“Be Lamps Unto Yourselves”: The Paradox of Aloneness

I am alone. And although I have, like many of us, viscerally experienced the reality of this in flashes and pangs across my life, I have struggled to understand what it might mean. In fact, exploring my changing relationship to aloneness over the years has been one of my most productive means of learning about the evolving state of my internal well being over time. For sure, my sense of intense aloneness began very early. In the oldest photos of me, I look bewildered and misplaced, as so many babies do, like a space traveler who has been pulled into the orbit of a very strange planet.

I’m sure that one reason I reach for this ET analogy are the associations “alienation” has with existentialism, a philosophy firmly rooted in a respect for loneliness. According to Sartre and his ilk, feeling separated, stranded, and dislocated relative to the objective life situation into which we have been “thrown” is an essential element of our human condition. There is an ineluctable and necessary flavor of aloneness for conscious human subjects, from this point of view, and the road to authenticity demands that we turn and face this stark truth. The inauthentic alternative is, unsurprisingly, that we lose ourselves in the usual routines, obsessions, and addictions that permit us to temporarily hide out in various forms of unconsciousness.

Another way of avoiding aloneness, I think, is to paper it over with something prettier, for example, by translating it into “solitude.” Here, we may recognize the ubiquity and poignancy of being alone but seek to bypass it by mentally transforming it into something pleasantly and emotionally romantic. It is surely no accident that the “solitude” of which so many sing is frequently contingent on gorgeous backdrops: mountain vistas, sunsets, or unpopulated, pristine beaches. But it seems to me that any experience of “solitude” that has not been achieved through a genuine reckoning with aloneness will most likely lead to nothing more than the temporary good feelings of superficial poetry and self-delusion. Even worse, we may later recall those moments in the sunset and berate ourselves for our failure to make those “good” feelings last.

Some think that, partly because of its emphasis on alienation and angst, existentialism is a pessimistic philosophy, but I have long found comfort in it. For one thing, it assures me that my longstanding sensations of isolation and apartness haven’t been pathological, or even particular to me, but a predictable consequence of being a conscious human being. And existentialism can also be understood as pointing the way to greater insight and meaning. In some respects, it is consistent with the Buddha’s accounts. His teachings too are rooted in the recognition that, in order to find “salvation,” we must pass through the doorway of our own lonely consciousness.

“Be lamps unto yourselves,” the Buddha says, and it is advice that simultaneously amplifies my aloneness and comforts me. For one thing, although I may be radically alone from an existential point of view, it’s okay, because I am pretty powerful. I am, it turns out, capable, through my own effort and commitment, of finding my way. And, paradoxically, although I may be fundamentally and essentially alone, this stark fact binds me to others. People do, of course, sometimes come together to party wildly in order to lose ourselves and forget who we are. But sometimes we reach for one anothers’ hands because, deep down, we understand the catalyzing possibility of being alone together.

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