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.
Sometimes grief comes like a runaway truck. You can see it careening down the highway toward you, but you don’t have enough time to get out of the way before it flattens you.
Sometimes it’s a slow moving train, and you’re stuck at the crossing, impatiently waiting for it to pass so that you can get on with your life.
Sometimes grief is a stealth bomber, dropping missiles from the sky and leaving you with an unfamiliar and sinister landscape that you don’t know how to navigate.
This Christmas, grief came to me like a sailboat – not disruptive or forceful, but with a strong enough wake to rearrange the pebbles on the shore.
It came in the dark while I was driving down the highway, on the way home from a full day of Christmas merriment at my brother’s house. It came on the same road where, six years earlier, I told my husband that, unless something changed, I couldn’t stay in the marriage any longer. It came while my daughters were peacefully sleeping in the van behind me. I was glad for the cover of darkness to hide the tears streaming down my face.
There is a unique grief that becomes part of your narrative when you’ve lost both parents and the partner you thought you’d spend the rest of your life with. It feels untethered – like there is nobody holding you to the ground anymore and you have to figure out how to do your own holding. It comes with a unique loneliness – a feeling of separateness – when you’ve lost those relationships at the first level of intimacy and the best that you now have is second-level intimacy. Those people care that you’re there and they love you dearly, but their eyes won’t light up when you walk into the room, and their hand won’t reach out to touch yours in a way that says either “you are my child” or “you are my beloved”.
I’d just spent the day with the people I adore (my siblings and their families), and my van was full of three girls whose love lights up my life, and yet I felt an undeniable sense of loneliness.
It was not unhealthy, this loneliness, nor was it even particularly painful. When it came, I felt no desire to banish it or even to resolve it in any hurry. There is no gaping hole in the centre of my heart; there is only a gentle gap that offers possibility for more fullness in the future.
I simply felt the longing in the loneliness and let it keep me company as I drove.
Longing is not something to be banished or feared. Longing is a friend, a messenger that points us in the direction of our hearts. Like a treasure map, it gives us clues that help us figure out where to dig.
Longing is what helps us make connections – with ourselves, with each other, with the sacred, and with the earth. We are meant for connection, to be in relationships that help us thrive and grow. If we didn’t ever feel longing, we would never seek each other out. We would live in isolation, never building communities, never taking the kinds of risks that result in intimacy, passion and aliveness.
Longing and love go hand in hand. Love grows in the world when we respond to our longing and reach out in connection and community.
My longing pointed me toward intimacy, touch, and deep soul connection.
There are many beautiful connections in my life, and for that I am grateful. But there’s a level of intimacy – both physical and emotional – that’s missing, and that is what my longing asks me to open my heart to.
There are other clues on this treasure map as well – clues that tell me that, in order to find the treasure of intimacy, more excavation will be required. I will need to continue to clear out the emotional clutter – old stories and attachments – that don’t serve me anymore. I will need to continue to heal the wounded parts of me that fear the deep vulnerability that comes with intimacy. I will need to soften the parts of me that keep me guarded and protected.
This past year has included a lot of excavation, a lot of decluttering, and a lot of dismantling of old stories. Now, at the end of it, I feel ready to sit with the empty spaces in my heart – the longing and hunger that comes when the old has been removed and the new has not yet come to fill its place. I feel ready to sit at the centre of the labyrinth – emptied of what I needed to release on the journey inward and ready to receive what has yet to arrive.
With this writing, I am suddenly aware of what my word for 2017 will be. My longing pointed the way to it.
My word for 2017 is intimacy.
What about you? Do you feel a deep longing right now? An ache in your heart that won’t go away? If so, what is it trying to teach you, what connection is it telling you to seek out?
Don’t chase it away and don’t fear it. Let it enter you, let it teach you, and let it point you toward the treasure you have yet to uncover.
If you’re interested in exploring your own longing and want to pick a word for 2017, A Soulful Year may be a useful resource.
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There was a time in my life when I was really lonely. If you had been an observer watching my life, you probably wouldn’t have seen much evidence of the loneliness. I was a busy mom with great kids, I had a good job with co-workers who were easy to work with, and I had a few friends and family members around to socialize with, so it didn’t look like a lonely life. But I was lonely nonetheless. (Which leads me to believe that many people who appear to have “put-together” lives are lonely under the surface.)
A full-time career plus small kids is not a lifestyle that leaves a lot of room for friendships. Plus, some of my friends were still single and childless, so we no longer had much in common or were available at the same times. And, even though there were people in my life who cared about me, I wasn’t finding people who wanted to talk about the kinds of things I wanted to talk about.
Together with my family, I went looking for community, and eventually we found it in a lovely small church where people were authentic and progressive. We were well cared for in that community, and people showed up to support some of the most difficult times in our lives. It was really good for quite a few years… but then one day it started to feel like it wasn’t quite enough. Even though there was authenticity there, I wasn’t finding the opportunities I longed for to talk about the things that were becoming increasingly important to me. Nobody was talking about the Feminine Divine, for example, and only a few people seemed to have the same curiosity I had around how our faith journeys might be positively impacted by other faith perspectives. I was curious about Buddhist meditation, for example, and wanted to explore more of an Indigenous approach to spirituality.
Though I found community, and developed some beautiful friendships there, I was still searching for my tribe – people who understood the kinds of questions I was asking and were as eager as I was to have deep and meaningful conversations about the quests we were on. (It’s worth noting here, that I don’t use the words community and tribe interchangeably. You can find one without finding the other.)
I spent a lot of time searching for the kinds of writers and thinkers who were talking about what I was longing to talk about, and my bookshelves were soon full, but that still didn’t feed my ongoing quest for conversation and connection. That was in the days before social media, and all of those people I found who seemed like kindred spirits were far away from where I lived and had only static websites where there was little opportunity for interaction.
When I started blogging a dozen years ago, I started connecting with other bloggers who had similar curiosities, and those connections deepened with the growth of social media, but I still wanted more face-to-face connections.
Things started to shift quite radically five and a half years ago, when I was on the verge of quitting my non-profit job and jumping into self-employment. Though I’d been to lots of conferences and retreats where I found people to connect with, the first time I really arrived somewhere and felt almost instantly that I had found my tribe was the Summer Institute of Authentic Leadership in Action. These people were speaking my language, inviting the kinds of questions that were burning in my heart, encouraging vulnerability and curiosity, and creating safe spaces for deep and honest conversation. I started crying shortly after I arrived – I was so overwhelmed that I’d found what I was looking for.
Since then, I have found the same thing in a few places and my tribe continues to grow. After years of reading her work, I finally had the opportunity to be in retreat with Christina Baldwin, and since then have become deeply connected with her and Ann Linnea and others who are practitioners of The Circle Way. I have also found those connections in the community involved with The Art of Hosting. And, more recently, I have found my tribe within Gather the Women Global Matrix, an organization that exists for the sole purpose of supporting women’s circles around the world.
What makes these gatherings more conducive to tribe-building than the many other places I looked? In my experience, it’s the circle that changes things. All of these gatherings have, at their essence, a circle way of gathering, where you don’t just sit in rows and listen to speakers on a stage, you gather in circles where all voices are heard and real connections are made.
Last week, I attended my fourth annual gathering of Gather the Women. Fifty-four women from seven countries gathered in a beautiful, lush, green retreat space in Florida. We laughed, cried, danced, sang, made art, created ritual, hugged (a lot), dressed as funny non-human characters, had ceremonies, and most of all, we talked. In small circles and large ones, around breakfast tables and under the trees, we talked and talked and talked. We talked about our heartbreaks, our families, our spirituality, our discomfort, and our strength. We talked about sex and gender and human rights and wine and food and our bodies and the earth and the animals and the Goddess and the government(s).
We talked about real things that matter. Rarely did we talk about diets or fashion or shopping (though we didn’t judge anyone if they wanted to) and nobody cared if we wore make-up or if our skin sagged.
We talked and we loved. We loved each other and we loved the trees and we loved the pelicans in the sky and we loved the dolphin and sea otter playing in the cove.
That’s what it’s like to find your tribe. That’s what it’s like to show up in a place where people are authentic and kind and openhearted – where they sit in circle and look each other in the eye. That’s what it’s like when fifty-four women show up to hold space for each other.
When you find your tribe, and they accept you for who you are and believe you are capable of greatness, it can change your life.
Because it’s become so important to me, I continue to grow this tribe, drawing in anyone who dares to be real and flawed and openhearted. Last night, after flying home just the day before, I gathered with my local women’s circle and the same things that happened in Florida happened there. We laughed and cried and opened our hearts. We created safe space for each other by honouring each other and not judging.
Here’s what happens when you find your tribe:
you feel truly seen in a way that you’ve rarely been seen before
you find safety and you learn how to create it for others
you learn to be vulnerable because you’re finally in a place where your mistakes are not being judged
you dare to speak of the longing of your heart and you invite others to do the same
you grow, because you know that the people in your tribe are cheering for you
you learn to take risks in looking into your own shadow and the group’s shadow
you want everyone else to know how good it is, so you start growing your tribe the best you can
Because nobody’s perfect, no tribe is perfect. As I’ve said in the past, shadow will inevitably show up wherever people gather. Sometimes there is conflict or jealousy or frustration. That’s all part of what it means to be real and to let people see you for who you really are. Also, as you change and grow, sometimes you outgrow a tribe and realize it’s time to find/build another.
Just as I said last week about how it can take a really long time to tell your truth, it can also take a really long time to find and/or grow your tribe. Sometimes, in my long lonely years, I feared it would never happen for me. There were a few false starts during that time, and each failure sent me into despair. But each time, I rose up once again, more and more determined to find the kinds of places I could be vulnerable and openhearted. Now that it’s happened, I feel incredibly lucky and want to spread the love to everyone I meet. (Yes, that includes you, even if I’ve only met you virtually. My tribe is all-inclusive.)
If you have not yet found your tribe, take heart and don’t give up. Hold onto your intention and it will surely happen for you some day. (And, from now on, even if we have never met, you can consider me part of your tribe.)
Here are a few tips for finding your tribe:
If you are interested in women’s circles, join Gather the Women and either find a women’s circle in your own region or gather some friends to start talking about creating one (Gather the Women provides resources to help with that.)
Go to the kinds of workshops, retreats, and learning events where people gather in circle and where authenticity is at the heart. The Circle Way is one of those (note: we are very close to launching a new website that will be a useful resource), as are The Art of Hosting and Authentic Leadership in Action. (All of these are international networks.) Another event I’ve had the pleasure of attending and which has been a great tribe-building place is Patti Digh’s Life is a Verb Camp.
Be intentional about the kinds of conversations you have. When you begin to be openhearted and you speak out loud your desires to connect with people in more authentic ways, you will eventually find others who have similar longings. (Note: This doesn’t happen with everyone, and you will likely face some rejection, but over time you will learn to discern which people are the most open to these conversations.)
Find other resources, books, communities, etc. that inspire you. Some are listed on recommended reading list. Another organization for women’s circles (which I know less about) is the Millionth Circle, based on Jean Shinoda Bolen’s books.
I wish you well as you seek your tribe.
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