I’m just back from a holiday in Sicily. A wonderful week in so many ways. The beauty of the country, the stunning backdrop of the Mediterranean, the charming narrow streets, and of course, the exquisite food. Hard not to enjoy especially nowing the cold snap had taken a grip back home! Yet there was also a sadness. Contrasting with what is a middle class holiday destination, the poverty was evident. Italy is struggling with its economy, and Sicily has been called ‘the refugee camp of Europe’ in recent months. It was hard to see the suffering of people; and hard to know what I could do to help my fellow human beings. I felt hopeless on many levels. There was one woman in particular that touched me. We passed her every day as we walked from our hotel in to the Old town. She had made “home” out of an old street-kiosk. Her aloneness struck me deeply.
And in that, of course there is the assumption that she was alone and, lonely. Often the two are differentiated by the emotional reaction to being on one’s own. Loneliness is the feeling of lack and wanting the situation to be different. Loneliness can therefore happen when we are surrounded by people, so its not always obvious. And, its a growing problem in today’s society. Just last week, an article in The Guardian presented the results of a recent survey in the UK, where over a third of its respondents reported themselves as lonely. What struck me was the headline “Loneliness is a modern illness of the body, not just the mind”. It got me thinking a lot about how we embody loneliness, the bodily sense of lack.
Aloneness, loneliness and solitude are themes I often contemplate. Many of my clients came to therapy with an experience of loneliness and not knowing how to live what is essentially a lonely life. As Orson Welles said “We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone”. I find this so true. I am fortunate to have good friends and a loving family around me, yet even then loneliness can enshroud me. How can we hold the truth of “the illusion” and still feel and trust we are okay?
It is interesting to reflect upon our experience of aloneness and loneliness. Some days, I seek solitude - to be alone. Other days, solitude is too much - I feel lonely and I sense the need to reach out. Why does this vary? There is something about our basic okayness: if we trust our own being, being on our own needn’t come with that emotional “sting”.
My relationship with loneliness has been a fascinating, and often painful journey. I felt very different to others growing up, and I learnt to find a way to “fit in”, often with older people, with adults. Yet on one level, I knew I didn’t belong with adults - as much as I would try to be a grown up. I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to bring people together, to be part of a group and community. Its one reason that I gravitated towards Buddhism - the appeal of a meditation group, a gathering of people who I could share with. Yet I have learnt that the path is not about “curing” loneliness; rather it is about opening up to it. As per the Orson Welles quote “We are alone.”
The opening up to loneliness has been supported by my practice on the cushion. By bringing gentle awareness to my experience, I have realised how much I leave my “self”. A natural-born thinker, I leave my body. As I have trained my mediative awareness, I have noticed how on a very subtle level, there is an upward and outward movement as I sit. Now, I retain an awareness of my seat, where I make contact with the ground, how gravity pulls me down in to the earth. The more we can root in our body, the soma, the more we can feel our existence; rather than relying on relationships to feel we exist.
A client of mine was describing something similar to this recently. Claire grew up being a people pleaser, neglecting her own needs to ensureeveryone else around her was okay. If she made them feel okay, she felt safe because they wouldn’t abandon her. In our work together, she described how she felt pulled out of shape whenever she entered relationship. I asked her to tune in to her body as as we sat opposite one another. She described how she almost felt “top heavy” - like she was exiting her Self and moving toward me; reaching out to me and in that act in effect deserting her Self. Tuning in to this physical pull, I invited her to sense how she might drop back down in to her belly; lowering her centre of gravity like wrestlers do. How could she be in relationship as Claire-with-Helen rather than Claire-for-Helen?
The Japanese talk of ‘Hara’ - the energy centre of the body which resides in the area below the naval. It is said that in the West we live “chest out, belly in”. We might all get a sense of this when we notice we are anxious - we breathe from the top part of our lungs. Watch a baby or a young animal breathe: through the belly. When we are chest out, belly in, we become “top heavy”. And like Claire found, we are more likely to topple out of our selves. How do we retain the relationship to our Hara, our energy rather than desert ourselves? If we can only feel existence in relationship, it makes sense when no-one is connecting with us we feel lonely.
Martin Buber is renowned for his ideas of “I-Thou”, and these permeate through the basis of humanistic psychotherapy. In the “I-Thou” the relational meeting is a mutuality of two beings: not subject - object set-up. If we suffer from a lack of feeling whole on our own and seek our existence in relationship, we might inadvertently make others an “it” - they become the object, they become a function rather than a human in their own being. Buber was clear - to be in the “I-Thou” we need to know our own self, and bring that self to relationship, equally - to feel connected, yet not merge with the other. Imagine two people rooted in their Hara coming in to relationship: neither needing the other, both receiving the other from a healthy sense of self.
I invite you try this for yourself. In your day today, stay connected to your belly. See if you can receive the world and others rather than reaching out and leaving yourself. I’d love to hear how this experiment went.