Embracing the true meaning of aloneness

by Teresa Steyn 

Here I am at my laptop at 4:45 a.m. on a Thursday morning with a sudden desire to reflect. I woke up a bit earlier and found myself tossing and turning back and forth, seeming unable to fall back to sleep. Somehow, when the idea popped into my head to write, I found peace. I have always enjoyed this time of morning darkness when all human activity is completely silent for a while. Besides the wind whispering to herself, and the occasional bird awakening, I could swear that I am alone in the world. Strangely, the feeling is not lonely.

I think we have all had to confront the experience of loneliness at some point in life, and perhaps more so this year during the COVID-19 lockdown, when social activity has been thus minimised. The term “loneliness” is often associated with being intrinsically sad or unpleasant, but I feel that the experience of aloneness does not have to be a bad thing.  This year has offered me a chance to see that aloneness can be a gift.

I would say that there is an art to being alone. And like any skill that one can master, there are probably some simple techniques we can use to create something profound and joyous from the practice of being alone. I certainly cannot say I have learnt them all – a journey to undertake perhaps? But for now, something that could be interesting to try is this: When you are alone, really be alone.

What do I mean by this? Well, test this little experiment out: the next time you find yourself alone in your room, a garden, or basically anywhere, for a few minutes put away your phone, your laptop and any other devices that give you access to other people. Ask yourself this, “Who am I with right now?”
The answer may seem obvious.
Just wait and observe.
If you hear a kind of voice in your head giving you an answer to this question, then it seems you are with a voice in your head… who is that voice?

This exercise is unusual I guess but I have found that it brings me to a place of fully being alone when I am alone. This is important to establish because if – in your mind – your friends, foes, and family, your social media following, or the stress of work is keeping you company, then when you start to ask yourself questions about who you are, you may get confused and find that you answer the questions according to who you believe yourself to be in their company rather than who you truly are by yourself. So, whatever it takes, and wherever it takes you, I think it is a worthy endeavour to find what it really means to be alone, even if this is just for a few moments.

The second part of the experiment is to read this quote by Jean-Paul Sartre: “If you are lonely when you’re alone, you are in bad company.” I am sure you have also heard it said that sometimes we feel lonelier when we are in a crowd full of people than when we are by ourselves. These words serve as a reminder that loneliness is more a state of mind than an absolute reality about the number of people we are with. If you find there is discontent in the company you keep when you are alone, it is worth considering what the source of this discontent is. Life inevitably comes with its challenges and we might find that our discontent arises from events that have happened in our life, frustrations about our current situation, or anxiety, fear, and depression about what lies ahead. But these thoughts and emotions are not who you are. Of course, realising this does not mean that our problems are not real or that they suddenly disappear, but rather there arises an opportunity to not be defined in terms of them. Finding out who you are beyond your cognitions and emotions may be the greatest mystery you will ever undertake to unravel.

When I put aside all the things that usually consume my mind, I see that I am not the source of discontent. What a relief! If I am not the source of discontent, then it means that the most fundamental thing I have access to…myself…conscious existence is intrinsically alright as is. A benign neutrality that has neither an agenda for pleasure nor pain.

With this realisation, we learn to enjoy the company we keep wherever we go. No other human being becomes responsible for our contentment. Is this not freedom? To want for nothing. It means then that no unnecessary conditions are being placed on your joy. Instead, you can find enjoyment independent of whether you are alone or with others.

This year has been so different to any year before. Of course, I have been through phases when I have missed human contact, struggled with decisions about the future, lacked motivation to keep working, and had my share of interpersonal (or maybe just personal 😉) melodramas. Nonetheless, I have also had time to embrace the true meaning of aloneness. And for that, I am grateful.  Aloneness does not mean avoiding other people, it just means not avoiding yourself. So, the next time you find yourself alone, why not just relax into it? Make yourself a cup of tea or coffee, maybe pick up a good book, and fully appreciate your own radiant company.

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