Alone with others

Category : General advice, Philosophy 11th May 2020

Inside Yoga 302 (11/5/2020)

We are alone, but at the same time, we are with others. One of my meditation teachers, Stephen Batchelor, wrote several books on Buddhism and related subjects, often with titles which spoke volumes. During the current lockdown, due to Covid-19, I have often thought about one book title which sums up how many of us must now feel: alone with others.

This feeling of alone with others is especially true when it comes to the way my yoga classes are now taught: I am teaching online live, I am in one room and each person is alone in their room. They are alone but they are with others: myself and the others in the class.

Stephen Batchelor’s book explored an existential approach to Buddhism, a fascinating read, but its title in itself explained so much. This expression: alone with others is applicable in many ways, take for example, meditating in a room with others, with the eyes closed we can feel alone in our own experience, and it’s true, our experience is ours, but open our eyes, and we are surrounded by others all doing the same practice, so were we alone? We might think our experience is unique, but is it? We all share similar emotions, thoughts, doubts, fears, uncertainty, anxiety and self-judgements, and everyone will find their meditation challenging at times, and other times, filled with joy, so we are not alone there. But we are alone with others. Reassuringly, although we can feel alone, we are with “others” in our shared experience.

And, that is why this title has been on my mind so often during the pandemic lockdown, where we are cut off from friends, (extended) family, work colleagues, and even the casual interactions of seeing people out and about. For many of us, the feeling of being alone is not only ever present but uncomfortable, and the isolation at present is making it feel worse.

It is hard to solve these feelings when we cannot, at present, change the circumstances which we currently live in because this is beyond our control and in the hands of the government. But, we can soften the feelings of being alone by pushing out negative thoughts and replacing them with more reassuring and positive thoughts. For example, thinking of the number of connections we have made through this lockdown, like speaking with our neighbours more than ever because pre-lockdown we barely noticed our neighbours, only just managing a nod or a swift hello as we rushed on with our lives.

We can also reflect on the shared experiences we currently have, our boats might vary in terms of size and numbers aboard, but we are all in the same boat. It is possibly the first time that we are all going through the same kind of experience, because we all have one topic on our minds: how are you doing, are you well and so forth? Because there is the unspoken understanding that this is all about the Covid-19 pandemic and we are all affected by it.

No wonder there is talk of the World Wars as the nearest comparison to what we are now living through, because back then the collective efforts of population, companies and government were all focused on one aim – winning the war, as we now fight the Covid-19 virus.

It is understandably hard to believe that we can change how we think, but try reminding ourselves that although we might feel alone much of the time, we are not alone, and that there are many people feeling the same way.

When in a large meditation hall, filled with a large number of people, I remember how teachers would reassure the meditators that if we all had speech bubbles above our heads publicly showing everything we think, we would soon see how similar we all are. We might feel alone, but we are with others. A shared experience is easier to deal with than feeling all alone with something.

This is also clear when teaching people via the technology of online classes. There I am in my office teaching people in their own homes, they are alone in their room, I am alone in my room, others are alone in their rooms, yet there we are “with others”. Our shared experience of practising yoga together is our connection, our bond, and path to something healing and filled with benefit. While teaching I see similar situations, for example, you are not the only one trying to practice while your child or dog tries to get your attention! It is all part of the practice.

Focussing our efforts together is a way of pushing away those negative feelings and thoughts caused by the strange world we appear to be living in right now.

At this point you might be thinking, why so negative? I feel fine. That’s great, and meditation is still worth doing. While meditating when we feel joyful, blissed out and simply good, we don’t feel separate, instead, we feel part of everything, in other words connected, not alone. People often turn to meditation stuff goes wrong but as a practice it is for all, and every emotion, and every moment.

And for those who think meditation can be selfish and isolating, for many meditation is the opposite, it is a way of understanding compassion and how to be a positive influence on those around us and the world we live in. Healing ourselves is way of then being able to help others.

Being alone yet with others is an approach to understanding our existence which is not exclusive to Buddhism, for example, Carl Jung, the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, wrote about how collective consciousness works, explaining how a large group of the population would think the same and act the same at the same time. Remember when we would enter a busy room (it has to be a memory at present!) and we might get a feeling of the mood in the room, be it party mood, anxious mood or angry mood, and so forth. We would not know why we felt it, but it was there, and then perhaps we would observe what is going on in the room. This collective consciousness works to the regional, national and international level, with large numbers of people having a collective view that is the same… This is Jung’s collective consciousness at work.

The message of Alone with Others, the ideas of Carl Jung, and others can show us how we can cope with feeling alone by seeing how connected we really are. We might be living with an enforced separated existence, but this has brought many of us closer, as humans suffering in the battle against an unforgiving enemy.

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(1) Comment

7 months ago · Reply

The phrase brings to my mind how we can also feel alone or lonely whilst amongst others, or even within supposedly close relationships! It’s something I go in and out – a kind of separate-ness from other people or that universal conscience. In fact my fear in this time is anxiety about being amongst many people again, whenever that may happen. The lockdown has taken away that anxiety by taking away my self-imposed pressure to feel okay around people and to be ‘doing’ or visiting or hanging out with people! The mind…

Thanks Gary for your thoughts.

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