It was a beautiful sunny day in southern Italy. The landscape was stunning, the air clear, the sun’s heat deeply warm and penetrating every pore of the body.
Heaven on earth one might say. But suddenly like a lightning flash a reverberation from something that had happened that day, on the face of it nothing of great consequence, entered the mind and exploded in emotion. It was literally like a dagger to the heart. A deep sadness was felt, a sense of total hopelessness and despair. Everything around me was suddenly firing blanks.
Above all, however, a feeling of profound, overwhelming loneliness seeped into my very being. The heart was crushed, the mind numbed. Agonising memories of childhood bouts of similar intensity sprang up and it was as if a hidden mantra sounded in the background “You are alone”, “You are alone”,
“You…..are…..alone”. Subsidiary underpinning thoughts emerged…”no one cares”….”there is no point”….”you are utterly alone”.. and “there is no love anywhere”. Inner darkness descended, the body felt crushed under the burden of hopelessness and love’s annihilation.
If I had been 18 then perhaps such dark meditations might have seemed norm for the course of a sensitive, emerging teenager floundering in the last vestiges of a child-like chrysalis, trying desperately to grow wings in what felt like a howling gale of adversity. But I was almost 50 years on from that. Half a century! And supposedly such bouts of devastating depression were behind me. There was also the small point that I knew better, didn’t I? The subtle armour of non-duality fashioned over so many years with all its inner resources, nuances, wisdom, light and grace, seemed suddenly to have evaporated as if blown apart by a typhoon and darkness darker than the darkest had put out the light.
As an isolated struggling teenager this tragic scenario centred on loneliness might have seemed par for the course. From a very young age I had had these flashes of enlightenment or insight, sometimes they endured for much longer. They pointed clearly to unity. To love unbound. To beauty reflected everywhere. My own beauty. To a dream drama going on whose very substance was love. Such joy, such mystery! And yet my elders and betters as well as my similarly aged schoolfellows seemed totally oblivious to all this.
There was no one to talk to about this in a world where such knowledge would have been dismissed as pure fantasy and wild imagination. The result in the young being’s mind…a sense of total isolation and confidence smashed. A background of utter darkness was then camouflaged inadequately as defence mechanisms kicked in in the process of facing life’s inevitable roller coaster. The pattern was set for many years. The sadness at times seemed unbearable and suicidal thoughts were never far away. Even ‘happy’ times seemed tinged with sadness. There was no escape from life-penetrating LONELINESS. Or so it seemed.
It's ok really
Well you will be glad to know that the Italian episode lasted for only an hour or two. A nasty bout of flu, that’s all! Real Memory kicked in, the world was ok after all. In fact it was more than ok, it was a sacred blessing and gratitude arose for all the daily miracles of life and a wonderful wife, family and friends, for air to breathe, for a house and clothes and food and water and on and on. Instead of all alone there was all one…for real. The ‘world’ flashing its spontaneous reminders and with it the growing feeling of coming home…home to the Self. One without a second.
This is ‘divine’ solitude. Solitude not loneliness is the resource and state from which creative power may be drawn. “Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul….seek solitude,” the great French artist Eugene Delacroix counselled himself in 1824. “Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them.” (Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903).
So a happy ending. But loneliness and a feeling of isolation is no laughing matter in the world today. Rising suicide rates especially among the young, growing dependence on anti-depressants, the huge rise in single person households worldwide, the break up of the family unit and growing divorce statistics, a mental health crisis, the large increase in the elderly population and their increasing isolation, a sense of de-humanisation and loss of community in the big cities often leading to violence.
New technology and artificial intelligence a double-edged sword, at times driving humanity into the shade in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘efficiency’. A feeling that chickens are coming home to roost as the natural world’s extraordinary tolerance margins are finally breached with fatal potential consequences. The price perhaps of cutting off from nature and its natural rhythms in all sorts of ways, of creating an artificial isolation/desolation and environment on a grand scale that takes but does not give back. The more we as a species disrespect and distort the powers and generous resources of nature for selfish ends the more ‘lonely’ we become in our artificially created worlds within and without.
Above all the irony of ironies that thanks to the internet and the huge explosion in intercommunication possibilities across the globe people are in many cases feeling more isolated, cut off and lonely, not the opposite that might have been expected. Retreating behind outer screens or should that be inner screams in some cases?
When was the last time anyone on the tube or on a bus looked you in the eye and said something vaguely pleasant or even smiled? Or were they/you locked into an I phone or similar, hypnotised in a man/woman-made light of separation? Ease of communication , yes. Quality of communication, no.
Letters, do you remember them and envelopes with stamps on them? Ridiculous now in the ‘light’ of our texting culture where intimacy is not touching the heart with a carefully chosen written and felt word but idly tapping the keys in a sea of twitterspeak and knee-jerk emotional jolts. No wonder people feel increasingly lonely despite the agitational activity they hide behind much of the time, projecting an image of busyness and friendships and goodness knows what with their overheating mobiles while losing their soul in the process. Sole not soul perhaps is the price to be paid.
Some loneliness facts
According to a recent British Red Cross and Co-Op survey over nine million people in the UK – almost a fifth of the population – say they are always or often lonely, but almost two thirds feel uncomfortable admitting to it; over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone; two fifths of all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company (Age UK 2014); 63% of adults aged 52 or over who have been widowed, and 51% of the same group who are separated or divorced report feeling lonely some of the time or often; 59% of adults aged over 52 who report poor health say they feel lonely some of the time or often, compared to 21% who say they are in excellent health (Beaumont 2013); a higher percentage of women than men report feeling lonely some of the time or often (Beaumont 2013); 17% of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11% are in contact less than once a month (Victor et al, 2003).
Loneliness is a bigger problem than simply an emotional experience. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health; lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity. Loneliness reportedly increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%. And so on. It is no exaggeration to say there is a loneliness crisis right now.
I remember a horrific story, not that long ago, of the rotting remains of an elderly lady found in her apartment which had been sitting there for some three years or so. The television was still on. Noone had called in all that time. She might as well have not existed in that community. Only the smell alerted neighbours to her fate.
The right alone
Can we get back to the right side of ‘alone’ ie ‘all one’? The word itself is interesting. ‘Alone’ is a contraction of ‘all one’ from the Old English all ana (unaccompanied, all by oneself, literally wholly oneself from ‘all’, wholly + an ‘one’). In German you have ‘allein’ and in Dutch ‘alleen’. In Latin of course you get ‘solus’ from which we get words like ‘solitary’ and ‘soliloquy’ In Ancient Greek the adjective monos means single, sole, alone. But to make the key link in all this from a spiritual point of view we need to go back to Sanskrit. Kaivalya means “aloneness, isolation” and refers to someone who has renounced and isolated himself from all attachments to worldly desires. There is a Kaivalya Upanishad.
The guidance of Shri Shantanand Saraswati, who the Study Society in London consulted for over 30 years until his passing in 1997, is helpful here. From an audience in 1991:
“The fact is that the Self is blissful by its own nature. Bliss is not a product of action and its result. Like Brahman, if one can think and accept oneself as alone and yet limitless, then the one without a second would have no cause to identify with anyone since there is none else. Like an actor one performs the roles without attachment of being hero or agitation of being villain”.
This places ‘aloneness’ in an entirely different light. He added:
“Being alone means being independent and free. All the waiting on the help of another becomes unnecessary. As long as there is another, there will be a charge.
To be alone is to be pure, free of all impediments. Anything else apart from the the Self is an impediment. It holds, obstructs, seeks ransom. The other is the bonds of Nature (prakriti). Prakriti is triformal and therefore complex. It creates complexities……”
The experience of kaivalya is embodied in a hymn of the saint and philosopher Sankara: “shivah kaywalo hum” translated as: “I am Shiva alone, harmonious, propitious, blissful, conscious and true.”
In his commentary on this Shantanand says: “Apart from that Shiva which I am, there is nothing true or real, nothing conscious and nothing as a source of bliss. Under this state every perception, conception or volition appears as true, conscious and blissful. This causes no hankering as it is all oneself. No sooner does this seem to be arising from another, then a chase takes place. Because one likes another, one must strive to acquire to ensure happiness. This illusion turns into reality and duality sets in….Kaiwalya is therefore untainted by another, not complicated by another, not dependent upon another.”
This independence without dependencies is the true alone. Each apparent one is One. What is the use of this knowledge in a world apparently full of loneliness? As usual its worth is found in its application in the ‘real’ world. To show that it is more than possible to see all creatures in oneself, oneself in all creatures. But that is only possible with the crystallisation embodied in kaivalya where the solitude of the Self is embraced and its natural illumination lights all paths, all situations and all times whatever the odds.
To be One is to be alone. Only when we have tasted that true aloneness can ‘we’ help the ‘world’ not to mention ‘ourself’ to draw from new wells of inspiration. In the Gospel of Thomas that very important Christian text, fragments of which were dug up in 1945 in the Nag Hamadi desert in Upper Egypt, it states:
“Jesus said: Many are standing at the door, but the solitary are the ones who will enter the bridal chamber.”
That ensuing ‘marriage’ represents the dissolving of the apparent individual into the universal Be-ing with which it is ever identical and eternally aligned. ‘I’ and the beloved are one. I alone am. Next time we see someone alone and in need of company perhaps we could remember that not just as an act of kindness but as a recognition that the beloved ‘neighbour’ presented is our own Self, one without a second.