An Antidote for Loneliness (for singles… or those who feel single!)
Whether you’re single and looking for a relationship or in a relationship but feel like you’re single, at times you may find yourself no more than an arm’s-length away from the dark cloud of loneliness. You can sense it looming, ready to cast a shadow on your spirit when you have a weak moment or aren’t busy with life’s many distractions. So to avoid it, you may go to great lengths to keep yourself occupied, by immersing yourself in work, TV, movies, music, or surfing the web. Or maybe you choose to read books, exercise like crazy, shop, or call or text friends or family. You might also find yourself combing through online dating sites, heading out to a bar, or even calling your ex to escape the lonely feelings. While these activities can produce a temporary distraction and make you feel better – and perhaps more hopeful – while you’re doing them, you know the dark cloud of loneliness still looms, waiting for the right still moment to envelop you in its vapor of sadness and imminent doom.
Let’s start by exploring what one might experience in the midst of the dark times: aside from pouring out a waterfall of tears or trying to avoid thinking about how futile life seems when we feel we are not able to share it with someone, we might start by conducting a mental inventory of the people who we feel support us in our life. To feel better, we look for reminders that we’re not really lonely and that there are people in our life who care about us. This can give us a little relief — until we realize that while they may very well care about us, these people are preoccupied with their own lives and relationships and can’t be there for us all the time. This leaves us feeling lonely again. It might also cause us to succumb to a landslide of ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking, where we might begin to think we’ll never find the right person or have the right relationship. We start to wonder if we might actually be destined to be alone, which is yet another devastating thought. The prospect of living alone without a life companion for the rest of our years and never again feeling a loving touch, sharing a romantic trip with the person we love, or saying “I love you,” and meaning it from the deepest place in our soul, can make us feel life might not be worth living. We can become filled with hopelessness and despair. It’s at this point that some people turn to alcohol, drugs, or other unhealthy activities to escape from the pain and sorrow that seem to have taken over.
Yes, keeping ourselves continually busy might seem the natural remedy for loneliness. If we can just watch enough TV, read enough books, spend enough time with friends, work extra-long hours, or go on enough dates, we just might escape this evil cloud and, someday, it will go away forever. Or so we hope. Are continual activities really the antidote to our loneliness? If not, are we destined then to suffer from intermittent loneliness and despair until we find the “right one” or the “right relationship”? Further, are long-term relationships truly the source of lasting happiness?
First, we must remember being alone does not automatically equate to feeling lonely. You can probably think of times when you felt really grateful to have some time alone — maybe when your roommate or spouse was out of town, and you had the house to yourself. Or maybe when you were driving alone in your car, singing as loudly as you wanted. During these times, being alone felt good. You appreciated the opportunity to do whatever you wanted. And you didn’t feel like loneliness was taking you over. So what makes the dark cloud of loneliness hover over us during certain times and not others?
Part of the answer lies beneath our thoughts and feelings during these times. Is the perception we hold of our current condition and reality built on fear and anxiety or on gratitude and openness? In the moments where loneliness dominates, we are often focused on the things we want, but don’t have — and we are worried we may never have them. The truth is: we don’t know what may happen in the future. We don’t know if we’ll meet someone tomorrow or if a new chapter in our current relationship (or our life) is right around the corner. Rather than place our attention on the possibility of something we would like to have happen, during dark times we often find we have placed it on what we perceive as the worst possible outcome. When we’re alone and are not feeling lonely, we are usually focused on what is right in front of us. We aren’t grieving or obsessing over what we don’t have or worrying about what may or may not happen in the future. We embrace life as it is and feel appreciation for experiencing every moment. We are open to whatever may come our way.
So, how do we move from a state of fear and anxiety to this state of gratitude and openness? First, we must recognize when we are under the spell of the dark cloud of loneliness. We must recognize we are in a negative thought pattern in order to change it. Mindfulness meditation is one of the best tools we have to help us do this. Through meditation, we begin to see that when we are not caught up in our thoughts, we can become open to the present moment, which is always right before us. Too often we don’t give the present moment its due attention. When we do, we discover the present moment isn’t so bad after all! Things are not so terrible when we are not dwelling on how we aren’t receiving affection, having a stimulating conversation, or feeling supported by our significant other. Our world seems a bit brighter when we find that in this very moment, if we examine all of our physical senses and our surroundings, no one is causing us any physical pain and we are not in immediate danger. In this moment in time, when we let go of all of our thoughts about what happened a few minutes ago (or a few years ago), and focus only on what is happening right now, we are okay. When we eliminate mental distractions, we can sense tranquility, and things seem rather neutral. Negative thoughts and feelings seem to dissolve on their own when we don’t get involved with them. We may even catch a glimpse of beauty. There is peace in this moment — we just have to rest our busy mind and notice it.
Over time, with this heightened awareness, we can return more easily and consistently to the present moment each time we find ourselves struggling with negative thoughts. We discover that we naturally feel more open and receptive in this state, whereas before we were feeling closed and defensive. This presents us with a wonderful opportunity to cultivate the kind of feelings we want and need to have in our lives, instead of the kind we want to escape from. One way we can move toward these feelings is to conduct an inventory of everything we feel grateful for in life. As we do this, we try to focus just on our feelings of gratitude and not let our mind slip back into the things we feel resentful or fearful about. While this may seem challenging at first, with practice it becomes much easier, and we can enjoy the beautiful feelings that come from it. We can also learn to cultivate warmth and compassion for ourself during lonely times, rather than intensifying our feelings of failure, futility, or hopelessness.
Another one of the feelings we desire the most is love. This is largely what drives our interest in long-term relationships, isn’t it? So we can give and receive love? You may have heard the expression “Love comes from within.” While this may sound like a nice concept, for many it can seem confusing or perhaps too idealistic. How exactly do we find love inside ourselves? And is this love always available to us whenever we’d like it? Can this love make us feel as satisfied as the love we feel in a long-term relationship? In many parts of society, there is little or no importance placed on how to find love within ourselves; it is not taught in school, and it isn’t a part of workplace training. While most religions consider love central to their teachings, specific instructions are not always given, and many people today don’t attend church or are not religious. To experience this love for ourselves and discover the answers to these questions about finding the love within, most of us need some guidance! Loving-kindness meditation is one powerful tool people, both religious and nonreligious, have used to do just this.
In this meditation, we simply let our attention rest on four phrases:
- May I be filled with loving kindness
- May I be safe from inner and outer dangers
- May I be well in body, heart, and mind
- May I be at ease and happy
By focusing our attention on these sayings during meditation, we can cultivate feelings of love, kindness, well-being, and happiness within ourself, and then we can expand these sentiments to others (“May you be filled with loving kindness…”). It’s not necessary to use these exact phrases; they can be modified to suit a particular preference or religious belief. When we practice this technique, however, we discover our amazing capacity to experience love at any time, in any situation. While meditation is an ideal way to build our inner strength to generate feelings of love and kindness, we also can intentionally let these feelings arise within us whenever we are aware enough to do so, like when we are feeling open in the present moment. This could be in line at the grocery store, while we’re driving on the freeway, or even in the midst of a difficult conversation. We can recite the same phrases inwardly, with our eyes open if that feels most comfortable given the situation, and transform any negative feelings we may be experiencing in that moment. This is one way to experience the love within. It may take some time to develop if it has been lying dormant for a number of years, but the benefits of its expression are immense.
When we feel this love, we realize we are not reliant on other people or external activities to make us feel fulfilled, worthy, loved, or happy. While we may still desire a long-term relationship with a partner who is a good fit for us, we know relationships may come and go and have ups and downs, and we can also still feel lonely while we are in them. While relationships may bring us joyful times, they are not a true source of lasting and consistent happiness. Our inner happiness endures when we embrace the present moment, when we transform our fear and anxiety into gratitude and openness, when we cultivate warmth and love for ourself and others, and when we realize love truly comes from within. We have all the love we need inside of us… we just have to invite it out to stay and watch the dark cloud of loneliness fade away.