Loneliness vs Solitude
Loneliness is one of our greatest dreads. We have all felt the stab of loneliness, the fearful feeling of emptiness, isolation and separateness, like an aching chasm deep within us. We sometimes think of loneliness in terms of haunting images: an isolated figure, a derelict house, a leafless tree against a backdrop of a barren winter landscape – solitary, bleak images, cold enough to freeze our bones.
Loneliness reflects an inner need to love and be loved. Yet many lonely people have a social life, a busy job, and even a stable family life, giving credence to the old cliché that it is possible to feel lonely in a crowd. The number of questions put to our Masters about loneliness is an indication of just how many people experience the pangs of loneliness.
Solitude, on the other hand, is simply the lack of contact with people. We tend to classify loneliness and solitude as the same thing, and to think of them both in a negative way. But being alone is not the same as being lonely. Loneliness tends to have a negative effect on us, while solitude has a positive effect. There are plenty of loners who happily choose solitude as a way of life. Paul Tillich, a philosopher, said:
Language … has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.
Solitude is also associated with religious experience. We often read about monks and nuns having inner religious experiences, while living a solitary life in monasteries and convents. This makes sense. We are never going to have an inner experience while our minds are scattered and we are busy interacting with others. Inner experiences are more likely to occur when we sit quietly on our own, in deep concentration. As Maharaj Charan Singh has told us, concentration may result from reading, from emotions, meditation, or may even be achieved by other means.
Solitude, and the ability to focus our minds during periods when we are alone, is very beneficial to us, because we learn the art of concentration; on the other hand, loneliness is an emotional experience that agitates and scatters the attention.
Time spent alone can be of great benefit to us. Hazur Maharaj Ji tells us that when we feel lonely we should continue with simran because this will remove the feelings of loneliness, and we will have the feeling that the Master is with us.
We can draw an analogy between a long distance runner and our attempts at concentrated simran. Long distance running is a lonely and tough undertaking – just the runner and the road, an isolated figure pounding the tarmac. Irrespective of the conditions, the runner must practise daily to achieve the goal. No matter how tired we are, we have to keep at it – one step after another, even though the road stretches endlessly ahead. Every step and every breath stem from the determination to keep running. At times it may seem like an endless, futile task, but if we stay focused on the objective, we will reach the finish line.
So, too, in our meditation practice – whatever our conditions, we have to practise daily. Every round of simran gives us the determination to keep at it, one round after the next, until our simran reverberates throughout our entire being like the pounding of the runner’s feet.
Like the runner, we never seem to be getting anywhere, and sometimes it seems so very futile that we may feel like giving it all up, but this is when it is important to keep going. The time will come when the mind will become still. Then the eye centre is not far off. The difference here is that as runners we know where the finish line is – we know how far we have to run. We know where the eye centre is, but we don’t know how much distance we still have to cover.
Loneliness is often thought of as a human condition, but when we look at nature we find that most species live collectively with some form of social structure, and individuals certainly feel the effects of loneliness when separated from their group. So it’s not surprising that we humans also shun the solitary life in favour of a life of sharing, companionship and love, as we surround ourselves with family, friends and acquaintances with whom we share our lives. Given our need for human interaction and togetherness – to love and be loved – it’s interesting that when we embark on the spiritual journey, we start on the loneliest path that we could ever imagine, and by the time we realize it, there is no going back.
Every time we sit down to practise our meditation, we are in the process of severing our attachments to this world. In fact it’s an oddity that we regularly try and release ourselves from our attachments through our meditation, and yet it is often because of our feelings of loneliness that we create new and binding attachments.
It is in our hands not to embrace many of these attachments – to simply let them go – but others are part of our destiny, and we have to do our meditation to rise above those bonds. Attachment is the strongest force that can bring us back to this creation, and not only that, it can also bring us down to the level of the one to whom we are attached.
Maharaj Charan Singh tells us in Quest for Light:
The feeling of loneliness that you experience is, in fact, a blessing in disguise. In the life of every one there comes a time when he feels and realizes that there is none in this world whom he can call his own. Throughout our life we select different people and try to make them our own, but after some time we realize that ‘something’ is still missing. In the end our experience tells us that all these loves are selfish – one is always demanding something from the other.
Following the spiritual path can also create feelings of loneliness in us. We don’t feel we fit, or want to fit, into regular social structures, and not having reached the eye centre yet, we feel as though we don’t really belong in either world.
When being with the people we love does not remove our feelings of loneliness and isolation, these feelings are probably due to spiritual loneliness – a void within ourselves. We interpret this feeling of separation as being physically separated from our loved ones, but there is nothing others can do to remove this loneliness. Our feelings of loneliness are not people-related, but are rather due to our spiritual separateness, which cannot be filled by other people, irrespective of how fulfilling and loving our relationships may be.
Spiritual loneliness and yearning come from deep within us, creating a sense of incompleteness, which affects every aspect of our lives. We feel that something important is missing. Maharaj Charan Singh clarifies spiritual loneliness by telling us that the natural inclination of the soul is to go back to its own origin. He says:
You always have a feeling of loneliness in you, whatsoever you may have in this world; whatsoever you may possess in this world. The whole world may be at your command. If you sit quietly you will still feel that loneliness. You are not able to overcome this feeling of loneliness. This is the inclination of the soul, which is urging you to go back to its own Source. Unless the soul merges back into its own Source you will not be able to overcome the feeling of loneliness. And that loneliness forces you to seek your own origin. … That feeling in you urges you to go back to the Father.
Thus Saith the Master
It is only through our practice of meditation that the hollow yearning is filled and our spiritual loneliness is cured. Deep within, where we used to feel incomplete and lonely, we now find ourselves satisfied and fulfilled. And the more we practise our meditation, the more satisfied and fulfilled we feel.
We believe the Master is waiting for us within, but until we reach the eye centre, this belief is simply a concept, another creation of our imagination. When we close our eyes, we are aware only of ourselves. After numerous hours of meditation, many of us have realized that the path we walk to meet his Radiant Form is a very long, slow journey, and we do it alone – nobody walks with us. So we come to realize the truth of the Master’s words, that the spiritual path cannot be walked with friends and family by our side. It is a solitary and lonely journey, until we become conscious of him within.
You have no friends in this world –
make Nam the mainstay of your life.
Tie the thread of your consciousness to Shabd
so the door to the Lord’s court is opened to you.
Soami Ji, Sar Bachan Poetry