In the blue sky a winter goose cries.
The mountains are bare; nothing but falling leaves.
Twilight: returning along the lonely village path
Alone, carrying an empty bowl.
Foolish and stubborn – what day can I rest?
Lonely and poor, this life.
Twilight: I return from the village
Again carrying an empty bowl.
After the holidays, I feel compelled to acknowledge the shadow of our cultural ideal of family togetherness and beloved intimates, for like most ideals, our lived experience often falls short. As a teacher and therapist, on the darkest night of winter, it is the curious state of loneliness that draws my attention – the state not easily admitted to, and the one that we can experience regardless of whether we are together with others or not. To know one’s own loneliness with the intimacy of Ryokan is to fully embrace the inherent problem of the separate self and the world of duality, to take responsibility for all of its humanness and give up attempts to escape, medicate, meditate away or cajole lonely from one’s experience. Instead, when we take up the Zen practice of non-opposition, lonely gives us a moment to deeply see into its causes and conditions. Becoming this empty bowl, the receptive vessel, is not for the faint of heart, but for those who wish to open to the wide pallet of human experience. Right in the midst of this lonely, this uncomfortable absence of a particular other, a particular way of being known, we render the heart capable of meeting itself. Right here, we meet Ryokan eye to eye, on his road home.
I am not sure there should be only one word for lonely or what this condition truly is though you can find many a definition along the lines of a sense of absence, absence of connection or love, of another, but being with another in a particular way. That being said, I think each of us should put aside looking for a concept that fits and instead look into our own visceral experience right in the midst of life. It is an enormous relief for many to just claim it. So many of those I work with in therapy suffer deeply from their loneliness. They feel isolated, all alone, not understood, not cared or loved in a sincere way, not trusting anything good will come along, and much of the suffering comes from trying to hide from this state. Despite my presence across from them in the moment, with compassion, openness and availability, I am no instant cure when the state of lonely is fixed identity, but can only bear witness and hold it with them. I notice when appreciated and held well, lonely moves on in its own due time. Something seems to need to work itself out from this place. This is also true for others not in the therapy room. People with family and stability, and long time meditators with connected sanghas and Zen teachers also claim times of loneliness both long and short in duration. What is it we fear there?
Sometimes I notice lonely is a sense of an innermost place that cannot be shared, cannot be met or communicated to another juxtaposed against this longing to be known, embraced, and experience feeling felt. Sometimes lonely is a closed room with thick walls and locked doors. Other times, lonely is an open plateau, just you and the packed red dirt and the too blue sky. I imagine our first lonely came when we cried out and no one came and the sense of being this one body completely dependent upon the world began to take shape. Some lonely carries it the sense of something deeply amiss inside our core, an old worn out message of wrongness, that goes right to the heart of our most innocent years.
If we give up ideas about getting rid of it, we can ask what it is here to teach us. We could consult the night sky.
From my vantage point midlife, the Zen of loneliness means to cure the cure and allow our natural response to being a skin bag (our unflattering Zennism) to inform us. There is nothing inherently wrong with being lonely. To cure the cure means to notice what we do with our lonely and see if we can put that reaction aside. Like Ryokan shows us, to be fully unapologetically longing, to be in complete non-opposition, is to be free. Do we try to fill the lonely space with busyness, Facebook encounters, and other distractions, or numb with a drink or make a companion of our TV or iPod? Or do we live in a dream of an ideal other – a lover, a spouse, a community? If we can stay a bit with this lonely, we can begin to ask what kind of lonely is it? And listen deeply for the response.
Ryokan Taigu, the beloved gentle itinerant monk from the 1800’s who played with the village children and wrote poetry for his friends, was human through and through. Some contemporary readers are perplexed by reading about a Zen master’s loneliness and question his awakening because we equate enlightened expression to be free from so called negative emotions and suffering. But Ryokan was not bound or reduced or lesser for this – he was freed within it, something that shows in his writing and his capacity to move from this state to joy and serenity as conditions changed. Towards the end of his life, he even falls in love with a young nun, Teishan, and thoroughly embraces this experience.
In Zen emptiness, everything we meet is the self. In that way the world perfectly loves us, welcomes us in its embrace unconditionally. Though the sun may warm or the wind may feel cold to the bone, it whispers to us alone in that moment. The fullness of emptiness leaves no space for lonely. Nothing is lacking. It is not possible. But this is only half, for which Ryokan provides a necessary cure. Sometimes the bowl is just empty, the road long and lonely, and there is the want of another heart. This is also the buddha’s awakening to conditioned life and it is perfectly OK. Ryokan’s loneliness is not a trap or a hindrance. The next day finds him playing with children and drinking sake with his old friends. Completely at ease! We are all carrying this empty bowl on the path. To know this solitary mountain is to meet one another on the path where the sky meets the sky.
Standing alone beneath a solitary pine;
Quickly the time passes.
Overhead the endless sky –
Who can I call to join me on this path?
Palm to palm,