In tribal societies, the worst punishment was to be shunned or exiled, not only because of the physical hardships it imposed, but because the social connections of tribal life were basic to most people's identity. To be cut off or rejected can be deeply devastating. Yet it can also be a wake-up call, and a powerful spur to inner practice.
The Labyrinth of Solitude
Ericka Huggins was in her early 20s when she spent a year in jail awaiting trial for a crime of which she was ultimately exonerated. Like many others, she discovered yoga and meditation in her cell. More than that, she came to terms with the deep roots of loneliness, especially during a month she spent in solitary confinement.
"I did such intense self-inquiry," Ericka, a member of the Black Panther Party, wrote in a magazine article. From the other solitary cells, she could hear women banging on their doors, begging to be let out. Ericka sat in her cell and contemplated the sort of person she was, and came up with a list of qualities she wanted to see in herself. She thought about what truth really is.
She also began to recognize that nothing external would take away the pain of loneliness. "I had never thought of loneliness as an emotion, but it certainly welled up like one . . . As I contemplated the difference between being alone and loneliness, I would say to myself, 'Why are you lonely? Look what you have. You have the tree outside your window—a big, beautiful tree' . . . I would have silent conversations with that tree, because after I had been in that room for awhile I began to recognize the unity of human beings and nature."
But her greatest insight while in solitary was the realization that everyone is in a kind of prison—the prison of our own hearts and minds. "When I realized that, I knew I could begin to break down the prison walls—not the concrete ones, but my own—the gate around my heart, the obstacles in my mind," she wrote.
Ericka had come right up against loneliness as an existential condition. And like others who have been to the depths of loneliness and been willing to fully engage it, her aloneness became a vehicle for transformation.
Existential Loneliness: A Painful Separation
Even if you never confront existential loneliness as starkly as Ericka did, you can't avoid facing into it, especially if you're interested in inner freedom. If you've read the literature of different wisdom traditions, you probably have an idea where existential loneliness comes from. It is the direct result of the ego's feeling of being separate from others and from its own source. Yoga tells us that this feeling of separation is a fundamental misperception, likes thinking that the bubbles in a Coke bottle are made of a different substance from the smooth brown liquid beneath them.
Though teachings and practice can reveal that this feeling of separation is an illusion, the ego has a hard time believing it. Even when you "know" that this sense of separateness is the true cause of most of your pain, the habit remains, and something in you clings to it, and allows its tendrils to unfurl in every corner of your life.
The feeling of separation and the vulnerability it inspires is the absolute heart of our experience of loneliness. It's always there, ready to be triggered, which is why being alone on holidays can feel so charged, and why having a fight with someone you love sometimes brings up fear and grief far out of proportion to the actual situation. Even more basic are the moments when you really get how incredibly vast the universe is, how seemingly accidental is your existence, and how inevitable it is that you'll one day die. At such moments, the ego faces directly into the truth of its non-existence, confronting the vastness and apparent nothingness that underlies its illusion of being someone. And that, as poets, philosophers, and mystics have noted for eons, is really scary.
The Antidote to Loneliness
Yoga, however, can show that this apparent emptiness is not empty at all. One of yoga's deepest goals is to train us see that what looks like scary "nothingness" is actually creative, nourishing Awareness or Presence or Beingness, the substanceless substance that is threaded through everything and connects us all. The final antidote to existential loneliness is to get to know the pure awareness that lies behind your thoughts and feelings, and to realize how full of potential it is. Once you're in touch with awareness—sometimes called the Self, or Buddha Nature—it's impossible to feel lonely, at least for long, because you are connected to everything.
But it's hard to get to that experience—or cure your loneliness—unless you're willing to meditate, which means giving yourself opportunities for aloneness. Every time you sit for meditation, or take time to be alone in nature, you open yourself to the possibility of seeing past the illusion of ego, and into that underlying connection. Once you've tasted it, it's there to return to—and to remind yourself of—when you start to feel alienated or cut off.