- This article was first published on The Tattooed Buddha.
All my life, I’ve lived in my head.
My mother tells me that they used to sit me on the windowsill of my grandmother’s apartment when I was a wee one and while everyone else chatted away, I’d stare out the window, occasionally pointing at things and asking, “Sta?” I was in my own little world, fascinated with the world around me. This tendency to be introspective and observational by disposition has stayed with me.
When I was in my early twenties, a close friend told me that my best quality was my independence, and my worst quality was my independence. It was an astute observation, even if it did leave me a little unsettled.
I’ve also loved communicating and expressing myself as long as I can remember.
That’s actually not true; I was a very shy kid. However, once I entered adolescence and started understanding myself more in relation to others, I found I was a talkative, opinionated being who also needed a lot of alone time for reflection. I loved being around other people, mostly close friends but also strangers or acquaintances in large gatherings whom I could meet and learn about, after which I’d need a few days to recover.
These days, there’s so much talk about introverts versus extroverts. Back then, all I knew was that I counted on my “catch-up sessions” with myself and my journal to refuel and understand myself better.
I have identified more strongly with the quieter side. The more outgoing I appeared to be or was labeled, the more I actually wanted to dive into a corner and retreat into what I considered to be the most authentic version of myself.
It’s amazing how we cling to our identities, how long we can go in life without challenging our basic assumptions about ourselves, and how invisible these assumptions become as we take them to be incontrovertible truth about who we are.
When I was laid off from my job at the end of 2009 and decided to travel on my own, I deeply looked forward to my time away. While I knew I’d miss my friends and family, I was longing to get some distance from some of my unhealthier habit patterns, which I would have a chance to dissect and deconstruct. I had no fear whatsoever of travelling on my own; I reveled in it, though my old friend’s voice did nag at me a bit:
Am I too independent? Is this part of the problem? What is the problem, exactly?
I refused to believe that loneliness could be lurking somewhere within all the alone-ness I was embracing with joy.
A great teacher I met along the way said something striking to me when she told me that I had a great opportunity to really dive into myself and experience solitude, since I’m the type of person (incidentally, or not incidentally, a Gemini) who exists and thrives in communication. I was surprised. “But I love being on my own. I’ve always been quite independent and introspective, maybe too much.”
A raised eyebrow told me I had a few lessons coming my way.
Cut to a few years later, moving from the sometimes chaotic, often serene and always vivacious landscapes of Southeast Asia and India to Japan. My head and heart were filled with so many encounters with people met along the way, with whom I could share intimate conversations and learn so many things. My ears were still ringing with the jumbled notes of India—the soulful chanting, the “chai chai chai” invocations, the clanging of wares on street, the talking-yelling-laughing-bellowing-beckoning exuberance that was part of daily life there.
Japan is a very quiet place.
My more Zen inclinations reveled in, and continue to love this shocking change of ambiance. I have been rewarded often by ancient mountaintop temples, the tiny urban temples and shrines I visit squished between school and houses and shops, to feel the special charge in the air there. My heart is also warmed by the understated grace, kindness and gentility of the people here.
The truth is, though, that over time I have really had to come face to face with what it means to live without the social interactions to which I’m accustomed.
In a land where it’s not common for people to make direct eye contact or to invade the space of others in any way, where politeness reigns over intimacy in initial interactions, I find myself often contemplating my very visibility when I’m out in public.
If I sit in a café, I’m entirely left to my own devices, which makes me feel that I’m basically in a more crowded version of my living room. I’ve never realized before how much my café experience at home is informed by the chattering I can hear around me, the stolen glances, the smiles exchanged with strangers, the awareness that people around me are reading books I’ve read or have been meaning to read…
In other words, by a shared, common and mutually understood culture.
I’m learning that while I’ve always loved my alone-time, it’s also always been cushioned within the knowledge that I can go out and relate to others any time I feel the need; which, as it turns out, is/was more often than I realized.
As humans, we all live in relation to others. How these relations are expressed across cultures varies widely, but we all exist in a frame of reference that includes others. We are all interdependent. This is a fundamental Buddhist tenet—that of dependence-arising—and a truth that grabs me in the heart.
When we’re outside our familiar culture, we lose our direct grasp of this interdependence, or not know how to fit into the societal web around us, which can lead to well-documented feelings of unease and isolation. Most importantly, though, it’s a great reminder:
As much as we may value our independence—or as introverts, cherish our alone-time—we truly thrive not only when we have time for our own thoughts and feelings, but when can be active, sharing and giving members of our communities.
Exploring new lands and learning about new people is a wonderful thing that I thrive on and personally love. However, understanding how precious it is that we come from a particular place with unique sets of values and codes for social conduct is equally important, and not to be taken for granted. Our culture is not the totality of what we are, but nor should we deny the beautiful ways we have of connecting within our familiar environments; they are part of the fabric of us, and can be an integral facet of our evolution.
Living in Japan is really teaching me how important it is to feel connected and to share in a wider community with love, joy and compassion. Also, that we need to truly confront loneliness that exists within our alone-ness so we can learn to be in healthy solitude, and bring our best selves to the world around us.