Like the weather shaping landscapes, aloneness pervades our psyche in ways that continually modulate its character. This topic recently came to be worked through in one of my psychotherapy groups, and as if by synchronicity, it also surfaced in the Mindsight Intensive during our explorations of unfamiliar modes of awareness we can access through meditation. I took this as an opportunity to try to put some order in this complex topic that elicited many questions from patients and students alike.
‘Alone’ (= al-one) is originally made up of the two words ‘all’, meaning ‘wholly, entirely, without limit’, and ‘one, only one of me, oneself’. Combined, these two notions mean ‘limitlessly just oneself’, or ‘unaccompanied, solitary, without companions, all by oneself, wholly oneself’, which by implication also includes ‘… and nothing or nobody else’. By the same token, ‘all, entirely’ also implies ‘all that is, everything’, meaning that when one is alone, one is also everything or with everything. The fact that the word ‘alone’ combines these two clusters of meaning, ‘all one and nothing else’, which implies an endless void around it, and ‘all that is, everything’, which implies an endless fullness of everything, suggests that the meaning of aloneness can correlate with several possible human experiences.
The resonant dance of feeling felt
Aloneness is both, an inescapable psychological reality that can be either painful or pleasurable, and an acquired capacity necessary for growth, health, and wisdom.
To begin with our psychological development, as infants we are dependent on adults to take care of us. Nature has made sure to wire our brains and bodies so that for the most part there is no escaping the development of a strong nurturing bond flowing both ways between child and caregiver. I am referring to the mammalian attachment system that in humans is based on a special neurocircuitry called the resonance circuitry or social engagement system. In brief, physiological and mental states in both child and caregiver resonate deeply with each other like two well-tuned musical instruments. This resonance causes both organisms to attune to each other and respond empathically to the other’s expressed needs. In this dance, each partner receives, registers, and interprets the verbal and non-verbal information coming from the other person in a way that ensures that the responsive action meets the other person’s needs. Like in a good dance, each partner feels heard and seen by the other as needs are being felt, shared, interpreted, and responded to in a timely manner that fully meets the relational requirements of that moment.
Our social engagement system that sings through the vibrations of our resonance circuitry is responsible for both, our relationships with others as well as our relationship with ourselves. That is the reason why in attuned relationships both partners can see themselves through the other person’s eyes, and learn to feel felt and be seen and heard. When we feel heard by the other person, we can hear ourselves, and vice versa. We enjoy access to the many layers of neuroprocessing in the body, from being somatically attuned to our body, to recognizing and regulating our emotions, all the way to being able to make sense of our life stories. The attuned relationships that shaped us become internalized, so that when we are alone, we are also with all these people who have shaped us in a healthy way – they are always with us in our minds. Applied to the child’s relationship with her parents, when a young child enjoys attuned relationships and therefore develops a secure attachment to the parents, after a heartfelt goodbye the parents can leave the room for a while, and the child will not only be happy and able to concentrate on playing by herself, but greet the parents with warmth and joy when they come back. At most, the child may be a little upset when the parent leaves, but calms down quickly.
With a well-developed capacity to be alone, we are present with ourselves the way we were able to be present in our relationships with our loved ones, and the whole world is with us. We don’t feel lonely, but deeply connected. Given the double function of the social engagement system responsible for one’s relationship with both others and oneself, when children have the opportunity to develop attuned relationships with their caregivers, or when adults later take the opportunity to do the same with their therapists, teachers, or mentors, they also develop attuned relationships with themselves. In other words, through attuned relationships, we internalize those healthy external relationships into the ways our own psyche manages our internal relationships with ourselves. In this way, even when we are alone with ourselves and nobody is around, we are in the company of these remembered internalized attuned relationships. This represents the capacity to be successfully and pleasurably alone without feeling lonely, restless, or stressed.
Of course, as nothing in life is perfect, that attachment dance is not perfect either. Occasionally the attunement process does not work properly, and we stumble. As long as that is the exception, and in those moments of stumbling we can apologize and repair the broken link, assuring one another that nothing fundamental is broken in the love bond, we continue to thrive. Such empathic failures of attunement are an inevitable part of healthy intimacy and ensure our capacity to be resilient in the face of inevitable disturbances life circumstances throw our way. This is the healthy situation of a ‘good-enough’ relationship, implying that attempts at having a ‘perfect’ relationship are not only impossible, but will inevitably fail and cause a lot of stress and disruption.
From the brain’s wiring perspective, attuned relationships result in increased connectivity between different brain regions, thereby maximizing the brain’s resilience and capacity for processing new and challenging life situations in creative and efficient ways.
The dance of attunement in the construction of a useful illusion
With healthy attunements in our relationships we are able to be fully creative and use time alone as an opportunity to fine-tune internal attunement and groundedness in one’s healthy sense of self. Through the cultivation of attuned relationships, we develop a healthy sense of self. Unable to elaborate on it without going beyond the scope of this article, be it just said that this sense of self is a construction by the brain that gives us a psychological centre of gravity from which to organize how we conduct our lives. As useful as this sense of self is to ensure our survival, it is nonetheless an illusion. Experientially established at least a couple of thousand years ago in Buddhist psychology, this has relatively recently also been scientifically confirmed.
To be precise, the successful construction of our sense of self occurs within the scope of our ordinary waking consciousness. Its hallmark is our experience of life as a duality between our ego-self ‘inside’, which we deem to be the observing subject, and an objective world ‘outside’, observed and experienced by this ego-self. To be sure, the successfully developed ego-self that marks the subjective pole of our dual world, is at the same time the healthy sense of self that makes us into a ‘somebody’ who allows us to live life competently in accordance with society’s norms of success. Once we have achieved the developmental milestone of having become a ‘somebody’, we can use it as the springboard for a transition toward existentially more evolved modes of awareness we will discuss below, through which we discover the illusory nature of our sense of self. Like the wizard of Oz, upon close scrutiny, our sense of self reveals its essential emptiness. Armed with an initially strong and well-grounded illusion we called our ‘self’, we can then embark on the journey of deconstruction and allow ourselves to discover its inherent emptiness and the surprising fact that at our core we are a ‘nobody’.
Imperfections of the dance of attunement
Life circumstances are not always very forgiving, and children often grow up without the experience of optimal attunement from their parents. We can therefore also internalize unhealthy relationships, and when we are alone having been shaped by relationships that cause pain, we are in pain. The painful quality of a dysfunctional relationship to parents becomes the painful experience of relating to ourselves.
The pain can be very different, depending on what went wrong in our formative relationships. We may have experienced absence and unavailability, leaving us with an incessant yearning for a connection we can never have or fulfill, combined with a deep withdrawal and disconnection from ourselves that mirrors the disconnection with the absent parent we yearned for. Such a child does not even acknowledge or feel the need to say goodbye to the parent who leaves the room in the clinical experiment. The child gets easily bored and restless when alone, and does not respond upon the parent’s return. The style of relating to others and ourselves becomes avoidant, rigidly cut off from our and other people’s internal world, body and emotions. We may also have experienced ambivalence and inconsistency, intrusiveness and control, leaving us conflicted with regard to closeness; we yearn for closeness, but closeness is disorienting, suffocating, or conflicted. This applies to both the external relationship and the relationship with ourselves. Such a child is clingy and gets very anxious when the parent leaves the room, and it has a hard time letting go. While the parent is away, the child is anxious and distraught, and when the parent comes back, the child can’t easily calm down, remaining anxious and angry. The style of relating to others and ourselves becomes ambivalent, as we experience our own and other people’s internal world as chaotic and overheated.
In all these cases, being alone is a painful situation, because we are unable to successfully feel at peace and content in our own skin. Our relationship with ourselves is fraught with disruption of one kind or another, avoidant or ambivalent, shut down or nervously restless, and we cannot see ourselves clearly. We, therefore, end up struggling to properly regulate our emotions and mental states, experiencing stress and restlessness, or a sense of scarcity and lack in life. When alone we experience loneliness and remain dissatisfied. Being alone feels stressful in different ways, either like being in an overcrowded market one cannot find a quiet place, or in a boring abandoned factory, one cannot find anyone to meaningfully connect with. Our sense of self does not feel secure, but insecure, always on edge or shut down.
From the brain’s wiring perspective, such unattuned and insecure relationships result in less efficient connectivity between different brain regions, thereby compromising the brain’s resilience and capacity for processing new and challenging life situations in creative and efficient ways. Life’s challenges are not met with ease and we are prone to developing symptoms of all kinds, from psychological symptoms of dysregulation, relationship problems, and addictions, to physical illnesses.
When catastrophe hits
Our attachments can be even more disrupted when we have experienced trauma. This is different from the less-than-optimal attachment patterns we just discussed that cause lesser efficiency in our brains’ connectivity. Trauma is defined by the relationship between an overwhelming event, series of events, or persistently overwhelming life circumstances, and the way a person responds to such overwhelming events, causing the brain to become completely ‘paralyzed’ or so overwhelmed that normal functioning becomes impossible. The need for loving connection and the reality of dangerous toxic assaults on the child are completely at odds with each other, creating an inescapable situation of toxic love without solution. In these cases, the brain’s wiring becomes not just less efficient, but literally broken to use a metaphor, to the point that different brain regions become completely severed from each other, incapable of communicating and cooperating. This is called dissociation. The likelihood of developing symptoms of all kinds as mentioned above becomes much higher and more severe.
Aloneness after trauma is a different experience from the one described in the first two instances of attachment disruption. This one is not just unpleasant, but it is a terrible aloneness based on a complete fracturing of our relationship with ourselves and with certain other people, rendering relationships not just more difficult, but variably impossible. Our sense of self never had a chance to be constructed in the first place and is so shattered that there is no real center, not even a constructed one to be found. Reaching inside means finding broken pieces of ourselves and others littered all over the place without hope of ever putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. Internally, instead of a sense of self, there is literally nobody to be found, a gaping void and abyss of nothingness with nobody around. From moment to moment, one never knows which fragment will predominantly respond to life’s circumstances and react to life’s demands by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. If one is lucky, one has compensated for this inner void by developing a false sense of self as a person that can more or less function in the world, but that false self, that mask feels very brittle and fragile, unable to contain the horrible internal reality of complete fragmentation.
The vision of a future destiny
Having reviewed various experiences of aloneness that depend on our history and attachment development, we now must also look into the future and the growth potential of every human life. Everything described so far belongs to an awareness mode we call the field of consciousness, which I briefly described above as the kind of ordinary waking consciousness we are intimately familiar with, and that creates a view of reality steeped in duality; we see ourselves as a separate subject in the form of our ego-self experiencing a separate world of objects. Within this field of consciousness, we engage in scientific research, psychological explorations, and philosophical musings, all in an attempt at improving our lives from its perspective. Many people live and die within this mode of awareness, without ever transcending it and embracing a larger contextual apprehension of reality by developing access to two further awareness modes, the fields of nihility (nothingness – from Latin ‘nihil’ = ‘nothing’) and the field of emptiness (which paradoxically is fullness). These latter two modes of awareness humans are capable of require at least special attention, if not outright training to be accessed.
It would be beyond the scope of this article to pursue an in-depth exploration of these three modes of awareness with their fields, and their importance for decreasing suffering in our lives. Instead, we will touch upon certain aspects pertaining to the fields of nothingness and emptiness that bring us face to face with one more version of aloneness we need to be able to recognize and distinguish from the previous versions we already discussed.
Busy singing and dancing on the sinking Titanic
The field of nihility beckons for example when we are faced with extreme situations that render everything we have so far known in life meaningless, such as the loss of a child, a terminal diagnosis, etc. It goes without saying that meeting nihility is one of the aims of mindfulness meditation – to die before we die, so that we don’t die when we die. When nihility raises its ‘ugly’ head, we are called to answer existential questions such as what the purpose of our lives is, why we exist, where we come from, and where we are going both within and beyond the boundaries of birth and death. This is when we leave the domains of science or psychology and enter the existential realm defined by the juxtaposition of life and death, existence and non-existence, things and nothingness. The moment we are born, death is closely afoot, ready to tap our shoulders as an inescapable reality – like the backside of the moon we never see and yet always exists as an inextricable aspect of the moon. This ‘backside’, or rather underbelly of existence, called nothingness or nihility, is the absolute negation of existence we are perpetually, unconsciously, and frantically trying to ignore by staying busy within the field of consciousness of our ordinarily lived lives. This effort of repression is not only costly wasting a lot of energy, but creates in itself a significant amount of suffering. We are busy making music, dancing, and sharing drinks on the sinking Titanic.
The moment we open ourselves up to the underbelly of existence, we first encounter the unsettling experiences of meaninglessness, absurdity, forsakenness, and aloneness that open within the awareness field of nihility. To make sure we understand this correctly: The field of nihility is an awareness mode we are customarily not familiar with, and usually avoid entering and developing, because it is unsettling and even scary, the way freedom is scary to a prisoner who is released after decades of imprisonment. This being said, it is precisely through a full surrender to the inescapable character of nihility that makes no sense from our field of consciousness perspective, that we break through the most profound illusions of our lives and find liberation beyond them. As the physicist Lawrence Krauss remarks in his book ‘A Universe From Nothing’, nothing is the fullness of pure potential, unstable, generative, and creative. The field of nothingness is quite similar that way, something you immediately discover and experience when you are trained to access that awareness mode.
Freedom beyond illusions
The existential sense of aloneness within nihility is very different from the horrible sense of aloneness after trauma. They echo off each other and can be used to inform each other, as long as we know how to distinguish them and ‘treat’ them differently and appropriately. Existential aloneness of nihility is not horrible, because the internal search for the self does not reveal traumatic fragmentation as such, but the illusory nature of the self’s construction instead. That is a big difference!
The aloneness of a non-existent self because of fragmentation is far more ominous and dangerous than the aloneness of a non-existent self because of the revelation of its illusory nature. In the first instance, one mourns the absence of something real and important that should have been there, but never came about – in other words not a loss, but the abortion of something real and necessary. In the second instance, one mourns the loss of a useful illusion, which as illusion appeared to be real and necessary for a certain developmental stage in our lives – in other words, the compelling awakening from an imprisoning mindset that unwittingly causes suffering like the illusory power of the wizard of Oz. Trauma aloneness feels like senseless nothingness without existence, while, no less vast and abyss-like than the aloneness of trauma, this latter aloneness of nihility is imbued with a hopeful, liberating sense of being shared with all that exists.
Obstacles on the path
The main gate to the Zen ideal of ‘being free and easy in the market place’ first opens into hell. Make no mistake, before we reach the promised land, we first have to endure the forty years lost wandering through the desert, the forty days fasting in the same desert, or the night sitting without moving under the Bodhi tree, and so on. The path to enlightenment does not consist in pursuing sources of light, but in bringing the darkness into awareness. The first order of business is to include the underbelly of existence in existence, which means integrating the field of nihility into our lives.
As mentioned above, that is easier said than done, thus the Christian metaphor that ‘many are called, but few are chosen’, or the Buddhist metaphor that ‘one has to want liberation more passionately than a drowning person wants air’. Metaphors always sound more heroic than the reality they highlight, but it is an honest question that needs to be asked – how we can withstand the deconstruction of illusions all the way down to the bottom of the ocean of suffering. There are no easy answers to these questions, which is why I have designed a whole intensive mindfulness meditation course called the Mindsight Intensive around these questions. Here, I just want to highlight issues to be considered around the challenge of aloneness.
We all start from the basis of the field of ordinary waking consciousness. After all, that is the awareness mode we grow into from childhood and consolidate during adulthood. Within that field, we have seen that we may have any of the three main attachment patterns and senses of self: The secure, insecure and disorganized/traumatic sense of self. Accordingly, someone with a secure sense of self will experience secure aloneness, someone with an insecure sense of self insecure aloneness, and someone with trauma traumatic or disorganized aloneness. Of course, these categories are not absolute and should rather be seen as signposts on a spectrum of experiences. Meanwhile, each category of aloneness has its advantages and disadvantages.
At first blush, secure aloneness is the ideal springboard into nihility, as the secure sense of self is the most resilient one capable of withstanding the challenges of deconstruction. Its main disadvantage, though, is the fact that people with secure attachments are the happiest ones that are most comfortable with life as it is, and they may have the least amount of motivation to seek greater wisdom beyond the field of consciousness.
Less comfortable is a life with insecure attachments and an insecure sense of self. Granted, these people are more fragile and often busy enough trying to be as happy as they feel they could be, which leaves less excess energy available for growth beyond the field of consciousness. By the same token, the motivation to explore life’s mysteries more deeply might be enhanced by this impulse towards greater health, making them often excellent candidates for the exploration of nihility and emptiness. In any case, what these people have to be particularly attentive to is the differentiation between psychological suffering within the field of consciousness and existential suffering that beckons to grow beyond it, because those two kinds of suffering require different treatment approaches. If they get confused, the outcome is not good and will almost unfailingly lead to more suffering, more symptoms, and more decompensation. Before they can have free rein to pursue transcendence, making sure that they develop a more secure sense of self is paramount. “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody”, Jack Engler wrote back in the 1970s.
When it comes to traumatic aloneness, the issues discussed in the previous paragraph are even more extreme. Plunging into the abyss of aloneness in nihility for someone with trauma, who has not done any psychotherapy, will almost certainly trigger massive, overwhelming anxiety and decompensation that is tantamount to a re-traumatization. The principle of focusing first on the development of a more secure sense of self is even more important here. With time, when substantial healing of the trauma has been achieved, the depth of the traumatic abyss of aloneness these people used to experience and may still have access to, can indeed become a boon as it echoes the abyss of nihility. No stranger to that depth of deconstruction, these people may sometimes have an easier time recognizing the daily calls of nihility most people routinely ignore. The trick, then, is to embrace nihility without falling into traumatic annihilation.
What this article tries to address are no doubt complex matters that require years of patient study, exploration and practice. Even though this text uses the path and journey metaphor that suggests a destination, this work is indeed the thousand-year human journey with no end nor destination. That is the mysterious paradox of the present moment, where the finiteness of time intersects with the vast eternity of timelessness. The being of the world is the time (becoming) that devours it. As we put one foot in front of the other, walking on the path to nowhere from moment to moment, let’s always remember the futility of lofty goals as we surrender to the one and only aspiration we may be granted to relish as we proceed – the joy of noticing improvement.
When we get used to embracing the inevitable reality of death as part of life and life as part of death, a deep sense of relief arises that soothes our suffering. Being existentially alone eventually leads to the realization of our home ground in the Great Life of real Being, our true identity as the being, vanishing, and becoming of everything. As we anticipated at the beginning of this article from the etymology of the word ‘aloneness’, while trauma aloneness has ‘nothing else’, existential aloneness entails ‘everything’.
Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.