How the willingness and courage to face our fears can reveal unexpected insights and allow us to move on.
It was while I was visiting Amsterdam some years ago that a client who had been diagnosed with brain cancer contacted me. She wanted my help to explore some of the issues that were coming up around her imminent death.
A vivacious, affectionate person, with a large circle of friends, her greatest fear was of being lonely. She understood that in spite of being surrounded by many friends and a loving and attentive husband, once she closed her eyes she was alone. And that freaked her out.
In one of our sessions, when it seemed appropriate I suggested she face that fear of loneliness. I put a cushion in front of her, asking her to imagine that it represented loneliness, and encouraged her to address it to tell loneliness how she felt about it, maybe to ask it any questions she had about its place in her life, and so on.
At one point she said that the essence of loneliness was the absence of all those whom she loved and was loved by … and their absence left a frightening void inside her. However, as she continued to talk with her loneliness, she had the insight that there was an aspect of loneliness that was not scary, an aspect which was already familiar, an aspect which she actually enjoyed: it was aloneness.
So we placed a second cushion near her, this one representing aloneness. In contrast to the trepidation with which she’d approached loneliness, she spoke to aloneness, now, with affection and familiarity. I recall her saying, “I know you! I meet you when I meditate. You are that lovely sense of my being so full – full of silence and stillness and peace; so completely fulfilled that I am on overflow. I feel so abundantly rich just being at home inside myself that I spill over.”
Later, when we were discussing her insights, she explained, “It’s like this: when I’m lonely, I’m aware of the absence of those I love; when I’m alone, there is such a presence, a fullness….They might seem the same from the outside but being lonely and being alone are so different!” She realised that from now onwards she could choose to focus on the absence of others or, instead, nourish her sense of the abundant presence of her internal reality.
Because she was a meditator, because she wanted to explore all her experiences as an opportunity for growth, she’d been able to identify that behind her fear of loneliness was the familiar and well-loved space of aloneness. That insight was to prove a tremendous asset as she continued her journey.