As the year has turned in the throes of a global pandemic, the experience of loneliness is one that haunts many of us. I hear it and feel it from clients and loved ones alike. Loneliness is a universal part of this human journey, something we all experience at one point, or many points, on our paths. Like the rest of us who live and breathe, I am no stranger to loneliness; indeed, it has been a prevalent facet of my experience on Earth.
Here I offer some reflections on loneliness: the different flavors of loneliness; the common factors between these different flavors; and on how to navigate the waters of loneliness to come home to ourselves.
Flavors of Loneliness
As humans, we all have a need for a variety of contact and connection. Different kinds of loneliness can come from different hungers and longings for these different types of connection. Below are some of the common threads I have witnessed, though it is worth remembering that loneliness lives inside of our subjective realities, which means there are infinite ways to experience and feel lonely.
Loneliness through lack of physical contact with others
I think of this type of loneliness as “classic loneliness”; it tends to be what comes to mind when people think about loneliness. This is a loneliness that comes from experiencing a sheer lack of presence of other people. Images of this type of loneliness include sitting alone in a house amidst a pandemic, seldom leaving, or walking through a barren desert. The craving for human contact under such circumstances can be intense, and has been beautifully described in classics like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild or Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Loneliness through lack of contact with loved ones.
This is the type of loneliness felt when walking through the streets of an unfamiliar city, or in the airport traveling by ourselves, or living in a house full of fresh acquaintances or strangers. Technically, there are other people around us in these situations, but we are lacking an emotional attachment to them, and they are lacking an emotional attachment to us. There is a sense of not caring that can envelop us in these times, a sense of unresponsiveness from the world—and this can bring on a feeling that we, in turn, do not matter, or are not worthy of love or care.
Loneliness through lack of attuned contact
I have felt this lack-of-intimacy-loneliness often as a teenager listening to fellow teammates talk and joke on bus rides home from my cross-country meets, at family gatherings with certain relatives, or in romantic partnerships that were not deeply aligned or resonant with my soul. In all of these situations, I loved the people I was with, and I knew they loved me, too. Yet I still felt lonely—lonely because I did not feel understood in my deepest, truest experience. (And I am sure they did not feel understood in theirs.)
This type of loneliness tends to not be talked about as much, so sometimes when we experience it, we can second-guess ourselves or feel confused or disoriented. I have heard so many people say, “But I know I’m loved. Do I even have the right to be lonely?”
We humans have relational brains that need to “feel felt” and be deeply known in order to function optimally. It doesn’t have to be with everyone, but if we are not able to vulnerable, honest, and understood in relationship with our closest ones, we will feel the ache of it. Sometimes it will be quiet and dull. Sometimes it will be loud and obnoxious. But eventually, this loneliness will make itself known.
To be sure, this type of loneliness ebbs and flows even in the best and most beautifully soul-aligned of relationships. We don’t always have the opportunity to sink into a vulnerable and intimate space with our loved ones, whether because of time constraints—we are overwhelmed with the busy times of caring for young children, navigating a complex work-life balance—or because of a conflict or point of tension that has us feeling not entirely safe to show up vulnerably in the way we once did or usually do.
Loneliness through lack of contact with the Earth
This type of loneliness can be even harder to identify, an often unnamed and nagging ache that may not be conscious. Sometimes, we live today in a society that is very distant from nature compared to historical human societies. Our bodies and our brains are wired to connect with nature and to have a sense of ecological home. Plants, trees, flowers, animals, rocks, soil types, landscape types, even weather patterns all can communicate a sense of “home” to us. When we do not connect with nature for a while, we feel lonely for our original home under the wide, starry sky, swimming in the cool lakes, lying against soft, firm Earth.
I have spent the majority of my life in either the Colorado Rockies or the Czech Republic, and I can testify that the clouds and the sky and the weather patterns and the humidity all combine distinctly in these places. Our bodies notice these patterns and bond with them, developing a very real sense of place. A sense of home. Ask anyone who has ever had to leave their homeland for any reason: homesickness for a place is a very real and very painful flavor of loneliness.
Loneliness through lack of self-contact
This final kind of loneliness is really about contacting and coming home to ourselves. This self-contact requires that we carve out the time and space to slow down and check in with ourselves, “How am I, really? How am I doing on my deeper life journey here? How am I doing physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually?” We need time, space, and practice to attune to ourselves in this way, and many of us have grown up without any practices like this being modeled for us. Again, this is a kind of loneliness that is seldom thought about when we think about loneliness. However, over sustained periods of time, a lack of self-nourishing contact with our deeper essence inevitably leads to us feeling drained, depressed,
Orienting Home in the Heart of Loneliness
In her excellent book Come As You Are on neuroscience, sexuality, and relationships, Dr. Emily Nagoski describes a fundamental dichotomy found within the human brain between the experience of “I am lost” and the experience of “I am home.” Ultimately, the antidote to loneliness is feeling “at home”, both inside of ourselves, and also in our relationships, with other humans as well as on the Earth.
When we feel lost, our bodies naturally want to find our way home again. Yet we can feel so desperate, so confused, and so foggy in our lostness that we sometimes do not know where to begin, how to find our way, particularly in a culture that has forgotten how. Below are some ways we can begin to orient when we feel lost, questions to ask ourselves to begin to map our inner landscape and develop a sense of which way to go.
Coming Home to Our Bodies
We can debate many existential realities, but one absolute certainty is that our bodies are quite literally our first and only homes in this life. Coming home to our bodies means taking the time to notice:
How is my body feeling right now?
What is the quality of my breath?
How does it feel to be in this chair or in this position?
How is to be here, in my body?
Is there anything I can do that would help me come home to my body?
That might look like a good night’s rest, or taking a midday nap, or lying on the floor and simply closing your eyes. Back in college, a roommate of mine used to get home after a long day at school, stagger up the stairs, and then flop face-down upon our living room floor with his backpack still on. He would lie there for many minutes, sometimes an hour. I laughed at him heartily and often, but then I tried it once and had to admit that our living room carpet had a certain mid-day comfort.
It could mean movement—vigorous exercise works better for some, whereas gentle stretching or flowing movement is more supportive for others. It could mean feeding your body, or drinking (we do sometimes forget.) It could also mean taking care of the space around you: doing the dishes, doing the laundry, tidying up the messy drawers in your bedroom, covering your body with your favorite warm blanket.
A caveat: if you have are a survivor of trauma, whether physical or psychological, it can be highly distressing to try and listen to your body. If it feels overwhelming to try and connect to your body in this way, you may need the container of a relationship with a trauma-informed therapist, coach, yoga teacher, body worker, or other guide to help you feel safe and grounded in connection with your body.
Coming Home to Our Souls
To me, "soul" encompasses body and emotions and mind, but it also goes deeper. When we connect with our souls, we are asking ourselves the questions:
What is my deeper purpose?
What is my deeper journey?
Who am I in my essence? What are my values?
Who do I want to be in this life, regardless of the circumstances beyond my control?
What do I want to stand for in my life?
What is the path I would choose from a sovereign place?
When we feel lost, it is well worth asking ourselves:
Where have I strayed from my truest path?
Where have I strayed from my own heart?
Where have I strayed from my own courage?
Where have I strayed from my own sense of what is right, and how I would like to live my life?
In this moment, where am I in relationship to my deeper sense of purpose?
Tracking where we are in relationship to this deeper soul is absolutely essential to cultivate a sense of belonging and home inside of our own skin and inside of our own lives. Without a connection to our deeper purpose, we are rudderless, lost, afloat, drifting. When we can root deeply within our souls, within the deeper story that wants to be told through our lives, we are anchored to ourselves in a different way. We gain tremendous resilience to weather the storms and vicissitudes that life and external circumstances inevitably bring us. We find a capacity within to be home with ourselves, even when we may not have contact with anyone else.
Coming Home to Our Earth
If you feel lonely, but you aren’t sure why, ask yourself, Where in nature do you feel most at home? When is the last time you connected with that place, with the trees and mosses and rock shapes that live there? When is the last time you watched the clouds dance across the sky in a way that brings comfort to your heart?
Ask your body what kind of nature you deeply long for.
Perhaps your body craves immersion in water. Do you live near the ocean and can dive in for an afternoon swim (even if it feels prohibitively cold)? Is there a stream near your home where you could surreptitiously take a dip? Perhaps a bath or long shower can help you connect with water.
Perhaps your body craves expansive views. Can you climb a mountain, a hill, or a tall building—anything that will move you towards that bird’s eye perspective?
Perhaps you crave a more gentle landscape: green hills, flat meadows or rolling slopes with friendly clusters of trees. Ask your body, is there any meadow, or valley, or nook near your home where you can rest in this way?
Ask and pay attention to what your body and your soul tell you would be soothing. If it feels out of reach, see if you can give yourself even 1% of what you crave. Even taking ten minutes to look at an image of the kind of nature you are craving might feel nourishing to your brain.
Coming Home to Our Clan
Who in your life makes you feel connected to the wild knowing within?
Who in your life makes you feel expansive and safe, all at the same time?
Who in your life makes you feel at home inside of your own skin?
Whose conversations inspire you, and make you feel sustainably alive when you walk away from them?
That’s your soul clan.
Consider what small, manageable steps you can take to invite more contact and proximity with these folks. Small, bite-sized steps are key here: hotwiring the relationship and reaching for a level of intimacy that is drastically out of your current context will probably backfire in the long run. And, if you’re feeling lonely, chances are that too big a reach might lead to feeling rejection. If it’s an acquaintance, maybe text them for a brief phone or coffee date. If it’s a closer friend, can you reach and try to cook dinner together or maybe plan an all-day outdoor excursion?
Loneliness can come with a real urgency, a sense that we must fix it now, a certain desperation. This makes sense—the human drive for connection is a powerful one, and it can feel hard to tolerate the loneliness. If this is your experience with loneliness, it can feel quite confusing, overwhelming, and hopeless. If at all possible, see if you can take in even two percent of the connection that comes toward you, perhaps through breathing into it slowly and mindfully. Ask yourself at your essence to see if you can merely sip in two percent more of the goodness and connection that you do find. This is very difficult to do in the midst of desperation, and it takes tremendous courage. However, the results of allowing in the nourishment you do receive are more often than not worth it.
No one was built to do human life alone. Taking on a complex and powerful experience such as loneliness is just not something we are designed to do without a woven web of connection and support. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed or engulfed by the process, consider reaching out for help from a trauma-informed mentor, coach, guide, therapist, or spiritual teacher.
As always, I am sending heartfelt care and strength your way as you navigate these complex waters. And I am holding the hope for you that your homecoming--whatever that looks like for you--is your birthright, that it is reaching for you as you are reaching for it, and that it might be closer than you currently think.