Loneliness means not wanting to be with oneself

My morning practice often includes reading from American Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chödrön. Here is this morning’s reading from The Pocket Pema Chödrön.


Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. Its restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company.

When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down. (106)

Pema frequently describes negative feelings as “restless” or “hot” or even “juicy.” Unpleasant personal traits and feelings are immensely valuable sources of energy that we could use to give the world blessings if we knew how.

The problem is that most of us don’t want to experience these traits and feelings. We throw their energy away by trying to suppress them or to distract ourselves from them.

Flying crow

Since my husband and I began sheltering in place due to the pandemic, I’ve wrestled with the frustration and boredom of too much empty time. Yes, we miss our social life, but we have each other’s good company in a marriage that has lasted 35 years. You wouldn’t think that loneliness would be the term to apply to this problem.

Yet reading Pema this morning, I saw that my daily restlessness, my constant search for a book or streaming video or other entertainment that will distract me, is a search to escape loneliness.

What do I mean by this?

Empty time, time in which I am not “doing something,” is unpleasant. If I’m not doing something that I consider useful, I feel some sort of mysterious, unnamable threat. Without the distraction of doing something, I have to be alone with myself.

Loneliness is not wanting to be alone. Not wanting to sit unoccupied in  the flow of unnamed, unmediated experience. Not having something “opposite to self” to engage with and imagine I control.

If I just sit, the pleasant and unpleasant commingle, the in-control and out-of-control feelings shift constantly. It doesn’t feel safe.

The irony here is that in 70 years I’ve learned to like being with myself and to laugh at my cantankerous, fussy, depressive traits. Well, after I stop complaining.

But that human fear of being without an “opposite to self” is very deep in all of us. We each deal with it differently, but I think what we all have in common is this heartache of loneliness—this need for distraction from being truly alone with ourselves.

Flying crow

Shadow the watch catSo, here is my current teacher.

I watch him just sitting.

I resist the habit of anthropomorphizing him.

Then I just sit.






Image: “Shadow the watch cat,” by Mike Shell (6/19/2019).

6 comments On Loneliness means not wanting to be with oneself

  • Pema is one of my regular teacher’s as well. Life changing for me. Enjoy hearing her in your life. The photo of your teacher stops my mind and brings a smile.

    Thanks, Mike

  • That picture is 15-year-old Shadow in one of his favorite spots where he can see the whole length of the apartment.

    The photo has a sadness for Jim and me, because Shadow’s litter mate and brother Sonic died of cancer in July. There is of course no way to know if other animals interpret loss as grief in the way we humans do. Shadow clearly has changed his behavior. He seeks us out for company much more than he used to.

    Since he long ago bonded with me (I do the feeding and cat box, I brush his long hair every day), he seems to want from me the extra attention he used to get from his brother. For example, when to him it’s time to go to bed, he wants me to come with him.

    Shadow and Jim are affectionate, too, but I seem to have become Sonic’s stand-in.

  • I love this, Mike. It was the word I needed this morning. Thank you.

  • Train in the middle way

    “The middle way is wide open, but it’s tough going, because it goes against the grain of an ancient neurotic pattern that we all share. When we feel lonely, when we feel hopeless, what we want to do is move to the right or the left. We don’t want to sit and feel what we feel. We don’t want to go through the detox. Yet the middle way encourages us to do just that. It encourages us to awaken the bravery that exists in everyone without exception, including you and me.”

    Pema Chödrön, The Pocket Pema Chödrön (109-10)

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