At 3:03 a.m. on August 8, 1983, I was born into isolation—I spent the first two weeks of my life in an incubator, creating a distance between me and those who loved me. As a child, I often felt lonely, because I saw myself as different from other kids. Feeling unsure of myself, I struggled throughout my childhood to find a place in the scary, big world. I was aware of a very subtle constant yearning to be embraced. I yearned not only to be lovingly held physically and emotionally but existentially, too—although I didn’t have such words to express that deep desire. I wanted to find the comfort and nourishment of a womb-like space that would receive me, hold me, and tell me everything was okay without condition.
There are many ways to think about our human existence and to interpret our loneliness and aloneness. One study’s findings on loneliness in later life suggest that loneliness is the subjective counterpart to objective isolation and the flipside of social support (1). This is the common perspective that loneliness occurs without a significant relationship, or is a response to a lost connection with a loved one. Highly influential in our lives is a narrative of scarcity or the fear that we are lacking something both inwardly and externally. We have an intense (and at times very subtle) desire for a dependable bridge to unite our divided existence.
Like many people, you might think of loneliness as a negative experience, brought on by a lack of connection with others. You may also have a sense that loneliness mostly has to do with how we perceive and deal with the level of social isolation we face.
Paradoxically, advances in technology have supposedly brought us closer together. Living in the “age of loneliness” was the subject of a 2008 study in which researchers found that up to one in five Americans suffers from chronic loneliness (2). So, where can we find authentic connection?
If truth be told, we’re under the spell of a much more fundamental and illusive sort of isolation, and we must investigate our sense of separateness if we are to rediscover wholeness. This is what I explore in my new book, ‘Living the Life That You Are: Finding Wholeness When You Feel Lost, Isolated, and Afraid’. Such feelings are rooted in seeing life through the distorting filters of desire and fear—desire causing us to crave things we see ourselves as lacking, fear expressed as avoidance and defensiveness. Desire and fear flavor our entertainment, politics, and culture and the messages they broadcast. Just turn on the news at any time or choose a random movie.
Paradoxically, even our search for intimacy may be the reason for such feelings.
Out of restless inadvertence, the state of being switched on mentally but switched off spiritually, we’ve become split from the world we’ve created and unfamiliar with our non-dual depths. Imagination is the catalyst of this dualistic isolation, and the resulting interpersonal isolation and loneliness are what cause us so much unhappiness.
Does this mean we’re doomed to be forever hungry for more, and that we’ll stay inside a defensive shell, removed from ourselves and others in solitary confinement?
Embracing our Existential Loneliness and Existential Anxiety
As long as I can remember, I’ve had an underlying feeling of angst which has subtly pervaded every nuance of my life. For me, this existential malaise has shape-shifted into various elusive forms, all of which lacked a definable trigger or target. These forms could be called existential loneliness, existential depression, existential guilt, existential despair, existential insecurity, and predominantly, existential anxiety.
As is the case for most of us, I’ve had an array of seemingly normal fears. But this other kind of anxiety was more like a quiet, unintelligible terror, a distant alarm bell, an uncaused danger. It seemed more real and fundamental than any passing concern. Apparently arising from my innermost core, existential anxiety was a lurking, menacing mythical figure. It hid in the shadows of my very Being, coming at me from everywhere and nowhere. It wasn’t an entity but an inescapable mood that cunningly evaded reason and remedy. It was a constant undercurrent, an impending nothingness and hollowness, a strange intimacy with an enticing void, the cost of having a thumping heart and a free spirit. No, this universal anxiety (as opposed to generalized anxiety) didn’t incarcerate me. Quite the opposite; it was a reminder of my choiceless freedom whispered incessantly, a peculiarly comforting promise.
While we fear specific things and experiences in the world (such as a fear of heights or public speaking), our anxiety is bewilderingly unspecific. Instead, anxiety, or more specifically, existential angst or dread, is the primary mood that shapes our relationship with existence. In terms of existential angst, generalized anxiety is a reaction to freedom and an inescapable recognition of not-knowing. It becomes apparent when we reject convention and question the beliefs and ideas we’ve previously taken for granted.
The emphasis on conformity, following directions, imitation, being like others, striving for power and status, increasingly alienates man from himself,” says Clark E. Moustakas in his delightful and seminal book Loneliness (3), which explores existential loneliness. Because we’re unable to experience life genuinely, or relate authentically to our own nature and to others, we often suffer from a “dread of nothingness.” Loneliness, Moustakas says, is part and parcel of being, of existing, which, if embraced, can lead us to “deeper perception, greater Awareness and sensitivity, and insights into one’s own being”.
When we assume that what we know is fixed and representative of truth, why investigate, especially if our fixed knowledge seems to serve us well? If it isn’t, we feel unsettled, which means it’s time to look beneath the surface of our conclusions. Existential anxiety forces us to inquire; it sets in motion purifying shifts of awareness, which unveil a new kind of freedom.
The Deeper Roots of Loneliness
Loneliness and isolation aren’t just brought on by the lack of a healthy social life, or anything we lack. If truth be told, we’re under the spell of a much more fundamental and illusive sort of isolation. Such feelings are rooted in seeing life through the distorting filters of desire and fear—desire causing us to crave things we see ourselves as lacking, fear expressed as avoidance and defensiveness. Paradoxically, even our search for intimacy may be the reason for such feelings. It might sound like a cliché, but we’re always looking for ourselves, our truest selves.
Existence gets distorted by concepts and projections and from these springs the cycle of desire and fear: solitary confinement by way of an obscured lens. Experientially, your body and individuality set you apart from other people and objects. This happens in a paradigm of relating and interacting as a human, which you might have experienced as interpersonal isolation and loneliness.
On a deeper level, it’s imagined duality which creates all manner of separateness—from the kind I call “dualistic isolation,” the sense that you’re identified with and alone in your body and your mind, to “existential loneliness,” a persistent sense of incompleteness that no amount of social or material connection can resolve.
Because of our narrowed, distorted focus, we’ve become apparently disconnected from our essential Aliveness, which is universal. We are so accustomed to perceiving a dualistic paradigm; there’s “me” and a world of “others” existing in an infinite and vastly unknown universe of disparate objects.
Therefore, in my book as well as part of my work as a non-dual therapist, I point readers, firstly, toward their immediate and familiar sense of Aliveness or Beingness—that Unmistakable resonance and knowledge of “I am” you know so intimately. Then I invite them to see that same, familiar Beingness/Aliveness in all that is, including the body-mind. In this seeing, Aliveness becomes a kind of Deep Knowing or non-dual Awareness, which is the end of separation. As Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (whose Nisarga Yoga teaching is a strong influence on my writing and work) said: “Your sadhana”—meaning practice—“is to be. The doing happens. Just be watchful. Where is the difficulty in remembering that you are? You are all the time” (4). Following in the footsteps of his beloved guru, Sri Samartha Siddharameshwar Maharaj, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj urged his disciples to delve into the ever-present sense of “I” to reach its Source and once and for all find lasting happiness within.
Reconnecting With Aliveness As An Opening to Awareness
Believing myself to be fundamentally separate has been a catalyst of great confusion and pain in my life. My loneliness, isolation, and forlornness have taught me a lot about myself and life when I’ve been willing to sit and listen to them.
It was in my early twenties that my angst, and so my search, intensified and I discovered Buddhism and Hinduism, along with their extraordinarily enriching texts and practices. Was meditation what I was looking for? It certainly helped me to tune into something, some quality of equanimity, that was revealing itself in me and around me. But it soon became obvious that meditation was more of a signpost than a destination. It was the words of the thirteenth century Japanese Zen Buddhist monk Dogen Zenji that sparked an energetic shift of focus. The words were, “Enlightenment is intimacy with all things.” I was overlooking my essential nature.
By making friends with my yearning for wholeness and learning to inquire into the nature of myself and the world with greater focus and discernment, it became apparent that what I had been searching for was Self- intimacy. I now describe this profound intimacy as oneness or “radical aloneness”—which comes from reconnecting with our own Aliveness. Reconnecting in this way showed me that my true Self wasn’t restricted to a body or personality, nor was it limited to the confines of time and space, and it couldn’t be described or quantified. It was all things: the full breadth of life. I realized that I had always been alone, radically alone; not merely as an entity, but as life itself. The same applies to you. You too are the same life. I invite you to inquire with me into your present scope of self and to begin to gently push down the boundaries that contain and confine you.
Contemplate this: what you are (beyond the self- concepts) is boundless and all-inclusive. Marvel at the idea that you (beyond the confines of “me”) are transcendent of time and space. Within that “you” that we call the Self, you arise as many focal points of universal Consciousness that project duality. Radical connection, then, can be revealed through putting things into perspective, through learning to “see” clearly and expansively. It is revealed by first connecting with our own Aliveness—localized consciousness, or Being; our basic sense of existing— and then coming to recognize that Aliveness is not divided into separate subjective egos.
We can reconnect with and give attention to ourselves wherever we are and whoever we’re with. We’re not deficient in any way whatsoever, so there’s no need to seek beyond ourselves—equality is the supreme order of things. This Self-intimacy can be transformative. It’s this phenomenon which opened my eyes to there being another, more profound way of looking at loneliness, isolation, aloneness, and our deeper existence.
Radical Mindfulness – The Art of Seeing With Clarity
Existential anxiety is a normal response to liberty, and an unavoidable insight into not-knowing. The angst of living compels us to inquire, creating shifts of awareness which unveil the freedom to be exactly as we are. No longer avoidant or passive, we’re sane and lucid and recognize that everything takes its natural course. There’s no need to reject our humanness, nor to go on believing that we are limited to our human expression. We don’t mistake our impermanent expressions for our permanent Source. Embracing and living the life that we are, we’re awake to our infiniteness while deeply in love with our relative manifestations.
In my book I offer a set of mindfulness and non-dual inquiry qualities and skills for a more discerning focus. These provide a map for radical mindfulness comprising a group of qualities and skills related to discerning focus.
‘Radical mindfulness’ is the art of seeing—coming to know ourselves as the ultimate seer, the Self, the unimaginable fullness and emptiness of life that we are. Radical mindfulness is the way to Self-intimacy—locating and continually returning to our Aliveness and our shared radical aloneness, the loving oneness of life, which unveils the indescribable non-dual Source that we are. Discerning focus embraces and releases our existential loneliness, expands our mindfulness, and reconnects us to our Self.
Courageously shifting our focus of consciousness from knowledge to the state of not-knowing unfolds a space for fresh insight to present itself. Hence, the end of dualistic isolation requires us to get through the barriers that anxiety represents, to say yes and recognize our expansiveness. From here, the future is a presently appearing story unfolding in the space of now. Grounded in the immediacy of our Being, natural intimacy with life can awaken.
Adapted from ‘Living The Life That You Are – Finding Wholeness When You Feel Lost, Isolated and Afraid’ (July 2018, New Harbinger Publications) by Nic Higham
Nic Higham is a nonduality author and counselor in Leicester, UK. His website is www.thelifethatyouare.com