For the last eight months, I’ve been a solo traveler, wandering around Europe and Central America while working as a digital nomad. Sometimes friends joined me for short periods, sometimes I stayed with friends in their homes, and sometimes I was facilitating workshops where I was surrounded by people. Mostly, though, I traveled alone.
“How do you deal with the loneliness?” That’s the question I heard most frequently when people learned I was traveling alone. Some of those people wanted to try solo travel but were afraid they’d be too lonely, some couldn’t imagine ever traveling alone and were incredulous that I had, and some were projecting their own fear of abandonment or isolation onto my story.
I understand the question, and have empathy even for those making projections, because I had some of those same fears when I set out on this journey. There’s also a part of me, though, that believes the question itself is worth interrogating for what’s under the surface.
The subtext I heard under the question was a belief that “together” is always better than “alone” – that “together” is the solution and “alone” is the problem. When we are together, we believe ourselves to have social capital, to be wanted, to be whole; when we are alone we believe ourselves to have less cultural value, to be rejected, to be less-than-whole.
It’s not true though – together and alone each have value, and I, for one, need a balance of both in my life. Though I value my relationships greatly, when I go through long stretches without any solitude, I don’t know how to listen to the deepest parts of myself and that’s when I tend to abandon myself the most.
Also, contrary to the assumption that many people make when they discover I travel alone, “alone” isn’t the same as “lonely”. “Alone” is a state of being. “Lonely” is a feeling that comes from a particular longing and feeling of lack, and that feeling can come whether you’re alone or surrounded by people. I’ve had some of my most lonely feelings when I’m the least alone, and some of my least lonely when I’m enjoying solitude.
As Maya Angelou says, “Many believe that they need company at any cost, and certainly if a thing is desired at any cost, it will be obtained at all costs. We need to remember and to teach our children that solitude can be a much-to-be-desired condition. Not only is it acceptable to be alone, at times it is positively to be wished for. It is in the interludes between being in company that we talk to ourselves. In the silence we listen to ourselves. Then we ask questions of ourselves. We describe ourselves, and in the quietude we may even hear the voice of God”
There was a time when I would have judged myself – based on the hierarchical value our culture places on relationships – to have less value as a single person, especially when I’m traveling alone, and that judgement would have caused me to experience more self-pity and self-criticism and therefore more loneliness. That’s no longer a yardstick on which I measure myself, however, so my trip was full of a lot of joyful, peaceful solitude – just the way I like it. Even when a few people very pointedly asked me where my husband was and why I didn’t have one, I was able to laugh it off and not get weighed down by people’s judgement. I am very fond of my primary relationships, and I was glad when I had companionship on this trip, but I also love myself and I can be quite content spending many days alone. I don’t need anyone else to affirm that that’s okay – I KNOW it is.
With all of that said, there were still, of course, some moments when I was lonely, especially when I would get up in my head with thoughts of unworthiness or self-doubt. Because this trip was partly about learning to know myself on an even deeper level and being tender with the most vulnerable parts of me, I paid attention to those moments to see what I could learn from them. Here are a few things I discovered:
– Almost every time I moved to a new location, the first day felt a little lonely as I learned to navigate my new surroundings. Once I knew how to navigate (i.e. where to buy groceries, where to catch the bus/water-taxi, etc.), the loneliness dissipated. In other words, loneliness was at least partially attached to feelings of incompetence or insecurity.
– I noticed my aloneness most when I was surrounded by other people who had family or friends with them and I was the only solo traveler (like when I’d go on an organized tour and was jealous of the parents who had their kids with them). In other words, loneliness was often about comparison and jealousy.
– I rarely felt lonely when I was in a location with great places to walk. That made me realize that loneliness was at least sometimes connected to boredom and/or restlessness and when I could get out and move my body, it would often go away.
– Similarly, I felt less lonely when I had access to good public transportation and knew that I could easily hop on a bus, train or boat to go exploring. In other words, loneliness was connected to feelings of isolation, restriction and lack of mobility.
– The least lonely locations were those that were near water or other large bodies of water. There’s something about water that soothes my nervous system and helps me feel connected to myself and to the natural world. In other words, loneliness is also about disconnection from nature and disconnection from what makes me feel most alive.
The shortened version of the above reflections is that loneliness is related to: incompetence, insecurity, comparison, jealousy, boredom, restlessness, isolation, restriction, lack of mobility, disconnection from the natural world, and disconnection from what brings me joy.
Here’s my even shorter conclusion: Loneliness isn’t about aloneness, it’s about disconnection.
Loneliness is a signpost, pointing toward the road ahead, and the words on it are “Make Deeper Connections”. Those connections don’t necessarily need to be with other people – often a deeper connection with myself (body, mind and spirit) or with the natural world will make the loneliness dissipate just as quickly as a connection with another person.
With this new awareness, I started to be more intentional about how I responded to loneliness when it appeared. First, I received it with tenderness, not judging myself for feeling it and not trying to chase it away. Sometimes that involved putting my hand on my heart, and sometimes it involved some tears (a good release is often the best “cure”). Then, when I was ready to make a move in the direction of connection, I tried one of the following:
– I pushed myself to have a conversation with a stranger. As an introvert, conversations with strangers don’t often happen naturally, so I had to push myself out of my comfort zone. It was always worth it though. I made quite a few short-term friendships, and some of them went surprisingly deep, nourishing my need for intimacy.
– I texted a daughter/sister/friend and sometimes asked for a Zoom chat.
– I did something that helped me feel connected to the natural world. Swimming, walking, bird watching, taking pictures of beautiful things – those almost always help to shift the ache.
– I did something that helped me feel more connected with myself. Journal writing, a massage, tenderness practice, a nap, listening to a podcast, reading a book, mindfulness, “hammocking”, etc.
– I went on social media to connect with my community. Of course, social media can have the opposite effect and make a person feel more lonely instead of less, but I try to pay attention to that and stay off when it’s not feeling healthy.
There might have been a time in my life when I thought I’d fix or transcend these human conditions like loneliness, self-doubt, and lack of self-worth, or that they’d at least shrink in size and no longer be a problem I’d have to face, but that day is long past. Now I realize that life isn’t about fixing ourselves or evolving into beings who don’t feel these emotions – it’s about acceptance, tenderness, self-love, forgiveness and grace. It’s about learning to hold space for ourselves and then turning around to offer that to other people as well. It’s also about rejecting the measuring sticks that our cultures impose and learning to love ourselves unconditionally.
“Is it too much to ask, to live in a world where our human gifts go toward the benefit of all? Where our daily activities contribute to the healing of the biosphere and the well-being of other people?” ― Charles Eisenstein
I have been reminded, again and again, especially in the last few weeks, how deeply each of us longs for connection. We are all, collectively, hungry for what we know is possible – a world in which connection comes before consumption and love comes before greed.
When I re-built my website last summer, I felt strongly that the most important work that I can do in the world is to re-connect people with themselves, with others, with the earth, and with the sacred.
This is the imperative work that we must ALL do. This is the only thing that will turn us away from this self-destructive, overly-consumptive, earth-destroying path we are on. We must return to connection.
That is why a blog post about holding space can go viral – because it responds to our hunger for connection. We’re used to silly cat videos going viral, but this is different. This touches a place in our hearts that is hungry for more depth, more intimacy, and more connection.
Since this whole thing started, I have been contemplating how I can further feed this hunger. How can I help you to make deeper connections with yourself, others, the earth, and the sacred? Here’s what I came up with… a special gift that will help each of you make deeper connections.
In Mandala Discovery, participants receive a mandala journal prompt each day that helps them work through a variety of themes such as balance, chaos, play, courage, and community. I would like to offer you one such prompt on the theme of connection. If this resonates with you, you are welcome to sign up for the class which starts on April 1st.
When you make your mandala, remember that this is about the process and not the product. You are not making a work of art, so let your inner perfectionist go and simply delight in the process.
Connection – A Mandala Prompt “We are uncomfortable with intimacy and connection, which are among the greatest of our unmet needs today. To be truly seen and heard, to be truly known, is a deep human need. Our hunger for it is so omnipresent, so much a part of our life experience, that we no more know what it is missing than a fish knows it is wet. We need more intimacy than nearly anyone considers normal. Always hungry for it, we seek solace and sustenance in the closest available substitutes: television, shopping, pornography, conspicuous consumption — anything to ease the hurt, to feel connected, or to project an image by which we might be seen or known, or at least see and know ourselves.” – Charles Eisenstein
There is a sickness in the world today.
If the world were a person, we would send her to a doctor. The doctor would ask a few questions, take a close look at the symptoms, and the prognosis would be “Disconnection. Your symptoms all point to a severe case of disconnection. Your body is full of people making selfish decisions because they have lost their connection and accountability to their communities. You have too many big businesses who are destroying the mountains and forests and oceans because they have lost their connection with the earth. You have government leaders encouraging polarity rather than collaboration because they have lost their connection to their own moral compasses. You have too many people living empty lives because they have overlooked their own need to connect with the Sacred.”
“There is no simple pill for this condition,” the doctor would say. “This will require hard work, sacrifice, and commitment. You will have to change your lifestyle. Your people will have to stop some very destructive habits. More than anything, they’ll need to pause what they’re doing, start being more mindful and fully present, and begin to connect in a deep and authentic way to what really matters.”
Only a deeper connection will help us address this illness that is running rampant in the world. We need a groundswell – a rising up of a huge collective (I started to say army, but that sounds to oppositional to me) of people who are determined that we will return to connection. We will give up our selfish, self-destructive ways and start making decisions based in love and community rather than greed and individuality.
Will you be part of this collective?
Will you have the courage to choose connection, even when advertisers are telling you to “buy more”, governments are telling you to “argue more”, real estate developers are telling you to “build more”, and society is telling you to “isolate more”?
Each of us must make a choice, and together we will begin to shift this tide. Together we will create an environment that will make others hungry for what we have.
We won’t change the world by fighting the existing culture. We will change the world by loving it into something new.
How do you begin to connect? You begin by first making the choice to do so. Say this out loud to yourself: “I choose to connect. I choose to live a life in which my connections with myself, others, the earth, and the sacred will help guide me to a more authentic life.”
Once you make that choice, you will begin to open yourself up to deeper connections. That’s the first step. Then the next step is to be intentional about looking for opportunities to make those connections.
Begin to ask yourself, each time you make a decision, “Is this choice based in connection or isolation? Am I making this purchase (or going on a trip, or saying no to an opportunity, or going for a walk, etc.) because it will help me to feel more deeply connected to myself, others, the earth, or the sacred, or am I making it because I feel isolated and I am trying to self-medicate?” Try to be as honest as you can with yourself, without judging yourself or being unkind to yourself. Start with mindfulness – simply observe without judgement.
Gradually you will begin to witness your own patterns and this awareness will help you to see where you need to open yourself up to greater connections. If you are spending every night in front of the TV, for example, you may be doing so because you are feeling bitter about past relationships and you no longer know how to make friends. If this is true, then you may wish to take some small steps – take a class or join a sharing circle to find people to connect with.
As you begin to connect, consider the balance of all four connections – self, others, Sacred, and earth. All four should be considered equally important. As your awareness grows, so will your understanding of where the gaps are. If, for example, you give up all of your time for other people and overlook your own needs, you will begin to recognize that your connection with self is lacking. Then it will be time to say no to some of your commitments so that you can spend more time in self-care. Instead of volunteering at the local foodbank, take a night off and go for a long walk in the woods.
All four are important and all four are intertwined. If you fail to connect with yourself, for example, your connections with other people will suffer. If you don’t spend time connecting with the earth, you will have trouble strengthening your connection with the Sacred. (Truthfully, all connections are sacred, so this is intermingled in all that we do.)
When you are deeply connected on all four counts, your life will be infinitely richer and your acts of service to the world and those around you will be much more meaningful. This is not frivolous stuff – this is imperative. A world full of connected people is a healthy world.
To take a closer look at your own connections and to become more intentional about deepening them, here’s a mandala journaling exercise that will help.
Draw a large circle with a smaller circle in the middle and divide it into 4 equal pie pieces. (Or use the pdf template available here.)
In the small circle at the centre, write the word “connection”. This is your sweet spot – the place where all four connections come together.
In each of the four quadrants, write the words “self, others, sacred, and earth”.
Consider the things that you do that help you connect with self – do you go for long walks, do yoga, write in your journal, cook delicious meals? Write those things in the quadrant labeled “self”.
What do you do to connect with others – go for coffee with friends, go on date nights with your partner, play games with your kids, take classes with friends? Write those in the quadrant labeled “others”.
What do you do to connect with the earth – plant a garden, climb trees, take pictures of birds, go for long walks in the woods, ride horses?
What do you do to connect with the Sacred – pray, meditate, walk labyrinths, fast, light candles, read sacred texts?
Some things that you do might appear in multiple quadrants. For example, I like to walk labyrinths, which helps me connect with myself, the Sacred, and the earth. Write those things in each quadrant that they apply to.
Once you’ve written all of the things you already do, begin to consider the things you don’t do yet but wish to. Do you want to take a yoga class? Find a sharing circle? Shop at organic farmers’ markets? Write those in the appropriate quadrants.
Is there one quadrant that’s emptier than the others? Consider how you can bring it into better balance. Be intentional about seeking those things that will help with that particular connection.
Once you’ve written everything you can think of, decorate the mandala however you like. Pencil crayons work well if you still want to see the words. The colouring time can be a time of integration and meditation as you set your intention to become more connected.
Hang the mandala on your wall or keep it in your journal to remind yourself regularly about your intention to connect.
If this mandala journal prompt was helpful to you, consider registering for the Mandala Discovery class that begins April 1st. You’ll receive 30 more prompts like this one, each day in April. Though they arrive in your inbox every day, you can take your own time working through them.
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