Essential Loneliness and the Value of Contemplative Practice
By Nick Luchetti, MS Senior Clinician/Education Coordinator
One of the core components of the Windhorse approach to recovery is the vital role that contemplative practice plays in our clinical therapeutic relational discipline of Basic Attendance. Basic Attendance is the practice of interpersonal mindfulness while engaged in everyday activities with those in recovery. While there are many reasons why contemplative practice is beneficial for providers of basic attendance, the following examines one of the primary benefits i.e. the potential to transform essential loneliness into “courageous aloneness” and thereby offer an interpersonal remedy to one of the root causes of psychological disturbance. If those who care for individuals enduring extreme states of consciousness can convey such a courageous presence, then the interpersonal environment can become a remedial source of healing. Perhaps the greatest irony of the post-modern era is that as means for communication proliferate, we are becoming increasingly isolated. In the sociological analysis of modern-day loneliness entitled Shades of Loneliness: Pathologies of a Technological Society author Richard
Stivers argues that in spite of the illusion of digital connectivity through such innovations as social media, we are collectively suffering an epidemic of loneliness. Stivers claims that modern culture fosters the development of a fragmented “technological personality” which sets the stage for even more severe forms of disconnection. He goes on to make the claim that psychological disorders, particularly psychoses, are fostered by this technologically induced loneliness. Stivers wasn’t the first to make this correlation between loneliness and psychosis. In fact, one of the most important theoretical contributions to the understanding of the phenomenon of loneliness was written by one of our psychotherapeutic “ancestors”… and this contribution almost never saw the light of day. Toward the end of her life, the gifted Chestnut Lodge psychotherapist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann authored a paper entitled “On Loneliness”. While Frieda had a professional interest in loneliness due to her long-time work with those struggling with psychosis, she had a personal interest as well. For many years, she herself struggled with loneliness, a problem that became even more pronounced after she lost her hearing late in life. Dissatisfied with her writing on the subject and convinced it was not worthy of publishing, she placed the unfinished paper in a desk drawer. Fortunately, following her death in 1957, her friends and family chose to publish the paper posthumously. Her short essay contains many seminal psychological concepts related to the issue of loneliness.
In her paper, Fromm-Reichmann differentiates between what she termed “voluntary loneliness” and the disintegrative, physically and psychologically damaging “essential loneliness”. As the term implies, “voluntary loneliness” is freely chosen – one can move in and out of it at will. Many choose this form of loneliness for constructive purposes. Think of the writer who enters into a voluntary retreat in order to access levels of creativity that may be elusive in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, or consider the monk who freely chooses a life of solitude in order to open to levels of being that lie beyond the bounds of ordinary awareness. Essential loneliness, on the other hand, is not freely chosen, and unlike the constructive version, essential loneliness carries the risk of deleterious effects on both our physical and mental health.
According to Fromm-Reichmann, “Loneliness in its own right plays a much more significant role in the dynamics of mental disturbance than we have been ready to acknowledge so far.” She believed that it was the universal fear of loneliness that caused theorists to avoid this most central of concepts. Fromm-Reichmann was not alone in these conclusions. Her colleague, the maverick psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan, had reached similar conclusions based on his own personal and professional experiences. Sullivan argued that intimacy is a fundamental human need on the same order as our need for food. He concluded that our unconscious aversion to loneliness forces psychological theorists and clinicians to deal only with their clients’ secondary symptoms of loneliness, such as anxiety and depression.
If we are to be of therapeutic service and effectively address root causes, how can we overcome this fundamental avoidance? One of the values of contemplative practice is the possibility of developing a new relationship to loneliness. If we resist the pull toward superficial distractions — a force that can be overwhelming today — we can learn to sit with our loneliness and confront the fear of our existential condition. As the founder of the Windhorse Project, psychiatrist Ed Podvoll, wrote in Recovering Sanity, “The profundity of the experience of loneliness needs to be recognized and appreciated for its great potential in any healing relationship… loneliness leads to the source of insanity and, at the same time, can become a wellspring of insight and courage.
” Contemplative practice provides a necessary discipline for working with our avoidance of the despair of loneliness, and it helps us discover the hidden potentials within. If we aspire to address the source of essential loneliness, those offering basic attendance can work with their own isolation to discover the gifts of aloneness. These gifts include the possibility of awakening to the genuine sources of interpersonal connectivity that underlie the illusion of separateness. The possibility of confronting fear and opening to the common ground of interpersonal connection makes contemplative practice an essential component of the ongoing development of Windhorse clinical staff. Our own fears are triggered by the extreme states of mind in the people we help. As Dr. Podvoll advised, we can become more effective in the face of these fears if we take up a contemplative discipline to enable us to transmute our own loneliness into “courageous aloneness.”