More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

A Memory of Aloneness

In my senior year of college, I took part in a 6-month study abroad program in Hong Kong. It was my way of telling myself that I needed to step away from Los Angeles, the city where I was born and raised. Other than a few short trips here and there, I never really left LA, and even chose it as the city where I attended college as well.

By committing to this 6-month stay in Hong Kong, I was stepping outside the bounds of the known and into the arena of the unfamiliar. It was my silent declaration of departure, a stern affirmation that I’d embrace the discomfort of foreign sights and sensations.

What followed was an unforgettable time where I made new friends, took a lot of pictures, got into a (short-lived) relationship, took part in a dance competition, traveled to nearby countries, did a lot of stupid things in clubs, and studied for a few hours during the course of an entire semester. 6 months of memories, of which there are just a few that I can readily access.

But there’s one particular memory that’s surfacing as I’m writing today’s letter.

One night, my friends and I took a bus to head out to Lan Kwai Fong, the party district of the city. It was probably around 10 PM, the weather was fair, and the bus was unusually empty. We all had a decent amount to drink already, so conversations and laughter were flowing as seamlessly as the currents of a downstream river. And given that there was no one else in the bus, the volume of our voices weren’t held back by the adherence of norms.

Amidst this cheerful atmosphere, I decided to do something a bit odd. Instead of gathering with everyone and chiming in on their conversations, I sat down in an empty row and lowered the window beside me. I had a sudden desire to feel the air glide across my face, and to do so in silence as the bus hummed along toward its destination.

What I initially thought would just be a few seconds turned into a few minutes, which then became the entire bus ride. I just sat there, alone, as the chatter of my friends continued in the background. But instead of interpreting my friends’ chatter as a nuisance, it was absorbed into my internal experience as a harmonized melody of sorts. The peaceful state of my aloneness synchronized with the cacophony of the background, and somehow, everything felt still.

The reason this memory stands out is because I was alone, despite being surrounded by familiar faces and sounds. And yet, I did not feel lonely. In fact, I felt like I belonged more than if I were actively engaged in conversation with my friends. The experience of being by myself, with my own thoughts, gazing out of the window into a dark sky… all this made me feel as if I were integrated into something much larger than myself.

One of the virtues of being alone with your thoughts is that you can see how the nature of your mind reflects the nature of humanity at large. As the common saying goes, we are all one, but the deeper point here is that if you take time to study your mind, you’ll learn more about people than any lecture can provide. The reason for this is simple: While your personal experiences will differ from mine, the emotions that arise from them will be remarkably similar. Desire, fear, angst, joy, greed, lust, compassion, the list goes on. So if I take regular moments to delve deeper into the nature of my experiences, I will understand you much better as a human being in turn.

One thing I’m realizing over time is that loneliness arises when you don’t know how to be alone. I say “how to be alone” because believe it or not, it’s a skill. It’s something you have to train, because the natural thing we do when we’re alone is to reach for something that will make us feel like we belong. Why else do you go on social media when you’re alone? Or scroll through Netflix to look for something to watch? That’s because when we’re alone, we immediately look to connect with something that other humans are a part of, whether it’s through a feed of tweets or a lineup of shows. But the danger here is that these things tend to convert the fact of your aloneness into the feeling of loneliness.

I think about that bus memory often because it highlights how you can be alone anywhere but simultaneously feel like you belong everywhere. You can silently observe the nature of your surroundings even if people are hollering with laughter a few feet behind you. And on the meta level, you can be in a foreign place that feels unfamiliar, but still be at peace knowing that the very fact of your humanity is enough to be welcomed in the first place.


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For more stories and reflections of this nature:

The Antidote to Envy

The Riddle of Rest

Nostalgia and the Cessation of Time

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