On Being Alone

I’m not lonely, just alone.”
— Melissa Berlew

Sitting on my bed near Asakusa in Tokyo, I can feel the weight of jetlag setting in. I raced to the airport a mere 16 hours ago after a stressful week at work. Sleeping in economy class is tough for me, and I'm all wound up from the rush of transitioning into travel mode.

And now alone, sitting on my hostel room bunk, the heaviness of it all sinks in. I just want to sleep. But a thought lingers in the back of my mind: I'm all alone. It has the texture of sandpaper rather than the silkiness of solitude. And I realize that I'm lonely.

How it hits us

It nearly always hits me like this. When I first arrive in a new place, for some reason this ghost of loneliness hits hard and fast. It's predictable even.

Talking to my travel friends, I realized that loneliness hits us all. It just does it in different ways. To one it hits on the plane ride home. To another, on the third or fourth day of a trip. To still another, only late at night after a long, fun day of distraction.

It happened to me when I rented a car in Calais for a week of solo-touring around northern France. It hit me in Seoul when my friends took off after 2 days of eating our way across the city. And, here I am in Tokyo, and it's happening again.

Why do I feel this way? And what is it I'm really feeling, anyway?

What is Loneliness

On the plane over the Pacific, I spent a few hours journaling about this lingering emotion and how it seems to constantly bubble just below the surface, waiting for a break in the flow to emerge.

For me, loneliness in these situations is more about a shift in energy and pace than it is about isolation or being alone. It's the throwing off of the usual routines and distractions in favor of adventure. But adventures don't come with smooth timelines and end-to-end encounters. Adventures, by definition, require newness and unfamiliarity. And these things often come with down time and unplanned boredom.

When I'm home, I have a nice routine. It rounds out my days with work, exercise, reading, playing games, hanging with friends and watching TV. When I have unplanned down time, I grab my guitar or saxophone and practice, or if I have longer, I jump on my bike and get in 15 miles.

On the road, all routines are out the window. They become impromptu excursions into the city or jungle, to a museum or night club. Even though I plan ahead to familiarize myself with the available options, that's all it really is: familiarization. I prefer not to book every minute of every day because I like the flexibility to meet new people and make things happen in the flow. And this style of travel -- what I like to call "educated improvisation" -- means that there will be gaps in the activities.

And since I travel lightly, I don't have my guitar or sax, my laptop or bicycle. And when the exhaustion piles on top, my body and chemistry work together to tell me that things aren't like what I'm used to, and I often interpret that as loneliness.

The Benefits of Boredom

In Rolf Pott's "Vagabonding", he talks about the realities of boredom on the road. It's a parental platitude to say that "only boring people are bored". But boredom is more than simple idleness.

The sensation of boredom is a combination of inactivity and powerlessness. For example, I love to create music and talk to new people; two things I can do virtually anywhere. But occasionally I find myself on a bus in a country where I don't speak the language. And during those hours there's no guitar and often no one to talk to. What do I do?

I can't read in the car. Netflix may not be available. And sleep may elude me. It's in these moments that I "feel bored". I'm disconnected from my usual activities and thinking patterns. I've lost control over my environment and habits. I'm out of my comfort zone.

The only thing I have are my thoughts. My mind turns inward and tries to do internally what it normally does externally. It explores. I think about problems I've yet to solve. I make up songs in my head. I do math puzzles or try to say a phrase in as many languages as possible. I reach into the pocket of my mind to see what toys are there I have ignored for far too long.

But if I sit still long enough, I eventually reach an end to the mental distraction. Whether by exhaustion or disinterestedness, I run out of things to do. Then what?

Boredom invites me to sit with what is...”

Here's where the magic begins. Boredom invites me to sit with what is rather than to continue to distract myself from reality.

At first I simply stare at the seat in front of me, or at the chubby kid across the aisle. My inner voices come and go, fading across the mental landscape until they finally drift away altogether. And then I simply sit. No thoughts drifting in and out, I sit. Less judgment and more observation. I sit.

Boredom is the gateway to genuine observation. It brings me into this moment fully, no longer distracted by the past or future. Boredom invites me to be mindful.

What starts out as a lull in entertainment turns into a renewed awareness of presence.

The Illusion of Value

Now that I've experienced this shift in mental pace and awareness a few times, I look forward to it with anticipation. I relish coming to the end of my routine self and seeing what's on the other side. I feel contentment in knowing that I will find myself in a place that invites non-judgmental observation of both self and other.

It's tough to find space for this level of reflection at home. I practice yoga, ride my bike or simply sit for 10 minutes to approach it. But, if I'm honest, it never quite hits the same levels as when I'm traveling.

At home I've surrounded myself with a cocoon of diversions to make myself feel productive. There are a thousand ways to make myself feel valuable when I have the illusion of control at my finger tips. But that's all thrown out the window on the road.

Sitting there on the hot bus, on the shore at sunset or by the mountain lake, I recognize that there's no where I need to be and no one waiting for me to arrive. My sense of value cannot be propped up by a busy schedule or a task to be completed. I simply exist. And for an achiever, that can sometimes feel uncomfortable.

This journey to remembering that I am enough simply because I exist often begins with boredom. It starts when I cease doing what I'm used to, and create enough space to be thrown off balance. And then I remember that balance, too, is an illusion. Sometimes it's a good idea to simply be, and let the world pass you by.

If I let myself be bored long enough to break through and discover that boredom is nothing more than an illusion of constant entertainment, then I realize that boredom is the misconception that someone or something must continually engage me. It's quite selfish, really.

Don't expect the world to entertain you. That's passive. Be proactive and observe your world for what it is. Being aware of reality inspires me. It shows me what's possible simply be seeing what already is. Give yourself the gift of space today. Sit. Be bored. And see what inspires you.