I became a writer because of loneliness. A protracted feeling that I did not ‘fit’ in my surroundings began a lifelong habit of recording my innermost thoughts, as if to hear them reflected back to me, to create an archive of myself where there previously was none. It became a way to express thoughts that would otherwise go unsaid. A dedicated introvert, I relish solitude. I write almost exclusively alone. My recent relocation to a new country has, however, spurred a consideration of how loneliness pervades the lives of diaspora Tibetans, and the practices we enact to counter it.
Having experienced an incomparably smaller magnitude of dislocation than most Tibetans, my appreciation for its challenges has still deepened. I have begun to notice the ways that loneliness, or maybe the desire to abate it, underlies so much of diasporic Tibetan life. My first memories of being with Tibetans are my family’s living room filled with Tibetan Berea College students and their friends.
Growing up, I brushed off the way that white, middle class people would pass on contact information when I was going somewhere new. I considered it the extraneous, odd behavior of adults. I understand it now as the secret art of networking, a means of sharing your network’s social capital, thereby granting that person access to its benefits.
Tibetans are by necessity some of the most brilliant networkers I know, within our own decentralized community and beyond it. But what diaspora Tibetan, often subject to several displacements, starts out with a network? Many Tibetans arrive in diaspora devoid of social connections. Maybe you have a cousin in a nearby city, or were given the number of a friend of a friend and told to call them when you arrive. These methods succeed in large part due to Tibetan ingenuity, but a handful of acquaintances can’t stand in for the networks of support that humans naturally create to belong.
Loneliness also goes beyond lack of social connections. Often, we are the only Tibetans in the spaces we enter and are assumed to represent entire, complex realities of Tibetan history and present. Or we are erased or dismissed. My childhood was a mixture of both. My own obsessions with the minutiae of Tibetan existence stem from my initial existential loneliness, which resurfaces in instances like this:
Searching for relief from years of anxiety and poor emotional boundaries, I applied for the Garrison Institute’s Himalayan Heritage Scholarship for the “People Who Care for People” retreat with Holistic Life Foundation (I first encountered HLF at a Machik Weekend) and Sharon Salzberg. The experience was a neutral to positive one. I was more comfortable taking part because the weekend was led by a majority of people of color. I learned some breathing techniques that did indeed curb my anxiety. I suspended my massive cynicism and joined the room full of non-Tibetans in a session of chanting, led by an unambiguously white lady.
Then, on the final day, one of the retreat leaders told a story about His Holiness the Dalai Lama zeroing in on them in a crowd to ask about their recently sprained ankle as an example of his remarkable sense of compassion. Beatific smiles spread across the (mostly white) faces around me, and the tengas adorning their wrists and necks sharpened into focus. The story felt more like a name drop than a moment of teaching, and then the retreat ended. I felt lonelier than I had the whole weekend.
Previously, at Tibetan gatherings like Buddhism retreats or youth leadership summits, that same space had been one of profound belonging: of gripes about the vegetarian food, of one hundred-strong gorshey circles, of varied backgrounds but shared sentiments. We discussed our shared dilemmas and futures; we disagreed, we laughed, we flirted, we danced. Now, the very same room shifted into a place where I could not be seen or heard.
There is even loneliness of self-isolation. Occasionally, I hear a Tibetan say they are ‘not like other Tibetans’ and it is sad, because I once felt the same way. Feeling there was no space for my set of experiences, I let the gap between myself and a Tibetan community widen. I wonder if this is the loneliest of all — believing there is no space for you in a place where there has always been one. There are undoubtedly challenges within Tibetan communities everywhere, and everyone has to make their own decisions about how they interact (or don’t) with these challenges. But I hope that every Tibetan finds a way to belong, because there are so many possibilities to do so.
To quote Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, “in the absent everyday,” loneliness pervades our lives and experiences. The inverse of loneliness is, of course, the ferocity of bhoepa connectedness: we are bound together by our decisions and by our actions. Our interdependence is in part necessity, since we experience so many challenges, so much isolation and separation as our diasporic lives move us in the directions of the four winds.
Perhaps the loneliness, and assiduous efforts against it, are because we know deeply that there is a place for us. My particular obsession with loneliness and a sense of home is shaped by my own set of neuroses and experiences, but I know I am not the only Tibetan who has these questions and worries. Home to me often feels asymptotic, but Tibet is not. Pemako is an actual place with trees and earth. Both my father’s parents were born there. I collect anecdotes about this place like talismans. A Chinese passport-holding friend has been there and showed me photos from his travels.
I don’t really know what the point of this is, reader. Maybe the point is the quote “we are all just walking each other home” by recently deceased Spiritual White Guy Ram Dass. Maybe I am still writing to keep loneliness at bay. Maybe loneliness motivates us, gives us energy for and lessons on shaping futures for ourselves. Maybe the alternative, reader, — embracing this existential aloneness — goes against the undeniable fact of our bodies and land. Happy Valentine’s Day.