What Buddhism Taught Me About Loneliness

Through most of my life I’ve been plagued by loneliness. Few memories of college and my mid-twenties are as vivid for me as lying in bed alone. The physical empty space around my body, the heavy silence, and the internal dread I felt, night after night, wondering how many years might go by before someone was lying beside me.

So when I was finally living with a significant other, certain that I was loved and comforted by his presence most nights, I was surprised that loneliness remained present and influential in my life.

By loneliness, I mean a general dissatisfaction or a feeling of panic when alone, the fear of invisibility and not being special to anyone, the rush of thoughts that only another person’s presence can quiet.

Loneliness was intimately linked to feeling unworthy, and one person didn’t magically make me feel worthy.

When D and I broke up, and I moved to Chicago alone for grad school, the urgency of my loneliness peaked. It was a hunger, but I wasn’t sure what I was truly hungry for. Sex? Love? Companionship?

Little seemed to sate the hunger for very long. I was in long-distance relationships, and they couldn’t truly keep me company. New lovers never seemed to be what I needed, or they’d fizzle out so fast, I was left with emotional whiplash. Time with friends was nourishing, but then I’d go home and spend the rest of the night creatively depleted and anxious.

The worst part was that, by then, I really thought I knew how to “conquer” my loneliness.

In Indiana, for many years, I went to see a therapist who happened to be a Buddhist. And I didn’t know this at the time, but much of what he imparted to me was based on Buddhist concepts.

Paul (not his real name) taught me to sit with my feelings instead of instantly reacting. For instance, that panic I felt when alone. Instead of seeking out a balm, like new “likes” on Facebook or a text conversation, I could listen to that part of me that worried I was “unspecial.” I could ease it with logic. Plenty of people believed I was special, even if they weren’t communicating with me in this particular moment.

Since D and I were in an open relationship, many of the emotions that I learned to process were related to dating. When someone I’d been flirting with suddenly grew incommunicative, I learned to pause and consider why I needed this person to respond. What was I looking for from them?

Frequently, I could identify that my feelings—panic, fear, excitement—were not so much about the person in question as they were a need to know that I was desirable and worthy of attention.

So what if this one person lost interest? Were they truly the litmus test for my worth?

Sometimes I’d get close to the root of my feelings and desires, and that understanding could temper them. It would also lessen my urge to react.

Instead of sending text after text out of fear, sometimes I could stop and wait. Sometimes I could move on.

But when I moved away from Paul and my support network of loved ones, overwhelmed with my new program and a new city, I lost all progress.

I reacted. And reacted. And reacted.

For weeks or months at a time, I’d go through online dating binges, staying up late on OKCupid or Tinder hoping to meet someone that would make the loneliness go away.

As Paul taught me, I’d try to feel my loneliness and understand it instead of reaching for my phone. I’d journal. I’d take a walk on the shore of Lake Michigan. But a half-hour later, the loneliness would still be there. An incurable itch that eventually I’d scratch, which only seemed to make it worse.

On a deeper level, what I really wanted was for the feelings of unworthiness to go away.

In grad school, I was constantly broke and facing rejections as a writer. I was afraid that I couldn’t take care of myself and that I wasn’t capable of making my dreams happen. And so my instinct was to find someone else to believe in me.

I wanted to know that I was going to “make it” in Chicago and as a writer. I wanted to know that I was worthy of a satisfying relationship.

Nothing reassured me of any of this.

I grew frustrated that my attempts to feelinstead of reacthadn’t “cured” anything. No matter what I did, I remained so incredibly lonely and afraid.

In her iconic book “When Things Fall Apart,” Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes:

“When we feel lonely, when we feel hopeless … we don’t want to sit and feel what we feel. We don’t want to go through the detox.”

I wanted to ask her how effing long detox was supposed to last? Hadn’t I’d gotten the point already?

Nope. I just needed to live through it.

I was attempting what Dr. John Welwood called spiritual bypassing: “a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”

I wanted to sit with my feelings and have them go away.

Here’s what happened instead.

For two years after grad school, I struggled to build up a freelancing career and find my footing as a writer. I’ve now been in Chicago for five amazing, tough years.

I’m now living as a full-time freelance writer and am much more confident that the road is going to be hard and long, but I’m going to make it.

I also found when I could pay rent, I was more satisfied with my relationships and my alone time.

I find I’m rarely lonely now. I crave more solitude and writing time than anything else. But craving more kink is a close second. I find myself seeking new experiences out of a sense of adventure rather than need.

This is an incomplete picture, of course. The more I put myself out there in the world, the harder and scarier it is. But I do believe that my relationship with loneliness has fundamentally shifted.

Spiritual pursuits aside, money helped a lot.I needed my basic needs to be met, and I needed to know that I could provide for myself.

But I think if it hadn’t been for all of those moments when I tried to sit with my feelings and understand my root desires, I’d still continue to find other reasons to be lonely.

What did I learn from all those years of digging into my fears and loneliness?

I learned to identify basic feelings of unworthiness.

I couldn’t banish them, but I became more intimately acquainted with them. And I believe, very slowly, that acquaintanceship began to take away their sting.

The hard lessons I’m learning are:

  • It takes years of what may feel like no progress at all to make a fundamental shift in my understanding of myself and the world.
  • A Buddhist perspective did what Christianity could not, which is where we turn to next.


Featured image by Alice Popkorn.

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