The Soil at the Root of Loneliness
On a rainy Sunday morning twenty years ago I was leaving a diner in Seattle. Just as I passed the pay phones and touched the door, I heard a woman behind me say, “I’m just so lonely that I don’t know what to do!” Her anguish was obvious and solid and it gave me a shiver that I recall to this day. But what I feel today is radically different from my emotional response back then.
Me, twenty years younger, quickly made that shiver into one of embarrassment: that someone had admitted such a weakness, out loud, to another person. I felt one should never need others so much that it was any bother at all to be alone. I think I also remember feeling confident that my own loneliness, or aloneness, would never reach those depths.
In those days, without making a plan or leaving a note, I would hike into the wilderness for days, or drive across country on a mad expedition. In fact, just a few months earlier I had been living in Nashville. Or Ventura. Sure I had friends and family, and a little book with their numbers (total pre-iPhone era). I would check in, now and then. But mostly just to tell my stories, and to find a place to crash.
Whether it was belief or behavior, my life was a solo journey. And loneliness was for the codependent, or a pathetic lowering of the guard. To be “so lonely” was, I felt, not going to be part of my story.
However, tonight, on the cushion, I felt my heart leaning on my ribs, and my mind-heart like a thin steel blade growing smaller. In meditation practice I’ve learned to try not to pour too much story into a thought or sensation. And I’ve also learned not to fly away mentally or obstinately return to my breath. Tonight I felt the loneliness of my entire life, not grandly dramatic, but not ho hum ordinary either. I have always been “so lonely.”
Perhaps this was a glimpse (thin and metallic) of an alone-ness without reference point – loneliness of loneliness. And, perhaps this just means that I was meditating.
But from birth, if not before, my life has never been separated from all other lives and elements. And yet, my life (body and mind), has also never been and never will be, fully merged, or emptied into the rest of life, the great ocean of space and other.
This mind-body really is just a brief, thin, blade in time and space. And perhaps I carry two conflicting, equally powerful, longings: one for the ultimate, perpetual expression of this single Self, and the other to be loosed into the vast, Absolute, Self. One pull towards more ego and the other towards none.
Dissolving the solid identifications which frame ego’s wall, generates a very natural human terror. What will happen? How will I act, if not with one of the infamous three poisons: passion, aggression, or ignorance?
Many Buddhist teacher’s claim that beyond that ultimate loneliness is joy. But I don’t get it. When I read or hear that teaching, it just doesn’t seem to fit. Perhaps it doesn’t “fit” because it is beyond concept. Perhaps my mind has met something which it cannot grasp!
However, what choice is there? Exhausted with the continual machine of the three poisons, the only workable action seems to be sitting meditation. Which leads to that experience of dropping through the bottom of loneliness and continuing, without throwing oneself away, without knowing “what to do,” on to what might be the path to joy and luminosity. That brilliant, energetic inverse of emptiness which promises nothing, and everything.