We don’t hear much about how painful it is to go from being completely stuck to becoming unstuck. The process requires tremendous bravery, because we are changing our way of perceiving reality…
I’ve found a great deal to contemplate in the writings of Pema Chödrön’s book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. However, I’ve reread the chapter on The Six Kinds of Loneliness six or seven times.
I miss aspects of my life with ©. Sometimes I still miss ©. And nearly every day since I began my unskillful and reckless behavior with my ex-wife I have made choices that slowly disassembled our lives piece by piece while hurting people that loved me and that I loved.
The solution, of course, the one I hear repeated is, “Keep busy.”
While I appreciate the wisdom it still does nothing to remove the knowledge and feelings of my culpability in my loss and perhaps the loss for others.
And despite all the self-inflicted trauma, anxiety, and hurt I feel the loss, the emptiness, the silence, and the loneliness. Especially the loneliness. I still feel the weight of C’s silence and no amount of bravado is going to change that. After seven years together, C’s silence, as Susan Anderson discusses in her book, The Journey from Abandonment to Healing, leaves me with a sense of “being thrown away” and the loss of connectedness of being part of something special.
And C was special…but not perfect.
In the wake of this experience, the loneliness backfills the vacuum of empty space where life resided. “If someone abandons us, we don’t want to be with the raw discomfort;” writes Chödrön. “Instead, we conjure up a familiar identity of ourselves as a hapless victim. Or we avoid the rawness by acting out and righteousness telling the person how messed up he or she is.”
As we all do who are angry, hurt, shame-filled and unskillful, “we automatically want to cover over the pain in one way or another,” adds Chödrön, “identifying with victory or victimhood.” I have at times alternated between both rolls in an attempt to avoid what seems like desperate, despair-inducing loneliness. I can not blame C for K for that. I am very clear it is my lack of emotional skill, experience, and training.
“Usually we regard loneliness as the enemy,” Chödrön writes.
And long before C, long before K, that is how I’ve often treated the loneliness in my life: always seeking someone or something to entertain, detract, defuse, or protect me from a feeling that I am learning isn’t actually the enemy but my thinking makes it so. “One can be lonely,” Katagiri Roshi, “and not be tossed away by it.”
And that is a truly novel thought.
But most of my life I have judged my loneliness as representative of something innately wrong with me and so sought to prove it wrong. Usually with actions that resulted in more feelings and thoughts of being innately wrong.
And this where I am today: allowing loneliness to be my friend.
A Relaxing and Cooling Loneliness
Before I start, I need to be clear: I’m not a Buddhist, so my initial perspectives are clouded by a lifetime of ignorance, white, male, and American Puritanical biases.
However, for reasons, this particular chapter has touched me in the rawest of wounds. It is probable I am misrepresenting Chödrön’s teachings, but I’m going to take a crack at it anyway.
The Six Kinds of Cool Loneliness, as Chödrön writes of them, include:
- Less Desire
- Avoiding Unnecessary Activity
- Complete Discipline
- Not Wandering in the World of Desire
- Not Seeking Security from One’s Discursive Thoughts
For me, I interpret “cool loneliness” as the place between avoidant actions. In the case of infidelity, where there is loneliness and fear we are pushed to stay or leave, fight or flee. I take her to mean I do neither. Which, incidentally, isn’t the same as doing nothing.
If cool loneliness is zero on a number scale and if left is doing one thing and right is doing something else, cool loneliness would have me remain at zero. I am picking my direction of left or right, up or down, right or wrong based on judging what will move me away from zero. Move me away from the center. Take me away from loneliness.
In my situation, over and over I moved farther away from the center as I tried to hopscotch my way towards whatever the opposite of being lonely might be. As if being lonely represented a failure by which to be judged.
Perhaps this is why I chased relationships, even the unskilled ones. Perhaps this is the fuel in the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic.
Loneliness vs Alone
I do want to make a distinction between loneliness and being alone. I am okay with being alone. I’m alone a lot. I’ve become comfortable with my own company and over the last 16 months as I have been alone almost every day and every night. Being alone is not the same as loneliness when my anxiousness, fear, and self-doubt seep into my thinking.
Loneliness almost always has a shame attached to it for me. This is the hot and pregnant loneliness pushing me to do something. Anything.
Cool loneliness is one I’m learning to practice and embrace.
The Six Types of Cool Loneliness
1. Less Desire
“Willingness to be lonely without resolution when everything in us yearns for something to cheer us up and change our mood.”
I’m internalizing this way:
Brain: We’re lonely.
Me: I know.
Brain: Let’s have a doughnut. We like doughnuts! That will make our mood better!
Me: I hear Us. Are we saying we want a doughnut?
Brain: Yes. Doughnuts are yummy.
Me: Yes, doughnuts are yummy
Brain: Let’s go get a doughnut now. It will cheer Us up!
Me: We want a doughnut now?
Brain: Sigh. We’re not getting a doughnut, are we?
Me: Because I love Us, no.
Brain: We’re a jerk.
Me: Sometimes We have to be to take care of Us. That’s a boundary.
I kid you not. This is the exact conversation I had in my head yesterday when I drove past DeAngelis Donuts in Rochester, PA Saturday. The exact conversation as I drove around the block three times past the bakery.
It took ten minutes for the thought to pass and as it did so did my mood. And I didn’t have to eat a doughnut.
I knew I didn’t want a doughnut. I mean I did…but the point is I didn’t want the doughnut because it was good but because somewhere I learned that a doughnut would cheer me up.
And to be clear it would have been two doughnuts. One for me; one for my brain.
I consider not getting a doughnut(s) a victory.
“When we have nothing, we have nothing to lose.”
Frankly, I’m not sure where or how to apply this.
Don’t misunderstand, I understand what it is, I’m not just sure if I’ve ever experienced it. I’ve always carried an internal restlessness and anxiety creates an innate fear of loss: loss of love, loss of people, loss of opportunities, loss of experiences, loss of acceptance. An emotional ADHD?
If JOMO, the Joy of Missing Out, is standing alone despite the urge (and urging) to join, than FOMO, Fear of Missing Out, is fitting in order to not be alone. If JOMO is a thoughtful decision than perhaps FOMO is thoughtless participation. In many respects, I take JOMO to be the result of what happens when one has found contentment in the place of loneliness.
But I’m guessing. I’m working on this. I’ll let you know what I discover. If I ever do. There is some irony there.
“Contentment,” writes Chödrön, “is a synonym for loneliness.” I am beginning to understand that my need to avoid loneliness also meant I struggled with contentment. Perhaps moving forward I need to consider not “what I am missing” but rather “what do I have?”
3. Avoiding Unnecessary Activity
“It’s a way to keep ourselves busy so we don’t have to feel any pain.”
I would argue, and have, that many of the most damaging decisions are a result of constructed patterns focused on avoiding my pain. I’ve written about it elsewhere and I’m not going to rehash it all here.
However, I will say, in hindsight, I see nearly every decision I made was about avoiding conflict and loss to avoid my anxiety over the pain of abandonment.
It was about avoiding those Things that would make me uncomfortable, remember, re-feel, reexperience, the past traumas. Traumas I didn’t realize were working below the surface, undermining my integrity, and therefore my security.
As such, I found ways to keep busy.
A short list of unnecessary activities I have engaged to keep busy so I don’t have to feel pain include:
- Calling people
- Television (this was my go-to when I was a teenager)
- Going to the movies
As Chödrön makes clear, these activities are not always unnecessary. I simply need to more mindful about why am I doing something and choose accordingly. Some actions are helpful and healthy. However, sometimes the same actions will have different intentions. I need to be mindful of the intentions because on more than one occasion I have used these things as a distraction when I am agitated, anxious, or overwhelmed.
“Relaxing with loneliness is a worthy occupation,” states Chödrön.
Who has time for that?!
I apparently I do when I avoid unnecessary activity.
4. Complete Discipline
“We’re willing to sit still, just be there, alone.”
I was raised that I should always be doing something. “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. It is also something I heard over and over growing up.
Here is the thing about this, I don’t sit well. My mind is always going. I am constantly reading, writing, thinking, contemplating, looking, inquiring, wondering, and daydreaming. Growing up TV was my escape. And then video games. And then women. And then work. And more women. Did I mention women?
Well, maybe not women, but definitely relationships.
Here is the thing, if I am doing nothing, if I am just sitting, I feel like I am doing something wrong. I feel like I am being watched and judged and so, unfortunately, I am not simply sitting still, alone. I’m seeking an escape from something even if it is simply fidgeting.
I’m going to try and sit 10 minutes a day and make friends with my loneliness.
5. Not Wandering in the World of Desire
“Wandering in the world of desire involves looking for alternatives, seeking something to comfort us – food, drink, people.”
I’m not sure there is anything here I can add.
I’m not much of a drinker but I do like food as a way to comfort me. Also, pot. I mean I heard pot is helpful. Anything to avoid my anxiety instead of learning to comfort and soothe my fears.
I mean FFS, at times I sought comfort with two women living seventeen hours apart. Hardly on every trip, but 6 to 8 times over two years I went out of my way to make time for my ex-wife. Someone I divorced. Someone I left because I didn’t want to be there anymore for reasons that had nothing to do with another woman or, in hindsight, even with her.
This has often been a fall back for me: when lonely seeking a soft place to land. The selfishness makes me want to vomit. All because I lacked the willingness to sit with my loneliness and needing to be comforted like a lost child.
Not that having an orphaned inner child needs to be chastised for needing to be comforted…but apparently I just did it anyway. I have a very narrow definition of what it means to be a man and an adult. I’m going to have to look into that eventually.
If there is going to be any meaningful and lasting changes in my life I am going to need to find more skillful ways to love my loneliness. “Loneliness is not a problem. Loneliness is nothing to be solved.” Chödrön adds, “The same is true for any other experience we might have.”
6. Not Seeking Security from One’s Discursive Thoughts
“We do not seek comfort from our own internal chatter.”
I had to look up discursive in order to better understand what Chödrön intends…or at least what I think she intends (I’m fairly certain that las statement was discursive. As is this sidebar).
Rewording the sixth cool loneliness would be: not seeking feeling safe, stable, and free from fear or anxiety from one’s own reasoning and thinking.
In other words, I cannot think myself out of my loneliness nor should I look to my thoughts as an escape from it. Chödrön encourages us to simply “label it thinking” and recognize it has no “objective reality.”
For months my Good Doctor has had to remind me that nearly every single thing I think I know about what C is a guess. No one outside her circle actually knows what she thinks or feels. I think she was hurt and humiliated. I think she is angry. I think she hurts. I assumed I meant as much to her as she meant to me, but again, that is filtered through my thinking.
Here is the reality: I have no idea.
My doctor made an excellent point, “If you are going to make up stories isn’t it equally true she could have been relieved and happy to end it? What makes you think you are so important to her that she thinks of you at all?”
And she is right. Nearly everything I think about C and her choices is filtered through my ego and the ghost stories projected onto me from Flying Monkeys.
Meanwhile, she is now living with her fiance and sharing her business with him while I am still struggling to go on a date. And out of loneliness, my thinking tells me that means there is something wrong with me and she doesn’t miss me.
The reality is I don’t know and my brain is a meaning-making, pattern reading machine. Which is fine when it is my meaning and patterns but useless in any other situation.
For example, when K called and told C, C’s first sentence was supposedly, “Thank God! I’ve been looking for a way to get rid of him.” When I did ask C if that is what she meant, her response was, “What I may or may not have said when I learned what you did is none of your business.”
That’s clear but I’m left to guess and my thinking fills in the blanks.
I’ve come to realize, it doesn’t matter what she did or didn’t say. I see alongside all of the loving, passionate, and meaningful things I did and said, I too said things out of anger, fear, and loneliness. We are all more than one thing.
Plus, I like to think if we had a conversation I would not ask her. If she wants me to know it is her burden to tell me. The truth will be what I choose to make it. The truth doesn’t matter.
What matters is what I choose to believe. If I believe I hurt her, that is my truth. If I believe she loved me, she loved me. It’s when I rely on my discursive thoughts to suss out the details so I can find security that I struggle in an attempt to drive off the loneliness.
Dr. Tara Brach wrote, “The mind secretes thoughts like the body secretes enzymes.” I’ve come to recognize that I have no more control over the thoughts then I do the enzymes. They exist but the thoughts do not have value except what I assign to it. “That’s a good thought. That’s a bad thought.” They are neither. In reality, they are just thoughts.
What I can do is make small changes in what I consume, focus on, and give resource towards. In those actions, I still not be able to control what is secreted but I may influence the wellness of those thoughts and those enzymes.
Chödrön encourages us to “just touch the chatter and let it go, not make much ado about nothing.”
“Cool loneliness doesn’t provide any resolution or give us ground under our feet.”
Chödrön ends the chapter with a challenge. “Rather than persecuting yourself,” she writes, “or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart?”
Someone wrote at me recently and called into question my ability to empathize and accuses me of faking my pain for sympathy and pity. Another woman, who has never met me or spoken to me, has fallen onto her anger claiming insight into my soul based on the chatter within her own mind and unaddressed pain. A third declares because I have empathy for K and speak kindly of her, I must not care for C. They refuse to believe I am capable of understanding what it feels like to be betrayed because I betrayed C and K.
All their discursive chatter projecting their insecurities into the world and not one conversation with me.
They make stories up in their minds, pretend to know me, and like children smear their opinions about like fingerpaint. This used to bother me – and occasionally still does because contrary to the nonsense, I have feelings too.
A year ago their prideful grief trolling would have pushed my anxiety, shame, and reinforced my isolation and loneliness. However, as I sit here, alone in my apartment overlooking the Ohio River, I recognize that as I have actively made the effort to face my pain, loss, fear, anxiety, and loneliness I am changed. I can feel it. I can sense it. It’s true even if others don’t “think” it’s true.
Does that mean I am not still struggling? Of course, not. I still make mistakes. I still hide emotionally. I still struggle with conflict…however, I keep showing up, engaging, listening, and learning. My betrayal, secret-keeping, and escalating series of lies are the Way of the Thing and not the Thing. They are the tools I used to avoid experiences like conflict and loneliness.
The change in my angle of approach is true because despite my discomfort I find myself more and more excited about the “golden opportunities” of my new life. A life, that despite the “sadness and longing” is a life worth living without C or K.
Loneliness is not my enemy except as I make it so.
I know where I stand, and as such, today, at this moment, at this place, I recognize I have a life worth living made infinitely better as I stand alongside, and hold the hand, of my loneliness.