How to Bear Your Loneliness: Grounding Wisdom from the Great Buddhist Teacher Pema Chödrön
“We are cheating ourselves when we run away from the ambiguity of loneliness.”
By Maria Popova
“You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love,” the artist Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary. How much trust and love we wrest from life and lavish upon life is largely a matter of how well we have befriended our existential loneliness — a fundamental fact of every human existence that coexists with our delicate interconnectedness, each a parallel dimension of our lived reality, each pulsating beneath our days.
In When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (public library) — her timeless field guide to transformation through difficult times — the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön explores what it takes to cultivate “a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness,” to transmute it into a different kind of “relaxing and cooling loneliness” that subverts our ordinary terror of the existential void.
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.
In Buddhism, all suffering is a form of resistance to reality, a form of attachment to desires and ideas about how the world should be. By befriending our loneliness, we begin to meet reality on its own terms and to find contentment with the as-is nature of life, complete with all of its uncertainty. Chödrön writes:
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 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.
So faced, loneliness becomes a kind of mirror — one into which we must look with maximum compassion, one that beams back to us our greatest strength:
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.
Complement with Rachel Carson on the relationship between loneliness and creativity and Barry Lopez on the cure for our existential loneliness, then revisit poet May Sarton’s splendid century-old ode to the art of being contentedly alone.
Published March 11, 2023