Loneliness and the Sacred Web of Life

The unspoken poverty in our culture is a poverty of spirit, a real hunger for what the West has forgotten: that not just individual life but all of creation is sacred.
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Recently Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Sanjay Gupta instigated a "Just Say Hello!" campaign as a way to combat the deep loneliness that pervades so many people today. Dr. Gupta speaks of the heartbreaking sense of isolation, a toxic, brutal, and even physical pain. Our increasingly connected society has a shadow side of loneliness, as if our technologies are missing something essential to our human nature -- the simple human exchange. In only a few centuries we have moved from a communal culture to a landscape of individuals, in which it is only too easy to feel isolated and alone. I grew up in a London in which it was still safe for the local children to play together unsupervised in the city streets, and living near Notting Hill in my teens and 20s, I remember the women gossiping in the Portobello market, everyone called "love" or "dearie" -- a sense of community never found in today's shopping malls. In our contemporary affluence we rarely realize the true price of our discount goods; instead there is a felt hunger for ordinary companionship -- which we are often too busy to fully acknowledge.

But underlying and echoing this loneliness is an even deeper isolation that runs unrecognized through much of our lives. In our material progress we have cut ourselves off from the sense of the sacred that used to nourish life with a quality of primal interconnectedness and belonging. Collectively, we rarely feel part of a living world rich in meaning and wonder -- "Where the violets bloom in springtime, where the stars shine down in all their mystery." Instead, our culture has made us more isolated and alone than we dare to realize. In previous cultures everyday activities were a part of a rich tapestry of sacred meaning, supported by rituals that connected us to the whole web of creation and its roots in the divine. An example is the way food can nourish us on many levels, our souls as well as our bodies -- to quote Vandana Shiva, "Food is alive: It is not just pieces of carbohydrate, protein, and nutrient, it is a being; it is a sacred being ... Food is not just our vital need: It is the web of life."

How can we feel lonely if our daily life speaks to us of so many connections, with the Earth and our shared sense of the sacred? And yet we now live in an increasingly alienating culture, held together by technology and its image of progress, but having lost something essential. We are more and more like the Buddhist figure of the hungry ghost, whose empty belly can never be filled. Always hungry, always empty, it images the dark side of consumerism. And most tragically, this man-made isolation, this separation from the sacred, is mostly unrecognized -- instead we are bombarded with more and more distractions and addictions to keep us from calling out what our souls know -- that the emperor has no clothes, that our outer abundance holds a terrible secret. No longer nourished from the core of life, our soul is no longer fed by its sacred nature. And so we are left stranded, with a deep loneliness, an ache in the center of our self.

The unspoken poverty in our culture is a poverty of spirit, a real hunger for what the West has forgotten: that not just individual life but all of creation is sacred. This connection to a sacred Earth always made us feel and know we are part of the great mystery of creation, of its rivers and winds, its birdsong and seeds. How could it be otherwise? And how can we now regain this simple but forgotten element, this ingredient as essential as salt?

First we need to recognize that this connection is missing, that there is an ache, a loneliness, within our heart and soul. And from this there will come a grief for what we have lost -- because our soul remembers even if our mind and our culture try to make us forget. We are not "consumers" needing only more stuff, but souls in search of meaning. And from this grief, this sorrow, can come a real response that can return us once again to what is sacred within our self and with our life. As the Buddhist environmentalist Joanna Macy explains, our pain is evidence for a deeper interconnectedness -- otherwise we would not feel this loss. It reawakens our care for each other and our love for the Earth. Our heart knows what our mind has forgotten -- it knows the sacred that is within all that exists, and through a depth of feeling we can once again experience this connection, this belonging.

We are not here on Earth to be alone, but to be a part of a living community, a web of life in which all is sacred. Like the cells of our body, all of life is in constant communication, as science is just beginning to understand. No bird sings in isolation, no bud breaks open alone. And the most central note that is present in life is its sacred nature, something we need to each rediscover and honor anew. We need to learn once again how to walk and breathe in a sacred universe, to feel this heartbeat of life. Hearing its presence speak to us, we feel this great bond of life that supports and nourishes us all. Today's world may still at times make us feel lonely, but we can then remember what every animal, every insect, every plant knows -- and only we have forgotten: the living sacred whole.

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