Grandmother’s Wisdom

Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu’s grandmother taught him that it’s the human condition to be lonely. Being mindful of our loneliness connects us to all others who are feeling the same way.

Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu
9 January 2023

“Sabishii ne.”

At my last dinner before leaving home to live in Tokyo, these words unexpectedly came out of my mouth. In Japan, they’re a common way of expressing feelings of loneliness. Early the next morning I would leave and Grandmother would be alone again. I was sad at the thought of her being by herself, and thought that she might feel as lonely as I did.

But Grandmother surprised me by saying, “That’s okay. I like loneliness.” I thought she was just acting brave. I knew that she had been devastated when we—her daughter, who was her only child, her three grandchildren, including me, and my dad—all left her behind to go to America. But she was fifty years old then; now she was nearly eighty. My American upbringing had deprived me of understanding how Grandmother had learned to find happiness and live a good life in Japan, alone.

One way we embrace loneliness is by internalizing lost loved ones.

The word sabishii means “lonely,” but my grandmother’s way of using it seemed to have a deeper meaning. Perhaps to her it was the human condition to be lonely. So being mindful in moments of loneliness connected her to others, because we all experience this sadness that is part of life. Grandmother’s way of living was based on a mature acceptance of loneliness, of the suffering in existence, and of the impermanent nature of human experience.

Loneliness reminds us that we know love. I saw there was dignity, sacrifice, and service in my grandmother’s way of parting, which freed me to pursue my path.

In the word sabishii, “sabi” represents the loss of what sparkles in us, and the fleeting nature of beauty. Like my grandmother herself, sabi things carry the burden of aging with dignity and grace. Although I didn’t understand her feelings at the time, they made sense to me when I realized that in English the word “sad” comes from the same root as the words “sated” and “satisfied.” This means sadness may actually be a kind of fullness—a fullness of the heart. We feel sad when our heart is full, tender, and alive, as opposed to the frozen state of depression that comes from pushing away our sadness rather than opening to it.

In searching for a deeper understanding of the Japanese sense of loneliness, I discovered its relation to nirvana, the state of perfect quietude, freedom, and happiness. Sabishii expresses not only loneliness, but also mellow stillness. Combined with horobiru, meaning “termination,” it expresses the enlightened state of nirvana in which one is liberated from the repeating cycle of birth, life, and death.

In Japanese, the phrase mono no aware expresses compassion and sadness in our awareness of the transience of all things, which in turn deepens our appreciation of their truth and beauty and elicits a gentle sadness after their passing. The love of the glorious, ephemeral beauty of cherry blossoms is characterized by mono no aware. This compassionate sensitivity is perhaps what my grandmother was describing.

Not alone in the delusion of separateness, I go about my day remembering that I too am living and dying, no different from the way they once were on this earth.

In my twenties I couldn’t see what I see now in my sixties: that loneliness is an inevitable part of the human condition. We try to escape it in so many ways, but when we face and embrace loneliness, our relationship to it shifts. If we engage and befriend loneliness, it can be a natural part of life. If we tell ourselves, don’t be afraid, don’t run from it, there’s too much beauty there, engaging with loneliness can bring us freedom.

One way we embrace loneliness is by internalizing lost loved ones. In a touching scene in The Lion King, the young lion grieving his dead father is told, “He lives in you.” I often have this feeling when I say or do something and it reminds me of my father, grandmother, or some other departed loved one. I have the sense that they live on in me. I’m reminded how my grandmother told me that we would never be apart because she would be in my heart.

We are not alone, but deeply interconnected with others, past and present. And yet we are alone. We are both not alone and alone. Though we search for the magical solution to ending this aloneness, we never find it. Grandmother taught me that acceptance of our pain makes it possible to convert weakness into strength, and we can offer our experience as a source of healing to others lost in the darkness of their own sufferings.

Grandma passed away on February 22 of 2015, and to this day whenever I see the time is 2:22, I imagine Grandma is here. She was 111 and when I see 1:11, I remember her as well. In these moments, I feel the presence of those who have left us. “I am here, for you,” they are telling me. Not alone in the delusion of separateness, I go about my day remembering that I too am living and dying, no different from the way they once were on this earth.

That’s what we’re all doing—loving and losing, coming and going, living and dying. We do what we’re called to do here and then are called away, leaving those left behind with the challenge of making meaning of it all. Though I don’t understand it, I draw strength in trusting the departed are well, still by my side, living on in me. And that I am well too.

Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu

Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu

Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu received a doctorate in psychology from Harvard University and trained in traditional medicine in Japan. He designs “heartfulness” learning programs at Stanford University and is the author of eleven books in English and Japanese.