As Buddhists we are often regaled with the fact that indeed we are all one inter-being. Whether we imagine this as being different cells in the body of the dharma, or perhaps even a subtle part woven into the machine of karma, sometimes this idea seems perfectly in line with our human experience, and sometimes it seems in conflict with it.
I lived at Great Vow Zen Monastery for two years and I had many experiences being part of a seamless system, an organic heart that shared its beat and joy with so many people that passed through the halls. I also had experiences of deep and unyielding loneliness. It’s funny for some people to imagine feeling alone at the monastery. There is hardly any time of day where someone is not close at hand. I slept in a room where other practitioners were a mere cubicle wall away. I could feel and most definitely hear their presence. Yet I often felt very, very alone.
The experience of loneliness for me always comes as a sickness and distinct longing to be seen and heard by other people. It’s a desire to be known in a deep and fundamental way; a hope and desire for intimacy. Sometimes this longing manifests as a desire for a romantic partner, and sometimes just as a dull depression. But always for me, it comes as a sense that something just isn’t quite right. I often wondered, “How does loneliness happen if indeed we are all one being?”
Since leaving the monastery I have struggled with loneliness from time to time. Entering lay life is a challenge after the strict discipline and strong container of the monastery. I have done many things to help contain my mind and yet I still find this sense of loneliness cropping up.
When I feel lonely my heart is actually expressing its deep connection to the other human beings around me. I feel a deep compassion and love, and yet my day-to-day experience doesn’t match the felt truth of inter-being. I live in a world with suffering beings, one of which is me. We are all too often caught up in our own agendas, our own ego games, and our own complex defenses to realize how deeply connected we all are. This dissonance can amplify our suffering and often lead to a feeling of disconnect and misalignment we call loneliness.
Working with preschool children I see this often. If I had to guess the deepest fear in the heart of many of my students, it would be that they would find themselves alone with no one to play with or care for. Even at a young age I can see this tension between the deep sense of connection and the external sense of singularity.
Even though it is hard to bear, I think part of me knows that this deep feeling of longing, the well in the pit of my stomach that emerges during bouts of loneliness, is not a sign of something wrong with me. Rather, it is another indication of the presence of inter-being in my life. Even my casting about for new friends and new romance, which is rarely successful, demonstrates a true desire to be more in line with this sense of connection.
I’m not offering any particular cure or remedy for this phenomenon of loneliness, but rather a question. How can I use the longing of loneliness to serve the dharma and strengthen my own heart? How can we use the depth of this feeling to deepen our own connection to others and understanding of the nature of suffering?
Feeling lonely is hard no matter how you look at it, but I hope that by acknowledging it as part of my reality and practice that it may offer relief to others who have, are, or will experience its effects. I truly believe that we love each other much more than we are willing to admit. And sometimes it is only through this subtle pain called loneliness that we can realize the truth and power of this deep and abiding inter-heart.