To be alone…

Society, Spiritualism & Buddhism
Just me and the rice paddies...

Just me and the rice paddies…

I have been travelling alone for one month. Before this, I was travelling with Chris every day, so the feeling of being alone was all the more intense when he left. It’s been interesting observing myself: my feelings of loneliness or contentment, and observing when I have clung to other travellers so as not to feel lonely.

As I write this, I am sitting in the communal area of my guesthouse on sunny Otres beach in Cambodia. Most people sit socialising at the bar, whilst there’s a few groups sitting around tables. I’m the only person sitting by myself. I choose to sit alone because I want to do some writing. So why do I feel slightly forlorn when I see the people around me socialising? Maybe I’m envious of the possible connections that people may make with each other. Or maybe I would like to be accepted by strangers. I wonder whether it’s natural for humans to want to be accepted, or whether it stems from being insecure. Or whether it’s about the society that we’ve grown up in: a society where we all constantly need to prove that we’re beautiful or successful or popular, and where we prove this by seeking approval and validation from other people.

I come to the conclusion that it is a mixture of a few things: needing validation, a feeling of incompleteness, an inability to sit and just be…but it’s also a subtle longing for a connection with others. I think it’s natural to want that connectedness with fellow humans, and it’s beautiful (although rare) when really special connections happen.

One book that I keep coming back to and re-reading is Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. (Before I quote Fromm, I apologise for the sexist language that was the norm in Fromm’s 1950s generation). He says:

“The deepest need of man is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.”

It’s interesting to observe myself and other solo travellers trying to change our aloneness by using our phones and laptops. We are not able to just be with feelings of loneliness: we try to push the feeling away or suppress it. I have found that using the internet really sucks me away from reality far more than any book does. I think it’s on a par with watching TV for its ability to disconnect us from the reality of what’s actually going on for us emotionally. Nowadays, it’s very rare to see a solo traveller reading a book. Most people choose to lose themselves in the internet. And I don’t think I have ever seen anyone alone in a guesthouse without having to occupy themselves with doing something. On this trip, I have definitely used my phone too much – my first question at each guesthouse is “Do you have wifi?” – and I have noticed a massive drop in my happy state of mind when I use the internet for more than an hour.

Erich Fromm talks about the discomfort of being alone if we don’t turn to our usual distractions:

“Anyone who tries to be alone with himself will discover how difficult it is. He will begin to feel restless, fidgety, or even to sense considerable anxiety. He will be prone to rationalise his unwillingness to go on with this practice by thinking that it has no value, is just silly, that it takes too much time, and so on, and so on. He will also observe that all sorts of thoughts come to his mind which take possession of him.”

A few days ago I emailed Chris and said, “I feel so intensely lonely today.” The whole day, I felt so miserable and thought that I might burst into tears at any second. I couldn’t push the feeling away. It was with me as I cycled around villages, saying hello to happy children, and it was even with me when I used the ultimate distraction: the internet! But what was also beautiful to observe was that the feeling passed. A day later, I was fine, back to my usual self. It’s so comforting when we realise that our feelings and emotions are impermanent.

In the past, I have also clung to other travellers so as not to be alone. Maybe I was afraid of venturing into the unknown world alone (and it’s interesting to observe that after years of travelling and hitchhiking solo, I can still feel that fear). And maybe clinging to other travellers was a preventative measure: to prevent feelings of loneliness from creeping up on me. I spent time with people that I had nothing in common with. They were nice people, but the connection wasn’t there. But still I clung, despite the fact that I didn’t particularly enjoy their company. Afterwards, when I realised that I had done this, I vowed not to travel with people (or even sit with people) for the sake of having some company. I vowed to embrace the feeling of loneliness, rather than try to push it away or prevent it in the first place.

In our culture, we use so many distractions – such as the internet or small talk with fellow travellers – as a temporary refuge, rather than facing our uncomfortable feelings. Tara Brach says that being present for the pain is what gives us freedom. When we make contact with what exactly is going on within ourselves, and don’t try to resist it, we can be compassionate for whatever arises.

Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,

My need of God
Absolutely
Clear.
– Hafez

Buddhist Ed Brown reflects that he likes to interchange the word ‘God’ with the words ‘compassion’ or ‘love’. He says, “Our good heart surfaces when we sit with things and we don’t surrender them too easily: when we’re willing to be with what’s inside.”

It’s not that every day on the road is a lonely one. Far from it! And since realising that I was clinging to people, I have become far more content in solitude. Loneliness has become a content aloneness as I have observed myself all alone, in the present moment. The times spent alone have become precious, and I learn a lot about myself and about the world around me. And the more I become content, the more I smile, and then the more people want to talk to me!

“You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation, and that is called loving. Well, then, love your suffering, do not resist it, do not flee from it. Give yourself to it. It is only your aversion that hurts, nothing else.”
– Hermann Hesse

12 thoughts on “To be alone…

  1. Interesting ! No that’s nothing but understatement ๐Ÿ˜‰
    I’ve begun to travel to be alone…. Using a lot internet just to send my impressions and blog publications, sometimes one a day and quite never to receive….At first time I refused to socialise. Always alone, except for some short and light encounters… Then time changed me..

    I loved your analyses. Loneliness can bring a lot, so do also socializing. I believe understand, reading you, that the more important is not loneliness, neither socializing but what we can discover when we miss someone, something, some…. Or when noise of crowd make us deaf….

    I should write a lot on your post or around it. Should omment and communicate my experiences on this subject. Some is quite similar to yours, and some quite different. But alas my English is too poor for that. However you infused me with need to do it in French…Terrible is the Babel’s curse

    Good continuation Lisa. My thoughts (and of course those of Franรงoise) are flying to and over you.

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  2. Yes, being constantly with other people or on the internet leaves us no space, no room to breathe and to be. We are too dazzled by the neon lights of superficial communication to see the gently flickering stars of the all-embracing cosmos of which we are part, and to which we can truly connect only by means of an inner journey…

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  3. Beautifully put. I have just begun a solo trip around Myanmar myself and have been experiencing the same thoughts. I’ve been traveling solo for nearly a decade, and still find myself feeling very frustrated with loneliness. I think, ugh! When will this feeling end? When will I get past it? Perhaps never, but as your post mentions, that’s normal. Its the aversion to the pain that is the problem, not the pain itself. Thank you ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. hi Sheila,
      thanks a lot for reading and taking the time to comment. Trying to just sit with the feelings of loneliness (rather than push them away) is something that I think I will continue to struggle with, too. Have a beautiful time in Myanmar. I went there in 2007 and i hear that it’s changed a bit..when I went to Bagan there were no other tourists. I bet it’s still amazingly beautiful, though, even if it’s busy. If you keep a blog, post the link here so that I can follow it ๐Ÿ™‚

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  4. Touched me reading this, thank you ๐Ÿ™‚ I have usually no problem being alone, when I am just alone. Actually I love the moment when my travelling companion takes a leave and I am left alone – with the big big world. It is like when I travel with companion we create a small world but when I am left alone the small world goes away and gives space for the big world, no compromises, no waiting, just pure soul breathing the air and flying the space.

    Usually no problem being alone when I am just alone but then being alone in a cafe or other social place can feel very difficult, I start to feel guilty, like I would be missing something, i notice a feeling of embarassment for not having a companion and envy for those who are sitting together, I am unable to just enjoy breathing the air, I get so distracted of the situation that I start to listen other groups talking and acting like I would be thirsty, and my focus goes to social interaction and atmosphere and I get embarassed of the fact that I am out of that all, alone, like someone who is left alone and not good enough to be part of the groups, and i might take a book, or internet or whatever to escape the uncomfortable situation to make myself look occupied and busy. I think it shows my biological nature as a group animal, automatically checking my situation in the group all the time – I think being alone looking for something is the last one in the group dynamics but then again being alone confident and shining can become the center of dynamics and pull others towards you or atleast gives the respect for your being. It is like a playground of energies.

    I think there are two good alternatives to handle the situation, 1. leave my book or other escape methods and just face the difficult emotions in the moment, breathing and meditating on the feeling, loving the embarassed one inside, when I find the spot I can even hug and caress it. Feeling all the social pressure created by our biological group nature systems which have evolved during thousands of years and made our species victorious among animals but which may be unneseccary for todays meditative human being, emotions vibrating in our neuron system, not good or bad but just vibrating neurons. 2. be brave , initiative, functioning animal and go to interact with someone or someones, if none of them seems nice, overcome your aversion towards stuff and discover a new world, since every human being has such a potential and vast complexity in him or her that it should be possible to find loads of interest in any interacting situation with another human being if we can overcome our own aversions and difficulties. If it sucks anyway maybe making an effort developed our good qualities in the longer run. Eh but you know this situation when you start to see different kinds of missions around you and you become a hero completing missions – I think it is not very nice neither in the longer run if it is not fun, we better be enjoying our life 3. If you started with number one and you are no longer escaping anything then you can also just continue with your book – books are amazing stuff, years of research and diligent work striving for perfection on the subject and story by the greatest thinkers, dreamers and storytellers, squeezed in a compact and comfortable amount of pages written in charming and intelligent language.

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    1. hi Tuomas,
      thanks a lot for the amazing comment. i like your point that every human has something that we can find fascinating, if only we overcome our aversions.
      i’m about to publish a couple of posts about being alone whilst hiking in the mountains, which i found more difficult that normal, for some reason!

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