Alleviating the Pain of Loneliness


By Toni Bernhard

Toni Bernhard is the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers; How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness; and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Until forced to retire due to illness, Toni was a law professor at the University of California–Davis, serving six years as the dean of students. She has been a practicing Buddhist for over twenty-five years..

The following is an excerpt from her book, How to Be Sick: Your Pocket Companion.


The Challenge

Alleviating the Pain of Loneliness

The dramatic change in lifestyle that usually accompanies chronic illness can lead to painful feelings of loneliness. Previously, you may have been in the company of others every day; suddenly, you’re by yourself most of the time.

I find it helpful to distinguish between being alone and feeling lonely.

Being alone, in itself, is a neutral state, neither positive nor negative. The philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich said this about being alone: “Language . . . has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”

May what follows help you take the first steps toward turning the pain of loneliness into the glory of solitude.


Take comfort in knowing you are not alone in your loneliness.

Millions of people understand how you feel. Roy Orbison expressed it this way: “Only the lonely know the way I feel tonight.”

Bringing to mind others who are lonely and evoking compassion for them and for yourself over your shared circumstances can make you feel deeply connected to them. This can ease your own loneliness.

"I find it helpful to distinguish between being alone and feeling lonely."

Think of words that capture the pain of loneliness, and repeat them to yourself in a gentle and soothing manner.

Here’s an example attributed to the Talmud: “The highest form of wisdom is kindness.” Find those kind words—ones that resonate with you personally—and bring them to mind with a gentle and soothing voice. Your words might be similar to these: “It’s dispiriting to feel so lonely” or “I’m incredibly sad that I’m not with my friends tonight.”

Expressing compassion for yourself in this way lets you know that you care about your suffering. This makes loneliness easier to bear, and also makes it easier to patiently wait for it to pass out of your mind.


If you find yourself focusing on loneliness, examine whether it’s for a constructive purpose or whether it’s only making you feel worse.

When you’re feeling lonely, there’s a tendency to focus on it exclusively. This is beneficial if your intention is to shed light on what gives rise to loneliness. For instance, if you know that it’s triggered by certain interactions or activities on your part, you can try to avoid them.

However, if your focus is on how bad loneliness feels, this can increase its intensity. If this is what you’re doing, a pleasing distraction can help by shifting your attention from loneliness to what the world around you has to offer right at this moment. You could put on some music or go outside for a while. Come up with what you think would be enjoyable to do and then do it, even if you have to apply what I call “gentle force” to get yourself going. This is self-compassion in action.


Use Three-Breath Practice to shift your attention from feeling lonely to what’s going on in your field of experience right now.

When loneliness feels overwhelming, pause, and bring your full attention to the physical sensation of three consecutive in-breaths and out-breaths. This simple but powerful practice loosens the grip of loneliness because it shifts your attention to what’s going on in your immediate experience—specifically to the physical sensations that accompany

After taking those three in-and-out breaths, you can simply enjoy the relief of having relaxed into the present moment, or you can look for a pleasant distraction as discussed
in the previous suggestion.

Three-Breath Practice opens your heart and mind to the possibility that enjoyable experiences are within your reach right now.

Return to this practice often.

"Expressing compassion for yourself. . . lets you know that you care about your suffering."

See if you can make friends with loneliness by letting it keep you company.

This suggestion was inspired by a passage in an Ann Packer novel: “Loneliness is a funny thing. It’s almost like another person. After a while it will keep you company if you let it.”

Let it keep you company by calmly giving in to loneliness instead of giving up in anger. Giving up takes this form: “I hate this feeling of loneliness. I want to get rid of it, but I can’t. I give up.” This kind of thinking makes you feel like a failure and leaves you just as lonely, if not lonelier.

By contrast, gently giving in to loneliness arouses self-compassion because, when you treat loneliness with kindness and understanding, you’re treating yourself with kindness and understanding. In this way, you’re befriending this difficult emotion.


Each evening, write down something fun or fulfilling that you plan to do the next day.

Putting your plan in writing increases the likelihood that you’ll follow through with it because you’ve made it part of your schedule for the next day.

Of course, sometimes unexpected things come up and you can’t keep to your plan. When this happens, tell yourself, “That’s life! No blame!” And then, that evening, write down something fun or fulfilling that you plan to do the next day.


Recognize that feelings of loneliness are as changeable as the weather.

You may feel as if you’ll always be lonely, but emotions are in constant flux, arising and passing, just like weather patterns. In the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “No feeling is final.”

Without trying to force any sadness to go away, be patient with your loneliness. It’s likely that by tomorrow, it will have eased a bit—and perhaps the next day, a bit more. And the day after that, it might even turn into Paul Tillich’s glorious solitude . . .

"When you treat loneliness with kindness and understanding, you’re treating yourself with kindness and understanding."

You won’t be alone when you have this pocket-sized treasure of transformative practices, written by beloved bestselling author Toni Bernhard.

In 2001, Toni got sick and never recovered. As she faced the confusion, frustration, and despair of a life that was suddenly severely limited, Toni had to learn how to be sick.

In this easy-to-use, easy-to-carry book, Toni shares practices from her bestselling classic How to Be Sick and also offers new suggestions and strategies for coping with a life impacted by chronic pain and illness. Because the book is organized by specific challenges, you can immediately find practices that can help when they’re needed most.

With this book in hand, you will discover the experiential wisdom that has helped Toni live a life of equanimity, compassion, and joy, despite her physical and energetic restrictions—and, sometimes, because of them. In the pages of this loyal companion, you’ll find help, solace, and inspiration, no matter what life challenge you’re facing.



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