Being alone is awesome. Yet hanging out by oneself is by no means a cultural norm. These days I feel like I can’t get on an elevator without everyone whipping out their smartphones to check their email, texts, or Facebook. While I’m far from being anti-cellphone (and have succumbed to this temptation myself once in a while) I can’t help but feel like this is killing our ability to be alone. Why can’t we take a ride from the lobby to the sixth floor in the presence of our own company? It would be 30 seconds of solo time.
Maybe it’s because being alone can feel odd or foreign to us. We have habituated ourselves to flee from alone time. We desire distraction, something that will mean we don’t have to think about what might be boiling right below the surface of our minds. Is anxiety about work creeping in during the morning commute? Try reading the New York Times on your iPhone. Still angry at your spouse from last night? Check out animal photos on Instagram.
One of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron, has said, “As a species, we should never underestimate our low tolerance for discomfort. To be encouraged to stay with our vulnerability is news that we can use.” Through meditation practice we can explore what it feels like to be vulnerable, to be by ourselves. We can ultimately learn to stay with that discomfort, including all of those parts of our mind that we have previously left unexplored.
I often joke with new meditation students that the only reason they are delving into meditation is because they probably have already tried everything else. So many of us look to drugs or binge-watching television or online shopping to make us feel good about ourselves. And so many of us realize those aren’t workable solutions. Instead, we can use meditation practice to get comfortable being with ourselves and embracing ourselves, as we are. One of the many reasons I meditate is because it’s a great way to get to know myself, which includes the good, the bad, and the parts that I don’t necessarily want to acknowledge.
The meditation practice I usually teach is quite simple. Take a dignified but relaxed posture and then connect to the natural cycle of your in-breath and out-breath. When your mind wanders off you just come back to feeling your breathing. As one of my friends and mentors, Sharon Salzberg, once pointed out to me, it’s simple, but not easy. The simplicity is that all you have to do is be with the breath. The idea that it’s not easy stems from the fact that we often have pledged our mental allegiance to multi-tasking, instead of focusing on something as basic as the breath.
The more you do it though, the more you are able to rest with all the aspects of your own mind, including the parts that scare you. Meditation practice is, in this sense, a practice for anytime we are alone and our mind presents itself, unabashedly, in all its various forms. We can be alone with insecurity. We can be alone with anger. We can be alone with all the various aspects of who we are and, through simply resting with them, embrace them.
As a longtime meditator I have grown to love time alone. If I have a gap after work and before an evening event I might pop into the nearby pub and sip on a scotch, letting myself enjoy my own company. This harkens back to the times I have gone on solitary meditation retreats, locking myself up in a cabin for a week or two, just silently meditating, eating, reading, and sleeping. For anyone who has engaged in this experience you realize at a certain point that you don’t need to run away from your own mind. In fact, retreating into the woods and practicing all day is the quickest way to see that wherever you go, your mind is with you. It’s amazing to have the space to explore it. And when I can’t get away for a week, an hour alone at the pub can serve a similar purpose.
If you feel lonely, be with the reality of loneliness; you don’t have to do something about it. It’s okay to feel lonely. It is so incredibly human. And being alone doesn’t necessarily lead to loneliness. Befriend yourself. Become familiar with the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of yourself. We don’t need to run from them. Give the meditation practice a try. Let the weird parts of your mind just be weird. And the next time you get on the elevator, don’t be surprised if it’s a welcome reprieve from staring at your phone; you can take the time to enjoy your own company.