“Loneliness does not arise if you are your own best friend.” - Ajahn Brahm
It’s a big problem nowadays.
And although the solution may be to simply spend more time with others, I’d like to share some more mindful (and kindful) ways to work and play with your feelings of loneliness.
Think of it as a way of managing loneliness from the inside-out. When being with others isn’t always an option.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is a subjective state of mind, and most people associate loneliness as an unpleasant experience. A feeling of sadness.
As loneliness is subjective, you can experience it whatever your outer circumstances.
You can feel lonely in a crowd, or feel deeply happy on your own.
Loneliness is about how you relate to your present-moment experience, rather than whether you’re with friends or not. That’s important to remember.
My personal experience
I have a memory, strongly etched in my mind, of being in a university library on a friday night. I recall the dark shelves full of books, the deep sense of being lonely there, thinking I should be with friends.
I was thinking about other students having fun and partying whilst I was stuck in a boring library on my own.
I was relating to myself negatively. I was associating happiness as being with others, and unhappiness as being with myself.
I also have the memory of going for a walk, in the lake district, getting away from my friends, and stopping by in a wood that overlooked a lake. I meditated there. And I felt totally connected, at one and full of bliss on my own. A beautiful moment. Not lonely at all.
So, from a mindful perspective, loneliness is not about external circumstances, but about being, whether or not you’re feeling a positive relationship towards yourself or others.
The difference between loneliness and aloneness
Loneliness is a sense of disconnection. Separation. Suffering.
But aloneness is very different. Aloneness is when you are al-one…or all-one.
To feel alone is to feel at peace with yourself. It’s like spending time with your best friend - you!
So, if your number of friends or relationship status has little to do with your feelings of loneliness, what do you do?
Time to get REAL
I’ve devised a 4-step process, called REAL, to help you navigate your feelings. Although this is designed for loneliness, you can apply it to other emotions too. In some ways similar to the RAIN infographic we shared recently.
Give this a go:
Step 1 - Realise you’re actually feeling lonely right now. Or very lonely. It’s hard to admit to that, I know, but it’s an important step.
BUT...there’s no need to identify with it. I’m not saying you ARE lonely. I’m saying this is one part of you, at the moment. There’s a feeling of loneliness within, at this time. Everyone has the feeling of loneliness from time to time, and that’s what you’re feeling now. It's natural.
So, in this step you’re feeling the experience of loneliness and realising that it’s only one part of you. You’re observing without identifying.
Step 2 - Explore - This is where you can have some fun! A radical approach. Start exploring the feeling and your relationship to it. Here’s some questions you can try:
Is this feeling good or bad? No, it’s just a feeling. There may be a cause, yes. So explore, what’s the cause? Is it because you’re thinking you should be with others right now? Is it because you’re thinking being on your own is bad and being with others is good? Is it because you have this utopian idea of always being with friends or family or a partner, and at the moment, you’re not in that space, so there’s a sense of discontent. Or are you actually avoiding spending time with people? Take some time to explore...it takes some courage, but it’s transformative.
Also, it’s important to explore the feeling in your body. Exactly where is the feeling located? How does its intensity change with each breath you take. Explore as much as you can. Exploring your body sensations helps you to step out of the negative story you may be telling yourself, and into reality.
Step 3 - Allow your feelings to be there. You don’t need to fight it at all. Or wallow in it. You can just let it be there, and that’s ok.
It’s nice to remember a universal truth here - impermanence. Nothing lasts forever, including this feeling.
Try placing your hand on the sensation of loneliness and take some deep breaths. You can even gently stroke the loneliness. I know that sounds weird, but treat yourself like a loved one would treat you - why not! Smiling towards the feeling of loneliness is another powerful and transformative way to allow and honour your own feeling. This is kindfulness in action - mindfulness and kindness.
Step 4 - Look positively and love yourself - Try flipping your point of view. Turn it around. See your situation positively rather than just negatively.
You may think seeing loneliness positively is unrealistic, but then how is seeing things negatively realistic? They are both points of view after all.
There’s so many benefits of being on your own. You can do what you want. You don’t feel trapped by someone. You don’t have someone nagging at you all day. You have a certain freedom in what you do. You have more time to meditate...or just catch up on sleep.
You can also be loving to yourself in your experience of loneliness too. Try asking yourself:
‘How can I best take care of myself right now?’
‘Can I remember that this feeling is fleeting, not permanent?’
‘Is there a friend or family member I can reach out to right now?’
‘How can I treat myself right now?’
‘Would journaling, or writing out what I’m grateful for, or just hugging myself, help?’
‘If my friend was experiencing this loneliness, what advice would I offer them?’
Loneliness is a state of mind. There is a difference between loneliness and aloneness. Through meditation and other such practices, you can develop a positive relationship with yourself. In this way, your feelings of loneliness will naturally diminish and positive feelings in solitude will grow.
Apply the above get REAL strategy next time you feel lonely. And perhaps with time, your loneliness will transform to aloneness...or all oneness, whether you’re spending time with others or not.
Research and links on Mindfulness for Loneliness:
Mindfulness-based stress reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: a small randomized controlled trial
Loneliness, mindfulness, and academic achievements: a moderation effect among first-year college students
Explore how to cope with loneliness and all sorts of other emotions with our kindness course. Try 7 days free.