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Debbi Burch
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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?