Updated: Aug 12, 2020
Back in 2011, when I’d first started my counselling training, our group were given instructions for a projection exercise using buttons. I was paired off with a fellow trainee, who is now herself an accomplished therapist, and we took turns in the different roles of explorer and facilitator. We were forewarned by our instructor that the exercise can be very powerful. As we got to work I remember hearing other pairs around the room going very deep, very quickly. I remember one woman sobbing – completely overcome by the power of the exercise. When it was my turn to be the explorer, I sifted through our own random collection of buttons, picking out those that had some resonance for me. They were buttons of certain colours, shapes, or textures that symbolised some part of my life. I picked about nine and one of these symbolised my Grandma, my Mum’s Mum, who had died the previous year. The buttons were arranged in certain patterns that symbolised the relationships between them, but as they were moved naturally through exploration, I noticed that my Grandma’s button had become separated from the others. My partner gently pointed this out to me and I wondered about it and said something like “I didn’t want her to be alone”. The next moment I was in floods of tears myself and had to take myself off to the loo. When I came back all I could explain was that it was grief, however what stayed with me was that earlier understanding: I didn’t want her to be alone.
That dynamic of aloneness vs being-with-ness has been present in my thoughts over the last few days. I’m a natural introvert and so perhaps being-with takes more energy than might otherwise be the case – I recharge through aloneness. Sometimes I really crave for and value aloneness when it comes. However aloneness can also be crushingly heavy when it is not wanted.
Reaching out to another in the hopefulness of care and instead being ignored, rejected or chastised.
Or that other people seem to be loving one another and you feel left out. Of that everybody else has love but you are left behind, missing the boat.
Many of us will have been through times where it really felt like ‘I’m on my own’. Even if, in a superficial way, there were plenty of people around.
Many of us will have learned, at times, to suppress our sadness, even to ourselves, for lack of anyone to share it with. Learning to become pointedly self-reliant.
Some people choose aloneness. People who take themselves off into the mountains (both literally or metaphorically) and become hermits. They find transcendence in other ways, perhaps with nature and other ‘non-human’ relationships. They bi-pass others. On the other hand many of us feel intense separation anxiety, which can feel as all-consuming as life and death itself.
And to see aloneness in others can be really moving – I’m thinking about children, or animals or vulnerable people particularly. But in anybody really, to see their aloneness and feel moved to close it can be a wellspring of empathy.
I think the question of aloneness vs being-with-ness, moving between what might be seen as two polar opposites, is a core existential question which I think all of us can relate to. I think our experiences of aloneness vs being-with-ness run very close to awarenesses of our own mortality. How many of us have had the wondering, at some point in our introspective lives, that ‘If I died, would anybody really miss me?’.
When my Dad died, one of, if not the most gut wrenching idea that went round and round for me was that now we would not have any further opportunity to connect, to communicate, to understand one another – that window of opportunity had closed forever.
I remember when my father-in-law, Lorinda’s Dad, died. We had spent most of the first week taking care of most of the practicalities that there are when a loved one dies. True to Lorinda and I our feet hardly touched the ground. But then we took ourselves off for a walk down to the harbour of her home town of Whitby, and along the pier. It was a glorious day and all the revellers were out enjoying the sunshine. Lorinda looked into the sea and the waves which were sloshing restlessly around the wooden pillars and said something like “life just continues on”, with such sadness, because of course it did, leaving her Dad behind.
Years later, when we organised a surprise birthday trip – we and all the family would return back to her home town and spend a couple of nights all together – she cried tears of happiness. We would all return with her to her old stomping ground.
Nowhere that I know of is this link between being-with-ness and mortality more beautifully articulated than in the words of Tibetan Buddhist lama Sogyal Rinpoche (1994):
When we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.
Rinpoche’s connection with compassion feels important. Perhaps a compassion driven by a core idea which is something like ‘I don’t want you to feel alone (unseen, uncared for, unloved…)’.
But what does that look like? Sometimes it can be about offering things: a drink, a sandwich, a tissue, some paracetamol – what can I do to help? There is also a skilfulness to this too: some people have more skill in the practicalities of caring than others e.g. what to do when someone is poorly; how to make them comfortable.
There are messages communicated in these little acts of care. Lovingly making up a child’s bed, wanting them to feel looked after – whether or not they actually notice the care that went into it! Sending off little messages of care, whatever the content, in the subtext may be found: ‘I’m thinking about you, I haven’t forgotten you’. Wishing someone a good morning or a good night, or genuinely asking them “how are you”. Not just in a perfunctory way, but rather in a way that says ‘I see you, I’m with you’.
And often I think care comes down fundamentally to having the time for someone. Listening to their stories. Wanting to understand what things are important to them and why.
Sometimes the idea of putting yourself in another’s shoes, or of active listening, could seem like work, almost a duty of the imagination. But I think something comes before these qualities: an open-heartedness, a willingness to be present for the person rather than a dismissing of them. You don’t have to feel a certain way, or have brilliant insights, or even always to be deeply moved by love or care.
In one sense this might just come down to meeting people at a certain wavelength, rather than tuning out to them. Sometimes this might mean coming down to join them in that place of pain they are in.
Sometimes we can be that person that another needs: the empathic listener (or one who sees you), the wise friend, the kind paternal or maternal figure etc.
Likewise these days I can start to notice when I’m feeling left out, e.g. when everyone else is on a different wavelength. Fifteen years ago I would have seen it as a personal failing, reflecting terribly on my character, perhaps even as crushing rejection. But now I can hold that awareness with a bit more equanimity: ok I’m feeling left out right now, perhaps there are things I can do or say to remind people I’m still here and would like to join them on a common wavelength. And if they carry on oblivious to that then I can carry on enjoying my own wavelength until somebody comes along that might meet me there.
Rinpoche, S. (1994). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. New York : Harper Collins