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.
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.
So, 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).