Six kinds of loneliness

I didn’t write this. I am posting because I think it’s important.

Six Kinds of Loneliness

“To be without a reference point is the ultimate loneliness. It is also called enlightenment.

In the middle way, there is no reference point. The mind with no reference point does not resolve itself, does not fixate or grasp. How could we possibly have no reference point? To have no reference point would be to change a deep-seated habitual response to the world: wanting to make it work out one way or the other. If I can’t go left or right, I will die! When we don’t go left or right, we feel like we are in a detox center. We’re alone, cold turkey with all the edginess that we’ve been trying to avoid by going left or right. That edginess can feel pretty heavy.

However, years and years of going to the left or right, going to yes or no, going to right or wrong has never really changed anything. Scrambling for security has never brought anything but momentary joy. It’s like changing the position of our legs in meditation. Our legs hurt from sitting cross-legged, so we move them. And then we feel, “Phew! What a relief!” But two and a half minutes later, we want to move them again. We keep moving around seeking pleasure, seeking comfort, and the satisfaction that we get is very short-lived.

The process of becoming unstuck requires tremendous bravery, because basically we are completely changing our way of perceiving reality, like changing our DNA. We are undoing a pattern that is not just our pattern. It’s the human pattern.

We hear a lot about the pain of samsara, and we also hear about liberation. But we don’t hear much about how painful it is to go from being completely stuck to becoming unstuck. The process of becoming unstuck requires tremendous bravery, because basically we are completely changing our way of perceiving reality, like changing our DNA. We are undoing a pattern that is not just our pattern. It’s the human pattern: we project onto the world a zillion possibilities of attaining resolution. We can have whiter teeth, a weed-free lawn, a strife-free life, a world without embarrassment. We can live happily every after. This pattern keeps us dissatisfied and causes us a lot of suffering.

Our Birthright: The Middle Way

As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity. To the degree that we’ve been avoiding uncertainty, we’re naturally going to have withdrawal symptoms—withdrawal from always thinking that there’s a problem and that someone, somewhere, needs to fix it.

The middle way encourages us to awaken the bravery that exists in everyone without exception, including you and me.

The middle way is wide open, but it’s tough going, because it goes against the grain of an ancient neurotic pattern that we all share. When we feel lonely, when we feel hopeless, what we want to do is move to the right or the left. We don’t want to sit and feel what we feel. We don’t want to go through the detox. Yet the middle way encourages us to do just that. It encourages us to awaken the bravery that exists in everyone without exception, including you and me.

Meditation provides a way for us to train in the middle way—in staying right on the spot. We are encouraged not to judge whatever arises in our mind. In fact, we are encouraged not to even grasp whatever arises in our mind. What we usually call good or bad we simply acknowledge as thinking, without all the usual drama that goes along with right and wrong. We are instructed to let the thoughts come and go as if touching a bubble with a feather. This straightforward discipline prepares us to stop struggling and discover a fresh, unbiased state of being.

The experience of certain feelings can seem particularly pregnant with desire for resolution: loneliness, boredom, anxiety. Unless we can relax with these feelings, it’s very hard to stay in the middle when we experience them. We want victory or defeat, praise or blame. For example, if somebody abandons us, we don’t want to be with that raw discomfort. Instead, we conjure up a familiar identity of ourselves as a hapless victim. Or maybe we avoid the rawness by acting out and righteously telling the person how messed up he or she is. We automatically want to cover over the pain in one way or another, identifying with victory or victimhood.

When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.

Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.

There are six ways of describing this kind of cool loneliness. They are: less desire, contentment, avoiding unnecessary activity, complete discipline, not wandering in the world of desire, and not seeking security from one’s discursive thoughts.

Less Desire

Less desire is the willingness to be lonely without resolution when everything in us yearns for something to cheer us up and change our mood. Practicing this kind of loneliness is a way of sowing seeds so that fundamental restlessness decreases. In meditation, for example, every time we label “thinking” instead of getting endlessly run around by our thoughts, we are training in just being here without dissociation. We can’t do that now to the degree that we weren’t willing to do it yesterday or the day before or last week or last year. After we practice less desire wholeheartedly and consistently, something shifts. We feel less desire in the sense of being less solidly seduced by our Very Important Story Lines. So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn’t sit for even one, that’s the journey of the warrior. That’s the path of bravery. The less we spin off and go crazy, the more we taste the satisfaction of cool loneliness. As the Zen master Katagiri Roshi often said, “One can be lonely and not be tossed away by it.”


The second kind of loneliness is contentment. When we have nothing, we have nothing to lose. We don’t have anything to lose but being programmed in our guts to feel we have a lot to lose. Our feeling that we have a lot to lose is rooted in fear—of loneliness, of change, of anything that can’t be resolved, of nonexistence. The hope that we can avoid this feeling and the fear that we can’t become our reference point.

When we draw a line down the center of a page, we know who we are if we’re on the right side and who we are if we’re on the left side. But we don’t know who we are when we don’t put ourselves on either side. Then we just don’t know what to do. We just don’t know. We have no reference point, no hand to hold. At that point we can either freak out or settle in. Contentment is a synonym for loneliness, cool loneliness, settling down with cool loneliness. We give up believing that being able to escape our loneliness is going to bring any lasting happiness or joy or sense of well-being or courage or strength. Usually we have to give up this belief about a billion times, again and again making friends with our jumpiness and dread, doing the same old thing a billion times with awareness. Then without our even noticing, something begins to shift. We can just be lonely with no alternatives, content to be right here with the mood and texture of what’s happening.

Avoiding Unnecessary Activities

The third kind of loneliness is avoiding unnecessary activities. When we’re lonely in a “hot” way, we look for something to save us; we look for a way out. We get this queasy feeling that we call loneliness, and our minds just go wild trying to come up with companions to save us from despair. That’s called unnecessary activity. It’s a way of keeping ourselves busy so we don’t have to feel any pain. It could take the form of obsessively daydreaming of true romance, or turning a tidbit of gossip into the six o’clock news, or even going off by ourselves into the wilderness.

The point is that in all these activities, we are seeking companionship in our usual, habitual way, using our same old repetitive ways of distancing ourselves from the demon loneliness. Could we just settle down and have some compassion and respect for ourselves? Could we stop trying to escape from being alone with ourselves? What about practicing not jumping and grabbing when we begin to panic? Relaxing with loneliness is a worthy occupation. As the Japanese poet Ryokan says, “If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.”

Complete Discipline

Complete discipline is another component of cool loneliness. Complete discipline means that at every opportunity, we’re willing to come back, just gently come back to the present moment. This is loneliness as complete discipline. We’re willing to sit still, just be there, alone. We don’t particularly have to cultivate this kind of loneliness; we could just sit still long enough to realize it’s how things really are. We are fundamentally alone, and there is nothing anywhere to hold on to. Moreover, this is not a problem. In fact, it allows us to finally discover a completely unfabricated state of being. Our habitual assumptions—all our ideas about how things are—keep us from seeing anything in a fresh, open way. We say, “Oh yes, I know.” But we don’t know. We don’t ultimately know anything. There’s no certainty about anything. This basic truth hurts, and we want to run away from it. But coming back and relaxing with something as familiar as loneliness is good discipline for realizing the profundity of the unresolved moments of our lives. We are cheating ourselves when we run away from the ambiguity of loneliness.

Not Wandering in the World of Desire

Not wandering in the world of desire is another way of describing cool loneliness. Wandering inthe world of desire involves looking for alternatives, seeking something to comfort us—food, drink, people. The word desire encompasses that addiction quality, the way we grab for something because we want to find a way to make things okay. That quality comes from never having grown up. We still want to go home and be able to open the refrigerator and find it full of our favorite goodies; when the going gets tough, we want to yell “Mom!” But what we’re doing as we progress along the path is leaving home and becoming homeless. Not wandering in the world of desire is about relating directly with how things are. Loneliness is not a problem. Loneliness is nothing to be solved. The same is true for any other experience we might have.

Not Seeking Security from One’s Discursive Thoughts

Another aspect of cool loneliness is not seeking security from one’s discursive thoughts. The rug’s been pulled; the jig is up; there is no way to get out of this one! We don’t even seek the companionship of our own constant conversation with ourselves about how it is and how it isn’t, whether it is or whether it isn’t, whether it should or whether it shouldn’t, whether it can or whether it can’t. With cool loneliness we do not expect security from our own internal chatter. That’s why we are instructed in meditation to label it “thinking.” It has no objective reality. It is transparent and ungraspable. We’re encouraged to just touch that chatter and let it go, not make much ado about nothing.

Cool loneliness allows us to look honestly and without aggression at our own minds. We can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want to be or ought to be. We give it up and just look directly with compassion and humor at who we are. Then loneliness is no threat and heartache, no punishment.

We can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want to be or ought to be.

Cool loneliness doesn’t provide any resolution or give us ground under our feet. It challenges us to step into a world of no reference point without polarizing or solidifying. This is called the middle way, or the sacred path of the warrior. When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart? The next time you get a chance, experiment with this.”

Hope this helps someone.

Sharada Devi

8 thoughts on “Six kinds of loneliness”

  1. You are a space. I am a space. We are all a space. Around that space of you being, us being, is also you thinking you are, of us thinking we are. Or are not. It’s a free flow of thought in a space of no-mind. No thinker determining anything. No thinker not determining stuff. No thinker being defined. No thinking. Yet thinking is happening. If it wants to determine things, let it do that. If it doesn’t want to determine things, let it do that. If it wants to be, it is. It can disappear too. Just as easily. If thinking is just a river of water going along an ongoing awareness, it’s pure water. It can all just be that big space. Nothing pressing. And nothing is sacrificed for the moment except the to-do list. That’s still here, and it’s keeping you company. It says, “you are never alone without me.”

    But for now, Let it be.

    Just being a space. And loving it sometimes. Sometimes hating it. Very much real, that hate. Because it’s so funny and real and not funny and it’s just good old hate that needs recognition so it can settle down, quiet down, be loved. Hate always needs love and when it “gets” it, it can give love, and then not be hate when that happens.

    Watching the hate and the love go by on the stream that flows continuously, one flows.


  2. No reference point: being, with no starting and therefore no ending.

    What goes around comes around.
    What never started, while what started going around was going around, now ending at some point, now beginning again, never was born; and therefore simply does not die, but instead is always. Don’t cling to it–you are then part of what starts going around then. Don’t reject it: because that’s the same thing in reverse. Clinging and rejecting you can and will do however. This is life. You are a child of determination and mystery, while still being a child suffering the indignity of not even realising how you are creating your indignities for you and everybody else. The point is, this emptiness/fullness is eternal. Start getting hip to that. You don’t HAVE to be hip, just be anything you want, but know these roles you take on are costumes at the costume party. And it’s a BIG costume party. Everybody is here.

    Be with it as it does its thing. It. Life. Phenomena. Physical reality as well as thoughts feelings and egos. They/we all do their/our thing. Patterns you swore off continue to do their thing as if to mock you in your pretense in saying you already conquered them. Then you — once again — pound your fist on the Great Bartender’s Bar of Life.

    Futility is only futility. You can worship it, just like you worship usefulness, or you can bear witness to it and see it as more mere phenomena.
    When you are with it, you are not there in any meaningful way besides being the witness to it. You are separate from it, when you are bearing witness to it, yet that “witness” can think it’s then got this stuff figured out. Who IS that, that then thinks it knows? That’s the mind then playing a role as the witnessed playing the witness. And this sounds like mental gymnastics, because it is. The witness of your joy, sorrows, cruelty, masochism, self esteem, great and non existent, is simply ALWAYS the witnessed. The thought feeling sensation — whatever — is made, and you may go onto being separate from it, but really you are not. But the illusory separation at least gives you some distance on the eternal road of time.

    Not two. One. One that never sees that its own twoness is always there. A big movie projector seeing itself projected onto the world.

    How fascinating in the ongoing investigation to see that you are the seer and the seen both. Both/And. What you experience is what you are putting out right now, before, and after, in any given point in time. The projector projects *something,* positive, negative, or even neutral. Because the projector is that.

    And therefore: you wanna either blame or praise. Or sulk, or gloat or whatever. Why not just stay here, there, wherever it is. Life isn’t coming or going except where it’s coming and going. Go ever deeper into that witnessed. You are that whatever-it-is in that big empty sky. Doing what it is you do.

    Step back. Self inquire. You won’t blow away like the desert sand. The alternative is also ok: stay stuck on the wheel. ☺ Be very aware, you separate witness!

  3. Thank you for posting this. I read and re-read this. Kind of a flipping of a light switch on moment. I think it will help me, by showing that when I let my inner self say “I want to go home”, or “Mama” , is to find comfort, instead of just letting the uncomfortable issue go, without any kind of reaction to it. I will work on this. Thank you.

  4. Wonderful.
    This is what the PRACTICE is all about. RE membering every day/moment.
    Since this Covid thing…I have just one dog walk a day.
    No work for at least three more months. Felt itchy about it for awhile…(what’s my reference point?) then just stopped and fell into this kind of abyss of okay-ness with it all.
    My father died two months ago…and my brother is executor… so he sent me paperwork and some stuff was missing. I started worrying how we are gonna divide dad’s stocks and accounts…is my brother to be trusted to be fair to divide equally? I was completely aware of what I was doing…this fear (or concern) of not being in control. Or of NOT getting my “fair share.” I had to start journaling about it (writing in my journal is like having my own private in home therapist).. .and then after writing profusely, I caught myself. I saw what I was doing. I stopped mid sentence. I dropped the pen, closed the journal and just sat … in this state of “Fuck…what am I doing? None of this matters….” That was about a week ago…and it feels really great to catch/see myself “in action.” Because until I can actually be an awake witness to what I am thinking/doing, I can’t have compassion for that part of myself. I can now say “oh…here I am again…” and stop. Maybe at some point stop all together. But, even just saying that is making THAT a goal. SO…I will just stop right here. Right now…and relish in LONELINESS.
    I f’ng love this article.
    Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

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