I had rather a debate and struggle about what to blog or podcast about next. So I decided to drop it and go up the hill on our farm to sit on the bronze age barrows up there and have a good think. Or a non-think. Those barrows have energy and I go there for an energy-bath.
On the way up I had an encounter with our big thumping bull. He’s great – he’s not a threat, but he’s definitely worthy of respect.
The whole of his herd of wives and children was spread across the field. Often they’re mainly to one side, so I go up the other side. But today it wasn’t possible, and the bull was right in the middle, staring at me.
We eyeballed each other. I let him hear the sound of my voice. Since we both have low voices we can read each other quite well. He grunted. We both wondered what to do. It took a while but we weren’t in a hurry. This was contemplation of the scene rather than anxious concern, for both of us. I decided to take an initiative, slowly heading uphill toward the left and, fascinatingly, as soon as I started moving he lumbered off to the right. We had both had the same thought.
As soon as he starts moving the whole herd starts moving. Belted Galloways, they’re a real herd, this lot, socially as well as genetically. So they shambled over into the next field. They have a big ranging ground all over Botrea Hill, with organic pasture and wild moor. I staggered uphill on my sticks toward the badger sett – a big, old and mature sett that apparently has been there for centuries.
Further on, up on the barrows, I lay there absorbing the sun, connecting my heart and solar plexus into the earth and letting my psyche float free. Then I turned over and opened up my aura to the heavens, drifting off somewhere. Came to, had a drink, fired up my sound recorder (a Japanese Zoom H4N Pro) and suddenly realised I was going to talk about aloneness and loneliness. Out it came. This is it.
I have a feeling some Far Beyond listeners will relate to this podcast quite personally. Loneliness falls on all of us at times in life, but it falls heavily nowadays on certain people – it’s a hole you can fall into and get stuck in, getting so accustomed to your own company that you start losing interest in normal social interactions. It’s insidious.
That’s weird, considering the world’s population is at its highest ever. That’s about social isolation, even alienation.
But we have a new issue today: you can be physically alone for much of the time but well-connected remotely over internet with loads of people. Online home-workers can get isolated – not just grannies and the disabled. As a book editor, I would take 2-3-4 weeks over each book, with little need to talk to anyone for that time – I specialised in tricky, intricate books that demanded a lot of editorial thought. This online connectivity is both a blessing and a sad symptom of the way we moderns have adopted a surrogate digital life.
I too use this medium as a way of overcoming isolation, and this podcast is an example. Though this highlights one of the points I make in the podcast: it’s possible to turn even loneliness to good use.
This is for people who are alone or feel themselves to be alone. This issue is frequently framed in the terms and perspective of the peopled, while many of the alone tend to be outblasted on this subject by the beliefs of the peopled – the idea that aloneness is something to be rescued from.
Here’s the rub: being alone is not a bad thing. Feeling lonely is difficult, though it also has its gifts. Aloneness and loneliness are two different things: one is a fact and one is a feeling.
Part of me has always been a hermit (the other part public), so I’ve been here, in that aloneness place, many times throughout life, sometimes willingly, sometimes not, and loss has been a big life-issue for me. At present I am alone for about two-thirds of the time and I live in an isolated place, remote from the madding crowd, a place of buzzards, jackdaws and gulls.
Loneliness has various components. One is the feeling of lack of company and closeness – missing people. This is exacerbated when it’s unwilling (as with refugees, people separated by fate or by difficult choices, and the bereaved or alienated). But it can be hard even when chosen. When I moved to the far end of Cornwall I knew that old friends were unlikely to visit me and I miss them, but it was my choice – instead I talk to them in my thoughts or online.
The issue is not just to look at the hard side and judge aloneness in terms of what is lost. Everything in life has its compensations. Sometimes it’s difficult figuring out what we’re gaining from adversity, but it’s important to look at it. A lot of the hardship that we feel involves judgements we impose on ourselves and others’ judgements we take on our shoulders. This has been my story and one consequence is that now, in late life, my backbone has literally given way (as a result of bone marrow cancer) yet this experience has really helped me shed a lot of that psychological load.
I’ve long been an author, editor and online content-creator. To do what I feel called to do, I’ve had to put myself under lockdown many times. When I wrote The Only Planet of Choice in 1992 I was out of sight for 20 months – some people thought I’d moved away! Generally, my self-imposed lockdowns have been regarded as anti-social – as if I’m uninterested in and don’t care about people. But no, if I don’t lock down, how can I do what I’m here for, that people like me for and seem to benefit from? The funny thing is that, writing another book in 2020, suddenly I haven’t been anti-social but doing exactly the right thing! My 2020 lockdown started in October 2019, due to cancer, not Covid.
There’s another aspect to aloneness. Lack of stimulus and interaction can lead to a literal slowing of the psyche. This helps if one needs to unwind from a busy life, but after a longer period it leads to a crisis of energy and orientation. This is happening for many aloners, and it affects the old particularly, and those with long-Covid and fatigue – and prisoners too. I’ve noticed it in myself. I’m pretty creative, and I don’t just sit there, yet I’ve been drying up recently. By degrees. Talking to myself too much.
I overcome this in three main ways: inner journeying, pursuing an interest and going out in nature. Recently I’ve been wading through history books about the Ottomans and the conflicts of the Britons with the Saxons 1,500 years ago – that’s how I get through long hours in bed.
I think inner journeying is important for people who are bedridden or fatigued – and we do it anyway, in our woozy inner meanderings. But it can be done more proactively, and there are methods and ways to encourage it. Make it into a project. You have been given a gift of aloneness that gives you space to do this, and for much of your life you have not had such opportunities. Make a project of your inner musings and wanderings – put it to use.
When you’re alone, it’s really good to get on with activity projects too. I usually have some things that demand thought and focus and some things that are easier or more druderous, some that are creative and some that need some discipline. This is something you can do with your life that has little or nothing to do with other people: it’s yours, and no one can change that.
A solitary time can be the birthplace of something new. All of the big projects I’ve set in motion throughout my life have been conceived when I’m alone. The quiet isolation has given me vision time, inspiration space, healing, resolution, exploration and enrichment of the human in me. This is a choice – a personal one. It’s what Buddhists call a turning in the deepest seat of consciousness.
It often involves coming to peace over many issues. We need to stop beating ourselves up, running ourselves down, diverting ourselves with fear, guilt, shame and self-doubt. These blockers cause us to withhold our talents and gifts. Get this: if you care about this planet and about humanity, then activating your talents and gifts is not a choice but a duty. It’s what you’re here for, to rise to the best of your potential and to make a contribution. Forget should. Do what you can, and creatively, and your way. Whatever that is. That can include things that society or the people around you don’t necessarily deem productive or advisable.
Even if accepting aloneness doesn’t lead to dramatic outcomes, or even if we’re slowly dying, there’s something profound here about coming to peace. We all have regrets, painful memories, shadows from the past. I do too. We need to recognise them, even cherish them, and release them. They do little good, except to teach us what not to do again. Sometimes we can act to redeem these issues with the people concerned and sometimes we cannot.
Even if we cannot, releasing them still, in a funny and mysterious way, relieves the situation with people we no longer even have contact with, or we cannot face, or they might even be dead. In all interactions and conflicts it always, always, takes two to tango, and we can do something about our bit – the emotional tangles within ourselves that have complicated the issue for us and for them. Shed that load. Forgive and be forgiven. Move on.
Then there’s the fear of madness, deep in the Western psyche. Fear that you’re losing the plot, disengaging too much from groupthink and from that safe set of deeply embedded, culturally-defined judgements that were hammered into us as we grew up, about what’s right and wrong. Well, here’s a thought: in my life I have led and been part of hundreds of sharing circles, and it has been clear that many of the most insightful contributions in such circles have come from the quiet ones, the ones who struggle to articulate themselves. The ones who anticipated that they’d be misjudged or they’d say it wrong. But they can bring forth gems that they’ve mulled over very carefully, and sometimes quiet people hold the ace cards.
Quietness and disengagement are not madness, and just because society harps on endlessly about ‘mental health’, it doesn’t mean you ‘have a condition’. You see, society is mad, absolutely insane, and everything is seriously upside-down. Madness simply means that you differ from a mad consensus. You might be on your own with that, except for people who understand you, but that’s not the main issue. The main issue is that our world today is steered by people who are so busy and peopled that they don’t know themselves well enough. They don’t have time and space to look at what’s really going on. There’s something in aloneness that allows us to anchor to deeper verities, and the majority or the dominant consensus in society can be based more in hearsay than in reality. This is a global problem. And rural areas (most of the world) are being governed by people in big city buildings.
There’s more to say on all this, but I’ll stop here (my brains are giving out). But here’s a message from old Paldywan Kenobi to friends and strangers out there who are on their own: be alone well. Do your best with it. Exploit its possibilities. This transforms loneliness into an aloneness that is at peace with itself.
Oh, and one more thing. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Lynne, my partner, and I, are together about one-third of the time (she lives two hours’ drive away), and sometimes we miss each other. Yet, sincethis is so, we have an amazing relationship that works really well. For me, aloneness makes those relationships that I do have so much more meaningful. You can be close to people even when you’re far apart, even when you don’t know where they are and what they’re doing.
Sometimes I find myself thinking of a faraway or long-lost friend, having good inner discussions with them, and then, later, I find out they’re already dead! So, with people you love, even if distant or gone, listen, and talk to them inside yourself, because you are together at that time. If anyone accuses you of being mad, just remember, they’re afraid. Afraid of their aloneness, afraid of getting caught out, exiled to the far-off realms of ‘mental illness’.
For the truth is, together or apart, there are light years between all of us. Yet we’re all here together, and this is it. No one is here by accident, and this is what we came for. So if you find yourself alone nowadays, remember, do it well. There are probably a billion souls on Earth who are alone, whether stuffed away in a high-rise or hidden away up a mountain, so you’re in good company.
Okay, I’ll leave you alone now. Time to put the kettle on. Love, Palden.