Lonliness – a talk by Madelon Bolling (April, 2023)

Posted by on Apr 20, 2023 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Lonliness – a talk by Madelon Bolling (April, 2023)

This week we’ve been exploring relationship: various ways of relating with one another, with our practice, with ourselves, with the world in general and in all its amazing particulars. Seeing that we are interrelated in so many respects, I wondered at the plague of loneliness that sweeps through traumatized people whether from a pandemic or from dangers of other sorts – shooters on the loose for instance, railroad accidents, war, or uncontrollable weather events. How are we to deal with these realities and their effect on us?

In the last forty of his 120 years, starting in 857 CE, Chao-Chou (Joshu) lived by begging and teaching a small number of monks at a dilapidated temple in northern China. Poverty, cold winters, feudal warfare and fallout from the great purge of Buddhism that decimated Buddhist establishments from 841-845 CE, set the scene for those last forty years.

In his poem, Song of the Twelve Hours of the Day, Chao-Chou wrote:

Sun level with the ground. The second hour of the day.
A broken-down temple in a deserted village – there’s nothing worth saying about it.

In the morning gruel there’s not a grain of rice,
Idly facing the open window and its dirty cracks.
only the sparrows chattering, no one to be friends with,

Sitting alone, now and then hearing fallen leaves hurry by.
Who said that to leave home is to cut off likes and dislikes?
If I think about it, before I know it there are tears moistening my hanky
Green, J. The Recorded Sayings of Master Joshu, p.171

Loneliness is woven into our experience in such a fine-grained way that a single definition leaves out as much as it presents, and a complex definition still conceals as much as it reveals. Loneliness comes in many sizes, shapes, and flavors. It’s probably different for each person, since the circumstances that bring on loneliness can vary so enormously. Still, for the most part, we know what it is: the experience of sensing disconnectedness of various kinds and complexities. Disconnectedness and seemingly endless poignant longing for ease.

The experience of loneliness on the other hand, permeates the body. It’s not just a word or a concept. It is unpleasant even in small doses. An automatic and sometimes effective response to small doses of loneliness may be to phone a friend or arrange to join others in an activity. But people experience loneliness to an enormous degree when circumstances are more complicated, and they experience loss and rejection from many different directions all at once. Being different in beliefs, in size, color, shape, age, experience, ability to speak or gesture in ways recognized by those around us . . . all add to the subtle physical experience that appears when one “does not belong.” So there can be loneliness in the midst of a crowd. It is not just the absence of other people.

The built-in protectiveness of the body/mind system may begin to respond, fighting fiercely against the conclusion that ‘I am rejectable’. It may even try to belong by agreeing with critics and abasing itself as in the childhood song, “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me: think I’ll go eat some worms . . .” This is not to blame the sufferer: their system is doing its utmost to protect them, that’s all.

These are all crude generalizations about how loneliness may show up for us. Clearly it’s one of those survival devices that’s useful under ordinary circumstances, but tends to get out of control. Part of the trouble is that we think we should control it, fix it, get rid of it. Do something drastic like – eat some worms?! Or deny and push it away, saying, “Oh I am self-sufficient and capable, don’t worry about me, you know, I’m tough.” And underneath that is the persistent notion: “I shouldn’t let this get me, gotta get rid of it, gotta put on a cheery OK face.” So people naturally try to distract themselves, ignore or deny the loneliness, try not to show it around others for fear it may indicate some pervasive ‘bad’ characteristic we don’t want to admit even to ourselves. And it goes on and on.

Fighting against or running from the sensations that signal and accompany loneliness (based on the notion that “I shouldn’t feel this way”) is equivalent to pounding on a fire alarm, trying to demolish that infernal noise, rather than looking for the source of smoke. Personally I do some of both. If the fire alarm sounds too often and too constantly in the absence of emergency, it makes sense to try to get rid of it. But when we’re plagued by loneliness, trying to get rid of the feeling just makes it worse.

What if loneliness is not just a curse laid on mortals for the amusement of the gods? What if loneliness is evidence that we are already thoroughly interconnected? What if the most horrific sadness and hopelessness that we experience with loss of relationships and loss of that sense of unspoken approval is clear evidence that we – all of us – belong to the very fabric of this world? – that we belong and are welcomed without reservation to the company of ordinary bits of gravel, mosses, grasses, birds, crickets and snakes, the scent of the ocean and the bite of winter ice?

My contrary mind says, ‘Yeah, right, but these things you mention (gravel and mosses, for pity’s sake)  – they’re just things, they’re not people. And I counter with, “You may say that, of course, but people aren’t what we think they are, either. Look more closely . . . ” We call ourselves “people,” but what are we really?

Much more, even, than the relatedness of  mother and child, this belonging is the fact of awareness itself, permeating everything, everywhere, in each bit of experiencing. Relationship is who and what we are.

When in addition to just feeling the unwanted sensations that appear in loneliness, we think, “This isn’t it – this is not as it should be: I am not as I should be,” the experience intensifies. At its heart, loneliness is trying to save us, to reconnect us with what actually has never been disconnected. The automatic reaction, “Find something that needs fixing, and fix it” is a widget that works to make us acceptable. It’s as proper and as automatic as the hand that brushes chocolate cake crumbs from your cheek at a party. But I’m not just saying, “when loneliness appears, you should do x and it will go away.” People might feel blamed, hearing that, like: you ought to have known that. And worse, such advice is based on the dualistic assumption that it’s possible to eradicate loneliness. Just glance again at this line from venerable Zen Master Chao-Chou’s verse:

If I think about it, before I know it there are tears moistening my hanky.

If we think about our plight, the thoughts grab hold and spiral us into hopelessness. It is not possible to eradicate loneliness. Even master Chao-Chou would weep. What he lets us know is – there’s a different way: not thinking about it but remaining open, being honest with ourselves about the experience, and then gently opening to, and acknowledging the sensations that pervade the body when loneliness rears its ugly head. What if instead of distracting myself, gritting my teeth and keeping on while trying not to feel this discomfort – what if I go toward it instead? I call it “loneliness” – but what is it, really? And little by little, I remember to turn toward, to open to awareness as that physical discomfort. Sometimes I say something to it like, “There, there, what’s the matter?” as though I had just sensed someone small and shy, hiding in the bushes. And listen, listen to the response. Above all, I have to avoid trying to fix it!  It usually takes many attempts to be able to hear the wordless language of feelings in the body. Truth is, for me it takes several tries to even be willing to try, in the first place.

In this way, I gradually come to terms with the actual situation that I’m in. For me it involves admitting that there is sadness, for instance, or that I miss someone who died years ago, or that I think nobody understands. Not just naming the situation, like this – but actually feeling the sensations, having the experience that shows up when I think my world should not be the way it clearly is. The trick is in not altering the feeling in any way, but turning toward it instead of away, letting it be here. That’s what Chao-Chou is showing us in his Twelve Hours verse.

Ryokan was a Zen mendicant monk of the late 18th, early 19th century in Japan. As Susan Murphy quotes from his writing:

Who was it said, “Names are the guests of reality”?
These words have come down to us from ancient times.
But even if people know that names aren’t real,
They don’t see reality itself has no root.
Names, reality . . . both are beside the point.
Just naturally find joy in the ever-changing flow.

(p. 194, Red Thread Zen)

Murphy comments that Ryokan “had the ability to see suffering not as something that afflicted him or consumed his mind, but just as ordinary, offering no personally directed insult or intent.” (p. 195) Right, “no personally directed insult or intent,” that’s the heart of it. Sounds impossible, but there’s a story by Chuang Tzu that explains it better than any theory:

A man has freshly painted his boat and decides to take it out on the lake despite it being a foggy day. As he’s rowing along, another boat slams into his and chips the paint of his boat. The man is furious! “Pay attention to where you’re going, you idiot!” he yells angrily but, as he gets nearer, he realizes there is no one there; it is just an empty boat drifting (by).
…(his) thoughts change to, “oh well, I guess I’ll have to do a few touch-ups on the boat this afternoon.”
(If) we can see and experience life . . . as the unfolding of conditions rather than our thoughts about them, it takes away the need to blame . . . (1)

What remains then is the need to view our experiences kindly, specifically in this case, our loneliness – as an unfolding of conditions. That is, since the bankruptcy of Silicon Valley Bank, disastrous tornadoes in the Midwest, South, and East; snow and floods in California; the outbreak of bird flu in chickens; the increase in school shootings; tech companies and fast-food chains letting employees go; etc., etc. ad nauseam, not to mention the stresses of politics and the pandemic over the last few years – reading the headlines in the morning – all of this and more has been added to the ordinary stresses of losing friends and family to natural causes. Over and over and over again, loss baffles our ordinary expectations, takes down the structures we rely on, erases aspects of life that were dear to us, that we relied on for comfort; pulls the rug out from under us all. It’s not so odd that we feel lonely, lost, frightened, angry, powerless. Admitting it – literally letting it in to our awareness – is imperative: it is the work of the times. Sadness and loneliness are only natural given these circumstances. It is especially difficult for all of us who spend our lives believing in and trying to be good and kind – most difficult because often we’ve put off the work of learning from discomfort, to do these good deeds.

The real-life circumstances that we operate in are unfolding all around and within us, and continue to unfold whether we like it or not. We can’t sustain our natural resistance to facing that darkness and befriending it without breaking. Releasing resistance is done by recognizing, and opening to, our hidden pain. It doesn’t mean endless crying and protesting, but rather, turning toward and acknowledging, feeling the fullness of that discomfort little by little rather than fighting and distracting ourselves from it. If done carefully – and I repeat, carefully – we will be able to carry on without fighting ourselves. Energy will be freed to naturally behave differently.

I don’t mean that a great social movement of kindness and helpfulness will form, or anything so grandiose. But if I open to, and own the reality of hidden pain – before words, not just the description – (what is the experience before it is named?) – there is a quiet form of energy that seeps out in small ways. Here and there I refrain from snapping at someone in a conversation. Here and there I really attend to another’s needs regardless of what I think they should need. There’s a sense of getting out of my own way, something that is long overdue.

Turn toward the unknown emotions, admit that the physical feelings of their presence hanging out in the background are indeed there. And just a little bit every day, turn toward the discomfort, gently asking after its welfare – what is it really saying? This is like the willingness to suspend disbelief required for enjoying fiction and fantasy, only what emerges here is far from imaginary. This is the same space that allows us to recognize ourselves in stones and mosses, the same atmosphere that bears the welcoming scent of flowering shrubs, the night air that speaks silently of the deep caring of trees, our kinship with the stars and encompassing darkness.


1). [Ottawa Meditation and Wellness.org  Oct. 26, 2020] https://omwellness.ca/empty-boat-on-a-lake/