Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Only the Lonely

I had a lonely day last Sunday. Not that I had a lot of plans originally, but the one thing I had scheduled was canceled, and Plan B also didn't work out. All of a sudden, I had no plans and nobody to not have plans with. All my life, I've been very sensitive to feelings of loneliness and isolation. It's not that I can't be alone - I can be and often choose to be alone, and I can enjoy alone time very much. In fact, I need a lot of time alone in order to stay balanced. I'm a classic introvert that way. But in this case, I wanted to be around people, and there were no people to be around. I've always felt a deep emptiness within me, and situations like this naturally exacerbate it. Being alone and not wanting to be alone bring up all those old, childhood fears and anxieties, all those thoughts of not being good enough, of being unloved and unlovable, of living in a world of scarcity and lack, and of wasting my life. In these situations, I sometimes get into a headspace where I feel bad because I'm not doing enough, not social enough, not creative enough, and not making enough of an effort to change the world. Sunday started out no differently, but ended very differently.

I sat in bed for awhile and read Going to Pieces without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness by Mark Epstein. In the book, he talks about how  this profound sense of emptiness is a universal human experience and how the people who come to the author for therapy come there in distress from this experience. How hard we struggle to numb or distract ourselves from the void, through abusing substances, watching TV, shopping, staying busy, surrounding ourselves with people, overworking, ruminating and obsessing, or pursuing or obsessing over relationships. As I read, it dawned on me that this emptiness is a big reason why so many of us feel that we must keep moving: must find a partner, get married, buy a house, have babies, get promoted, buy bigger and better toys, take vacations, and worry and obsess over all of these things. If you think about it, discontent with our present situation is why most of us do anything at all. So in that way, this shifting empty feeling has motivated human to achieve everything we have, for better or for worse.

I realized that for my entire life, I have faced this emptiness because, for whatever reason, I never had the temperament to keep constantly busy, to be a workaholic, to create something major, or to have kids. I have friends, a wonderful close family, a home, a job, I write, and do the normal things that people do, but I've never had those big dreams that all the self-help gurus talk about following. So for that reason, I've never been able to escape that void for long, I've always wound up facing it, sitting with the sad empty feeling because no method of escape has ever really captivated me. I used to think I was immensely flawed for not meeting all of those developmental goals: for not getting married or wanting kids or a promotion, or for not wanting to write the Great American Novel or spending my life trying to save the world. Now I wonder if it's actually a blessing, because without knowing it, I was always learning to face this deep black hole that so many of us spend our lives trying to escape.

I had to get out of the house, and I had the idea to go walk around a local urban lake. I got dressed and headed out, bringing my book. I was still feeling lonely and uneasy, empty and bored. I felt restless. I got to the lake, and started walking. It had rained that night, and the sky was lovely and full of clouds in all shades of grey. The kind of sky I loved to watch. As I walked, the sun came out, and I sat on a bench to read. I lost myself in my book (The African Queen by C.S. Forester) and shed my scarf, sweater, and hat as the sun warmed me. After awhile, I walked some more, and, deciding I was hungry, went into a lovely little lakeside restaurant that always makes me think I'm in Switzerland. I had a salad and some sparkling water, and looked out over the lake as I read more of my book. As I ate, there was a rain squall, and I felt cozy and very lucky having decided to eat lunch right then. By the time I had eaten and paid, the rain was over and the clouds parted again, and it was sunny. The sun sparkled on the wet pavement and the earth and plants smelled good. I walked some more, and eventually walked around the entire lake. After that, I decided to go to another watery location - Jack London Square - and see if there were any movies playing that I wanted to see. There weren't, so I sat in the sun along the Alameda Estuary and read more of my book. A friend called and we chatted for a short time. I went into a nearby store and bought some useless things, and ran into another friend.  Then I went home and watched a movie and played with my cats and fussed around in my house. And by the time the day ended,  I felt fine. The loneliness and anxiety had left me, the void was no longer there. I was okay being alone, okay not having a grand scheme to fill my days.

This may not seem like a profound day, but for me, it was. What started out in emptiness and despair ended in peace and comfort in my own skin. For some reason, I was able to let go of that need to have a different experience than I was having, and I was able to stay with myself in my actual experience.When I let go of wanting things to be different, I was able to take things as they came and the pain eased.

Two days later, a friend sent me the following video and it all clicked for me. Loneliness is a feeling of being incredibly vulnerable, of not being protected from the vital truths of the universe:  that all of this "stuff" with which we surround ourselves is not important; that our lives and the stories we tell ourselves about our lives are just our attempts to avoid what we know, deep down, to be true: that each moment is the only reality. That there is nothing else, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It's uncomfortable to be that vulnerable and to know what loneliness teaches us, so most of us avoid loneliness at all costs. But perhaps, loneliness is only painful because we think it's wrong to feel that longing, that restlessness, that wistfulness, that vulnerability. In the video, she tells us that it's important to stay vulnerable and open, even thought we're bombarded with messages about the terrible things that may happen to us if we do. On my Sunday, I was able to settle into the loneliness and found that it wasn't a bad place, after all.
Brene Brown - The Price of Invulnerability

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