Aloneness in meditation was something I immediately encountered in the beginning of my practice. There was a consistent habit of moving away from the breath and trying to visualize the fellow meditators around me. However, it was never successful. I could turn on my imagination and think of all the crazy things I wanted, but the space around me was always empty, regardless of how close those other meditators actually were. Try as I might–remembering that people sat two feet in front, behind, to the left, and right–with my eyes closed, they felt much more distant. It was painfully obvious that this was not true, and more unsettling was the isolation. Being in a room with five others, I was by myself.
This would not last very long, the bell was usually rung shortly enough. Still, it was a novel experience. Periods of previous aloneness would simply be activities done in solitary: reading, watching TV, homework. Those sorts of things. But in meditation, there were no diversions. Only sitting with every breath, every thought, and every pain. All of this goes on without our noticing, except when we finally sit still. And in sitting still, there is no where to turn, no one to reach out to.
Fast forward to my first meditation retreat. Before committing to sit, we were asked to keep noble silence throughout the retreat. The effort, I was told, was to purposefully create an environment of being by ourselves. Talking, hand gestures, and even face-to-face contact was limited during sitting and walking meditation. Again, feelings of loneliness pervade the meditation, except this time it was not quite so bad. Maybe it was because we were supposed to feel by ourselves, and be our own company. It was perfectly normal, in noble silence, to feel alone. It was as it is, as it should be.
What helped more was to know that my fellow meditators and the monks have gone through the same experience. They too were also experiencing being with themselves, not running anywhere. As much as I did not want to feel alone, it was consoling to know that others had gone through it as well. It was par for the course.
Unpleasant as it may be, it’s still a part of my meditation. Knowing it was to be expected only helped to tolerate it. But you can tolerate and have disdain at the same time. A begrudging smile. I didn’t like that. I could never settle with that. But the Buddha, being wise as he was, helped me along. On one occasion, I remember reading the Buddha saying, “You yourself must strive, the Buddhas only point the way.”
No more forced smiles. All I could do was to give that aloneness a great big hug, and say it was all ok.