From Loneliness to Solitude
By Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D.
The experience of being by yourself can feel like either painful loneliness or nourishing meaningful solitude. In loneliness, you can feel alone, without a deep connection to God, who is a particular god of your understanding, the Beloved or your higher Self. You can also feel painfully alone like a child without a deep attachment to a loving parent. You can imagine your loneliness as a small child who is crying within you and in need of holding. If you don’t have an adequate connection to your compassionate adult self, you can’t take care of your lonely inner child. The loneliness becomes overwhelming and intolerable.
Our extroverted culture encourages you to get rid of this lonely feeling without trying to understand it or easing it with unhealthy activities like drinking, drug use, and shopping. You might long for someone to come into your life and rescue you from the isolation that often comes with loneliness. Many people get into unhealthy relationships as a desperate way not to feel alone. When lonely, you might experience yourself as empty and void of vitality. You suffer, and you might not be willing or able to cope with your loneliness. Nonetheless, this loneliness can become the doorway to a profound experience of solitude.
Everyone has the need for a reliable connection to someone, and, when that connection is missing, you can feel alone. When you find yourself caught in a painful experience of loneliness, it’s important not to judge your experience or compare yourself to others who seem happier. Having shame for being alone can only make you feel worse. Having compassion and empathy for life’s challenges is an important step toward understanding them and eventually transforming loneliness to solitude. This transformation requires asking yourself, “What does it mean to me to be alone?” How you define your experience of being by yourself can lead you to either positive or negative emotions. For example, if being alone means you are not a loveable person, then loneliness can feel like a humiliating experience.
You can embrace being alone as a part of life and work on redefining it. Writing about your loneliness in a journal, while you are experiencing it in the moment can bring consciousness to it.
When you are consciously working with your painful emotions including feeling alone in the moment, you are better able to tolerate them. The light of consciousness eventually transforms your painful emotions.
In order to transform your loneliness to solitude, you need patience, and you need support from a friend or guide who is mature or experienced in mining the gold found in solitude. There is nothing wrong with reaching out to others and asking for support when you feel alone.
Hiding it from others who are willing to be supportive is not helpful. Sometimes loneliness can feel like being lost and having a guide to help you start a journey towards solitude is important. This journey requires psychological inner work such as dream work, active imagination, and loving your inner child. It also requires spiritual practices such as mediation and remembrance of your Beloved (God of one’s understanding).
Dream work can help you have a deeper relationship with yourself and open yourself up to messages from the unconscious. Through writing your dreams in a journal and making efforts to understand them, you can have a profound experience honoring your unconscious. Dream work can deepen your relationship with yourself. Knowing yourself can help you to become your own caring friend, which reduces loneliness. One of the Sufi poets who have inspired me to pay attention to my dreams is Rumi. In one of his poems on dreams, Rumi states,
” Many wonders are manifest in sleep: in sleep the heart becomes a window. One that is awake and dreams beautiful dreams, he is the knower of God. Receive the dust of his eyes.”
Working with the power of the active imagination can be a transformative experience. This technique can help you to use the power of imagination to consciously explore your inner world. You can have dialogue with different parts of yourself including your feeling of loneliness. Showing curiosity toward your feeling of loneliness and having a dialogue with it through active imagination is an important step toward creating solitude and reducing the feeling of isolation. To learn more about active imagination, I recommend a wonderful book, Inner Work, by Robert A. Johnson.
The concept of the inner child can be a valuable healing tool to help personify your childhood feeling of loneliness and consciously experience it. The inner child refers to the child you once were which continues to live in your adult body. You might have an inner child who felt lonely and abandoned growing up. Consciously connecting with your childhood experiences of loneliness and abandonment and making emotional discoveries about them is part of the healing process. Your inner child can be helped to make him or her feel safe. The key is consistency, and you need to take time and reach out to your inner child. You can meditate on the image of holding and loving the child you once were. This loving image can have a profound healing effect on your experience of loneliness. Getting in touch with painful repressed feelings is a very intense process and should be done with the help of a psychotherapist or other knowledgeable healthcare provider.
Dream work, active imagination, and loving your inner child are examples of psychological inner work that can help you grow bigger than the painful experiences of loneliness. Loneliness can feel like the “dark night of the soul,” and your inner work is the torch you need to journey toward home. Psychological inner work can also help you enter a vast space of solitude where you can feel a deeper connection with yourself.
Adding a spiritual perspective can move you to a new and higher level. It is like climbing a hill and being able to see the whole countryside. One of the spiritual traditions that I am familiar with is Sufism and I mostly speak from that tradition. You can use whatever spiritual experience is the closet to your heart and most comfortable for you. Sufis speak of God as Beloved. In solitude you can find connection to something beyond yourself, to the Beloved. In solitude, you are part of the community of people who are consciously alone for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment. Whatever longings or painful feelings you might have, you are able to tolerate them and not act them out. In solitude, you feel your feelings without judgments. Your adult Self feels comfortable alone, this Self can hold the loneliness in the heart like a small baby and provide empathy for it. You have the capacity to be alone and yet feel yourself connected to your Beloved. In this space, you can embrace positive emotions like joy and contentment.
In solitude, you can meditate and be aware of your breathing. Each breath connects you more deeply to your higher Self. You have the potential to be spiritual purifier by the quality of your breath. With every breath, you practice remembrance of the Beloved. Sufis refer to this practice as Zikr. From this zone, your loving thoughts, feelings, imagination, and actions can impact the universe.
Just like an alchemist, you can turn something like loneliness to something more like solitude. Psychological work and spiritual practices are the fire needed to transform the lead of painful loneliness to golden solitude. What deep and lasting contentment you can find in your life as you enter nourishing solitude.
© This article is copyrighted by Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in private practice in West Hollywood, California. www.DrPayam.Com