Yesterday my husband went away for a week. When I got into bed last night I was struck by the space beside me where he usually sleeps.

I might have said I was lonely, but if I had simply decided I was lonely and listened to the stories in my head about who and how much I was missing, I would certainly have felt more lonely.

Instead I explored further, opening deliberately to my experience of his absence – not what I thought or felt about it, but the actual space. As I did I felt a delicious and surprising sense of space and expansion in myself. I felt content.

I remembered a conversation I had with an architect at a wedding last year. He said: “the structure of a building is not what makes it beautiful, but how the structure relates to space.” Likewise, the moment I resisted the impulse to decide my husband’s absence was a bad thing for poor lonely me, but instead brought my experience to the actual space, any sense of separation between my presence and his absence melted into one simple experience of, well, beauty. How could I be lonely then?

People tend to experience loneliness as a consequence of two types of behaviour. Both tendencies reflect the struggle to balance structure and space within themselves and their lives.

The first tendency is to isolate oneself through fear of overwhelm and loss of space and autonomy. We avoid meaningful connection with others so we end up with too much freedom and not enough of the commitments & responsibilities that give us routine and a sense of belonging. We have personal space but at the cost of structure or form.

The other tendency is to give too much – bolting down one’s time in an endless cycle of ‘doings’ which leads to too much structure and not enough freedom or space.

Space becomes the enemy that mustn’t be succumbed to so we offer ourselves further despite our exhaustion and resentment. We end up feeling we have no room to breathe.

Both of these patterns – isolation and overwhelm – are rooted in fear of rejection and, ultimately, loneliness. Our task is to deeply examine these fears and to open instead into an inner and outer spaciousness that includes structure, connection and freedom.

When we say a vista is beautiful, we again mean structure in relation to space – a mountain piercing a cloudless sky, the crest of a wave spiking into shards against a bright sunrise. Music, too, is only beautiful because of how it plays with silence.

I have come to know this dance of structure and space only too well. Last December I lost a chunk of intestine to cancer (thankfully now fully resolved). Four weeks later my beloved dog Martha died. Then at the end of June my mother passed away.

In my acceptance of the absence of a piece of my body and adored pieces of my family, what remains present becomes all the more precious, astonishingly so.

By bringing my presence to the space left by these losses, I become the vast, empty sky and I become the mountain surrounded by the spacious acceptance it needs to simply be itself. I am overjoyed to discover that in this space there is more room in me for love – to love and be loved. I feel more deeply connected with others and with life itself than ever before.

Little by little I intuit the right balance of structure and space in my own life and with that comes a beautiful freedom.

If we are afraid to experience absence, calling it loneliness, how can we be wise?

How time bends for love

How time bends for love.

The human brain can learn to re-fire, re-wire and re-inspire. This is truly exciting – growth is possible, essential, inevitable and down to us.

We are not stuck, and we are in this together. We choose and the brain follows.

What is spoken less of is the plasticity of the brain we are living inside.

So this is a story about time re-wiring itself inside the bigger brain – the one we all live in.

Many years ago, between marriages and boyfriends, I was on a plane coming back from New Zealand. The guy sitting next to me was a sword swallower and fire-eater with (I later discovered) a dragon tattooed down his back.

To swallow fire and swords, you’ve got to be grounded. You can’t ignore your body when you’re asking it to do things like that.

Why you would want to do that to your body is another blog post, but to do it, you need to be present.

Because he was so grounded, and at the time I wasn’t, he kind of didn’t thrill me. If a fire-eating sword-swallower doesn’t thrill you, you’re probably high maintenance, but there you go. I was.

We played gin rummy for about 12 hours straight.

He had a friend, an Irish poet, who came up the aisle to visit him on the plane. We said hello and that was it. But when we all changed planes somewhere – Abu Dhabi or maybe Bharain – he charmed me with his Irish eyes and poetic lilt.

We got to London and I arranged to meet Dragon Man to go fishing for a weekend, then said good-bye. The poet and I got the train to Victoria Station, near where his brother had a flat. The plan was to visit and have tea.

I had a meeting at 2pm and it was by now midday. We rang on the brother’s doorbell but there was no reply. We sat on the steps and talked, not quite sure what to do.

The poet told me that when he met me on the plane, he thought I was the most ‘real’ person he’d ever met. He said he had this feeling of love.
He told me he sensed that I didn’t really understand love; that I didn’t know what being loveable meant.

He explained to me that I didn’t have to ‘do’ anything to be loveable; I was loveable because I breathed, because my cells divided.

It was true that I didn’t know this. I suppose I knew it intellectually, but I didn’t feel it. I really didn’t get that the life in me was the most loveable thing about me.

The gods had already tried to knock the walls down in 1993 (that’s another blog post), but I was stubborn.

While this stranger was sitting on the steps teaching me the love lesson, he kept saying: “this matters. It matters that you know this or your life can’t unfold as it best could.” And I tried. I listened, I didn’t laugh. I felt it.

After what seemed like about an hour, I got up and said: “I really have to go, I need to get to my meeting.” What kind of person arranges a meeting for two hours after a 33-hour flight across the planet? Yep, that was me.

I hugged him and thanked him for what felt like an important life lesson. I felt altered somehow, more present, more in my body. I could have swallowed swords…

As I turned to get my bag, the door to the flat opened, revealing the other brother.

The poet exclaimed: “Where have you been? We rang the doorbell an eon ago!” His brother said: “the door bell just rang”.

I looked at my watch and it still said midday.

This is a true story. If I had just had the conversation, it would have moved me. But the conversation and the wormhole grabbed me and shook me open.

It took many more years to embody the truth that the life in each of us is the very most precious thing. That we cannot get being us wrong.

It took many years of searching for peace to discover that the peace I was looking for was simply the acceptance of the fire in my belly. The anger, the longing, the loss. That the voltage of the fire that I’d made most wrong was my actual essence.

The fire in my belly was my own fire that I’d swallowed.

The fire of my instincts was the fire of truth that eventually burned its way through me and reconnected me to life itself.

So whatever you turn away from in yourself, the gods will send a brother, or maybe a sister. They will send a brainwave through the fabric of time.

Watch out for them.