six kinds of loneliness

Pema Chödrön 

To be without a reference point is the ultimate loneliness. It is also called enlightenment.

In the middle way, there is no reference point. The mind with no
reference point does not resolve itself, does not fixate or grasp. How
could we possibly have no reference point? To have no reference point
would be to change a deep-seated habitual response to the world: wanting
to make it work out one way or the other. If I can’t go left or right, I
will die! When we don’t go left or right, we feel like we are in a detox
center. We’re alone, cold turkey with all the edginess that we’ve been
trying to avoid by going left or right. That edginess can feel pretty

However, years and years of going to the left or right, going to
yes or no, going to right or wrong has never really changed anything.
Scrambling for security has never brought anything but momentary joy.
It’s like changing the position of our legs in meditation. Our legs hurt
from sitting cross-legged, so we move them. And then we feel, "Phew!
What a relief!" But two and a half minutes later, we want to move them
again. We keep moving around seeking pleasure, seeking comfort, and the
satisfaction that we get is very short-lived.

We hear a lot about the pain of samsara, and we also hear about
liberation. But we don’t hear much about how painful it is to go from
being completely stuck to becoming unstuck. The process of becoming
unstuck requires tremendous bravery, because basically we are completely
changing our way of perceiving reality, like changing our DNA. We are
undoing a pattern that is not just our pattern. It’s the human pattern:
we project onto the world a zillion possibilities of attaining resolution.
We can have whiter teeth, a weed-free lawn, a strife-free life, a world
without embarrassment. We can live happily every after. This pattern keeps
us dissatisfied and causes us a lot of suffering.

As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel
that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve
resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we
deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is
the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and
ambiguity. To the degree that we’ve been avoiding uncertainty, we’re
naturally going to have withdrawal symptoms’withdrawal from always
thinking that there’s a problem and that someone, somewhere, needs to
fix it.

The middle way is wide open, but it’s tough going, because it
goes against the grain of an ancient neurotic pattern that we all share.
When we feel lonely, when we feel hopeless, what we want to do is move to
the right or the left. We don’t want to sit and feel what we feel. We
don’t want to go through the detox. Yet the middle way encourages us to
do just that. It encourages us to awaken the bravery that exists in
everyone without exception, including you and me.

Meditation provides a way for us to train in the middle way—in
staying right on the spot. We are encouraged not to judge whatever arises
in our mind. In fact, we are encouraged not to even grasp whatever arises
in our mind. What we usually call good or bad we simply acknowledge as
thinking, without all the usual drama that goes along with right and
wrong. We are instructed to let the thoughts come and go as if touching a
bubble with a feather. This straightforward discipline prepares us to stop
struggling and discover a fresh, unbiased state of being.

The experience of certain feelings can seem particularly pregnant
with desire for resolution: loneliness, boredom, anxiety. Unless we can
relax with these feelings, it’s very hard to stay in the middle when we
experience them. We want victory or defeat, praise or blame. For example,
if somebody abandons us, we don’t want to be with that raw discomfort.
Instead, we conjure up a familiar identity of ourselves as a hapless
victim. Or maybe we avoid the rawness by acting out and righteously
telling the person how messed up he or she is. We automatically want to
cover over the pain in one way or another, identifying with victory or

Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not
something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot
with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us
company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening
relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that
completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.

There are six ways of describing this kind of cool loneliness. They
are: less desire, contentment, avoiding unnecessary activity, complete
discipline, not wandering in the world of desire, and not seeking security
from one’s discursive thoughts.

Less desire is the willingness to be lonely without resolution when
everything in us yearns for something to cheer us up and change our mood.
Practicing this kind of loneliness is a way of sowing seeds so that
fundamental restlessness decreases. In meditation, for example, every time
we label "thinking" instead of getting endlessly run around by our
thoughts, we are training in just being here without dissociation. We
can’t do that now to the degree that we weren’t willing to do it
yesterday or the day before or last week or last year. After we practice
less desire wholeheartedly and consistently, something shifts. We feel
less desire in the sense of being less solidly seduced by our Very
Important Story Lines. So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6
seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn’t sit for
even one, that’s the journey of the warrior. That’s the path of
bravery. The less we spin off and go crazy, the more we taste the
satisfaction of cool loneliness. As the Zen master Katagiri Roshi often
said, "One can be lonely and not be tossed away by it."

The second kind of loneliness is contentment. When we have nothing,
we have nothing to lose. We don’t have anything to lose but being
programmed in our guts to feel we have a lot to lose. Our feeling that we
have a lot to lose is rooted in fear – of loneliness, of change, of
anything that can’t be resolved, of nonexistence. The hope that we can
avoid this feeling and the fear that we can’t become our reference

When we draw a line down the center of a page, we know who we are
if we’re on the right side and who we are if we’re on the left side.
But we don’t know who we are when we don’t put ourselves on either
side. Then we just don’t know what to do. We just don’t know. We have
no reference point, no hand to hold. At that point we can either freak out
or settle in. Contentment is a synonym for loneliness, cool loneliness,
settling down with cool loneliness. We give up believing that being able
to escape our loneliness is going to bring any lasting happiness or joy or
sense of well-being or courage or strength. Usually we have to give up
this belief about a billion times, again and again making friends with our
jumpiness and dread, doing the same old thing a billion times with
awareness. Then without our even noticing, something begins to shift. We
can just be lonely with no alternatives, content to be right here with the
mood and texture of what’s happening.

The third kind of loneliness is avoiding unnecessary activities.
When we’re lonely in a "hot" way, we look for something to save us;
we look for a way out. We get this queasy feeling that we call loneliness,
and our minds just go wild trying to come up with companions to save us
from despair. That’s called unnecessary activity. It’s a way of
keeping ourselves busy so we don’t have to feel any pain. It could take
the form of obsessively daydreaming of true romance, or turning a tidbit
of gossip into the six o – clock news, or even going off by ourselves into
the wilderness.

The point is that in all these activities, we are seeking
companionship in our usual, habitual way, using our same old repetitive
ways of distancing ourselves from the demon loneliness. Could we just
settle down and have some compassion and respect for ourselves? Could we
stop trying to escape from being alone with ourselves? What about
practicing not jumping and grabbing when we begin to panic? Relaxing with
loneliness is a worthy occupation. As the Japanese poet Ryokan says, "If
you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things."

Complete discipline is another component of cool loneliness.
Complete discipline means that at every opportunity, we’re willing to
come back, just gently come back to the present moment. This is loneliness
as complete discipline. We’re willing to sit still, just be there,
alone. We don’t particularly have to cultivate this kind of loneliness;
we could just sit still long enough to realize it’s how things really
are. We are fundamentally alone, and there is nothing anywhere to hold on
to. Moreover, this is not a problem. In fact, it allows us to finally
discover a completely unfabricated state of being. Our habitual
assumptions’all our ideas about how things are—keep us from seeing
anything in a fresh, open way. We say, "Oh yes, I know." But we
don’t know. We don’t ultimately know anything. There’s no certainty
about anything. This basic truth hurts, and we want to run away from it.
But coming back and relaxing with something as familiar as loneliness is
good discipline for realizing the profundity of the unresolved moments of
our lives. We are cheating ourselves when we run away from the ambiguity
of loneliness.

Not wandering in the world of desire is another way of describing
cool loneliness. Wandering in the world of desire involves looking for
alternatives, seeking something to comfort us—food, drink, people. The
word desire encompasses that addiction quality, the way we grab for
something because we want to find a way to make things okay. That quality
comes from never having grown up. We still want to go home and be able to
open the refrigerator and find it full of our favorite goodies; when the
going gets tough, we want to yell "Mom!" But what we’re doing as we
progress along the path is leaving home and becoming homeless. Not
wandering in the world of desire is about relating directly with how
things are. Loneliness is not a problem. Loneliness is nothing to be
solved. The same is true for any other experience we might have.

Another aspect of cool loneliness is not seeking security from
one’s discursive thoughts. The rug’s been pulled; the jig is up; there
is no way to get out of this one! We don’t even seek the companionship
of our own constant conversation with ourselves about how it is and how it
isn’t, whether it is or whether it isn’t, whether it should or whether
it shouldn’t, whether it can or whether it can’t. With cool loneliness
we do not expect security from our own internal chatter. That’s why we
are instructed in meditation to label it "thinking." It has no
objective reality. It is transparent and ungraspable. We’re encouraged
to just touch that chatter and let it go, not make much ado about nothing.

Cool loneliness allows us to look honestly and without aggression
at our own minds. We can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we
ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people
think we want to be or ought to be. We give it up and just look directly
with compassion and humor at who we are. Then loneliness is no threat and
heartache, no punishment.

Cool loneliness doesn’t provide any resolution or give us ground
under our feet. It challenges us to step into a world of no reference
point without polarizing or solidifying. This is called the middle way, or
the sacred path of the warrior.

When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the
heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden
opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something
terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and
longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart?
The next time you get a chance, experiment with this.


0 Responses to “six kinds of loneliness”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 5 other followers

June 2007
« May   Aug »

Blog Stats

  • 1,921 hits



%d bloggers like this: