What is Loneliness and How Can Spirituality Help*
By Michael Isaacs
As I pondered the trait and meaning of loneliness, I was reminded of the words of former United States Supreme Court Justice Douglas. He was having trouble defining the meaning of the term “pornography.” The question before the Court in this particular case was whether the actions involved were legal or illegal. He wrote famously that he could not define it, but “he knew it when he saw it.”
I realized that the Justice Douglas comment would not be enough to satisfy my quest or the curiosity of my readers as to nature of loneliness. But it does illustrate the difficulty of pinning the word down to an exact explanation.
So, I popped open my dictionary and here are some of the feelings described: sad or depressed because of the lack of friends or companionship; feeling desolate, remote, or isolated; destitute of sympathy, friendliness, or support; and standing by ones self or apart.
What can be said is that loneliness is not pleasant. Most of us have experienced its pain in varying degrees such as not being in a relationship or breakup from a relationship. The grief after the death of a partner can be another example where one can experience severe loneliness And even in the best of relationships there are times when one feels not understood and not listened to and feels all alone and lonely.
What also can be said is that in our society loneliness is pervasive. As the Beatles song chimes: “All those lonely people, where do they all come from?”
Though all of us have moments of loneliness, I deduce that loneliness more frequently occurs in certain mental conditions. Included are those suffering social anxiety, low self esteem, introversion, shyness, trauma, various addictions, depression, and being brought up in dysfunctional families.
Generally speaking, I have not encountered much loneliness in my life. However, when I was single in my twenty age bracket, even though I did not feel consciously lonely, I did have a fear of loneliness. I had many dreams where I had intense anguish where in my dream state I was myself middle aged and did not have a wife and children. During my second psychoanalysis many years later I realized that my not feeling lonely was a repression and a denial of the truth that in fact I was quite lonely in my childhood due to parental emotional distancing.
So, can spirituality help heal loneliness?
Definitely yes, but this depends on one’s conception of spirituality. For me I have a broad definition of spirituality. It includes any thought or deed evidenced by such virtues as compassion, selflessness, love, integrity, forgiveness, wisdom, and truth whether in or out of a religion or spiritual involvement.
Speaking from my vantage point, my involvement on spiritual paths has been an important factor (there have been other factors as well) leading me to much companionship and connection. There was study with spiritual teachers. I have experienced deep companionship with fellow seekers- individually and in groups. This spiritual involvement also motivated me to serve others in my professional life and in the community. I do not know why I started and continued on spiritual paths. One might call it karma, grace, or luck. It was a natural flow which just evolved. In any event, my spiritual studies and quest over a lifetime was and has been for me a key antidote to loneliness.
I would say that I am a mystic whose goal is to have an experience of God. My concept of God is a universal loving creative principle, the infinite invisible, the soul of the universe. My goal in meditation is to realize my identity and oneness with this spirit. Even glimpses of realization of oneness can activate for anyone a love of God, love of man, and love of self. Wow! As I see it these ideals are the highest opportunity to prevent or deal with loneliness. Love of God brings us an entity to love. Love of man brings us connection, compassion and empathy with others. It means we can with authenticity think or say to others “Namaste”- the soul of me greets the soul of you. Love of self means we feel lovable and deserving of another’s love. Self-esteem is elevated.
But what about the loneliness of others who are not like me and fellow traditional spiritual seekers? What about atheists, agnostics, and those that have no knowledge or interest in religion, spirituality, metaphysics, or anything not material? How can they be helped with bouts of loneliness?
My answer is in accord with my broad definition of spirituality as I described above in this article. That is, spirituality includes any thought or deed evidenced by such virtues as compassion, selflessness, love, integrity, forgiveness, wisdom, and truth, whether in or out of a religion or spiritual seeking. Anyone suffering from loneliness that moves or is moved to one or more of these virtues can be helped to cope with the condition.
There are many examples of how non believers by their very acts embody spirituality which can counter loneliness. Lonely people can get out of their box and serve others, such as volunteering at soup kitchens or various charities. Underlying the motivation to start individual psychotherapy or other self growth groups is a spiritual yearning for connection and companionship.
Anyone who has moments of compassion or love for other humans or animals has a spiritual base. Simply smiling at someone you pass on the street can bring you a moment of spiritual peace from the love you are extending. And there often is a return smile indicating to you that the other is receiving your love. No loneliness here at the moment. Finding a lost wallet with loads of money and returning it to the owner reveals the spiritual virtues of integrity, empathy, and honesty.
Many creative artists certainly do not consider themselves spiritual but without their knowing it they are opening up channels to universal soul faculties. Their passion for their talents can be tantamount to a companionship of sorts, which not only can keep them from loneliness, but be a boon to those in society who share a similar companionship from experiencing their artistry.
So, indeed, spirituality, either directly or indirectly, can help one minimize or cope with loneliness.
* Michael S. Isaacs, LCSW, NCPsyA, JD
Berkeley, Ca. Published in the winter edition,
2014 of The Association of Psychotherapy and Spirituality