Hot & Cold Loneliness

by on October 26th, 2014
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This is the fourth of ten posts in the Exploring Mindfulness series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön.  This post addresses chapter nine through eleven. To find out more or to ask to be of the online discussion visit: Exploring Mindfulness.


I find it helpful to think of mindfulness as a skill.  We don’t need to think of it as character, or a “good” way to be—which injects judgment into the practice.  We can say very simply “I am training to handle my thoughts and emotions in a way that will prevent unnecessary suffering.”  There is no single right way to do this that will work.  There is no single way of understanding or “getting” it.  It is for each of us to listen to our teachers and to experiment. If it was just a matter of being told what to think and do,  When Things Fall Apart would be a very short book. It would be something like this:

When Things Fall Apart.  Be aware in the present moment, without judgment and with loving-kindness toward yourself.  Remember: reality is not dualistic. THE END.

What Pema Chödrön’s book is, essentially, is explanations, anecdotes, metaphors and various major and minor practices to help us shift our thinking and behavior as we face our feelings.

One metaphor  that she introduces in these chapter is “touching a bubble with a feather”.   She  encourages us to have a warm and friendly attitude toward whatever arises in our mind—even those unbidden thoughts that we may feel are ruining our mindfulness.  She tells us that whatever arises “what we usually call good or bad we simply acknowledge as ‘thinking’, without all the usual drama that goes along with right and wrong.  We are instructed to let the thoughts come and go as if touching a bubble with a feather.  This straightforward discipline prepares us to stop struggling and discover a fresh, unbiased state of being.”


        One way that she helps us to see and experience things in different ways is to have us look at emotions in detail and with an eye to subtle aspects of a particular emotion.  We are encouraged  to experiment with cultivating a different sort of relationship than what we have typically had with even our most painful thoughts and feelings.  Her teaching on Six Kinds of Loneliness addresses one such difficult emotion. She explains that loneliness is usually experienced as “restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company”.  This she calls hot loneliness.  When we cultivate a different attitude and relationship with our loneliness she describes this as cool loneliness. This, she writes “completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.” Here are six ways of describing cool loneliness:

Less Desire

  • Less Desire is the willingness to sit with our loneliness even as we yearn for something to relieve it.  She writes, “After we practice Less Desire wholeheartedly and consistently, something shifts…  So even if the hot loneliness is there, and 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn’t sit for even one, that’s the journey of the warrior. That’s the path of bravery.”


  • She says that we tend to draw a line. We say, for example, I’m happy on the left side and unhappy if I’m on the right.  Without the line and the good and bad sides we are uneasy.  Without a reference point to tell us to be happy or sad we have to deal with the uneasiness of gray.  She tells us, “we can either freak out or settle in.”  Contentment is living with the uneasiness that comes when we give up on “happy ever after”.  We give up on thinking ‘if only we were with the right person at the right place we would be happy’.  “Usually we have to give up this belief about a billion times… with awareness”, she writes.  “Then without even noticing, something begins to shift.  We can just be lonely with no alternatives, content to be right here with the mood and texture of what’s happening”

Avoiding Unnecessary Activity

  • When loneliness is heated it fuels a frantic search for a way out or for something to save us.  We may create busy work, create drama through gossip, or get caught up in fantasy or obsessive thinking. “The point is”, she writes, “that in all these activities we are seeking companionship in our usual, habitual way, using our same old repetitive ways of distancing ourselves from the demon loneliness.” This demon, when we stop running and then turnaround and look it in the eyes, becomes our teacher.

Complete Discipline

  • Complete discipline is the practice of coming back to the present moment and coming back again to the present moment with patience and no judgment, cultivating cool loneliness even as the hot loneliness sends our mind elsewhere.   There is no need to cultivate this type of loneliness because it arises naturally as part of human experience. We don’t need to invite loneliness or push it away. We don’t have to like it.  But we are wise to allow ourselves to experience it when it arises.  Pema goes as far as to say, “We are cheating ourselves when we run away from the ambiguity of loneliness.”

Not Wandering in the World of Desire

  • We desire food, drink, people, sex, etc.  It is not these things, per se, that are the problem.  It is desire for them that is problematic.  Desire brings us away from the moment; desire is so often about running from an uncomfortable moment, such as a moment of loneliness.  Desire puts us at great risk of attachment to the thing that we desire.  She tells us, “The word desire encompasses that addiction quality, the way we grab for something because we want to find a way to make things okay.
  • Wandering into desire is a way of remaining childish and dependent.  We wish or believe that someone will take care of things—take care of us;  that mom is there to make all the hurts go way.  Not wandering into desire is to leave home “ and becoming homeless”, as P puts it. It’s about “relating directly with how things are.  Loneliness is not a problem.  Loneliness is nothing to be solved.”

Not Seeking Security from Ones Discursive Thought

  • Cool loneliness is to not expect that our constant internal chatter will give us security.  We find we don’t need to talk “with ourselves about how it is and how it isn’t, whether it is or whether it isn’t, whether it should or whether it shouldn’t, whether it can or whether it can’t”. Further, Pema tells us that that is why we are instructed to label these things “thinking”.  “[This chatter] has no objective reality”, she tells us. “We’re encouraged to just touch that chatter and let it go, not make much ado about nothing”



After settling in to your sitting and concentrating on your breath for some moments, experiment with different metaphors for dealing with any thoughts that arise during meditation and for staying with strong emotions.  Spend a few moments with each metaphor.

  • Metaphors for not grasping any thoughts that arise:
    • Touching a bubble with a feather
    • Clouds passing over a clear sky
    • Waves on a beach
    • A barge floating down a river
    • A butterfly alighting on a flower and flying away


  • Metaphors for facing and staying with strong emotions that may arise:
    • Turn around and face the emotion (anxiety, loneliness, sadness) that is following you.  Look it in the eyes and ask, “What do you have to teach me?”
    • Pay attention to a particular emotion.  Notice it’s heat—it’s urgency.  As you stay with it imagine it cooling.
    • Notice where a particular emotion is within your body. Feel its hardness.  As you stay with it imagine it softening.
      • Or feel its solid-ness and its dense-ness.  Imagine it dissipating like fog as the sun arises; or imagine it lightening.

Link to online discussion:  DISCUSSION    If your not already member and would like to be, contact me at





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