy, we don’t think it is that big of a deal because to us, their happiness doesn’t matter. Self-cherishing causes us to be obsessively concerned with our own wishes, and so when they are not fulfilled, we simply cannot bear it. But if we reduce our exaggerated sense of how much our own well-being matters, we will proportionately reduce how much it hurts to feel lonely. If how we feel doesn’t matter, then it won’t matter that we are lonely. Yes, we are lonely. So what? What’s the big deal? Every time we feel the hurt of loneliness, we should view this as a powerful reminder of the need to reduce our self-cherishing.
What makes loneliness particularly difficult to bear is the feeling of hopelessness that often accompanies it. Where does this hopelessness come from? It comes from our lack of self-confidence in our ability to transform our present circumstance into something spiritually useful. We think the problem is bigger than us, and we tell ourselves, “I can’t handle this. I won’t be able to make it.” Such thoughts are not only self-defeating, they are simply wrong. If we believe we can’t handle it, then when we try to heal our mind of its pain, we lack power and we wind up self-sabotaging our efforts. We think it won’t work anyways, so we don’t ever really try, and as a result, we continue to suffering. We then use the failure of have any results to confirm our initial belief that nothing will work anyways. No matter what we do, we always judge our efforts as not being good enough. We constantly find fault in what we didn’t do right instead of rejoice in our progress, however small it might be. We would never talk to others the way we talk to ourselves, constantly criticizing ourselves as such a failure and finding fault with everything we do. So why should we talk to ourself in this way? Thinking we won’t be able to make it is simply incorrect. Because we have a pure potential, there is nothing we can’t do. With our Guru’s blessings, we can accomplish anything. Because emptiness is possible, everything is possible. If we never give up trying, our eventual success is guaranteed. There is no valid reason to believe we “can’t” do it. Sure, it may be hard, but that doesn’t mean it is impossibly so. In truth, we are simply our own worst enemy. But we don’t need to be. We can also be our best ally.
How to overcome loneliness.
Having clearly understood the suffering of loneliness, the different forms of loneliness, and the inner causes of loneliness, we can now turn to how to actually overcome our feelings of loneliness. These explanations for how to overcome our loneliness will lack power if we don’t clearly and accurately understand what exactly is our problem. But if we are clear on the problem, we will appreciate and be motivated to train ourselves in the solution. I will present nine different practices for reducing and finally eliminating our inner pain of loneliness. All of the Buddhas guarantee if we patiently train in these practices, we will find the inner peace and contentment that we seek.
Accepting patiently what we cannot change
Shantideva explains when we are confronted with some difficulty, there are two possibilities: either we can change the situation or we can’t. If we can change the situation, then change it. If we can’t, then we must learn to patiently accept it. We need to make a distinction between unpleasant feelings and suffering. Unpleasant feelings arise in the mind when delusions are present or negative karma is ripening. This only becomes “suffering” if we don’t mentally accept these unpleasant feelings. As long as we are still trying to push them away, we will suffer from them. If instead, we can learn to wholeheartedly welcome them, we create the space within our mind to suffer. Yes, we are suffering. OK. And…? If we can accept them, our unpleasant feelings cease to be a “problem” and as a result, we no longer suffer from them.
How can we accept unpleasant feelings? There are two main ways. First, we can accept them as purification of our past negative karma. Since beginningless time, we have engaged in countless negative actions. These actions have placed innumerable negative karmic potentialities on our mind which will, sooner or later, ripen if we do not purify them. Once negative karma has ripened, not even Buddha can stop its effects. The karma will have to run its course until it eventually exhausts itself. When we mentally accept our unpleasant feelings as purification, it not only exhausts the presently activated negative karma, but we can purify all of the karma similar in nature to what is ripening. We can think to ourselves, “through my patiently accepting my present difficulties, may I purify all of the negative karma of loneliness on my mind.” Second, we can transform our suffering into an opportunity to train our mind in spiritual paths. Shantideva explains suffering has many good qualities, but all of them are the opportunity suffering provides us to abandon our delusions and train in virtues. Just as a beggar is not an obstacle to somebody wishing to practice giving, so too the arising of suffering or delusions in our mind is not an obstacle to somebody wishing to train their mind. We feel bad, but it is not only not a problem, it is rocket fuel for our spiritual path.
Additionally, we can put our faith in Dorje Shugden. Dorje Shugden is a specialized Buddha whose job it is to give us all of the outer and inner conditions we need for our swiftest possible enlightenment. His job is not to fulfill all of our worldly wishes, but he can fulfill all of our pure spiritual wishes. If what we want is an easy life, it will be impossible to accept that which we cannot change. But if what we want is to make spiritual progress, then anything can be transformed into the path. Dorje Shugden provides us with the wisdom blessings necessary to see how whatever arises is perfect for our spiritual training. With regards to our being alone, we can request Dorje Shugden, “please arrange whatever is best.” If our aloneness stops, then great; if it doesn’t, then we can know without a doubt that our being alone is exactly what we need to take the next step on our spiritual journey.
Learning to appreciate our alone time
All delusions function in the same way. They mistakenly grasp at some mistaken notion (such as attachment or self-cherishing), then exaggerate that notion, relating to that exaggeration as if it were somehow true. When it comes to loneliness, we mistakenly grasp at being alone as being inherently a bad thing, inherently a source of our suffering. We convince ourselves we can’t be happy while alone. We then exaggerate this wrong belief by dwelling on it again and again, convincing ourselves that it is true. We think again and again, “I’m all alone, nobody is around to help,” and “I can’t enjoy anything while alone” or “it is so awful having to confront this on my own.” Why are any of these things true? They only become true if we believe them to be true.
First of all, there are people around, we have just decided what we have is not good enough. Maybe we lack the physical presence of some people, but that does not mean we are actually alone. And who says the people we do have around are not good enough? Why is the support we have not good enough? What specifically do we think we need from others? What is wrong with doing things on our own? Sure it is perhaps more fun to share a good movie or dinner with somebody, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the movie or dinner or walk on our own. Why is it bad to have to solve our daily problems on our own? Children resist learning how to sleep or walk on their own, but is there any denying they are better off for learning how to do so? The same is true for our life challenges. By learning how to work through our challenges on our own, we will grow in strength and confidence and will be able to take those qualities with us everywhere we go for the rest of our life. Would we rather remain weak and dependent forever?
Further, being alone has amazing good qualities. We can do what we want – watch what we want, read books we never otherwise have time to read, and most importantly, engage in spiritual practices such as listening to, contemplating, or meditating on the Dharma. Even from an ordinary perspective, getting away from others is often a huge relief because they are constantly placing so many unreasonable demands on us or otherwise act in such annoying ways. How wonderful it would be to simply sit and relax, enjoying a little peace and quite from our otherwise hectic lives. There are things that being alone enable us to do that we otherwise are never able to do. So instead of looking at what we are missing, we need to appreciate the unique opportunities our aloneness affords us.
Abandoning attachment to others
As explained above, attachment to others is a mistaken belief that we need others to be happy. It is true, we need to generate love and compassion for others to be happy, but we do not actually need to be with others to be happy. We need to make a distinction between “nice to haves” and “necessities.” Having companionship, somebody we can share our burdens with, or a shoulder to cry on are all nice to have, but we don’t actually need any of these things to be happy.
Many people become fixated on having a partner, thinking they can’t be happy without one. Or they become obsessed with having a baby, feeling their life has no meaning without one. Some find a partner, but then feel lost and empty without them. A very common form of attachment is needing others to help us carry our burdens or even just listen to us express the challenges we are going through. None of these things are true. They only become our lived experience because we think they are true. With modern technology, such as social media, video calls, and the like, we are never really alone. We might lack the physical presence of others, but besides being able to hold their hand or give them a hug, what difference does physical presence really make? There are plenty of people who remain single their whole life or never have children and are perfectly happy. Not having our partner around gives us a chance to stand on our own two feet and gain self-sufficiency and inner strength. Being forced to solve our problems for ourselves enables us to grow and develop self-confidence.
The hard truth is we were all born alone and we will all die alone. Even if they wanted to, others can’t solve our inner problems for us, only we can do that for ourselves. Even if we had them around, they couldn’t really make any difference because the changes that need to be made are all internal. Even the Buddhas can only show us the way, we have to travel the path ourselves. Accepting our aloneness is in fact a huge part of growing up. Some people go their whole lives without ever truly assuming responsibility for their own experience of life. Do we want to remain forever like this? Our aloneness gives us our unique chance to finally change. Once we gain this inner strength, we can then become a source of wisdom, support, and emotional stability for others. Our positive example will inspire others to develop their own emotional independence as well, protecting them from becoming trapped in abusive or co-dependent relationships. The truth is most human problems would be solved if we could just abandon our attachment to others.
Cultivate a true self-confidence
As explained above, loneliness comes with hopelessness. It makes us feel there is nothing we can do to change our plight. But this is just wrong. Most of all we just need to stop believing our self-defeating talk.
Geshe-la explains in How to Understand The Mind we need to develop three types of self-confidence: confidence with respect to our potential, confidence in our actions, and confidence in thinking we can destroy our delusions.
All of us have what is called our “pure potential” or our “Buddha nature.” This potential is our true self. It cannot be defiled nor destroyed, and once ripened, we too will enjoy the enlightened state. Ripening this potential is simply a question of having the correct methods and persistent effort that never gives up, no matter how hard it gets. Our pure potential is like the sky, and our present delusions are like clouds in the sky. No matter how dark or violent the clouds, the sky always remains equally untouched. Our loneliness is not us, it is just a cloud in our mind. We can dissolve this cloud and feel the infinite expanse of the sky day and night.
Buddha said that eventually all living beings will attain full enlightenment, the only question is when we ourselves decide to start on the path. The practical instructions he has given us for healing our mind are scientific methods for finding inner happiness. Everyone who has sincerely and correctly put them into practice has discovered for themselves that they work. Atisha explains the laws of karma are definite. If we change our actions, we will change our experience. This is guaranteed. Just as there are laws of nature, so too there are laws of our mind; and if we learn how to work with them, we too will come to enjoy lasting inner peace.
Finally, we need confidence that we can destroy our delusions. Our delusions are not us, they are like mud in water, they are not an intrinsic part of our mind. Our delusions are nothing more than bad habits of mind, and like all habits, with effort we can break them and create new, more healthy ones. Great canyons are forged one drop of water at a time, and even iron blocks can be cut in two with a feather if we never give up trying. If our delusions can be reduced – which we know they can – they can eventually be eliminated entirely.
We often say, “I fell bad, I feel bad, I am not well,” but we never bother to ask ourselves, “why does that matter?” As explained above, the extent of our self-cherishing is like a volume knob amplifying the hurt of our loneliness. If we find ourselves experiencing unbearable pain, it is because we have out of control self-cherishing. There is no other reason. The more we reduce our self-cherishing, the less it will hurt. It is as simple as that.
How do we reduce our self-cherishing? We have to see clearly that it is the root cause of all of our suffering. There are two main ways of understanding this. First, how we “feel” matters only because we think we matter. Other than that, there is no reason. The reality is the more we think it matters, the more intolerant we become to feeling anything bad, and this makes us hurt even more in a vicious spiral. When our self-cherishing is strong, we cannot tolerate even the slightest thing going wrong. Because our wishes matter “so much” we think everything that happens is a really big deal and we feel as if we are being violently buffeted by the waves of life.
Second, all of our suffering comes from the ripening of our negative karma. All of our negative karma comes from our past self-cherishing thinking we were more important than others. Why do people currently neglect us? Because we neglected others in the past. Why are they currently frustrated with us while we suffer? Because we were frustrated with others in the past when they were suffering. Why do we feel so alone? Because we abandoned others when they needed us most. Why do we have to bear our burdens alone? Because we failed to help others in their hour of need. It is sometimes hard to admit to ourselves these karmic truths. We feel like we are blaming ourselves, saying it is our own dumb fault that we are suffering now. No, it is the fault of our past delusions, not us. Delusions take over our mind and make it uncontrolled, and then compelled by them we engage in all sorts of negative actions. We can feel like our present suffering is some sort of punishment that we deserve for being so bad, but this is just our guilt mistaking karmic gravity for divine punishment.
Seeing how our present suffering is coming entirely from our self-cherishing, we can use our feelings of loneliness and abandonment as a powerful reminder that we must completely and utterly abandon our self-cherishing. If we want to never go through this suffering again, we have no choice but to abandon our self-cherishing now. Further, by abandoning it now, our unpleasant feelings will simply “not matter as much.” Yes, we may feel bad, but we will think, “it doesn’t matter.” This wisdom mind makes everything more tolerable.
Geshe-la explains in Eight Steps to Happiness, “Cherishing others also protects us from the problems caused by desirous attachment. We often become strongly attached to another person who we feel will help us to overcome our loneliness by providing the comfort, security or excitement we crave. However, if we have a loving mind toward everyone, we do not feel lonely. Instead of clinging onto others to fulfill our desires we will want to help them fulfill their needs and wishes.”
In truth, we are only alone if we are only thinking about ourselves. If we are thinking about others, we are not alone. They are with us in our thoughts. If we are engaging in actions to cherish them, we feel close to them and never feel alone. We can mentally imagine we are surrounded by all living beings and send them love and blessings. If we have lost a loved one, we can remember that they have not disappeared, they are simply somewhere else. We can still have a relationship with them, pray for them, and commit ourselves to becoming a Buddha for their sake. Even doing simple things like writing letters or drawing pictures for others can make us feel close to others in our heart, and our feelings of loneliness go away.
As long as we are looking to others to fill our empty voids, we will never overcome our feelings of loneliness even if we are surrounded by the whole world sending us love; but if we instead are working in our mind to cherish others and giving to others whatever it is we feel we need, we will feel ourselves being filled from within and will lack nothing. As Saint Francis said:
O Divine Master, grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
And it’s in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to Eternal Life
As explained above, the root of samsara is our self-grasping ignorance – the mind that grasps at ourselves as being this small, limited body and mind somehow distinct from everything else. This view is factually just wrong. We can see there is not a thing about us that actually does not come from others, and there is nothing we do that does not affect all other living beings. This feeling of separateness between ourselves and others is a completely false fabrication of our mind that, regrettably, we have believed without question since beginningless time.
The ultimate nature of all things is emptiness. What does that mean? It means that everything is a dream like creation of mind, with no more reality than last night’s dream. What does this mean for our loneliness? First, it means all of our feelings of loneliness are actually coming from a mistaken conception of who we are. A wave cannot exist without its underlying ocean. We think we are a wave somehow existing independently of the ocean of our mind. Second, it means it is actually impossible for us to be alone because everyone and everything is necessarily a part of our mind. Every living being is inside our mind, inseparable from our mind, and part of our mind – so how could we possibly be alone? Third, if we realize the emptiness of all things, we will feel the false chasms between us and all phenomena fall away and we will merge with all things like water mixing with water. Being alone itself is impossible and the feeling of loneliness has no basis in ultimate truth. Fourth, and perhaps more immediately, if everything is created by mental imputation, that includes thinking being “alone” is “bad.” It is not inherently bad, we can mentally reconstruct it as “good” or even “pure.”
Realizing emptiness of ourself and all other phenomena is the definitive antidote to all feelings of loneliness. It may take a long time to realize emptiness, but every step we take towards its realization will reduce our underlying feelings of loneliness.
Remembering we are always in the Presence of all the Buddhas
Normally, when people say they are lonely, people will tell them, “you are not alone, you have this person and that person in your life, etc.” But this sort of thinking is really just a band aid because the underlying assumption is being alone is still a “bad” thing. So I intentionally did not put much emphasis above on “you are not alone” because I wanted to show a deeper solution. It is better to stare aloneness straight in the eye and get to the point where it is no longer a problem, instead of just rush to fill our aloneness with somebody.
However, from a spiritual point of view, we are not alone and never have been. All of the Buddhas attained enlightenment for the express purpose of being able to be with each and every living being every day, with the ability to bestow blessings directly on the minds of all those they love (which is everyone). All around us there are countless Buddhas. It is only our ignorance and lack of faith that fails to see them and feel their presence. The sun is always shining, even if we can’t see it due to the clouds. If we removed the clouds, the sun would naturally and spontaneously shine forth.
A literally translation of a “Buddha” is an “inner being.” It is a being that lives in the realm of mind. From one point of view, all living beings share the same ultimate nature, like the ocean to the myriad of waves. A Buddha is somebody who has realized directly they are the ocean, and so they are necessarily present in every wave. Another way of thinking about it is we all share the same pure potential of omniscient bliss realizing the emptiness of all phenomena directly and simultaneously. Imagine a universal hub that all living beings are connected to like spokes. If you shine a light in the hub itself, it illuminates all of the spokes simultaneously. This is a Buddha’s experience and how they are able to be with each and every living being every day, bestowing blessings directly on the minds of all. They have found their way to the center, from where they can benefit all. And all Buddhas have done the same, meaning all of the Buddhas are with us every moment every day.
When we realize this, we understand we are actually never alone. All we need do is remember that all of the Buddhas, especially our Spiritual Guide, are with us and stand ready to bless our mind and help us along. Unlike our ordinary friends, who cannot directly touch our mind, a Buddha can. Buddhas blessings are like subtle infusions of their mind and realizations into our own. When we generate faith and request their blessings, we will feel their love pour into us filling our mind with their eternal presence.
Go for refuge
Everything I describe above is not easy, but it is doable. At present, the winds of our mind all blow in deluded directions and the wind is quite strong. On our own, it is very hard to bring about the inner changes needed to reverse the current of our mind to flow in a better direction. We need help. Fortunately, we have help.
A foundational practice is “going for refuge to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.” What does that mean? When our car breaks down, we go for refuge to a mechanic; when our tooth has a cavity, we go for refuge to a dentist. In the same way, when our mind is plagued by the sickness of delusions, we go for refuge to the three precious jewels. Practically speaking, what does this mean?
It means we need to apply effort to request blessings from the Buddhas. It was explained above that the Buddhas are always with us, but if we do not open the blinds of our mind, their sunlight cannot enter. When we request their blessings, we open up our mind for their loving energy to enter into our hearts, giving us the wisdom and strength we need to overcome our loneliness by training in the practices above.
It also means we need to apply effort to receiving help from the Sangha, or our pure spiritual friends. There are Dharma centers all over the world and Facebook groups filled with people doing their best to put Buddha’s instructions into practice. They know the struggles we are going through and have some experience they have gained from their prior practice. They can share their experience with us and provide us with encouragement when we are feeling down. But they cannot do the work for us – only we can do that for ourselves.
It finally means putting effort into practicing the Dharma. Practicing Dharma means to apply effort to change the way we think to be slightly less deluded and slight more virtuous. Drop by drop, the bucket is filled. Step by step, the journey is made. The practices described above will all work if we diligently train in them over a long period of time. There are no quick fixes on the Buddhist path. It takes work. But the difference is our ordinary solutions to loneliness will never work no matter how long we try practice them. The inner solution may take time, but its results are guaranteed. And the reality is if we train sincerely, we will start to notice some results – we will feel slightly less lonely, or the loneliness we feel will be slightly more tolerable. These early results will give us confidence that if we keep at it, eventually we will know permanent freedom.
Loneliness is a terrible thing. Millions around the world are experiencing great sorrow from it. But fundamentally, it is just a state of mind. If we change our mind, we can remove the debilitating feeling of loneliness, even if physically we remain alone for the rest of our life. The practices described above are scientific methods that will work for whoever tries them. What we do with this information, though, is up to us. We have to decide to put in the effort to accept our situation and create new mental habits. These sorts of inner changes will never happen on their own. One day or another, perhaps after we have tried all other methods, we will come to accept if we want to feel better, we must do the inner work required. There is no point blaming our being alone for our loneliness, the two have almost nothing to do with each other. But if we correctly diagnose the problem in our mind and sincerely train in these more positive ways of thinking, I guarantee we will overcome all loneliness – not only now, but forever more.
I pray that all those who feel lonely find this post and that their minds are blessed to find something useful within it. I pray that all feelings of loneliness quickly cease and we all come to realize we are inseparably one in a web of kindness. May all beings feel the living presence of the Buddhas in their lives and turn towards them with faith. May everyone be filled with the courage necessary to embrace being alone as their opportunity to progress swiftly along the spiritual path.