Mental health: the art of being alone

Being alone is not natural, but we can learn the art. Photo by Daniel Mingook Kim on Unsplash

Being alone is hard for many people, and for good reason. Humans are social animals, and thrive on being in contact with each other. To be alone is to face particular set of problems.

There is a form of social confirmation that happens when we are in company. There is even a gratification that others are not attacking us. This is one reason why being out in public, or in a cafe, can be comforting. We have a place, and no one is ejecting us from it. Whether it is a pavement or a table, we have our place.

This sense of belonging is even more pronounced when we are with friends or family. It is often unspoken, but there is an enormous contribution to wellbeing experienced simply from being around others in a common home, and with common activities, understandings and rules.

When alone, we have that support withdrawn. The mind finds it much easier to go on wild speculations and worry-journeys about issues dear to us. We may start to doubt our friendships, worry about how our home looks, worry about our work, or about money, or about health. We don’t have the same distractions that social life gives us.

In particular, when we are alone, we are tempted into two behaviours. Firstly, we become selfish (worried about ourselves, if you prefer). And secondly, our perspective becomes distorted, because we have no social influence to control it. Learning to be alone involves learning to cope with those two tendencies.

Meditation is a skill which helps us deal with those two tendencies. That’s why meditation on compassion, and meditation on emptiness, are two of the most important types of meditation. Meditation on compassion helps us to think of others, and meditation on emptiness helps us to keep an even perspective.

What is meditation on compassion? It is contemplation of other people and their suffering. It enables us to escape the hell of our own self-concern.

What is meditation on emptiness? It is contemplation of the fact that what we experience is not really there in the way we think. It makes us more humble about our thoughts, and stops us taking them too seriously.

So if we want to skip straight to a great way of being alone, we can learn to meditate on compassion and emptiness.

Equally, if we want some easier ways to cope with being alone, we can try:

  1. A simple, routine activity to provide enough focus to engage the mind and stop it wandering where we don’t want it to go.
  2. Exercise, which brings us into the immediate bodily and attentional present, and produces a helpful, positive chemical response.
  3. A learning activity, such as a course, a language, or a musical instrument. This helps to pass the time on a new journey, as well as building new brain function.

There are also the usual activities of social media and television. These are not bad in themselves, and can act like meditation to give us some peace. However, they may make us dependent on phones and other equipment for our peace, meaning that we feel lost without them.


Being alone is naturally hard, because we are social beings.

Meditation on compassion and emptiness can be very helpful, as they build our resilience in a very basic philosophical way which we can take anywhere once we learn it.

Also, a focused routine activity, exercise, or a learning activity, can help us cope constructively with being alone.

Social media and TV definitely work, but the down side is they make us dependent.