Personal Essay by Jeanne Heileman
The Art of Loneliness
I am lonely. I am lonely a lot.
This might be surprising to read if you knew me, it’s something I rarely share with the general public, even with my friends. As a yoga teacher and educator, when I’m working I sometimes interface with over 100 people a day. My working days are full of passion and curiosity as I share a joy for all things yoga and have the honor of seeing how it truly helps people. When I’m not teaching I am studying and preparing for the next project. My own daily yoga/meditation practice takes a minimum of two hours and sometimes even longer. I’m also managing chronic discomfort that comes from scoliosis, which often prevents me from easily joining social activities.
This means that a lot of my time is spent alone. After intense energy giving to a large group of people, the silence initially is medicine to refuel my energy. And then after an extended period of time the continued silence becomes a sword, cutting through my heart and scraping a hole that feels as if I will crumble to the floor. Due to my travel schedule, my friends are more familiar with me being gone than being home. It often takes a few weeks for them to remember to include me in social activities upon my return. So my phone doesn’t ring that much, sometimes my email box is only full of business correspondence and students needing something from me.
You might want to fix me and tell me to get over myself, to stop living alone and to get out to meet more, new people. I’ve done all of the things one is supposed to do when alone, often feeling more alone while trying than if I stayed at home surrendering to the haunting shadow. In fact, sometimes, the busier I got, the heavier its silence lurked.
I’ve gotten busy and joined things like a book club, a theatre company, a swim club, and began volunteering; only to have my teaching schedule interfere, resulting in me having to drop out of each. I’ve taken on more teaching work when things got silent. It would often backfire leaving me sick or exhausted, negatively affecting the quality of my teaching. I have taken teaching jobs on a holiday because teaching on that special day was better than doing nothing at all. I busied myself in my home with projects, drowned my sorrows and anxiety in too much wine and food, stayed up all night watching TV - anything to avoid the internal monologue mocking me for my failures, leaving me feeling unwanted.
I’ve reached out to friends and worked to establish new friends. Yet I found myself feeling more alone with a friend who talked about him/herself most of the night, or simply wasn’t able to move past the simpler topics of conversations. I craved depth and truth. I wanted sirloin-steak-conversation and connection while my companions were happy with the easy simplicity of white-bread-chatting. Going out to do something simply so that I wasn’t alone left me feeling more alone while out, for it all felt so fake. I found myself wondering, what is the point if there is no real connection?
When I do try to date, relationships haven’t worked out and I’m exhausted from analyzing each to learn my lessons on how to be a better person. I’ve joined dating sites and spent so many hours arranging my schedule to meet someone, trying to have an open mind, only to learn that the person I’ve met lied about their relationship status, their height, their job, their everything. One person’s meanness began by arriving 45 minutes late to our date, and grew as I learned that he invited a friend to show up unannounced to join us, and erupted as he spent most of the time talking to the friend instead of me. As I stood there, looking around trying to figure things out, he pulled me aside and suggested that I date his friend and then proceeded to talk to someone else at the bar, leaving me alone. I started the night positive, bringing my charm and hope, only to watch the night end feeling an angry sadness, wondering what the heck just happened.
I have dove into my asana practice, playing for hours on my mat with new sequences, working on my weaker poses. I have practiced lots of pranayama and meditation, trying to be a perfect yogi. But yogis are people, too. While the ancient scriptures encourage lots of isolation so that the practice can become deeper, I started to resent my practice for it felt like a shield that kept me from human relations outside of yoga. And then I felt like a failed yogi for not feeling fulfilled from my practice, especially my mediation. I started to see my practice as a cause to loneliness instead of a refuge.
I have gone more than 48 hours in my home, working, creating and practicing, not talking to a soul, while I live in one of the biggest cities in the United States. The loneliness that I have experienced from such silence can feel like clawing fingernails scraping inside my skin. The loneliness would not go away. It just continued to hurt.
A friend of mine and I laughingly joked that we should create a loneliness workshop but that no one would come, because no one would want anyone else to know that they, too, are lonely. There’s the irony. Our world demands success and is fully afraid of failure. Loneliness is seen as failure. It is perceived as malfunction in the ability to maintain a relationship, the inability in becoming interesting enough to be invited to fun things. It represents failure at being a whole, full human.
After years and years of struggle with this loneliness, filling it up with anything I could find, I began to surrender and give up. I started to accept it. What if I was the loneliest, most pathetic person in the world? What then? I began sitting in the silence of my life, accepting weekend and week nights alone. I surrendered to whole days alone, with only work to attend. I stopped freaking out about a holiday and started to welcome the silence. I stopped drowning my sorrows in wine and ice cream and started to sit and feel the heaviness and threat of this silence as it oozed through my windows and doors, into my body, mind and heart. Inner voices haunted and taunted me with mockery that I was a loser whom no one wanted and deserved this punishment of isolation. While fear and threats arose, I made a new choice to remain sitting still and allowed the ghosts to start their haunting. No more activities to “protect me.” I sat and accepted the heavy silence and cold vacancy of loneliness.
What if I was a loser? Ouch.
What if no one wanted to really study with me and take yoga from me? Ouch and shiver from the shame and humiliation.
What if no one wanted me and cared about me? Ouch and cue the tears.
What if there was no one to really be with me and accept me? Ouch and increase tears here.
What if I grow old alone and die alone and no one even knows or really cares that much because they are too busy living their interesting, fabulous lives? Ouch and just let the floodgates go on this one.
At first the encroachment of this awful surrender is terrible. It crumbled me to my knees as I sobbed tears feeling as if I was going to fall apart and become a puddle of flesh and bones. That phase went on for a bit. The tears, strangely, started to bring the feeling of an inner bath; I started to feel cleansed. With visits to the bathroom for more tissue I would see my swollen face and lumpy body and believe that this was how it was going to be for the rest of my life. Yet after the tidal wave of negative emotion that hit like a tsunami, I found myself energized and a bit more powerful. I was moving through one of the most difficult battles we can ever have in our lifetime. I was surviving myself. Past loss of a job, past loss of relationships and health, lurks the shadow of our evil side within us. That evil, awful piece of me was raging its battle upon my mind and heart and finally, I was sitting still and facing it. After layers of believing it and its noise, I started to get a hang of the tricks and started to simply watch it, no longer allowing myself to fall for all of the rouses. With each sit of acceptance as I watched this inner evil piece of me try to harm me even further, I felt more and more powerful.
I survived my self.
If I can survive this, I can handle anything. I would be OK, even if the worst of all possibilities did actually come true. Wow.
In my process of accepting this scary, ugly Truth, I started looking around me and saw that a LOT of people also struggle with similar feelings. Apparently I’m not original, although the drama queen inside me wants to feel as if my fears and dramas are special. But I started to realize that there are a lot of single people living alone, who end up spending a significant amount of time alone. I started to realize that a lot of people feel loneliness in stale marriages. There are people who have great jobs and seem to have it all on the outside who are walking alone to their car and driving home to a silence inside that can be crumbling. From my experience of moving past my self, I started to see others different, more clearly. I began to feel a connection to all of these types of people and in doing so, it moved me away from my pain toward my consideration for others. I was no longer alone in this vast feeling of emptiness. Others had it too. In a way, we were all together, while seeming separated. In a strange way, that awareness decreased my loneliness. If we gather together in loneliness we are no longer alone.
I also began to see that the courage and acceptance that I was developing from my willingness to embrace my loneliness was lacking in many. I saw so many people who were busy spinning a hectic schedule, a list of accomplishments, and sense of entitlement that becomes a brick wall to connection. I felt like an outsider knocking on the gate and no one would let me in. They were simply too afraid of themselves to permit me inside their stonewall of protection.
They were afraid of their own selves.
Wow. While these busy souls were trying to tell me how great they were, they didn’t even know themselves. This often lead me to a swell of compassion and a desire to hug anyone who was afraid to feel the loneliness that can lurch behind the outer picture. I felt their fear of the biggest monster of all, their vulnerability, for I had experienced it with mine. I wanted to hold their hand and sit still with them in acceptance, but they were too busy spinning away from being present.
Personally I want to play with people who can make friends with their loneliness and any other shadows that dwell within them. If they have seen all parts of themselves, then they are more likely to sit still, be present, and not run away. This allows me to trust them. I feel a more authentic connection with someone who can share their losses, failures and hidden fears alongside their successes and opportunities. Someone who has seen his/her whole self fully is more willing to see the full of another person with the same amount of courage and acceptance, and that is a treasured relationship.
The secret is out. We are all haunted by loneliness and crave to be seen attractively. Not one of us is original. Instead of resisting that loneliness, what I learned is to slow down and feel it. It is the greatest gift that Nature provides, for through it, we find Truth. We will find Beauty. With this insight we can see that all the other issues that concern us cannot hurt us.
At this writing, I am still single, grieving the loss of a beloved pet and yet another attempt at relationship. The hollow of silence in my home feels overpowering at times. Yet even with the pain, I am careful in how I expend my energy to meet more and new people and fill my schedule. I still spend many hours at home or on the road alone, and anticipate that to increase. And I now receive a sweet spot in my heart instead of a pang. When that pang of loneliness arises, especially when thinking that all the cool people are out busy doing something wonderful, I pause and go into my heart. Once there, it reminds me that there are so many others who are feeling the similar left-out feelings, and thus, I am no longer alone. From my heart, I become all One with my whole Self. From my heart I can then connect to all others. No longer lonely, but full.
This is an Art and it’s sacred.
Photography by Albarran Cabrera