The problem of loneliness is real and pervasive. Estimated 50 million people in US, or roughly 20% of the population, experience loneliness. About 12% say that they have no one with whom they can spend free time or discuss important matters. The situation is no different in other developed countries of the West.
The experience of acute loneliness is linked with depression, alcoholism, insomnia, antisocial and self-destructive behavior (let us remember some of the school-shootings by students in the last few years), increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular diseases, high BP, high cholesterol, and obesity. That’s quite a list!
Seen as a social problem, loneliness is often traced to the modern phenomenon of smaller households with no stay-at-home elders, the rise of individualism at the cost of community-building, and the compulsive dependence on the internet.
Among the things that can be done socially to overcome loneliness are: holding community events such as block parties and birthday celebrations, and being a part of groups—social, political, religious—with shared interests and ideals.
But loneliness is not merely a social problem. It is also an individual problem—primarily a problem affecting the individual’s psyche. Seen through the lens of psychology, loneliness results from at least two kinds of alienation: (1) the alienation (and the consequent isolation) of the individual from the world and (2) the alienation of the unconscious part of the mind from the conscious.
To counter this we need a healthy mind in a healthy body, a person with a mature understanding of oneself, of one’s relationships, and of one’s work. Therapy is often helpful and, in extreme cases, a judicious use of antidepressants. In most cases, dieting, exercises and keeping a pet (who wouldn’t like to have a dog, the most uncritical and adoring fan anyone can ever have in life!) is found to be helpful. For the religious minded, practice of devotional prayer and reflection can minimize the pain of loneliness.
Treating loneliness as a social or a psychological phenomenon and finding ways to overcome it is good, but not good enough. None of those ways seem to solve the problem fully and irrevocably. In order to do that, we need to trace it to its ultimate cause. The root cause of loneliness, in theistic language, is our separation from God (remembering the myth of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden). In philosophical terms, it is the apparent separation of the individual self (jīvātmā) from the supreme self (paramātmā).
The primal fracturing of the one, infinite, undivided Being—even if it is only apparent—seemingly leads to a series of separations: (1) of the individual self from the supreme self, (2) of the mind from the individual self, (3) of the conscious mind from the unconscious, (4) of the mind from the body, and (5) of the person from the world. This is at the root of the experience of loneliness—of experiencing isolation in various forms and to various degree from things and people around us.
Odd as this may sound, to overcome loneliness we need to, first and foremost, recognize our aloneness. To be alone is different from being lonely. Even when we see and cherish the support and company of people around us, we can also be aware that at a deeper level, every one of us is alone. I come into the world alone and I leave this world alone. Only this recognition can make it possible for me to practice intense prayer, worship and meditation, when no one other than me and my spiritual ideal are present.
With the clarity of spiritual perception that arises from spiritual discipline, I can eliminate the root cause of loneliness and all the pain and suffering that is associated with it. When I am free—really free—I cannot be lonely. When I am free, my “I” is not the “I” as I understand it at present. When I am free, I am no longer “I”. Freedom is no longer “freedom” when there is no bondage to distinguish it from.
What remains? Some have called it Emptiness. Others say it is Fullness (pūrṇa). Whatever it is that remains, it is the only thing that exists and has ever existed. There is no need to name it, for we cannot name the unnameable. Hence, the silence.
Discussed in greater detail at the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society on May 26, 2019, the full talk is a part of an album titled: “How to Overcome Obstacles”. It can be downloaded at this link.