I have been travelling alone for one month. Before this, I was travelling with Chris every day, so the feeling of being alone was all the more intense when he left. It’s been interesting observing myself: my feelings of loneliness or contentment, and observing when I have clung to other travellers so as not to feel lonely.
As I write this, I am sitting in the communal area of my guesthouse on sunny Otres beach in Cambodia. Most people sit socialising at the bar, whilst there’s a few groups sitting around tables. I’m the only person sitting by myself. I choose to sit alone because I want to do some writing. So why do I feel slightly forlorn when I see the people around me socialising? Maybe I’m envious of the possible connections that people may make with each other. Or maybe I would like to be accepted by strangers. I wonder whether it’s natural for humans to want to be accepted, or whether it stems from being insecure. Or whether it’s about the society that we’ve grown up in: a society where we all constantly need to prove that we’re beautiful or successful or popular, and where we prove this by seeking approval and validation from other people.
I come to the conclusion that it is a mixture of a few things: needing validation, a feeling of incompleteness, an inability to sit and just be…but it’s also a subtle longing for a connection with others. I think it’s natural to want that connectedness with fellow humans, and it’s beautiful (although rare) when really special connections happen.
One book that I keep coming back to and re-reading is Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. (Before I quote Fromm, I apologise for the sexist language that was the norm in Fromm’s 1950s generation). He says:
“The deepest need of man is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.”
It’s interesting to observe myself and other solo travellers trying to change our aloneness by using our phones and laptops. We are not able to just be with feelings of loneliness: we try to push the feeling away or suppress it. I have found that using the internet really sucks me away from reality far more than any book does. I think it’s on a par with watching TV for its ability to disconnect us from the reality of what’s actually going on for us emotionally. Nowadays, it’s very rare to see a solo traveller reading a book. Most people choose to lose themselves in the internet. And I don’t think I have ever seen anyone alone in a guesthouse without having to occupy themselves with doing something. On this trip, I have definitely used my phone too much – my first question at each guesthouse is “Do you have wifi?” – and I have noticed a massive drop in my happy state of mind when I use the internet for more than an hour.
Erich Fromm talks about the discomfort of being alone if we don’t turn to our usual distractions:
“Anyone who tries to be alone with himself will discover how difficult it is. He will begin to feel restless, fidgety, or even to sense considerable anxiety. He will be prone to rationalise his unwillingness to go on with this practice by thinking that it has no value, is just silly, that it takes too much time, and so on, and so on. He will also observe that all sorts of thoughts come to his mind which take possession of him.”
A few days ago I emailed Chris and said, “I feel so intensely lonely today.” The whole day, I felt so miserable and thought that I might burst into tears at any second. I couldn’t push the feeling away. It was with me as I cycled around villages, saying hello to happy children, and it was even with me when I used the ultimate distraction: the internet! But what was also beautiful to observe was that the feeling passed. A day later, I was fine, back to my usual self. It’s so comforting when we realise that our feelings and emotions are impermanent.
In the past, I have also clung to other travellers so as not to be alone. Maybe I was afraid of venturing into the unknown world alone (and it’s interesting to observe that after years of travelling and hitchhiking solo, I can still feel that fear). And maybe clinging to other travellers was a preventative measure: to prevent feelings of loneliness from creeping up on me. I spent time with people that I had nothing in common with. They were nice people, but the connection wasn’t there. But still I clung, despite the fact that I didn’t particularly enjoy their company. Afterwards, when I realised that I had done this, I vowed not to travel with people (or even sit with people) for the sake of having some company. I vowed to embrace the feeling of loneliness, rather than try to push it away or prevent it in the first place.
In our culture, we use so many distractions – such as the internet or small talk with fellow travellers – as a temporary refuge, rather than facing our uncomfortable feelings. Tara Brach says that being present for the pain is what gives us freedom. When we make contact with what exactly is going on within ourselves, and don’t try to resist it, we can be compassionate for whatever arises.
Don’t surrender your loneliness
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My need of God
Buddhist Ed Brown reflects that he likes to interchange the word ‘God’ with the words ‘compassion’ or ‘love’. He says, “Our good heart surfaces when we sit with things and we don’t surrender them too easily: when we’re willing to be with what’s inside.”
It’s not that every day on the road is a lonely one. Far from it! And since realising that I was clinging to people, I have become far more content in solitude. Loneliness has become a content aloneness as I have observed myself all alone, in the present moment. The times spent alone have become precious, and I learn a lot about myself and about the world around me. And the more I become content, the more I smile, and then the more people want to talk to me!
“You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation, and that is called loving. Well, then, love your suffering, do not resist it, do not flee from it. Give yourself to it. It is only your aversion that hurts, nothing else.”
– Hermann Hesse