Linda Johnsen, M.S. is the award winning author of Daughters of the Goddess: The Women Saints of India, Lost Masters: The Sages of Ancient Greece, and six other books on spiritual traditions. This article is posted with the generously given permission of the American Meditation Institute (https://americanmeditation.org/) who initially published the article, and also with the kind permission of the author.
Life is full of nasty surprises. I got one in the mail a few weeks after my first book rolled off the press. To my dismay, my publisher had sent me a long list of venues where I was supposed to lecture over the next few months. I thought being a writer meant sitting at home, thinking weighty thoughts, and transcribing them onto paper. It turns out these days the actual process of writing is the least significant part of the job; most of what we authors do now is book promotion: talks, book signings, radio and television interviews, etc. Since I was one of those people who feared public speaking worse than death, this was not welcome news.
Since then I've given hundreds of lectures and have long since gotten over my phobia. The people who show up for my talks are warm, enthusiastic, and sincerely interested in spirituality--a real pleasure to connect with. But there is something else I've learned about many of them that really distresses me.
Often after my presentations people will stay for an hour or more to share their own stories. Sometimes they cry. One theme comes up again and again: they are lonely. Not lonely for company--most of them are surrounded by family and friends. They are lonely, desperately so, for someone they can share their spiritual life with.
Here in the U.S. many yoga students find themselves in one of two situations. The first group comes from a strongly religious background where an interest in mysticism or meditation is not encouraged. A priest, pastor or rabbi lays out the doctrine and moral code they are supposed to adhere to, but leaves many important questions unanswered. What is the soul? What is God? Can I experience the reality of spirit right now? How?
As a child I was in this category myself. I urgently wanted to experience God's living presence, but this never occurred during our monumentally boring church services, not even during Holy Communion when he was supposed to be present in the sacred wafers and wine. Pastor Matthias' admonition to simply have faith seemed a poor substitute for actual experience.
People who stifle serious internal conflict about the tenets of their faith or their unfulfilled spiritual impulses, may find themselves living an inauthentic religious life. Either they veer toward blind--even fanatic--belief or else toward painful hypocrisy, espousing a faith that actually leaves them feeling frustrated and empty.
The second type of yoga student has little or no religious training. They grew up in a wholly secular culture, and were taught that science alone offers satisfactory answers to life's mysteries. And yet something inside them can't accept a purely materialistic interpretation of the universe. They secretly harbor a persistent suspicion that scientists don't know the whole story yet, that there is more to life than can be scientifically calibrated.
All of us can see the consequences of living a spiritually eviscerated life, as big business rushes in to fill the void in people's souls. I personally am amazed at the extent to which mammoth tech companies are turning people, especially young people, into Borg. The Borg are half-human, half-machine aliens seen on Star Trek: the Next Generation, who can't survive apart from the massive computer system that links them together and tells them what to do. When I see people glued to their mobile phones and computer tablets, constantly attending to tweets, twitters, text messages, computer games, viral videos and email, I think of the soulless Borg and their warning to anyone who resists becoming subsumed by technology: "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated." There are kids these days who can't even imagine sitting quietly by themselves. They need to be plugged in constantly or they feel suddenly horrifyingly alone.
For others, pharmaceutical companies offer relief for that nagging sense of meaningless that a spiritless life incurs. Legal and illegal drugs, and ubiquitous alcoholic beverages can turn their consumers into Zombies, people who still live and act in the world, but feel dead inside. I vividly remember a mercifully brief stint working at an insurance company in Chicago. The low paid employees there were absolutely miserable, counting the minutes till their booze binges at the tavern after work. This is what can happen when you live in a spiritual vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the heart. That emptiness needs to be filled somehow.
I have met yoga students who don't know a single other person who feels the same inner yearning they do. Everyone else in their community deals with their emptiness in conventional ways, perhaps through a lip service relationship with their religion, through substance or Internet addiction, or other self-defeating strategies like unrestrained shopping or visits to a casino. Even other people they encounter at yoga centers may seem primarily interested in hatha postures or health strategies to prolong their life and looks, rather than a sincere desire for spiritual understanding.
These students show up at my lectures hoping to connect with someone who knows what they're going through. Ordinarily if they express their desire for something genuinely spiritually fulfilling, friends will recommend they see a counselor, or will pass them a joint. No one seems to understand the depth of their aloneness. They feel like aliens on their own planet.
This is not a new situation. The Bhagavad Gita (composed in northern India around 2500 years ago) says only one person out of many thousands actively searches for knowledge of their inner being. If you are that one person, surrounded by many thousands of others who simply don't feel the same way, it can be pretty isolating.
But what is loneliness, really? Vedanta, the sacred tradition of India, teaches that to be lonely is to be cut off from one's true inner Self. Our deepest Self (Skt. atman), says the tradition, is no other than the Self of all beings (brahman). The feeling that we're separate from others is an illusion produced by our sense organs and the physical limitations of our brain. When we experience our inner depths, we discover our consciousness is not limited to one material body but extends outward infinitely, embracing the whole of reality. In fact, mystics throughout the ages have reported this amazing experience of cosmic consciousness. "We are all one" isn't a trite New Age adage, it's literally true. The Isha Upanishad, a very ancient Vedantic text, urges us to "see the Self in all beings and all beings in the Self." How can we be lonely when we're never actually cut off from anyone else, ever?
Loneliness, from this perspective, is divorce from the Self. Knowing one's own Self is therefore the ultimate cure for loneliness. Yogis will often go off by themselves on extended retreats to uncover the Higher Power within that paradoxically both transcends the material universe yet also links them will all creation. Those of us who have spent time with very advanced spiritual masters (like Swami Rama, the spiritual mentor of the American Meditation Institute) can attest that these great beings often have jaw-dropping telepathic skills. For them the doors that separate one mind from another are left ajar. Their sense of unity with all being means they can have as much access to another person's thoughts as to their own. For them consciousness is an extended field (the One Self) not a series of isolated units (you and me).
Needless to say, explaining this to lonely people who come to my lectures isn't particularly helpful. Most of us are still so far from this level of awareness in our own meditation practice, that simply knowing intellectually "we're all one" may be inspiring, but it isn't very practical.
What I advise these people is, "You must go out and find your spiritual community." The yoga tradition strongly emphasizes the value of satsang, fellowship with authentic spiritual teachers and likeminded spiritual aspirants. This is where we find the support we need to persevere in our practice, and companionship on a long and arduous path.
When I formally set off on my quest for spiritual truth, it took me six years to find a genuine teacher and friends who shared my quest. What a relief to finally find people I could talk to about the single subject closest to my heart! Fortunately, it rarely takes that long nowadays to find a viable spiritual community. In the past fifty years many exceptional teachers from the East have brought knowledge of the inner Self to the West, and numerous organizations, yoga centers and ashrams have materialized to offer training, guidance and companionship. Students living in urban areas or on the East or West Coast can usually connect with an authentic tradition fairly easily. Students living in rural areas may not be able to find satsang within driving distance, but can go on vacations or retreats at any of the spiritual centers with residential facilities.
Here are a few tips to connecting with your spiritual community.
Keeping company with other spiritually minded souls will lead you to keep company with your own Self. When you begin to live a truly authentic spiritual life, other lonely seekers will want to keep company with you.