Find Your Heart in Loneliness

When we are alone, says Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, we may begin a love affair with sadness.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
4 April 2016
Man standing in front of a mountain.

Teaching on the Tibetan yogi Milarepa, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche describes the experience of desolateness. Like Milarepa when he meditated in his cave, when we are alone, we may begin a love affair with sadness.

The first meeting with oneself, with aloneness, is meeting one’s real ego without clothing—naked ego, assertive, distinct, clear, definite ego. The experience of loneliness is from ego’s perspective: ego has no one to comfort itself, no one to act as moral support. This kind of aloneness is simply the feeling of being nowhere, lost. There is tremendous sadness that there’s nothing around you that you can hang onto. But it is your own ego acting as the voice of sadness, loneliness, so you cannot blame anybody or even get angry. That starting point is very useful and valuable. It was the inspiration to go into retreat in Milarepa’s case, and in our case as well.

Taking part in a retreat is a way to express aloneness, loneliness, desolation. We might experience fear in retreat, but that fear is purely an expression of that loneliness. We are trying to entertain ourselves, so we manufacture fear. We might go back to our mental notes of the past, or our scrap books, but that becomes boring. We are back to square one constantly. Cooking, sleeping or walking might become a source of entertainment. There is so little to do, we are thankful there is something to do. But even that comes back to square one. We tend to get disillusioned with that, too.

Such experiences of being in retreat are not exactly wretched. There is a very faint, subtle sense that you are falling in love with something. You begin to appreciate the desolation. A subtle romanticism is happening completely. Because there is nothing to entertain you, everything comes back to you. The songs of Milarepa, at the early stage of his being in retreat, are love songs. They praise the terrain, the mountains, his cave, his desolateness, his solitude, and the memory of his guru. Those are his love songs.

In retreat you begin to find that the sadness and desolateness has a sense of the romantic. There is something to hang onto—somewhat. There is something to latch onto, but if you go too far it disappears. So it is a very subtle love affair.

But obviously, it is definitely a romantic one.

At that point you see the value of guru. The guru becomes precious to you. You not only fall in love with the environment and with your aloneness, as such, but you also feel that your guru has a lot to do with it. You begin to appreciate his fatherhood and his genius as a matchmaker, that he married you and this desolate place. So we could say that sadness also provokes spiritual romanticism. Although it is materialistic in style, fundamentally it is spiritual, or even—if we could be brave enough to say such a thing—mystical. There is a tone of mystical experience.

Sadness brings up tremendous artistic talent in oneself, as it did in Milarepa. Milarepa composed songs and began to see the colors and sights and happenings around him become very real, extremely real. The way the sun shines, the way the moon sets, the way the clouds move. The wind breaking, the sounds of owls hooting at night. Mosquitoes landing on you. Everything you see becomes completely, totally, a gigantic world of romanticism—colorful and fantastic. At the beginning you are irritated by the insects around you, but at some point you begin to find that you wish you could invite them for a party or for dinner.

We could say that this whole thing is unreal, an expression of your being spaced out or even tripping out. But it has a valid reason; you can’t regard it as unpleasant or a side-track on the path. It is very valuable, because we have not seen our ego alone for a long time—never. For the first time we begin to see that our ego is naked. We are not exactly without ego—there is ego—but that ego is a naked one. And it begins to explore the world around it.

So going into retreat, we could say, is an introduction to ego’s nakedness and the subtle appreciation of aloneness, loneliness. Being in retreat, free from any kind of security, even from your guru, you have to pull up your own resources constantly.

Retreat does not only mean going into retreat in the physical sense, in a cabin—retreat means that you are left with nobody. Your guru has told you just to work on yourself, that it is not necessary to extend further information to you. You have to find your way.

In our case, you would like to find out something, you are hoping for new experience, so you decide to go on retreat. You consult your guru, and both he and you agree that this is a project you should get into. Then the process of retreat begins, and the experience becomes identical with Milarepa’s. Obviously, you could step out of it. You could run into the city and eat ice cream and go to the movies, you could do all kinds of things.

Nevertheless, even if you do those things, they become part of the whole experience—you cannot actually escape. You are never out of retreat, once you decide to do it. You could be in Grand Central Station, but nevertheless, there is a sense of desolateness.

So, in fact, you are not going into retreat, but retreat is coming to you. That loneliness is always there. I wouldn’t say that loneliness is only Milarepa’s experience—we all have that sense of loneliness, particularly on the spiritual journey and in relating with a guru, but also in relating with a family and our case history of the past. The sense of loneliness is always there, even if you are entertaining yourself and you have lots of company and lots of friends to keep you occupied. Still, behind that, the sense of loneliness becomes prominent. Always you are back to square one. It is inevitable.

From talk five of “The Message of Milarepa,” a seminar given at Karme-Choling Meditation Center, Barnet, Vermont, in July, 1973. ©1998 Diana J. Mukpo

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1940-1987) is recognized for playing a pivotal role in the transmission of genuine Buddhadharma to the West. One of the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers to come to America, he established Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado and an organization of some 200 meditation centers worldwide known as Shambhala International. In addition to his best selling books on the Buddhist teachings, including Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and The Myth of Freedom, he is the author of two books on the Shambhala warrior tradition: Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, and Great Eastern Sun: The Wisdom of Shambhala.