What 5 Great Spiritual Leaders Have to Say About the Deadly Sickness of Loneliness
Loneliness, when accepted, becomes a gift that will lead us to find a purpose in life. ~Paulo Coelho
Loneliness is the illness of our time. Even medical research is warning us that it may be a bigger health risk than smoking or obesity. A stark warning which oddly contradicts the perception of cultural advancement in a technology driven world. After all, we can communicate with far more people and in far more ways than ever before, and we’re connected twenty-four seven. Yet we can still feel desperately alone when together with others in a crowd of people.
Technological communication and connection isn’t giving us what we need. Something is missing. We’re overlooking something critical to the human experience, and loneliness has become the dark plague that torments the human soul.
It’s not a physical or a mental ailment, meaning it’s not the result of a deficiency in health. It’s not governed by serotonin or some other neurological chemical processes. We cannot rationalize it away, or medicate it away with pharmaceuticals. Painful loneliness can affect anyone with a healthy body and mind, of any age, background, or belief system.
Loneliness is a spiritual illness. It is a dearth in a very important kind of connection, something other than technological connection or even connection with the group. It is a crippling disorientation with the world we live in.
In our inert world, where spiritual disorientation and groundlessness prevail, we are crippled by the great crisis of modernity: disenchantment. We try in vain to force-feed enchantment to each other, through television, sports, and movies. Our disenchantment, however, is not regarding a lack of entertainment, but rather a lack of self-permeability, a lack of connection with the cosmos. ~Gary Z McGee
Examining the thoughts of some of the world’s most revered spiritual leaders sheds profound insight on the causes and the cures of loneliness. Their wisdom here seems to point in the same direction, offering hope when all seems lost. Consider the following…
Paulo CoelhoAuthor Paulo Coelho, who is most well-known for his book The Alchemist, is someone who has experienced deep loneliness in his life, often writing on this theme in his many books. He speaks about the dynamics of loneliness, that paradoxical fact that sometimes we feel alone and do not like it, while at other times we feel like we need to be alone.
A passage from his book Adultery sheds light on his perspective.
It’s loneliness. Even though I’m surrounded by loved ones who care about me and want only the best, it’s possible they try to help only because they feel the same thing— loneliness— and why, in a gesture of solidarity, you’ll find the phrase “I am useful, even if alone” carved in stone.
Though the brain says all is well, the soul is lost, confused, doesn’t know why life is being unfair to it. But we still wake up in the morning and take care of our children, our husband, our lover, our boss, our employees, our students, those dozens of people who make an ordinary day come to life.
And we often have a smile on our face and a word of encouragement, because no one can explain their loneliness to others, especially when we are always in good company.
But this loneliness exists and eats away at the best parts of us because we must use all our energy to appear happy, even though we will never be able to deceive ourselves.
But we insist, every morning, on showing only the rose that blooms, and keep the thorny stem that hurts us and makes us bleed hidden within. Even knowing that everyone, at some point, has felt completely and utterly alone, it is humiliating to say, “I’m lonely, I need company.” ~Paulo Coelho, Adultery
He adds a bit more here, in a short talk:
As Elvis Presley says : “Are you lonesome tonight?” and when you’re alone, what do you really do? How do you deal, how do you cope with yourself? Is it a burden? Or is it for you a way to dive deep into your soul and understand yourself? In my case, it’s both. Sometimes I feel really alone, and I have no one to talk to. Sometimes there is this moment that I really need to be alone and to understand what’s going on, not in the world, but within myself. So, your thoughts on loneliness, that very, very strange feeling that once a day or a week, we do feel. ~Paulo Coelho
He is pointing out that loneliness plays a couple of functions in life, serving as a warning and as a respite.
There have never been more lonely people than now. Loneliness perhaps is a relatively recent phenomenon for humanity. In the past, one’s identity was very tribal, and if you were expelled from the tribe you would die. Not just physical, psychologically you would die.
And then later on when there were not tribes and more, but social groups, those lonely outsiders very often were those through whom breakthroughs came into this world, because they were forced to go deeper. Those who didn’t fit in for one reason or other, those who felt so lonely they were forced deeper into the vertical dimension, rather than seeking some kind of solution on the horizontal dimension, more relationships or whatever. So there’s great opportunity in loneliness.
And through acceptance, one can say loneliness transforms into solitude. Solitude means being alone, and it’s quite beautiful being alone. ~Eckhart Tolle
Jamaican born spiritual leader Mooji asks the important question, ‘Can You Be Alone?‘ To understand and shift your relationship with loneliness he encourages you to first try to be completely alone, to fully feel what it is that is happening within your own soul.
Forget about trying to be one with anything. First, come to be completely alone. Go the opposite way, be completely alone. Don’t look for any support from anything for one moment. For one moment, see how you are only by yourself. Don’t associate with anything at all. Come to this place to be completely alone and see if you’re in a crippling position. Come to this place first. ~Mooji
Thich Nhat Hanh
Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, also the author of many books including You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment, gives us perhaps the most thorough assessment of the roots of loneliness. He discusses the idea that we must come home to ourselves to find peace and happiness.
Once we are home, we no longer feel lonely. Home is a place where loneliness is happiness. But where is home? It is within the self, it is an island, a place inside ourselves where we must return to in order to be happy. Many of us have forgotten how to take this place with us in our day to day lives, and as such we drift further away away with each communication. ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Furthermore, he offers an explanation as to why technological connection and being part of a group does not always alleviate the sense of loneliness. We are disconnected with ourselves.
Loneliness is the ill being of our time. We feel very lonely. Even if we are surrounded by many people. We are lonely together. And there is a vacuum inside of us and we do not feel comfortable with that kind of vacuum, so we try to fill it up by connecting with other people. We believe that when we connect with other people that feeling of loneliness will disappear. And technology supplies us with a lot of devices in order to connect. Stay connected. We always stay connected but we continue to feel lonely.
We use technology to try and dissipate that feeling of loneliness but we have not succeeded.
In our daily life we are disconnected with ourselves. We walk, but we do not know that we are walking. We are there, but we do not know that we are there. We are alive, but we do not know that we are alive. We are losing ourselves, we are not ourselves.
How can you connect with another person when you cannot connect with yourself? ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Author and speaker Deepak Chopra has also shared his insight on this, pointing towards healing. He once wrote:
Healing loneliness requires more than simply seeking out company. As you’ve probably experienced, you can feel lonely in the middle of a crowd, at a holiday party or with a group of caring friends. The root of loneliness isn’t the absence of other people but an inner absence — you don’t have a centered awareness of your true self.
Your true self is your spirit, which is infinite and eternal. Its qualities include love, compassion, equanimity, joy, creativity, intuition, pure potentiality and bliss. When you’re established in the awareness of your true self, you feel lovable and connected, whether you’re in a packed stadium or spending a quiet afternoon by yourself. At the most basic level, the company you enjoy the most is your own. Loneliness, on the other hand, is the condition of feeling negative about your own company and therefore requiring other people to fill that inner lack.
Feeling an inner lack is almost universal. It’s a result of a restricted state of awareness that is constricted, unable to look beyond rigid boundaries. The more you try to defend these boundaries, the more fearful and insecure you become. Loneliness is only one symptom. When your awareness is constricted, it’s easy to get lost in the drama of the ego-mind (that limited aspect of ourselves which feels separate). In a misguided attempt to feel secure, the ego-mind relies on reinforcement from other people to feel lovable, never realizing that love is our essential nature. This struggle is a crucial cause of loneliness and pain. ~Deepak Chopra
It is quite telling that so many of today’s spiritual leaders have made so many comments about loneliness, all pointing in the same direction: the need to fully connect with the self. The cure for the desperation of loneliness is learning to be at peace in yourself, and once this is achieved, the world changes and relationships take on more depth and meaning than they ever had.
In such a fast-paced, hyper-connected world, the traditions of spiritual wisdom remind us that the human journey of finding peace and happiness is one that takes place inside ourselves, and that we do not need external influences to give us what we need to be filled with love.
Read more articles by Dylan Charles.
About the Author
Dylan Charles is the editor of Waking Times and host of The Battered Souls Podcast, both dedicated to ideas of personal transformation, societal awakening, and planetary renewal. His personal journey is deeply inspired by shamanic plant medicines and the arts of Kung Fu, Qi Gong and Yoga. After seven years of living in Costa Rica, he now lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he practices Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and enjoys spending time with family. He has written hundreds of articles, reaching and inspiring millions of people around the world.
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