Jeff Fortuna and I share a quiet twenty-minute hike through towering blue spruce, pinion pines, chokecherry brambles and scattered aspen trees to the small clearing in the woods where he offers me a parting gift—a protection cord to wear around my neck. The cord comes, he tells me, from Ed’s belongings, and he is hopeful it will help to keep me safe on my journey. He ties it around my neck and I thank him. In this moment I remember that Jeff shared that “Ed himself was a lonely person … and he was not afraid to be alone, he was not afraid to explore his own aloneness, which in some sense was his primary motivation for doing the 12 year retreat—which was to learn more about the courage that’s embedded in the experience of aloneness” (Note 1).
Clearly, a few days away in the forest is little compared to twelve years in retreat—still I have some hunger for even a small taste of this courage. I say goodbye, shoulder the pack, and head down the antelope trail—away from the familiarity of “my land” as I call it—not because I own it—it is forest service land, public land—but because of how I have come to know and connect with it over the past twenty years of camping, hiking, and exploring.
I carry with me today a sense of adventure—and a yearning for distance—of much-needed space from my work and my clients, from my family, from my known city-self, my parental self, my therapist self. I have prepared for two nights and three days of solo hiking and camping heading due east along a series of rivers, cascades, and streams that will bring me down from the mountain’s height and back to the plains of Boulder County. I feel a combination of energy and excitement—but also notice below this a familiar ache in my chest and a moderate dose of anxiety: I am going to be alone for the next few days and nights and I am never sure, and more often confused, about who I am when the reflections of others around me are gone. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, one of the grandmothers of our Windhorse lineage, quoted Rollo May, an American existentialist, in her treatise “On Loneliness”: “While alone and isolated from other human beings, people feel threatened by the potential loss of their boundaries, of the ability to discriminate between wakefulness and sleep—between the subjective self and the objective world around them” (Note 2).
This speaks to past experiences on solo journeys like this—and it is why I am drawn to them. It is why I have come. It is why I begin walking down the slope toward the creek that I can hear faintly below like a whisper, beckoning me forward.
So, why do I seek it out—this isolated feeling? Why invite an experience bound to be uncomfortable, even frightening? Why welcome the unwelcome? Because in my routine life—at home and in my work—I can easily block or push away this feeling of loneliness that rests somewhere within me and throughout me and beyond me; which seems even at times to define me.
I feel the sense of this—what? Loneliness? What does that mean? Sadness? Emptiness? Un-ness? Solidity? Absence? Anxiety? All of these rise up from my stomach and into my throat and head and heart and then course through and through my bloodstream—and reactively, automatically, it seems—I shuttle these feelings out of my awareness in order to escape them, to forget them. Gone. And then, and here’s where intention and awareness might come in, I try to invite them back in again.
This dismissal and re-invitation occurs each day in micro-rhythms—a perpetual micro-operation—beginning when I wake from sleep with remnants and visions of interconnectedness and dreams of permeability to the uncomfortable feeling that I am alone in this body suit of skin- apparently a separate being—different from you, and from everyone and everything else.
I wake up each day to a lonely feeling that is somehow me and not me, and roll out of bed with some relief into the love for and by family, friends, community—an attempt, in part, at distancing me from this root of fundamental loneliness that germinates and grows at times like a weed and at other times like a flower.
Pema Chodron says that “contentment is a synonym for loneliness … that we give up believing that being able to escape our loneliness is going to bring any lasting happiness or joy or sense of well being or courage or strength” (Note 3). This sounds wise and true, and yet I don’t often feel a sense of contentment with my loneliness—more often then not it is the opposite—that I am anxious, ungrounded, seeking a place to land. In rare moments I may feel brief hints of a “courageous aloneness” that Chogyam Trungpa spoke of when he said (Note 4):
For me, this “relationship” with loneliness is like an on again off again lover—and my fear and apprehension and distancing equals my desire to couple.
I’ve been walking steadily now for several hours and my body feels strong, able. I have crossed and re-crossed Cabin Creek ten times, breaking trail through reeds and rocks as I search for passage down and through the valley carved out by the steady steady of the water. At times I am forced to cross log-jams where the river narrows—the wood debris piled and tossed like giant matchsticks into nearly impenetrable barriers caused by the Colorado flood of 2013—and everywhere along this path are the markings of a once massive movement and force that roared through this valley during those relentless days of rain.
The water today, however, is calm in its flow and clear as crystal. This creek starts only a few miles up the mountain range to the West—from the ice box of the Meeker Glacier in Rocky Mountain National Park—and the water is profoundly cold—so cold I feel first the pins and needles of numbness and then nothing at all—as if my legs end at the knees. In places the canyon closes in and steep cliffs of red rock rise up and out of the water as I slowly navigate one narrow passage after another, my outstretched hands touching both sides of the rough canyon walls. I lift the backpack above my head and wade through the canal-water now up to my belly button.
Hours later I stop to rest on the banks, sitting in tall grass and scatterings of wild red raspberry. I am not feeling lonely, or alone, at least not in this moment and I realize that I am feeling what I have come to call “alone-together” with this river and these rocks and these walls and these trees, and this grass on this earth. What do I mean by “alone-together”? Words are hard to wrap around this experience but I’ll try with both hands: I feel simultaneously empty and yet full. I am a part of the landscape and I hear the sounds and the silence inside and out. I am suddenly separate and yet still connected. I am here and nowhere, and yet everywhere—a part of this river, these trees. I have felt this alone-togetherness many times over the years while in the forest, and I visit these mountains and this land weekly to refresh and remember.
The “alone-together” feeling can be found elsewhere yet it seems that I get my best “practice” here in the field. Other places where I feel such “aloneness-togetherness” are with my partner, and can occur in moments of quiet intimacy—and I am not referring exclusively to sexual intimacy, but also to the ebb and flow that our breathing makes as we sleep, or the quiet space between us when nothing is happening.
These moments of alone-together can also arise for me in psychotherapy sessions with Windhorse clients—a felt sense that is simultaneously connected and yet somehow separate that arises inside, outside, throughout, and beyond the mutual field of the body, speech, mind, and environment of the dyad.
I re-read Fromm Reichmann’s “On Loneliness” once or twice a year to remember, yet I am often left with only a vague understanding of what she terms the “essential loneliness” of her patients. Most likely it is because I am afraid to understand.
Many of the clients I work with experience some amount of this profound estrangement. Reichmann felt that these states of desperate, inner loneliness were unreachable or ungraspable by the therapist—or anyone else for that matter. That this level of loneliness was singular and closed for the person experiencing it and that it was untranslatable—a foreign and dark presence—leaving one without possibility for connection because of the bulk and force and depth of the disconnection.
Yet the field of relationship created in Windhorse psychotherapy, as well as in basic attendance, offers over time and deep repetition unparalleled opportunities for exchanging oneself for other and for mutuality in further exploring this fear of isolation in another, and in oneself. I believe as a Windhorse therapist that in order to refine or define my ability to “be present,” the first skill of basic attendance, with my clients and with myself, it is important to discover and then to explore the edges and outlines of my own loneliness. That being present to my loneliness is like respiration. I can practice staying aware of how I move between the alone and the together and recognize—like the in breath and the out breath—that I can’t really have one without the other.
I step out of the creek and onto the bank for lunch—a pear and two slices of pizza—and sit in the sun on an old stump stomping some feeling back into my frozen feet and legs. I feel again an immersion into my environment—stump, blue sky, rushing water—but the feeling is brief and fleeting at best for as the sun soaks in and warms me from the outside I realize that I am also feeling afraid sitting here on the banks of the creek- informed by precipitating anxiety of being alone tonight. I have the realization (again, again) that it is when I stop moving and doing that I become most fearful—as if the space of non-action might swallow me up and spit me out formless and without boundary—the opposite of alone/together—the nightmare version where I am lost and disappeared, scattered, psychotic even.
In meditation practice I often find myself swimming against this current of not being—that it feels as though I am fighting for my life to be, to be, and not to be is not an option! I am often afraid of not moving. I am afraid of not doing. I am afraid of not being. I am afraid of not-ness.
I munch on the pear thinking all of these “not-thoughts” that illustrate some dark strata of fear within and I wonder how this exploration informs my role as a psychotherapist working with clients who experience these extreme states of mind? Perhaps my “not thoughts” help as aids in understanding, relating, and even “opening” to the utter loneliness that Reichmann believed in her patients “in its quintessential form, is of a nature that is incommunicable by the one who suffers it” (Note 5).
I am not convinced that these experiences are non-communicable—as even a lack of communication is communication—that what isn’t said has the potential to be as telling as what is said. That perhaps Reichmann meant “incommunicable” primarily in relation to the use of language or words and that perhaps “real loneliness” can be shared and understood and empathized with through an unflinching look into one’s own experiences and respirations of loneliness. That real loneliness might be a universal thread for all of us, and that what we are lonely from or for may have as much to do with our loneliness for other human beings as with the feeling that we are at our foundation lonely from our own selves: our own true, authentic, enlightened selves that rest below the surface map of individual purpose and personality—waiting to emerge, with practice, and aspiration even if only in small increments over time.
In Recovering Sanity Podvoll wrote:
Harry Stack Sullivan—who also had a strong influence on Ed Podvoll and on what came to be Windhorse—was one of those therapists asking this question and his paper “The Illusion of Personal Individuality,” published in the magazine Psychiatry in 1950 and based on a lecture he gave at the Alliston White Foundation suggests the questionable foundation upon which to believe that we have individuality separate from others or from our environment.
Sullivan seems to be saying that in my newly-discovered nomenclature “alone-together” may simply be the way things are, and that we are as much as our relationships shape us, and that we are defined more by the field of relationship with others and with our environment than some static and stable identity and that there is no “me” without “you” or “them.”
1n 1963, Melanie Klein, an Austrian-British psychoanalyst who worked primarily with children and was a leading innovator in object-relations theory, published a paper titled “On the sense of Loneliness” wherein she made clear that she was not talking about loneliness as “the objective situation of being deprived of external companionship.” Instead, she was talking about “the inner sense of loneliness—the sense of being alone regardless of external circumstances, of feeling lonely even when among friends or receiving love.” She goes on to suggest that this “is a result of a ubiquitous yearning for an unattainable perfect internal state” (Note 8).
Both Sullivan and Klein, scholars in their field and recognized as artisans of the craft of intensive psychotherapy, remind us that we are not separate from those around us or from our environment. One finds strong parallels in quantum theory as well as in Buddhism’s basic tenets. The Heart Sutra explains that: “Form is emptiness, Emptiness is form,” which fits closely Nottale’s theory of quantum physics which asserts that matter and space are not different, that we are more a part of the whole than we are apart from the whole. Klein believed this internal perfect state to be unattainable, while Buddhists the world over consider it to be not just possible, but even inevitable—with enough practice and study and as many lifetimes as needed.
Klein describes how paradise is lost for each and any of us through the object relation theory of development—the mother or the breast being the first object that one eventually realizes is NOT I. Klein believes it is this first loss, and then the aggregate losses that occur through every stage of development, that result in a longing that “contributes to the sense of loneliness and derives from the depressive feeling of an irretrievable loss” (Note 9).
It is possible that herein lies an original fault line, the “original sin” or the “Fall” from the garden that many versions of Christianity hold as foundational—that eating the apple was simply delineating Adam from Eve, and from the rest of us. That we are not born separate—we learn to separate! We begin in the oceanic state of the infant still entirely identified as part of the great other—or of the mother—and then eventually and without exception as a part of our movement toward individuation we recognize that we are not in fusion with our mother or any other and it is at this stage of awareness where self-consciousness and ego takes hold and where loneliness and anxiety arises from this “first break” of moving from the ocean to the pond. From here the child, my child or yours, recognizes itself as itself and the image that stares back when they look into the mirror becomes a divided reflection, a reflection of the lonely.
I finish my lunch with a peanut butter cup and savor in its flavor. So good! Again, I have hints and murmurs of anxiety that may come tonight at darkness. But for now I am energized by my meal and engaged in movement—stepping into the flow of the creek and continuing down through the river valley. I walk and stomp and wade a few miles further before reaching one of the markers in my mind—a halfway point for the day where Cabin Creek ends as it flows into and swells forward becoming a part of the Saint Vrain River.
Down and forward I go—my mind flowing like the waters below me—my feet slogged and frozen and squished but then soon enough there is respite—the valley opens up some and I can now walk on the faint deer trails to the north, laced with western anemone, wild blue flax, mountain chickweed, and alpine sunflower.
Sullivan, an American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who was devoted and inspired to work with people in extremes, believed that:
At some point in the course of therapy many or most of my clients talk about their loneliness. It is my observation that the more intense a state of mind: psychotic, confused, and compounded, the more time needed for the feeling to be acknowledged. This word seems that it is “worth its wait” to me because it often marks a potential first step on the trail that can lead to an exploration of relationship, mutuality, solidarity, even community and friendship. I want to be clear here that I am not talking about some kind of palliative care—that the client enters lonely and sick and eventually emerges well and “together.” What I am asserting is that repeated experiences of and recognition of the feeling of “alone-togetherness” in the therapy room—and then the ongoing discussion and exploration of those experiences—can lead the client and the therapist into a greater awareness of, and appreciation for, the mutuality that occurs within the field of the therapeutic relationship.
In the therapy room as in the forest, in moments of heightened awareness, it can feel to me as though the room disappears. That the therapeutic “field” has opened up on a scale greater than its component participants. It is here where it feels as though words don’t matter much. It is here that the moment-to-moment experience threads between what is communicable and non-communicable. It is here where our mutual loneliness may taste like courage and transform, however briefly, into alone-togetherness.
In Recovering Sanity Podvoll notes that Fromm-Reichmann “observed in her patients a deep abyss of loneliness in which a natural and instinctual longing for intimacy, whether along with or independent of desire, had become so exhausted by failure that they became resigned to ultimate isolation” (Note 11).
As a Windhorse therapist I feel that I must perpetually make the attempt to open myself up, over and over again, and to work with the “reflex-like barrier of thoughts (that) would develop in the mind of any therapist.” That we must come up against the idea that “I am different from him; it is he who is unhealthy, not me; he feels his own pain and I feel mine; it is he who is indulging in extreme autism, and I am the witness” (Note 12).
I’d like to extend the same invitation that both Fromm-Reichmann and Podvoll put forth, but with a slight shift in emphasis. I too observe the deep abyss in my clients, as well as my own, and I agree that it is, in fact, my basic task to open up my being to receive the despair and fear and loneliness that emanates. I accept this invitation and yet wish to take it a step further. That as a therapist I am not only receptive to the despair and fear of my clients, but that I also find a way to explore, understand and relate to my own despair, fear, and loneliness. That in this investigation and awareness I am first recognizing and then exercising the muscles built up in the practice of Tonglen, of giving and sending, as well as in my wandering in the forest-to opening to what is in the room, within me and within my client.
When I receive my client’s loneliness, I may also accept my own. When I accept my own loneliness, I expand my vocabulary and understanding to be able to express the joy and buoyancy as well as the despair and fear of living in clarity or confusion, in both the aloneness and togetherness—recognizing that the two are fundamentally the same.
I walk slowly now through thick forest on deep beds of fallen pine needles. The ground is layered with decades of these needles and it feels as though I am walking on air—buoyed by the lift and lilt of the forest floor. Finally, I see a meadow across the river appropriate for where I will sleep tonight. The river is wide and shallow here and I take off my shoes, now nearly dry from the last few hours of walking and I cross without incident. I unpack my sleeping bag and a sleeping pad and build a fire. The dusk deepens into blues and blacks as I prepare a rehydrated meal of rice and beans.
Later, I have a small bottle of whiskey and I take a sip and stare at the fire, my anxiety and sense of being alone climbing as the light recedes. Here is a moment where I am clearly not feeling the alone-togetherness. I am feeling just alone, lonely even, afraid.
“Afraid of what?” I ask out loud.
I tend the fire, take a sip, and listen to the steady-steady of the now darkened river still rolling beside me. Breathe, tend the fire, take a sip, holding hands with myself.
Pema Chodron says:
I feel the smallest sense of this and peek into the idea of being here with no alternatives. I can usually stay here for a moment—just a moment, on the edge between everything and nothing—like the flicker of the flame of the fire.
I stare into the fire looking for answers. Why do I feel so lonely? I am running from myself and running from this loneliness of both extremes. What has happened to my warm feeling of together-aloneness? I will try and stay here for one minute and get curious—try not to move away from the feeling—but instead to move into it. As I do so I close my eyes for a moment then stand up from the fire turning to stare into what has become only black in every direction. A memory from childhood rises in my mind and fear and dread arise with it. This memory is of an early experience of an extreme state of mind that I haven’t thought about in a very long time. The toothpick.
The toothpick first visited me in the early hours of a hot and humid summer morning in 1975. I could not sleep. I was seven years old, in the upper bunk, my brother sleeping below, in our small home in Dubuque, Iowa. The toothpick was a pulsating piece of wood in my mind—colorless and splintered—floating in space. It would start to grow with each breath—first slowly but then gradually gaining speed and girth. As fear and anxiety came over me, the pace of growth and the pace of my breath increased to a frenzied speed—all the way to what I came to know as the “point of no return.” This is where everything became everything—where there was no distinction between me and my bed and my mind and my brother and the house and the world and the universe. Every thing was everything and I was gone and I was scared and felt deeply disappeared.
I would stay in that deeply disappeared space of utter fear and angst for only a moment yet it simultaneously felt like hours or centuries—timeless, really. And then—at the edge of unbearable the toothpick would make a turn—and for a brief but powerful moment I would feel a calm and bliss and peace and relaxation that pervaded my entire body and mind. Here was the middle place where I could rest—if only for a moment. Then, the toothpick would begin shrinking rapidly with each respiration until eventually it was the thinnest slice imaginable—thinner than nothing—a razor blade of thinness that cancelled me, eliminated me and my world and my heart and my mind—replaced with only the sharpness of nothing—until of course it turned again—and again on the cusp I found a brief moment of deep rest and openness and heart.
The toothpick visited me frequently throughout most of my early life—always when I was alone, or at least when I felt alone, or when I was ill or feverish, or later in life, in my late teens and early twenties, when I was experimenting occasionally with hallucinogens and other psychoactive substances.
I sit back down at the fire and realize that the toothpick was perhaps an early sensate experience of Nihilism and Eternalism, Nihilism being the philosophical posture that denies existence and Eternalism imputing permanent existence to that which is temporary. And in between, of course, was the middle path. As Rumi said it:
Before sleep I set up a small shrine on a nearby rock and meditate. I do my best to focus on my breath, then climb into my bag and settle into sleep. Next morning I wake up refreshed, eat my breakfast, and load up my pack—the light of the morning brilliant and sane. I break camp and join the river again as the canyon narrows. I walk for the next four hours steadily down canyon with the red rock walls widening and narrowing, past North and South Sheep mountains, and finally to where the North Saint Vrain opens out into Button Rock Reservoir.
My mind is mostly quiet on this second day and I feel more embodied than mindful. Literally, I feel more made up of my body than of my brain. It is because of this, I believe, that I narrowly avoid injury when a pint sized rattlesnake sunning herself on the trail strikes as I pass. I jump back (without any thought) and watch as she sails by, her fangs open with hopes for purchase on my leg. I am shaken yet grateful as I recognize that it was I who stepped into her territory, upset her rest and warmth, and scared her enough for her to strike at me.
It is here that I leave the water and head inland and north for my second night camp in a stand of aspens in a large and open meadow. I build a fire and engage myself with taking photos and identifying plants and trees and recognize my attempts at busyness and distraction. I eat again and find scores of red raspberries and boysenberries for my dessert. I laugh with myself some and eventually sit in meditation, then settle into sleep in the open air with no sign of the toothpick or anxiety of any kind.
In “Escape from Loneliness,” Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician and author, wrote that what his clients needed “when at the nadir of the psychotic journey, was fellowship, not treatment: someone to join with them, not to act upon them.” He believed that “mental health professionals do not need new psychological tools, so much as the old ones: the capacities to display trust, to express love and to have faith—faith in themselves, faith in their own potential for human growth and development” (Note 15).
This is my aspiration—and ultimately the therapeutic strategy I employ with each and every client that comes to Windhorse. To trust and love and have faith—faith that we will find our way together—that we will come to know that our loneliness—no matter how deeply entrenched—is a common thread that makes up part of the fabric of what it means to be human. Extreme states may certainly create dissonance and distance between us but our roots of fundamental sanity can be remembered and shared and strengthened enough that we may come to realize that we are alone, and yet still together.
In a talk about countertransference given at Naropa in 1986 Ed shared:
Next morning I am awake at dawn and I break camp quickly—I have a short hike to finish my journey and I am hungry for my people—for my partner and my children—and for my friends, clients, and co-workers. I have had my satisfied fill of the land and the silence and the solitude and I feel ready to go home and to go back to work, even!
Of course, I have not found any answers to these questions of loneliness but I have, if only momentarily, found a thin slice of the courageous aloneness that I aspire to each day. I have also come to some more definition around how we experience both the alone and the together and I’ve furthered my suspicion that more curiosity and exploration is needed. Happily, I have my clients, co-workers, and community waiting for me back at home and at Windhorse—hopefully ready and willing to engage.
Ready or not—here I come.
Matt Allen, MA is a Team Leader, Intensive Psychotherapist, and Team Supervisor at Windhorse Community Services- and he wanders in the forests and mountains regularly in search of everything and nothing.
1. Audio recording from Legacy group podcast
2. Fromm-Reichmann, Frieda, “On Loneliness”; Psychiatry 22, no. 1, January 1959
3. Chodron, Pema, “Six kinds of Loneliness,” Lionsroar.com, July 10, 2017.
4. Trungpa, Chogyam, “The Myth Of Freedom,” Shambhala Publications, 1988.
5. Frieda Fromm -Reichmann, “On Loneliness,” Psychiatry 22, no. 1, January 1959
6. Podvoll, Ed, “Recovering Sanity,” Appendix 1, p. 340, Shambhala Publications, 1990
7. Sullivan, Harry Stack, “The Illusion of Personal Individuality,” Psychiatry, 1950.
8. Klein, Melanie, “On The Sense Of Loneliness,” Envy And Gratitude And Other Works 1946-1963.
9. Klein, Melanie, “On The Sense Of Loneliness,” Envy And Gratitude And Other Works 1946-1963.
10. Sullivan, Harry Stack, “The Illusion of Personal Individuality,” Psychiatry, 1950.
11. Podvoll, Ed, “Recovering Sanity,” p. 336, Shambhala Publications, 1990.
12. Podvoll, Ed, “Recovering Sanity,” p. 269, Shambhala Publications, 1990.
13. Chodron, Pema, “Six kinds of Loneliness,” Lionsroar.com, July 10, 2017.
14. Rumi poem as found online.
15. Tournier, Paul, “Escape from Loneliness,” 1977.
16. Podvoll, Edward, unpublished talk at Naropa University, 1986.