When I was a child and I would feel so desperately alone and frightened and sad, I would curl up in my bed and cry silently. I don’t have a single memory of a time when I could take my distress and misery to someone for comfort and support, but I do remember all the many ways my mind and my imagination kept me company and offered me various forms of relief. Some quite destructive methods and some strategies full of innate wisdom.
I can remember my bedroom so clearly. The digital clock. The pine bed frame. Sash windows that rattled when the wind blew. The woodchip walls that I’d often pick at. The cold air outside my bed and the alone-ness. I remember knowing very deeply that no one would come if I was to cry out and that I shouldn’t call out for anyone. In these moments of total emotional overwhelm, I would quite often slip inside the deep ocean of my inner world and exist in a fantasy life where things were very different from reality. As if my body was a robot on standby, sitting or lying motionless, eyes glazed… alive only on the inside. If this parallel universe failed me and I had to endure the pain, I would feel as though the worlds suffering was pouring out of my tummy and chest. Curled in a ball in physical agony. There came a time, around the age of nine or ten, when I would conjure up this really vivid sense inside myself that at that very moment, while I was feeling so alone and so desperate, there must be at least one other person in the world feeling exactly the same as me – crying and alone wherever they were, wishing someone would come and knowing no-one would. It became a sort of repeated theme for me, like a mantra… I am not alone in this. Whenever I felt lonely and overwhelmed with really frightening feelings I would imagine all the people in the world who have felt just like that and it would make me feel just a little less alone in that experience.
I would imagine it in other situations too. For example, if I was in pain – if I felt an unexplained pain in my body (which happened a lot, and no one was interested so I had to deal with it myself) – I would think, ‘I am not the only person on this planet to have felt this exact pain’… and it would help. And it still helps. It helps to validate and it also helps to take the edge off the overwhelming fear that whatever it is I am experiencing will be so intolerable I will live in eternal pain and loneliness forever… I remember even getting to a place in my teens, when I was suicidal and frequently self harming, when I would think, ‘so many billions of beings have died in the whole history of the world, I would not be the only one to have experienced death…’ and it felt uniting, it took the edge off everything.
It made me think of this community on WordPress and Instagram… sharing with others, noticing similarities, noticing a common thread of experiences, thoughts and emotions… we are not alone, even in our alone-ness. While I was reflecting on this today I came across a video with Pema Chödrön (an American Tibetan Buddhist) speaking about the practice of Tonglen meditation. She explains that compassion or the sense of shared humanity of our kinship with each other is what heals. She says this is what heals the desperation we feel, the darkness we feel… the chain reaction of misery. ‘We feel uneasy or agitated or unhappy in some way, that spirals into a chain reaction of pain. There is a basic Tonglen logic that we say to ourselves… other people feel this. It’s enough just to acknowledge that other people feel this. May this be a path of awakening the heart for all of us. A step further would be to say, may we all be free of this. And further still is the courageous – since I’m feeling this anyway, may I feel it so that others can be free of it.’ She expands on this sense that when we feel alone in our suffering, it can help to bring mindful awareness to the present moment that other people feel what we are feeling. We are not alone in our suffering. She goes on to explain that the other side is pleasure, delight, well-being, inspiration, happiness. When you experience happiness you think to yourself, ‘may other people feel this’. It helps us sense in to the shared humanity that we are not alone, that we are not separate.
I’m quite blown away learning about all this… that it’s actually ‘a thing’… this little mantra that seemed to just suddenly appear inside a corner of my mind and offer support in my darkest moments. Other people feel this.