Thich Nhat Hanh on the art of embracing loneliness

This short teaching about embracing loneliness is part of a talk Thay gave on the 13th of December 2012, during the winter retreat in Plum Village. Loneliness has been a constant presence in our lives during these restrictive pandemic times, and Thay’s teachings on this topic should provide much needed comfort and understanding.

[This transcript has been edited for readability.]


Last time we spoke about home. We know that once we are home, we no longer feel lonely. If you’re at home, you feel warm, comfortable, safe, fulfilled. So home is a place where loneliness disappears. But where is home?

The Buddha said very clearly that home is in us, and that there is an island that you have to go back to: the island of self. This is a practice, not a theory. 

Loneliness is the ill-being of our time. We feel very lonely, even if we are surrounded by many people. We are lonely together. There is a vacuum inside of us, where you don’t feel comfortable. We try to fill the vacuum by connecting with other people.

We believe that when you can connect with other people, the feeling of loneliness will disappear. And technology supplies us with a lot of devices in order to connect.

“Stay connected.” We always stay connected, but we continue to feel lonely. We check our email several times a day, we send emails several times a day, we post messages; we want to share and we want to receive. We are busy during the day in order to ‘connect’ – but that does not help reduce the amount of loneliness within us. 

This is what’s happening in the present moment in our modern civilization. Our relationship is not good. We are not in a good relationship with our partner, with our brother, with our sister, with our parents, with our society. We feel very lonely. And we have tried to use technologies in order to dissipate that feeling of loneliness, but we have not succeeded.

In the tradition of Plum Village, every time we sit down on a cushion, we do so to connect with ourselves. Because in our daily life, we are disconnected from ourselves. We walk, but we don’t know that we are walking. We are there, but we do not know that we are there. We are alive, but we do not know that we are alive. We are losing ourselves. We are not ourselves. And that is happening almost all day long.

So, the act of sitting down is an act of revolution. By sitting down, you stop that state of being: losing yourself, not being yourself. And when you sit down, you connect to yourself. And you don’t need an iPhone or a computer to do that. You just need to sit down mindfully and breathe in mindfully. 

Within a few seconds, you connect with yourself. You know what is going on: what is going on in your body, what is going on in your feelings and your emotions, what is going on in your perceptions, and so on.

You are already home, to take care of home. You have left home for a long time… and home has become a mess. So going home means sitting down, being with yourself, connecting with yourself, and accepting the situation as it is.

‘It is a mess, yes, but I accept it. Because I left home for a long time, I allowed things like that to happen at home; now that I am home, I will rearrange everything. And with my in-breath and out-breath, my mindful breathing, I begin to smile at everything, and I will tidy up my home.

‘I allow my body to release its tension while breathing in and breathing out. The Buddha taught me how to do that: how to breathe in and how to release the tension from my body.

‘I’m aware of my feeling of loneliness, of sadness, of fear, of anxiety. I smile at the feeling of loneliness, of fear, of anxiety. I say: “My dear loneliness, I know you are there. I hope to take care of you.”’ And you make peace with your loneliness; you make peace with your fear.

There’s a wounded child in you. You recognize her or him, and embrace him or her tenderly in your arms. That is the act of going home and taking care of home.

Every time you make a step, whether you are breathing in or breathing out, go back to yourself. Every step brings you home to the here and the now, so that you can connect with yourself, your body, your feelings. And that is a real connection. And you don’t need a lot of technology to do that. This is the revolution; this is the way to heal ourselves and our society.

We are losing ourselves. We are lost. We have to find ourselves again. We have to go home.

There is an illusion of connection: you think that with technology, with these devices, you can connect. But you cannot really connect. How can you connect with another person when you cannot connect with yourself? 

So the teaching of the Buddha, going home to the island of self, is the way to heal our society, to heal ourselves.

With the act of breathing in, you go inside. The way out is in. When you take a step, you go ‘in’ to yourself, because that step brings you home to the here and now, helps you to connect with your body.

Your body is your breathing; your body is your feet. Your body is your lungs. And you are connecting with the body, with feet, with breaths, with lungs. You are home, because the body is part of your home.

When you spend two hours with your computer, you forget entirely that you have a body. And without your body, how can you be alive?

So in Plum Village many of us program a ‘bell of mindfulness’ on our computer; every 15 minutes we hear the bell and we stop working, we stop thinking, we go back to our in-breath, we enjoy breathing in, we connect with ourselves and we smile. We become alive again.

We know that we have a body, which is a wonder. Our body is a wonder. And ‘connecting’ is, first of all, connecting with the body. And then there is a feeling. Whether that is a feeling of sadness or anger or loneliness, it is us.

We connect with our in-breaths and out-breaths, and then with that mindful in-breath we connect with our feelings. We smile at our feelings. We say, ‘Don’t worry. I’m home. I’ll take care of you.’ And you embrace your feelings with tenderness, whether it is fear or anger or loneliness, and warm ourselves up with that kind of practice.

This is an act of truly going home, and you don’t need a technological device to do so. Be a home for yourself. The Buddha said, “Be an island unto yourself.” “Attadipa saranam”: taking refuge in the island of self. That is the practice recommended by the Buddha.

When you walk from the parking lot to your office, why don’t you go home with every step? Why would you continue to think, to worry, to suffer?

Every step can bring you home. You walk like a Buddha. You walk like a free person. And that is possible.

You recover yourself, you connect with yourself with every step. And freedom is possible. And you are liberating yourself. You are not losing yourself anymore. You connect with your body, you connect with your feelings with every step. And every step brings you freedom. And if you can find a home for yourself, you can help your partner to find his or hers, because she is lonely also, he is lonely also. And he is looking for home, for some warmth, some safety.

That is why, once you have a home, you can go to your partner; you can go to the other person. Since you have a home, you are in a position to help him to have a home also. And you are confident because you know how to: how to connect with yourself, how to have a home for yourself.

So that confidence in you will inspire him or her to do the same. She can find a home in you, and then she will lean on that in order to build a home within herself.

But before you can go to him or her to help, you have to help yourself first; you have to connect with yourself. And when you have been able to connect with yourself, then the next step is possible; then it will be possible to successfully connect with the other person.

Without the first step, the second step is not possible. And you don’t really need an iPhone or something like that. You need your eyes to look at him with compassion.

Even if she is not in the same town, you can connect with him or her easily because you are already yourself, you are already home. And whatever you say, whatever you think, will help her to recover herself.

Then, when she is able to go back to herself, your relationship becomes a real relationship, because both of you have home. And that’s why, when you come together, you find home in each other at the same time, in each of you. And this is a collective home for both of you. This is the base of everything.

If you want to help society, if you want to help the community, if you want to help your country, then you have to have this base.

When you have a true home, you have happiness, safety, fulfillment – then you are in a condition to go to another. Whether they are an individual or they are a society, or a group of people.

This is the way prescribed by the Buddha. Everything has to begin with yourself, and the teaching; the practice is very clear. Every breath, every step, every sitting, every action like drinking, cleaning, if done in mindfulness, helps you to go home and to enjoy the wonders of life around you and in you.

Your body is a wonder and the hill, the clear streams of water, they are all wonders. And they have the power to heal.  


You can watch the short teaching here.

🔔 You can program your own personalized bell of mindfulness on the Plum Village App.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.