Serving in the Israeli army, I first became aware of the distinction between loneliness and aloneness. At home, I was acutely aware of missing my parents who lived far away in the United States. Every creak of the old walls echoed through my mostly empty childhood home, reminding me of the days we all lived in it together, the days when I was not so alone. In my army unit, though surrounded by people, my loneliness was, if possible, even more pronounced. I had not a single friend to talk to, to sit with during meals, walk with to the showers, or exchange little bits of gossip and laugh before we fell asleep. There were many people around me, yet it was clear to me that I did not belong.
According to mystic and spiritual teacher Osho, aloneness and loneliness are far from interchangeable: “Loneliness is the absence of the other. Aloneness is the presence of oneself. Aloneness is very positive. It is a presence, overflowing presence. You are so full of presence that you can fill the whole universe with your presence and there is no need for anybody.” For the two and a half years of my military service, I was too unhappy — and perhaps too young — to understand that while I could not help my aloneness, the loneliness was a choice, self-imposed and self-made. I was not yet aware that I could be enough by (and for) myself.
Long after I shed my uniform and returned to the United States, the understanding dawned on me that those girls who served with me in the army may have wanted to be friends. Belatedly, I saw that in my relationship with them I concentrated on the differences between us: I noticed every song and singer they were fond of that I had never heard about, every movie they loved that I had never seen. I paid attention to every clue that showed me that their Israeli high school experience was completely different from my American one. I focused on their superiority. And sometimes, conversely, on mine.
In his discourse, Osho quotes the Buddha, reminding the reader: “Be a light unto yourself.” “Ultimately,” Osho writes, “each of us must develop within ourselves the capacity to make our way through the darkness without any companions, maps or guide.” For moments at a time, I know I can be alone without feeling lonely, though I suppose that sitting at home surrounded by dogs, chickens and a cat can hardly be claimed as true “alone.” But it is during hard times that the alone is so difficult.
Of course no one can suffer the pain of childbirth for a laboring mother, write a test for a struggling student, or face the fear of death for a dying person, but it seems to me that another person’s support — a hand offered in comfort and love — sure helps at those times. I would like to make my peace with aloneness, to allow my own presence to fill me and the universe, but while I might dispense with “needing” someone else, I would always like to leave an opening for friends to come.
All the quotes and the card photo were taken from the booklet inside the Osho Zen Tarot deck.