The Truth About Loneliness
In his book The Zen Monkey And The Lotus Flower, Tempa Yeshe tells the story of a lonely elephant who searches for others of his kind to find company.
After a long journey, the elephant stops by a lake to rest. A wise turtle in the water asks him why he is so sad, and the elephant relates the tale of his loneliness and his company search.
Then the turtle responds:
"You have searched far and long, but you have not searched in your heart. Loneliness is not the absence of company, but the absence of connection. Connect with the world around you, with the trees, the water, the wind and the stars. Connect with yourself, your breath, your thoughts, your feelings. You will find that you are not truly alone."
The line from that quote that struck me was the one that reads: "Loneliness is not the absence of company, but the absence of connection."
The clearest lesson I've had in recent memory regarding this concept of Loneliness was when I spent a week on a silent retreat at a monastery high above the coast of California.
I was isolated with no cell service or wi-fi, and my contact with others was merely a simple nod as we passed each other to and from worship services or meals, which we ate alone in our small cabins.
At first, I didn't know what to do with myself. It took me an entire day to find some level of acclimation to the silence and the solitude. Mostly, I slept that first day. But by Day Two, I found myself finding a connection with the world around me.
I sat on the porch of my cabin, taking in the beauty of the view of the Pacific Ocean and the clouds that hung over it. I watched birds and squirrels scurry to and fro around me. I hiked the trails on the monastery property.
One day, I went down to a nearby beach and stood in the frigid Pacific while the waves came and went over my feet. Seagulls and terns flew all around me; I watched the tiny fish in the shallows of the beach. I breathed the salt air in and out in big gulping breaths.
I didn't feel alone anymore.
There is a reason that St. Francis referred to Creation as the "Fifth Gospel." If we are willing to be instructed by it, Creation has much to teach us about the interconnectedness of all things and the Divine presence that flows all around us.
My stay at the monastery was a journey to self-reflection that began with an acknowledgment of the Divine all around me. I wrote furiously daily, journalling about my feelings and diving deeper into my inner struggles.
One of the many things I thought about at the time was how I was ever going to be able to connect with those feelings once I got back to my "regular life." I'm still working on that, to be honest.
The thing is, so many of us live in loneliness even though we are in the hustle and bustle of our lives. We can be surrounded by people but also feel completely unconnected.
This is why spending time pursuing connections rather than company is so important. We are hardwired by God to long for connection not only to Creation but also to one another.
The common misconception about comparing introverts and extroverts is that one group craves being around people while the other doesn't.
The truth is that both groups long for real, true connections. Extroverts are more comfortable seeking those connections in the company of others than introverts, but they both desire the same thing.
To that end, when we learn how to pay attention to the world and the people around us, we will begin to discover our connections with all of Creation and the presence of the Divine in everything and everyone.
So, if you are struggling with feelings of loneliness, try getting connected to the world around you in some small way today. Take a walk. Have a meaningful conversation with a friend, stand in the grass barefooted. Go to a park and sit silently, enjoying sights and sounds.
And breathe. Remember to breathe.
May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.