In the last years of our life we may come face-to-face for the first time with the fact that we are, in some fundamental sense, alone. We can feel alone even when others are present, and even though we may have spent most of our life in close relationships, in the end it may become frighteningly clear that we may have to endure our last years being primarily alone. And we may even die alone. Indeed, this aloneness, this loneliness, can certainly be one of the most difficult aspects of getting older.
It is said that we are all born alone and that we all die alone, and in between it is our connectedness with others that takes the edge off of our basic aloneness. Yet even within an intimate and healthy long-lasting relationship there will still always be a gap between oneself and another. As author Scott Turow put it, “How do we ever know what’s in another’s heart or mind? If we are always a mystery to ourselves, then what is the chance of understanding anybody else?”
Related: Living and Dying with Confidence
This gap, which accounts for the existential isolation we may sometimes feel, is, on one level, unbridgeable—and honesty in the face of our aging may require that we acknowledge our basic aloneness. At times, all of us may feel fundamentally alone, and until we face this loneliness directly, we will fear it. It’s interesting that one of life’s most vital lessons is something we are rarely taught: how to be at home with ourselves. The philosopher Pascal said that much of man’s misery derives from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.
Most people will do almost anything to avoid the fear of loneliness. We distract ourselves, get busy, or look for escapes. We can even use our relationships to run away from feeling this fear. Ultimately, however, the willingness to come to terms with one’s loneliness is an essential aspect of aging with equanimity. This doesn’t mean we can’t still rely on relating to others for comfort and enjoyment. After all, human beings have an innate need for social contact—and if we ignore this need we may suffer unnecessarily in isolation. For those who find themselves alone after a death or divorce, or those who might have a tendency to isolate, it’s important to be wary of building walls to protect ourselves from possible pain. Unless we can drop the walls of protection we will continue to experience the unhappiness of feeling separate and lonely. Part of the wisdom of getting older is finding people and activities that fulfill our need for human contact, without resorting to superficial attempts to fill up time. Relationships and social activities have to feel genuine if they are to be truly satisfying.
Related: The Power of Solitude
I was a volunteer at hospice for a period of ten years. My job was to sit with patients, or sometimes their spouses, in the patient’s last months of life. With some of my hospice patients, I witnessed how that basic aloneness was softened by the ability of another to be truly present with them as the end came closer. To experience the sense of connection that comes through the presence of another is part of the wisdom that may be revealed as we near our end; it is to understand the paradox that, although we are basically alone, we are at the same time truly connected.
Even though we may fear being lonely, it doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy being by ourselves or being quiet. Enjoying solitude can be wonderful, although often it doesn’t take long for the urge for activity or entertainment to arise. We can watch this urge when it arises and choose to follow it, or we can notice it and return to and remain in solitude. The capacity to be alone is essential in transforming the pain of loneliness into the settledness of solitude—that is, of being at home with oneself. And yet, when loneliness hits us, the ability to feel at home in our own skin will not come to us naturally.
When we experience loneliness, perhaps the main thing we feel is isolated and separate, and this can be painful. It can trigger our deepest fears of not being enough or not being connected. We may realize that our need for another person is in part to have someone to witness our life, someone we can tell our ongoing story to. Without their presence we may feel emptiness—the feeling that we don’t really exist, don’t really matter, or perhaps that we are not loved. If we don’t have our story and someone to hear it, we may feel shaken and begin to question whether our life has meaning.
When we no longer cover our loneliness with busyness and with our roles, there may arise the deepest existential question—what is my life really about? After all, for many years our story has defined who we are and what our value is. Without our story we will no doubt feel anxiety; yet one of the great benefits of aging is that we can get more in touch with what’s truly important, which transcends our story. When we begin to question our life direction, rather than choosing old patterns like idle social interactions, we may choose our social activities with more intention.
This means we don’t speak just to speak, but instead converse about things that we find more meaningful. The ability to speak and live with conscious intention isn’t something that is given to us as a gift simply because we are getting older. Without reflection and effort, aging will most likely guarantee a continuation of whatever habits and reactions we’ve been repeating up until now. And it’s very unlikely that these will help alleviate the pain of loneliness.
There’s a specific practice that many have found helpful when faced with difficult emotions like loneliness. My wife and fellow teacher, Elizabeth Hamilton, named this practice RRR—an abbreviation for recognize, refrain, and return. Simply put, first we must recognize what, specifically, we are feeling, and the “story of me” that may be repeating. Sometimes it’s not so clear—because loneliness can feel like antsiness or boredom, and then morph into depression. So the first step is to recognize with clarity that the underlying feeling is in fact loneliness.
The second step is to refrain. Refrain from what? Primarily we want to refrain from allowing our thoughts to run rampant—thoughts such as: “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” “This is too much to bear.” “Why go on?” When we find ourselves spinning with thoughts like these, we can use the phrase “Don’t go there!” as a way of cutting through the mental spin cycle. But it’s important to understand that this is not the same as suppression, since we are not cutting off our feelings; we’re only setting aside the thoughts that tend to make us wallow in them. Once we can put space between ourselves and our thoughts we can go to the third R, which is to return.
What do we return to? We return to the present moment of loneliness, starting with feeling exactly what bodily sensations are present. Remember, in refraining we only turned away from the thoughts that exacerbate our loneliness, not from our physical feelings. This makes it possible to truly feel what we’re feeling, even if it’s intense or painful. And the way we do this is with the “heart’s breath.” We follow the in-breath into the center of the chest, and with each successive in-breath we breathe the sensations of loneliness into the chest center. Then, on the out-breath, we softly release. By breathing the sensations of loneliness into the heart, and by allowing ourselves to feel them fully, the experience of loneliness can gradually transform into something very different. Over time, although we may still be alone, we are no longer lonely. In this solitude there is equanimity, and a clearer sense of our place in the world.
From Aging for Beginners by Ezra Bayda © 2018. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.