How to be alone and find yourself

July 7, 2004

The best way to be alone, whether through choice or because it is forced upon you, is to turn your mind away from other people out with their friends having a good time. Away from mental scenarios where you see yourself excluded, not loved, alone because no-one wants to be with you. Every time you start to think like that, turn away from it.

It seems harder when you’re younger, because when you’re young, in your twenties, you get to hear that apparently someone said these are the best years of your life and you don’t want to let them slip away, you’re to make the most of them. All very well if you’re one of those people who goes out with lots of exciting friends all the time, goes to parties and bars. And you dwell on that when you’re alone, actually letting what is good about being alone slip away from you as well.

I don’t know whether I am naturally a loner or have simply made the best of a raw deal… and yet I stop myself right there and turn away from that thought. Delusion right there. Raw deal? There’s me thinking something I am not doing right now is somehow better than what I am doing right now. One thing I remember from times when I went out socialising more than I do now, was living on the surface of my life. Though I was out and about, it was paradoxically cramped, in that I could only travel horizontally, I couldn’t go down, down deep inside of myself to discover what was there. And so I know from this that many people are actually trapped on the surface of their lives.

I pursued the esoteric primarily because I saw it as a way to descend into my life. I wanted uncharted territories, I wanted to understand why a herd-like fear was triggered by the slightest intimations that all was not well. I wanted to discover an inner strength that would not only brush aside such trivial human reactions – which I saw as minor mechanisms of a robotic life clicking into action like so many gears, chains, and pulleys – and understand what lay below and whether there was anything that could truly be called human freedom.

Shallow distractions and a ticking-over will to survive is the dead-end most DNA streams have reached after all that trouble traipsing through Ice Ages, the collapse of civilisations, famine, hunger, war. We were all there at the beginning in our genes, must have been, but the source diversified and branched leaving most human beings alive today with a mediocre script, played out, bit-part actors dead to themselves since so rarely conscious of anything other than surface life. Perked up for a little while by a moving TV programme, a child’s smile, a small lottery win. But what are they doing? Where is their creativity? Did their genetic heritage crawl through those centuries of turmoil and discovery, sit out those Ice Ages in freezing caves in dog-skins, just to give rise to a bunch of couch potatoes… was it all just to have a fridge and broadband? Is that it? The purpose of it all? For some, apparently so.

And yet, I know from talking to all sorts of people when I was a Samaritan volunteer on the phonelines, listening to them when they were down or suicidal, ordinary people easy to dismiss in the street as leading nothing lives, that every single one had a story to tell. The woman who told me she had met an angel in the market one snowy Christmas eve when she was going home to kill herself. The man who had broken every single commandment: ‘And I mean all ten.’ Now he was going to become a monk, leave the world behind and keep beehives, and pot honey. The 14-year-old girl being sexually abused by her father, she had taken an overdose and didn’t want an ambulance; she wanted to die but she didn’t want to die alone she wanted to talk to someone, ‘to the end, is that alright?’. ‘Okay, let’s talk.’

I still think about her. She was found dead in the kitchen clutching a piece of paper with my name on it and the Samaritan’s number, phone off the hook. Her aunty rang to let us know. When you’re 14 that’s your world, being 18 or 20 is so far away. Her last words to me before she slumped: ‘I’ll watch over you Joel.’ She was so suddenly full of fear near the end, fear that might have been contagious, but I teased and drew it into a strand of calm until it was strong enough to hold her, allowing a power beyond me to flow through me and effect this change. I felt the hand of an angel on my shoulder and said to myself: ‘Does it have to come to this before you show?’ And the angel said: ‘Yes it does, you know this.’

I was affected deeply by it. One afternoon a few days afterwards I was sitting under a tree trying to encompass my unsettled feelings. I was watching the leaves fluttering in the gentle breeze, dappling the sunlight, when a single green leaf fell to the ground and I burst into tears. It seemed clear life was entirely a matter of compassion for others and my own life was empty save to the extent it could be filled with that.

I’m turning back all the time, turning back to compassion when it’s so easy to write people off for their sluggishness to evolve. I try to see what their lives are made of, why they sit in an armchair all alone every evening watching television, why they stare at the photo of a loved one who’s dead, why they find it so hard to change their ways. They have been bent so many times to the same shape they can now only bend that way, until they snap. I understand why some when they go to sleep at night have as their greatest wish not to wake up in the morning. They mutter a self-hypnotic mantra of despair, turning over stale thoughts, churning like a concrete mixer a vocabulary of overused sentiments they just repeat and do not connect with any more.

Yet there is a blessing in disguise in even the most arduous personal reality if only the gulf can be crossed to reach it: the realisation that none of it really matters and never has mattered. And what’s important is safe and beyond destruction. This in essence was what religion hoped to instil before it became a maggotorium, and a tab of acid costing a quid can show you first-hand if you’re open to see it.

But is insight and understanding everything? What about entertainment, camaraderie, simple human friendship? Yes, those things too enrich a life. But for a practical rule of thumb you can learn to apply, just go with what’s in front of you, and if you yearn for something else ask yourself is it real and if it is real then make sure what’s in front of you leads to it. If you deal only with what’s right in front of you in the present moment, I don’t believe anyone will ever be in a position to say you haven’t lived your life.

And who knows where it may lead, you may just achieve everything you want to achieve, one thing after another, with the rest of the desires lined up for fulfillment later. I can't say that it hasn’t worked out that way for me since coming up with this basic ground-rule in my twenties, despite times of disenchantment and loneliness. I still get periodic delusory states trying to tell me I ought to be out socialising when I’m not, or I ought to be working when I’m watching butterflies and can’t be arsed. These states of mind haven’t gone away, I just see them for what they are: fleeting unrealities, mere thoughts that can be stopped right there.

In the future, perhaps I will get more of what I want, the beautiful wife soulmate love of my life, an exotic location to live and write, and sufficient money not to have to forgo simple pleasures all the time. Yet it’s all a matter of degree. If we’re talking the coming to fruition of all desires ever wished for that weren’t just a passing fad, and time being the only obstacle, then sweet Oblivion and the visitation of alien worlds all have to be fitted in somewhere too. It’s a bugger to plan. So I just let it get on with itself and devote my energies solely to the moment. Have done for many years, will continue to do so, and the future can go and rot for all it matters to me, since that may be all I am doing when it comes.

And as I sit back I hear a solitary blackbird just waking up through the open window as the dawn light rises into the world and all else falls away just listening to it.