Loneliness and Openness

A U G U S T   2 0 1 8

Oh look at all the lonely people —
where do they all come from?

lonelinessWhen I was a young man I often felt lonely. Even though I had friends, being around them didn’t relieve my loneliness. I think I even liked feeling lonely — it defined my “me.” I was inside it. No matter how much my loneliness ached, it was the little place from which I looked out on the world, the place from which I could judge what was happening and feel like a righteous victim of the world’s uncaring nature.

Back then I thought existential loneliness was the unavoidable human condition, and even though everyone was scrambling to avoid it, they did so in vain. In my case I even cultivated a kind of romanticism about feeling lonely — I think I believed it would make me more artistic and loveable.

That didn’t work. The self-preoccupation, the feeling of being inside my loneliness, simply ached too much. I wanted out.

Looking back, I see that both loneliness and “wanting out” of it determined the trajectory of much of my youth. Luckily, I had had glimpses of an awesome and holy “something” beyond my little loneliness, and those glimpses drew me toward a life of spiritual study and practice.

Slowly, gradually, I began to suspect that self-pity defined my lonely place. It was an echo chamber, a room of mirrors, a self-preoccupied illusion that separated me from real life, from being vividly alive. Even deeper than self-pity, I came to realize that the feeling of being “lonely me” was held in place by my fear of death.

Yes, I wanted out, but I wanted it to be me who got out, and that wasn’t possible. My lonely me, my inside me, my victim me, couldn’t survive the getting out. A terrible dilemma!

I’d like to be able to tell you there was a single miraculous epiphany that broke through the dilemma, but it didn’t happen that way. It happened much more gradually, through a whole diet of reminders and quiet contemplations, and through relationship struggles and failures, but it did happen.

In a way, I’m grateful for the intensity of loneliness that shaped my early years. It enabled me to relate to how loneliness is experienced by others. Often people don’t code what they’re feeling as loneliness — for some it feels more like alienation, depression, or repetitive annoyance with how they’re treated, for others it’s simply a feeling of unworthiness — but I think it amounts to the same insular sense of “me-in-here not seen or appreciated by world-out-there.” Whatever form it takes, it’s the illusory shell of the self-sense, and our reflex to retreat into that illusory shell is what all authentic spiritual paths try to release us from.

Though there wasn’t a single epiphany for me, the shift that happened in how I experience life comes down to something very simple: openness— the direct recognition of the open nature of my being and all being.

I came to see that the shell of hurt and self-pity that defined my “me” was made up; it was an invention of my mind, a habit. And what was more, the “me” it was protecting was made up too. Every time I tried to find my “me”, I could only glimpse a quickly vanishing feeling or thought, and those obviously were not me. There was nothing inside the shell! It was completely empty and open.

At first this was unnerving. It felt so exposed, as if I wouldn’t know how to function or relate without the habit of being my “me.” Yet slowly by slowly, and with the encouragement of spiritual teachers and teachings, I risked not retreating. The absurdity of doing so was not lost on me — after all, what was retreating to where? I experienced my nature simply as openness, an invisible, clear presence in which memories, thoughts, feelings and sensations arose and disappeared.

Perhaps to call openness a “presence” is misleading since that word seems to pin it down as a thing, which it isn’t. It’s openness — spacious, welcoming, and present. While it hosts my thoughts, emotions, and sensuality, it’s not attached to them.

This is how we all are — openness at the heart of us. The beautiful thing is that this openness doesn’t need to be improved. It doesn’t need to be protected. It can’t be hurt; it can’t even die. It can’t die because it’s the very nature of reality: vast openness.

Recognizing my nature is openness — rather than a “me” — dissolved my mental habit of feeling that I’m something that’s located “in here.” The sense that reality is threatening also dissolved. I could be intimate with what arises and passes without fear or self-protection. In the end, that may be the best way to describe openness: it is intimacy, and intimacy is love.

I know to say such things probably won’t assuage anyone’s loneliness — these habits can be stubborn, as I’ve learned. But I wanted to share my little story anyway, just in case.