I have long thought that loneliness is one of the most difficult of human emotions to tolerate. So my ears pricked up when a well-known Buddhist nun touched on the topic during a talk in Noosa last week. Robina Courtin spoke of her time working with prisoners in more than 40 states of America and noted that many of them were more free mentally than those of us on the outside. She emphasized the Buddhist tenet that suffering largely comes from within not without. I think this is very obvious with loneliness. Even the common paradox of being lonely in a crowd refers to this dynamic.
Loneliness is not only difficult to bear but it is often the culprit underlying many of our more obvious difficulties. As we try frantically to run from it, we head smack bang into the seemingly ever loving arms of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, compulsive gambling, sex and spending, and of course toxic relationships (after all in the short term they somehow seem less bad than loneliness).
Like many knee-jerk remedies for our maladies, they seem attractive in the short-term whilst multiply our pain and suffering in the long-term. There are many changes that we can make to our external world that help alleviate loneliness. However, the most effective approach is to face down the bully. By this I mean sitting with the loneliness rather than retreating. It takes courage, but meditating on the loneliness-really becoming mindful of it-will show you that it is not so scary after all. A bit like when a child shines the torch on the ‘monster under the bed’ and it evaporates.
Using techniques from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (see www.actmindfully.com.au), which have their roots in Eastern philosophy, can assist with this process.