The growing epidemic of loneliness, particularly amongst the young, is driving people towards harmful and even destructive behaviors. Why do we experience loneliness? What can we do about it? We will examine this topic from a spiritual perspective.
A link to a previous talk (The Need for a Friend) I mentioned here: LINK
Aum Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya.
So the topic we’ll be discussing tonight is Loneliness – we’re not meant to be alone. There is definitely, in the developed world, an epidemic of loneliness. I really think it became kind of more pronounced during the covid lockdowns, when all the governments were doing that thing, that people really did begin to experience a deeper sense or experience of isolation and great loneliness. In the US—and I’ll just read here,
“A 2018 study of 20,000 adults found that half of Americans felt alone, or always alone, and that those aged 18 to 22 felt far more lonely than those in the age of 72 and above.”
So that was from 2018. In 2020 Harvard University did a study, and reading here, quote,
“Preliminary results of a Harvard University study conducted in October 2020 found that 36 percent of Americans reported feeling seriously lonely…”
Thirty six! It’s more than one in three!
“…and among specific groups of people the number was even higher, with 61 percent of participants aged 18 to 25 [61!] feeling seriously lonely and 51 percent of mothers with young children reported feeling frequently or almost always lonely.”
Of course, the UK, they have opened, in the last two years (I think it is in the last two years), they have a Minister for Loneliness, so it’s a ministerial position. And they commit a lot of resources to loneliness and its effects on people, because they understand the impact that it has on national productivity and happiness etc.
So it’s kind of like—I went online to look at some videos on the subject, just to see what was out there, and I came away with a feeling of tremendous sorrow and heartbreak at what people are going through, how people are so—in so many different walks of life, but in some communities, it’s worse than others. In Middle America, the epidemic, which is also tied to massive rates of suicide, is amongst white middle-aged men. And apparently that’s grown 51 percent in the last few years, like three years or something. Whereas in communities of color it was not—in other ethnic groups you didn’t see that level of growth. But listening to people talk, it is absolutely heartbreaking, that someone can be confronted and experience such grave forms of loneliness where it becomes almost debilitating for some people.
About a week or so ago somebody sent me an email wanting to ask a question, and it was somebody that I’ve communicated with in the past, and as part of the email he sent me a little note about a new neighbour they have. They’ve moved to another city, and when they settled in, he said,
“We bought a house, and two doors down was a Punjabi Sikh couple with two kids. The woman, Mandeep, with sorrowful eyes, once begged my wife Anna in broken English, to be her friend, because she had no friends.”
Of course, this guy’s wife readily agreed, and they’ve become good friends.
But it’s just like it’s—You see it with little kids, the desire to be friends. When kids sort of like, when they see another group of children, and it’s in a strange place, meaning something not familiar with them, there’s—with a lot of them there is this sort of like hesitation at first, and then if one of the children beckon, you know, “Come and join,” then they’ll come over. And then a little while into talking, it’s really not uncommon for kids to ask, “Will you be my friend?” And of course, everybody hears that, and they look at it, and it’s all like so sweet, and tugs at the heartstrings. But when we consider, there is a living being, a soul, stuck inside that little body and utterly identifying with that body, and because of the age not having all of the barriers up and the guards put up, just innocently and sweetly asking, “Will you be my friend?” That desire for a friend actually runs very deep.
And the experience of not really having the connection of a friend—I mean it was quite—if you recall what I read out, that, “51 percent of mothers who had young children reported feeling frequently or almost always lonely;” and it’s because, with your children when they’re young, you have the protective motherly or fatherly Instinct, but you don’t really relate to the child as a friend, and so even though you may be taking care of children—I mean it’s actually a very common thing. I saw on one of the videos I watched, a woman in a town in Australia who felt, when she had her first baby she felt really, really isolated and really struggled. And then she later went on to start a mother’s club where they would invite other women with young children and babies to form part of like, just a group, to get together and support each other, and that really sort of like lifted things for her. But the point is that a little tiny infant, a little tiny child cannot be your friend; and that desire for, and that feeling of a need for a friend is very, very strong, and when a person doesn’t have friends it can be actually quite devastating.
I read a post, an online post of a mother who had a 21-year old son, and the son was pretty much non-verbal for most of his life, and had grown lonely after developing severe autoimmune—I’m sorry,
“severe immunodeficiency disorder that caused him to be home schooled and isolated from other kids. David who speaks only when prompted, gave his parents Carrie and Robert quite a surprise when he spontaneously asked them a question for the first time and the question was, ‘Would somebody like me?’”
If we are not casual about things, or flippant, we actually put ourselves in somebody’s shoes that’s having that experience, where they feel that they’re not actually likable or lovable, where they feel isolated like this, it’s a very heartbreaking experience. And all too often people can be very callous and hurtful. It’s actually more common amongst children, particularly I think in sort of like high school level where people can gang up on someone and bully them and isolate them to the point where it becomes so tragically lonely for that person, they end up committing suicide.
Unfortunately, that mentality, that tendency, which is just a massive manifestation of immaturity and narcissistic self-centeredness, where you can’t even empathize and feel for another, has very much over-flown now to the broader population. Social media has been incredibly destructive in this regard, and has led to this deepening experience of isolation of people. I mean people are already becoming increasingly isolated from each other. But then you have this cruelty of language where you tell somebody to go kill themself—it’s just like! And the person who’s on the receiving end becomes so utterly distressed. And what’s incredibly sad is how people can do this, and actually not feel any empathy.
A week and a half ago or so, or two weeks ago, somebody sent me a video link to an interview that Piers Morgan was doing, and I was going like, “Okay, why l am I going to watch this?” And I saw, when I clicked on it, that he was interviewing this guy Jordan Peterson, who is either much loved or much hated, particularly by people that don’t agree with him ideologically. And in that interview Pierce was asking him, or bringing up about how violently, in terms of speech and ideas, he is attacked for what he does, and he made mention of a couple of things. And Jordan Peterson said it’s sort of like he’s learned to deal with it. It was one particular criticism that was levelled against him that was extremely hateful, he said once it reached that level he thought it couldn’t get any worse.
But then Pierce Morgan brought up another person that had criticized him for being—offering support, supposedly, to a group of people that have been labelled as “incel”. So this “incel,” apparently, when you look at the definition, it’s “a member of an online subculture of people who define themselves as unable to get a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one.” And so, in the criticism that this person had levelled, that it was like this guy Jordan Peterson is just somebody that supports and deals with all these incels—and when Pierce Morgan brought it up, Jordan Peterson—it was like he was hit by something, and he actually began to tear up. And of course, the first thought in your mind, “Is this kind of some kind of self-pity, that he’s being attacked, and he’s—it’s affecting him?” And Pierce asked him, “You know, you seem to be taking this very—” I can’t remember the word he used, but, “It seemed to be really affecting you. What is it about this that affects you?” And really, tears welled up in his eyes, and he said, “For want of a kind word people are killing themself. And why shouldn’t I support people that are struggling this way?” And it was like whoa! It was really impactful and quite overwhelming to see this response, a very genuine response of feeling tremendous compassion and empathy for a particular group of people that are isolated and feel very lonely and cut off. And he, being a clinical psychologist, has done so much work with people that suffer from these different forms of isolation and what it does to them.
But it’s kind of like, well, how can somebody level that type of criticism, where you are trying to demean someone because they offer support to a community of people that are desperately lonely? It’s kind of like, what’s wrong with you, that you could stoop to such a low level and be so cruel? This is kind of like an overflow that you see, in maybe the last couple of years of elementary school and then going into high school, how people can be really cruel and really isolate others.
We are called upon to be compassionate. There is a wonderful verse in the Bhagavad-gita, in the 6th chapter, where Krishna, Lord Krishna, states that,
“He is a perfect yogi who, by comparison to his own self, sees the true equality of all beings, both in their happiness and in their distress.”
These are things that—these are aspirational. We should hold these kind of statements to be aspirational statements that guide us in life, so that we can try and become more caring. Here the yogi, he sees the true equality of all beings by comparison to his own self. Yes, I also can, am, are capable of experiencing this as well, and that comparison is both in people’s happiness and also their distress. This excellence of character that we should all aspire for is so important, especially in the world in which we are living today.
There is another verse in the Bhagavat Purana, where it states,
“The Supreme Soul is very satisfied with the transcendentalist when he greets other people with tolerance, mercy, friendship and equality.”
So, we are being called upon. We know that we would be a recipient of divine grace, we would be a recipient of spiritual enlightenment, if we can conduct ourself with others in this way, to greet other people with tolerance, mercy, friendship and equality. And when one behaves counter to this, then one is considered in spiritual terms to be very fallen and very unfortunate, and their lives will be small and bitter. They will not know the peace that comes from true spiritual advancement.
So, in talking about the pain of isolation and loneliness a person may sometimes ask, “Well, what about a hermit or a recluse? I mean they seem to be able to handle isolation; that surely this is something that somebody is just inflicting upon themselves, this not being able to manage their life very well, or not being able to just get on with things.” If you look—and this is not necessarily true for all, I’m not saying it is true for all, but you will often find that many of the people that choose loneliness, to live separate from others, they are doing it because there is often a massive burden that they are carrying within themself. They may have experienced, with their own parents or family or society, they may have experienced great pain in their life, great heartbreak and suffering; and so, when they choose to live in isolation, it’s not that loneliness is not painful for them, but they feel that the pain that others can inflict upon me is even greater, and so I choose the lesser of the pain. And so they accept this isolation and loneliness, feeling some consolation there, because of the things that they may have experienced in their life.
So that kind of brings us to the discussion of why this loneliness exists, and what did the transcendentalists do to combat it or to insulate themselves from it? So, if you have any background with Eastern religion or paths, spiritual paths, you’ll see that there was this great tradition with the yogis where they often lived as loners. They cut themselves off from society. And there were generally two categories of these spiritual seekers who lived isolated from others, and they did it for somewhat different reasons.
So the first category are those who became very focused upon the experience (and many of you have probably heard of this), this merging into this ocean of spiritual light, the Brahmajyoti, where someone becomes very focused on the impersonal feature of God or the Highest Truth. And many of the yogis that chose this path, they often saw the world as being a place of unbearable suffering. I mean it was a pretty heavyweight—They have this word samsara, and it describes this cycle of birth, repeated birth and death, and the transmigration through different species of life, where the soul is always in this state of imprisonment and being victimized by their bodies, by their minds, experiencing the pangs of birth and then old age, disease, and then finally death, and just going through it again and again. And with death everything that you grew attached to in this lifetime and all the relationships that you had, become shattered at the time of death. You are physically removed from all that you care about, all that you are attached to. And they saw this as being an unbearable form of pain. And why will I voluntarily participate in this endless cycle? And so they sought to get out of this, and they became this particular category of yogis. They became very much focused on the idea of the impersonal feature of Godhead, known as the Brahman, or Brahmajyoti.
The problem is that even if they attained that state of liberation, the Vedas actually reveal that one cannot perpetually stay in that state, that after an almost infinite period of time the soul is again stimulated by the desire to act and to have relationship. So even in that state where they’re experiencing this spiritual blissfulness, there is this stirring and undercurrent that then causes that person who has attained that state to fall from that condition and return once again to material life.
The second category was a much larger category of yogis, the vast majority. They would seek out a lonely and holy place, but it was for a different purpose. On the negative side of it, they desired not to associate with worldly-minded people and a worldly life that they considered trivial and distracting, but what they desired more than anything was transcendental communion with the Supreme Soul, with God. And they saw that in achieving that one permanently overcomes loneliness. And so for a period of time, where they committed to their yogic practice and the cultivation of this relationship with the Supreme Soul, it was a price that was to be paid for the—attaining a state of spiritual liberation where one is bound heart to heart with the Supreme Soul in a loving and friendly exchange.
When—some of the videos that I looked at, you had different psychologists and social workers who are looking at all the different experiences of loneliness that people had, and you saw documentarians and people from news organizations interviewing people about their experience of loneliness, and different people would attribute different causes to their loneliness, like, “My wife has died,” or, “I’ve now retired, and I don’t really have any friends. I don’t have anything that really interests me anymore, and I just am caught in this state of loneliness.” I mean you see it like this in old age homes, where people, even though they’re with others, you can—and it’s not just in that condition, you can be in the midst of lots of people and be profoundly lonely.
So the question is, what is the cause? What is the ultimate cause for this experience of loneliness? And it’s because, from the spiritual perspective, because we are eternal spiritual beings temporarily residing within a body, we have a spiritual nature. We have, if you wish, a spiritual home. We have an eternal relationship with the Supreme Soul from whom we have come, and that connection is an eternal connection. And it is not until, they say, until a person re-establishes that loving relationship with our eternal—the Lord of our heart, that one becomes completely immune to all experiences of loneliness. And it is because we experience separation from the Supreme Soul that we can feel lonely, even in the midst of family and friends, we can be overwhelmingly lonely.
So this bond of eternal kinship—and the word kinship is interesting, because it really indicates close and familial, as a family member, a connection. So in one of the great spiritual texts, the Brahma Samhita, they have a verse. Part of it goes:
sa nityo nitya sambandha
So sambandha means relationship or connection, and the English translation, anyway, of this verse is, “The same jiva”—because it was speaking about the eternal soul, “The same jiva” —the word jiva is a Sanskrit word indicating the living being, the individual soul:
“The same jiva is eternal, and for all eternity and without beginning joined to the Supreme Lord by the tie of an eternal kinship. He is transcendental spiritual potency.”
So this was a description of the nature of the soul, and speaking about the eternal nature of the spiritual being. One of these characteristics is that we are eternally joined in a tie of eternal kinship with the Supreme Soul, and that is why we feel the desire for friendship, because it is part of our eternal spiritual nature. And we seek it within this world, but what we find is never as fulfilling or as perfect as what we actually desire.
A number of times I’ve quoted from a couple of the Upanisads, Mundaka Upanisad, and the Svetasvatara Upanisad, where they use the same analogy, the same verse in both of these Upanisads, where they compare the living being residing within the body along with the Lord of our heart, who resides with us within the same body, as being like two birds in a tree, the tree being like the material body. And so in the verse it states:
“Although the two birds are in the same tree, the eating bird…”
—meaning the bird that’s hopping from branch to branch just eating, in another place it’s described, and the other one is simply standing waiting for that first bird to turn and recognise his eternal friend. So:
“The eating bird is fully engrossed with anxiety and moroseness as the enjoyer of the fruits of the tree. But if in some way or other he turns his face to his friend who is the Lord and knows His glories—at once the suffering bird becomes free from all anxieties.”
So while we’re talking, you know, the topic here is about loneliness specifically, I did give a talk on August 10 on the topic of friendship and how we—I think it was called The Need for a Friend, and so I will post a link to that talk, and you might want to take a look at it if you haven’t seen it, because it deals with this topic in a little bit more depth. So, when we speak—and they use this term, the yogis, “the Lord of our heart,” when we speak of the Lord of the heart, we’re speaking of the perfect friend, the most perfect friend. In the Bhagavad-gita, addressing this, Sri Krishna states:
“A person knowing me as the Supreme Lord of all and the benefactor and well-wisher of all living entities, attains peace from the pangs of material miseries.”
So re-establishing this relationship, this transcendental relationship, this spiritual relationship, is actually the answer to all of our material pangs.
In the Bhagavat Purana addressing this Lord of our heart:
“…You are situated in everyone’s heart as the Supreme Soul just to show Your causeless mercy, and You are the eternal well-wisher.”
And yet another quote:
“To serve the Supreme Soul is most natural for the soul because He is the most beloved, the Lord of the soul, and the well-wisher of all other living beings.”
So, in the process of yoga, those who follow this path, particularly the path of devotion, they may address the Supreme Soul as Krishna, which means the all-attractive, and Lord Krishna is described as being the Supreme friend, this friend that we have an actual connection with but which we have forgotten.
When we think of a friend, what is it that makes someone a friend? One of the many qualities—and I’ll read something that my spiritual master stated,
“One of the many qualities of a friend is understanding. If you have a friend and you go to that friend to explain a problem that you’re having, to open your heart, you know that your friend will be understanding. He will not condemn you or misunderstand you. No matter what problem you’re having your friend will still love you. When we speak of Krishna we are speaking of the perfect friend. When most people think of the Absolute Truth, the Supreme Person, or God, unfortunately they often think of a judge rather than a friend. So when they need a friend, instead of approaching God as their dear most friend, they approach other people and try to open their hearts to them. The name Krishna means the all-attractive person. Krishna’s the most beautiful, the most wise, the most compassionate, the wealthiest, the most powerful and the most renounced. When we speak of Krishna we are speaking of the Absolute Truth, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the cause of all causes, and the original person, Bhagavan.”
So, loneliness will only be permanently erased when we do what is most natural for us, when we reconnect once again with the actual Lord of our heart, when we rekindle this lost connection that we have ignored. And it is because we have ignored it that we have this gnawing feeling within us where we’re always looking for a friend, and why we fear loneliness, because we’re not meant to be alone. Spiritually, we are meant to be eternally connected in a bond of ecstatic love and affection.
And of course, as we know, the way in which we can reconnect with this Lord of our heart is through this process of meditation upon these spiritual sounds, these transcendental sounds. So I invite you to chant with me.