You CAN be happy alone
Have you ever stood by and watched a toddler or a young child playing alone. For six years, I had one child and I used to have a fascination for how he would happily ramble along playing on his own. He never seemed to mind. Of course, my mind used to worry that I should organise a friend for him to play with because he “needed that”. He did love having another child to play with, and he loved to play with me, but he was also equally content on his own.
So the question is: Are you happy alone? Are you able to be by yourself and feel really content and not feel like you need someone or something to fill a void? Is there a void when you are alone? If so, do you know what it is, how it is being created, why it exists? A void can best be described as “an emptiness”. Our initial response to anything empty is that it can be filled, like a bucket or a coffee cup. Yet a void has a bottomless feel to it, an emptiness that can never really be filled, something that will consume but never overflow.
A modern phenomenon
If we go back just 100 years or so, aloneness was a common thing. People often had no choice but to be alone. Men often worked remotely. Women often remained at home and cared for things while their husbands were away, and in the quiet of the evening remained alone. Even today, many people from countries where opportunities are limited work abroad to support their families. If they are lucky, they get to see their children once every year or two.
For most people, though, in the modern Western world it is possible to almost completely avoid being alone. Just about everyone carries a mobile phone, making conversation available to us at the dabbing of a touchscreen. Or, if you don’t feel like talking to someone, you can turn on the TV or radio and have someone talk to you. You are never far away from a café or bar where you can surround yourself with people.
Imagine for a moment that you were left stranded on an unchartered island, a modern-day Gilligan without his six friends; all alone. What would you do? How would you survive? There would be nobody to talk to, to share the experience with or to depend on. Just you! What would you do? It is a fascinating scenario to contemplate.
One of my favourite movies of all time is the Robert Zemeckis film Cast Away, which starred Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, the loud and bombastic, totally career-consumed, disconnected corporate guy who, on the night he gets engaged, is caught up in a plane crash over the South Pacific and finds himself alone on an uncharted island, several hundred nautical miles off the intended flight path of the plane.
Chuck arrives in no condition to survive, with very few obvious survival skills and a bad attitude. He struggles to find water, let alone food. He is so indoctrinated by his career training that he cannot even bring himself to open the FedEx parcels washed up on the beach. He actually stacks them up and places his now defunct pager and pocket watch on top. He has built some sort of altar to his former self, his now lost life.
As time passes and desperation grows, Chuck contemplates taking his own life. With a severely aching tooth and fading hopes for rescue, his despair drives him to the brink. He is faced with a most awful decision. Finally, as if driven by an inner determination to survive, he makes a decision that changes the course of his life. Using the blade of an ice skate from one of the packages, and a rock, he knocks out his troublesome tooth. From there the story jumps forward a couple of years where Chuck appears as a lean, strong and very capable warrior type.
In the moments following his decision to live, he opens the parcels. Along with the skates he finds a Wilson volleyball, which ends up with a bloodied handprint on it after he gashes his hand. He draws a face on the handprint and the volleyball takes on a sort of a character and he begins to talk to it.
You know those moments when your mind is in overdrive about an issue, perhaps complaining or blaming, and there is this quiet little voice inside that is urging you to take some responsibility around the issue? That little voice can be referred to as your conscience, and the reason for the mental chatter is that the mind wants to convince the tiny voice of reason that it is right. Somebody once said, “I am not arguing with you — I am simply explaining to you the reasons why I am right.”
Noland names the volleyball Wilson and continues to talk to it. The dialogue changes from protest and justification to conversation, contemplation and the exploration of viewpoints. Eventually, when he has crossed the threshold to being rescued, the ball drifts away. Chuck has restored his stillness of mind, his self-respect and his internal peace.
When Chuck returns to his old life, he is a wise observer, ruled by his own morals and ethics, with the ability to make strong decisions. The story is beautifully told and the messages are deeply powerful.
There is perhaps a little bit of Chuck in all of us: complaining, blaming, justifying, preaching, disconnecting and pushing our own barrow first … but this is not who you are. This is not how you were born. It is who you may have become along the way to where you are.
Learning to be alone
What would you do if stranded alone on an island with nobody to help you, to talk to or to keep you company? Do you feel you need an experience like this to change your life and help you to feel happy alone?
I have a friend who owns a few camels and loves nothing more than to head out into the outback for a week or two and just walk with his camels. He is a highly functioning citizen in his life, but one of the things he loves most is being alone. Many of us cringed with horror when Jessica Watson decided, as a 16-year-old schoolgirl, to sail her yacht Ella’s Pink Lady solo around the globe. Many people lamented that a young girl should not be alone out there. The debate reached frenetic proportions as criticisms and support clashed in the salty atmosphere over Sydney Harbour as Jessica sailed off to make her dream come true.
You may have disapproved of her actions. You may have admired her courage. You may have even wished it was you sailing out through the heads. However, as she sailed, for many Australians, Jessica shone a very bright light on that void we all call “lonely”. She dragged it, kicking and screaming, starkly onto centre stage to where we all had no choice but to look at it.
Do you remember what you felt that day, October 18, 2009? If your first emotion was disapproval, what was underneath that? What lay beneath that one? Deep under the layers of emotions and resistance, perhaps we have hidden our deepest desires, our innermost yearnings to serve humanity, to change something.
How can we ever find out what we can really do unless we visit the uncomfortable vulnerability of not knowing what to do, of being out of options, exposed? I am sure Jessica visited that place on many occasions throughout her voyage.
Your inner voice
While you keep your mind and your ego entertained and amused, you close off from that tiny voice inside that urges you forward. Sometimes, when you lie awake at night, you begin to hear it and your mind wants to protest, to wrestle it into silence, but it cannot be quieted, not even by drugs. It never sleeps.
Reflect on what you do for a moment. What is your typical day? Wake in the morning, charge out the door for the commute. Immerse yourself in radio or newspapers, or something else to kill the boredom of the commute. Get to work and dive into the day’s drama. Rush home from work at the end of the day, calling everyone you need to speak to, then arrive home in the evening to conversations with family, television, more work, phone calls and, of course, the internet.
That little voice of reason gently chatting away in the background never gets a look in. Pretty soon, it is possible to be doing so many things in your life, with grand justification, that conflict with your own morals and ethics that you get to the point where you do not want to listen to the little voice of reason. It can be shameful and humiliating to hear what your own little Wilson is trying to get you to look at.
So you keep the entertainment bonanza moving ahead full steam. Dinner parties, nights out, new clothes, new cars, new homes, holidays, weekends away, video games, TV, fantasies, family drama, disputes … in fact, anything you can think of to keep your mind off that annoying little voice that “really doesn’t know what it’s talking about”.
Here is a wake-up call for you. Much of the time when you are with other people it is possible to be so disconnected that you are actually alone. I was at the airport one day, waiting for a hire car, and sat observing four friends having a conversation. It was an incredible experience to let myself really feel what was going on in that group. Everyone was taking turns talking but nobody was listening. Each member of the group was politely waiting for his or her turn to talk. As each of them talked, the other three waited politely for their turns. There was no actual connection happening between any of the members of the group.
After noticing this, I began to look out for it in daily life and I have started to recognise it as common place. People standing or sitting in pairs or small groups, totally lost in their own thoughts and agendas, talking at the people they are with.
Many of us have reached that place where our minds have become so busy, so overwhelmed with thought and worry, that speaking becomes a little like releasing a pressure valve. We open our mouths and out it all comes. However, as you gallantly parade your point to the glazed-over eyes in front of you, do you feel connected or do you feel isolated? Nobody really understands you? Your little voice in the background, our gallant and ever-caring Wilson, is drowned out in the din of your rampant thoughts.
The sad part of this is that your inner voice knows what is going on, and knows what to do, all the time. Your inner voice will tell you if you stop long enough to listen.
Perhaps this is the reason why, for centuries, monks have locked themselves away in silence, struggling to quiet the mind, to open up the void, to give the inner voice centre stage and hear what it has to say.
This inner voice has been called many things: Intuition, Higher Self, Moral Compass, Holy Spirit, Soul, Inner Being and many more. Whatever you choose to call it is fine. I am sure it does not mind, but when you do stop long enough and allow your Wilson to step into the light and say hello, you will finally find that dear friend you have been seeking, perhaps for a lifetime. When you arrive at that place, you will experience a happiness that is beyond description, a joy that knows no bounds.
Beware, though: your mind is a trickster and it can wear many costumes, including a costume called “intuition”. Many have saluted their intuition as they marched down a path of self-sabotage, only to realise that their mind had done them in again.
Opening the inner door
There are many paths you can follow to seek the silence and find peace in the void, to open the door to your little voice, allowing it to become a big voice. You can explore many forms of meditation, including the popular Buddhist, yogic and Hindu practices.
Or you might like to simply go away by yourself for a period of silence and limited stimulation. Perhaps you might wish to circumnavigate the globe in a small yacht, but I wouldn’t recommend that one if you are not at least a highly accomplished sailor. Perhaps you’d like to borrow some camels for a few weeks.
You may wish to go and immerse yourself in service in a developing country where you have no comforts and where little more than your basic needs are met. You will be on your own in many respects but on this type of path there is a real key: service.
Service is a profound yet often misunderstood practice. House et al demonstrated through a study of more than 12,000 people in Michigan, US, that those who were involved in some form of service at least once a month demonstrated a heart disease rate of less than 40 per cent of that of the general population. It appears there is something magical about being in service. So let’s take a look at it for a moment.
Steps to help you be happy alone
Do you remember a time when you did something for someone else, something that really helped them out? You did it because they needed the help, not because you needed acknowledgement. How did you feel? It is a wonderful feeling. You get to feel really good about yourself. There is a deep happiness associated with such acts that nothing else can match.
Watch little kids. They just love to help out. This instinctive behaviour is probably deep in our genes. It drives us to find purpose in our lives, to create a life being in some form of useful service to a group, a community, a society or country or perhaps even the whole of the planet. To serve is to feel valid, to feel needed and to feel of value to other humans. When you are in service, you are actually taking care of your own happiness.
That said, it is always a good thing to be mindful of your motivation. I’ve often observed drivers in traffic hold back to allow another car in from a side street and then become angry when the other driver fails to acknowledge the act of courtesy. To react in such a way may reveal a hidden desire to be acknowledged, as opposed to being in service and to be doing it from a place of “aloneness” without connection to the behaviour of others. Service is about doing something that needs to be done, without expectation or agenda.
Once, someone very close to me called and asked if I minded if she did not buy a Christmas present for me. I had no problem with that and told her so. When I inquired as to why she was asking, she was evasive and just said, “I want to do something different this year.” A few years later, I asked her about it and she gave me an embarrassed giggle. She said, “I’ve never actually told anyone about that.” So, with some coaxing, she told the story.
“There is a large gaming venue in my area. I went to the local church and asked the priest if there were any families who would have no money for Christmas as a result of gambling. He said he knew of four families in a terrible position. So I went out and bought four large wicker baskets, four turkeys, four plum puddings, Christmas cakes, fruit mince pies, stone fruits, vegetables, stocking fillers, bon-bons, champagne and soft drinks and a raft of other goodies. I went home and packed up four huge hampers and wrapped them in cellophane and tinsel. Then, in the early hours of the morning, the priest and I went out and delivered them to the front doorsteps of these families. We left no note as to where they came from.”
She went on to tell me that every time she recalls this event, she experiences a deep thrill and an overwhelming sense of happiness. The part I love is that she just did it and never felt the need to tell anyone about it: she did it, psychologically, alone.
Treasures of alone
There are many ways you can find deep happiness without needing anyone or anything else to make you happy. Every one of us can find our way back to that level of contentment we experienced as toddlers, to be deeply happy, being on our own and doing our own thing. There will be no need for anything to fill the void, as we will no longer experience it as empty.
Once you have it all figured, perhaps your service to humanity can be to share it with others. When you look around you, you will see that most people are desperately seeking this one simply quality in their lives.
The first step is always a decision. You can decide to keep going on a path of consumption and life drama where you submit to the will of your thinking mind, or you can stop and explore the hidden treasures of aloneness and discover the richest happiness of all, the happiness that comes from knowing who you really are and why you are here.
Perhaps this place is Heaven.
John Toomey resides in Melbourne and is one of Australia’s most sought-after speakers on wellness. He is the author of Australia’s first-ever Certificate course in Wellness Leadership and creator of the innovative Global Wellness Program for workplaces. T: 03 9005 7553, E: email@example.com