Loneliness often increases as we grow older. Certainly when those we know begin to pass away (which may start when we are in our 50s) there is a kind of loneliness that comes and cannot easily be assuaged. Their loss is permanent.
I have a thumbnail summary of Buddhism that I have mentioned here before and that goes like this: “Everything is connected, nothing lasts, and we are not alone.” So the losses of our friends and loved ones tells us, like nothing else can, that “nothing lasts”—especially those things that we most care about. This is the first big lesson of Buddhism and whether you are a Buddhist or not, the lesson comes home as we age.
So what do I mean when I say, especially to those grieving or lonely, “We are not alone?”
I certainly do not mean that Buddhism teaches we can escape loneliness. Loneliness is part of the human condition, and even adepts and realized teachers of Buddhism can suffer from it—though they may understand and accept it better. Even the Buddha grieved for lost family and companions, I’m sure. My own teacher certainly did. No, I am distinguishing between “loneliness” and “aloneness.”
We may feel grief and loneliness, but we are actually never alone. Yes, I am Lew, and I am the only one who is this Lew. My life story and memories and losses are unique. Nobody else feels them as I do. But in that discreteness is also connection. We are all discrete, but we are also joined—both are so. We are unique individuals, but each of us has the same fundamental nature—Buddha nature. Touching that fundamental nature—for example in meditation—is paradoxically the way we connect with everyone and everything. I like to say that when we sit we resume our status as a universal human being.
“Yes, I can feel lonely, but we all experience our humanness in the same way. We are all in this together.” From this realization can come an abiding joy. How wonderful that I and everything are here. What a miracle!
So in that sense “everything is connected” and “we are not alone” are two ways of describing the same condition. Touching that connection means that our all-too-human loneliness has some context. We grieve for those we have lost, but we rejoice in the connections which have, have always had, and will always have.
We are not alone.