Sunday, November 19th, 2006

A Living Tantra reader asked me about loneliness and spiritual realization. This is a profound question.

One day, some years ago, I visited my teacher. I felt deeply lonely, and I wondered what to do about this feeling. I sat on his couch and cried.

My teacher’s response surprised me. He said: You are very lucky to be able to feel this loneliness. Most people will not allow themselves to touch this feeling. This is a good day for you.

Here and there in the literature of saints and adepts, you will find references to loneliness. The Daoist adept Li Po often wandered in great loneliness. The fourteenth century yogini, Lalleshwari, wrote at times of feeling dejected and alone. The spiritual autobiographies of less saintly types also speak of loneliness.

We usually feel ashamed of our loneliness, especially if we are supposed to be spiritually accomplished or “in touch.” We erroneously believe that spirituality and loneliness are incompatible.

For most people, loneliness comes along with a sense of failure. In general, you may tell a friend that you have committed some offense, or made a mistake, but to confide that you are lonely demands a greater degree of courage and trust. And this is intensified for spiritual practitioners who hold fixed concepts about spiritual life.

Loneliness is the emotional expression of our root sense of separation, or anavamala: the View that we are isolated individuals. At root, our core loneliness is a feeling of separation from God. In Tantrik View, God is our entire existence. So, the most direct understanding of loneliness is that it expresses our sensation of alienation from the life process.

Loneliness is the emotional outcome of having forgotten our continuity with all life.

This forgetting gets expressed at many levels.

For instance, contemporary people, especially in the West, are losing touch with their families, extended families, and communities. We live much more isolated lives than did our ancestors. We also, by and large, have less access to a diverse natural environment and contact with nonhuman communities.

This manifest situation arises from our severely individualistic View. It both expresses and reinforces our root loneliness.

A person might suffer from lack of contact with other people, or nature. All of this person’s lonely feelings might be focused on not having family and friends ready-to-hand. They may not quite have the whole picture: that this situation is a reflection of a feeling of separation from God, or the life process as a whole. But they understand, through loneliness, that an important kind of continuity has been undermined.

For most of us, alliances with others are as important as food. We may not be able to realize our intimate connection with all beings, but through our longing for alliance, we are expressing something about the fundamental quality of manifest life.

On the other hand, simply hanging out with others does not necessarily indicate that we are addressing our sense of separation.

We often stuff our lives with depleting activities and social relationships in order to run away from acknowledging our root feeling of separation. This kind of frantic activity turns our lives into an exhausted, numbed-out blur. Although we may be feeling less of our root loneliness, we are also feeling less of everything. This is not a situation of connection; it is a situation of disconnection.

In order to realize the wisdom inherent in loneliness, and not just react fearfully to loneliness, we must recognize its true origin in anavamala.

Sadhana is the ancient, tried and true method for relaxing anavamala, our root sense of separation. However, our impulse to run away from loneliness often hinders us from starting, or continuing, a spiritual practice. When we sit down to practice, we may feel that we are about to be overwhelmed by the fear, sadness and loneliness we have been pushing away with frantic activity and relationship pseudo-drama.

At this point, we must try to resist the impulse to immediately get up or dive into reassuring and distracting compulsive thoughts. We must take a few deep breaths and say to ourselves “Ok, this is my real condition. I will begin from here.”

Despite the uncomfortable feelings, simply acknowledging our condition brings some sense of grounding, peace, and possibility. Nothing is possible if we do not allow our real situation to guide us.

And this is the reason that my teacher told me I was lucky to be feeling and acknowledging loneliness.

Loneliness comes and goes. No one is 100% open and relaxed all of the time. Whenever we are in the grip of ignorance, that is, of a feeling of tension or separation, loneliness, disassociation, and alienation can arise.

A key aspect of intermediate, or even more advanced stages of accomplishment is a painful see-sawing between a genuine apprehension of the natural, continuous state, and periods of tension.

At this stage, one realizes the value of longing as a spiritual technology, and as grace. Longing is a lifeline thrown out from a state of tension. Longing is an expression of continuity and connection. It opens us to a less separate mode of awareness and experiencing. This is why practitioners are advised to cultivate longing. Longing is the natural movement toward realization.

Later, this highly charged and magnetizing longing comes to an end. Some people have written or spoken about the end of loneliness and longing. Others just assume that the end must come.

My own observation is that this “end” arrives over and over again, and is never completely stabilized, even in highly realized persons, with a very few exceptions.

Here it is vitally important to remember that we always return to our beginnings, and that nothing is ever renounced. Tantra is not about transcending life, but about participating in and with life from a broader, embodied View.

What I have glimpsed in my own practice, and once in a while seen exemplified in another human being, is that the natural state is abuzz with something we could call curiosity: a delight and interest in the infinite possibilities of Self-creation.

When loneliness and longing subside, this open-ended curiosity comes into View. From this perspective, any of life’s expressions may be savored with interest, including loneliness. We can return to ordinary life and recognize it as a banquet of unimaginable variety to be tasted, appreciated, and supported.

This does not mean that we do not care about the suffering of others, using the excuse that all of life is a “banquet.” In fact, we are more open to the flow of compassion because we understand so well that every mode of expression has its own Reality and must, in some respects, be related to on its own terms.

It is likely true that loneliness does not get mentioned in the spiritual literature, or by teachers, as much as it should given that it is such a fundamental experience of the human realm. Perhaps there is concern about scaring students away! Paradoxically, however, in revealing the shared experience of loneliness, we can begin to feel less alone.

OM Shanti,