What to do when we feel alone

6 mins read

lonelinessLoneliness doesn’t just crop up in romances – it crops up in every relationship or thwarted relationship where there is self-grasping and attachment.

Carrying on from this article.

How did you get interested in Buddhism and/or meditation (at least enough to be reading this blog?) I like asking people this question, for they often have very interesting stories to tell. And I find that people often find their way to Buddhism in the wake of a loss or tragedy, recognizing that it answers some profound questions about suffering.

Existential loss/grief

In Buddha’s time, there was a young woman called Kisigotami who lost her baby and was devastated by grief. Buddha helped by showing her the universality of this suffering. GampopaYou can read the story in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, or a shortened version here.

There is also the inspiring story (told in Universal Compassion) of the Tibetan man Gampopa, who tragically lost his wife but found his way into Dharma, becoming a highly realized lay Master.

We lose every single one of our loved ones to death sooner or later – if we don’t die first. Is there a remedy for this unbearable grief? Perhaps, yes, if we realize we can do something about mental pain by changing our way of thinking and by realizing that we are not ever actually alone.

We have a saying in Buddhism, “Suffering has good qualities.” It is not inherently bad. We can gain the deepest spiritual realizations and strength at the very times when things are the most broken down, eg, when we are bereaved or after a big break-up. Buddha was kind enough to show how even this agonizing heartache doesn’t have to be bad for us; and it’s worth acquiring some of this understanding before tragedy strikes again!

sufferingWe live and die alone – this is a characteristic of samsara because we’re all isolated by our delusions. But enlightenment is union, one iconic image being Buddha Heruka in embrace with Buddha Vajrayogini, the embodiment of the union of great bliss and emptiness. In samsara, we experience ourselves in a state of isolation. In a Pure Land, we experience ourselves in a state of communion. Why? Because samsara is created by delusion whereas the Pure Land is reality.

Shine the sun of wisdom and love

If you like, here is a short but sweet meditation based on some of the previous loneliness articles that you can do before moving onto the rest of this article …

We can start with a feeling of inner confidence and space by getting into our heart and identifying with our infinite-sky-like Buddha nature

Then we can revisit our determination to decrease our ignorance and attachment because these simply don’t work as a strategy for overcoming loneliness. We can bring examples in our own experience to mind, and remember that these are just unhelpful habitual thoughts – we don’t have to identify with these thoughts (we are not them), we don’t have to think them, we can in fact just let them go. These delusions take form as thick dark clouds, and we breathe them far out through our nostrils, letting them disappear forever.

clear light of blissWe can spend a few moments considering how we need to climb down the mountain of self and up the mountain of other.

Then we can feel the wisdom, non-attachment, and love of all holy beings around us in the form of clear light, the most beautiful light we can imagine, and breathe this in deeply through our nostrils. We can ride the light rays of wisdom and love into our heart, where they mix with the inner light of our Buddha nature.

We can focus on the radiance in our heart, like a sun shining inside. We can let its rays spread to the people around us, in our lives, taking away their loneliness and filling them with bliss. We can let this love spread as far as we like, even to pervade anyone who ever experiences loneliness, placing them in a deep feeling of communion and bliss.

Then we can make a plan to bring this love in our heart into our day, letting it be in the background of all our thoughts, and making an effort to give comfort to all the lonely people in our lives.

All the lonely people, where do they all come from

To overcome loneliness we all need to move away from our sense of being a real, solid, isolated self. When our mind is full of love, as in the meditation we just did (if you did it), we can see for ourselves that we are neither isolated nor more important than anyone else. This sense of self is only held by the thoughts of our ignorance of self-grasping and self-cherishing. Our version of our self is not ultimately true – if we look for it in our body or mind it disappears, like chasing a mirage.

all the lonely peopleBut because it feels limited, we set ourself up in neediness – we need someone to make us better, complete us, validate us, etc, and so we feel lonely because others cannot or will not fill that void. Whatever people say to comfort us, we still feel pathetic. We look for qualities in others that we feel we are missing, such as confidence, when it’d be far better to develop these qualities in ourselves. We cover up our weaknesses and try to hide behind others’ strengths.

We find it difficult to receive love because we are holding ourselves to be inherently unlovable, even though that version of ourself doesn’t actually exist.

Existence is relationship

When we are on “this mountain”, it feels absolutely this mountain, appears as such even to our eye awareness. But when we climb up “that mountain,” it also now appears to be this mountain from its own side and we believe that appearance. In which case, what happened?! Who switched around those real mountains?!

Self and other too are just objects of our thoughts or perceptions, incapable of existing on their own. They have no existence from their own side but totally depend one upon the other – what is this mountain without that mountain, or self without other?

other side exchanging self with othersOr in the similar case of left and right – what would be a world of lefts? Or one side of the coin without the other?

(By the way, when we use the word “dependent” we don’t mean it in a needy way – more like interdependent, dependent arising, dependent relationship.)

In universal love we never feel separated from anyone – we realize that we exist only in relationship, as relationship, with all living beings – part of a totality. In emptiness, too, there is no gap between ourselves and others because we are empty of existing from our own sides.

With a perfect realization of love and wisdom, completely in tune with the way things are, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are therefore entirely blissful and whole. They need no one but love everyone. We can be like this too.

More in the next and final article on overcoming loneliness – hopefully it’ll take less than the four years it took me to get around to this one!

Over to you … please comment in the box below and I’ll try to answer.

Related articles

Why do I have no friends?

Love without pain 

Other loneliness articles 

Reaching out ~ more Buddhist thoughts on suicide

8.5 mins read

When it comes to suicide, one of the best things we could probably do is reach out – those considering it and the rest of us too.

Carrying on from this article on suicide.

help i want to dieClearly fame, money, and the rest of it is not enough to keep the demons at bay. If we are not in control of our thoughts, they will control us. Judging by the number of articles about them, the recent celebrity suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade have been a bit of a wake-up call. Time magazine describes it as:

A one-two punch to our belief that there are some people who are living the perfect life.

The article describes their lives and achievements and then asks, “What more could a person want?”

Inner peace.

Without inner peace, we have no real happiness OR safety, whoever or wherever we are. Fame, fortune, relationships, and everything else outside the mind are causes of changing suffering, not causes of real happiness. As Time magazine puts it:

Many lives are not as they appear. Happiness is not the end result of a sum of accomplishments. The people whose wealth/wardrobe/job/talent we wish we had have their own struggles.

Thought experiment

inner peace outer peaceImagine having everything and everyone you’ve ever wanted and worked for and dreamed of. You made it!

Now, are you happy?!

……

Maybe, for a minute, until something upsets us, or we still feel we haven’t got it all, or we wonder why on earth this isn’t working. As Bourdain put it at the end of one show:

What do you do after your dreams come true?

According to this article in USA Today:

In an interview this year, the comedian and actor Jim Carrey talked about “getting to the place where you have everything everybody has ever desired and realizing you are still unhappy. And that you can still be unhappy is a shock when you have accomplished everything you ever dreamed of and more.”

As it says in How to Transform Your Life:

External conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful. We can understand this from our own experience. For instance, even if we are in the most beautiful surroundings and have everything we need, the moment we get angry any happiness we may have disappears. This is because anger has destroyed our inner peace.

Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain had everything many of us can only dream of:

Yet these two could not bear to live their lives any longer. ~ Time

Depression

chink of lightTalking of anger, going so far as to inflict such painful violence on ourselves must involve some anger. Anger directed outward — or perhaps more inward, as depression or self-loathing.

A couple of friends lately have told me that during times when they felt very depressed, the darkness that took over seemed impossible. Even getting out of bed felt like having to climb a mountain. There was no chink of light. Feeling trapped in their own minds, by their own minds, they only didn’t take their own lives because they understood that death is not the end of suffering, that it simply brings new sufferings. They knew that they would still be trapped in their minds where all the pain was really coming from.

However, they also found that by not going that route, a chink of light did have an opportunity to emerge. Hope reappeared and the clouds gradually parted. Now their lives feel very meaningful and blessed. They are both beyond grateful that they didn’t kill themselves.

Reach out

People need to find the refuge of inner peace and the refuge of love that overcomes loneliness, for nothing external can take away that ache, at least not for long. People need wisdom and compassion. People need some kind of Dharma.

If this master storyteller left us a lesson, it is this: You are not truly alone. People care about you more than you realize. Please don’t leave us. Reach out. ~ William Falk in The Week 

Anthony BourdainPeople were astonished to hear that Anthony Bourdain, that great lover of life we thought he was, had taken his own life. He was not alone, everyone loved him, he apparently knew that in his wiser and happier moments. But not when under the influence of the deceptive demon of self-cherishing telling him that he was alone, that no one truly cared.

Bourdain once noted that although he had “the best job in the world,” he often woke up in hotels far from the people he loved. “The truth is,” he said, “I’m alone for most of that time.”

USA Today suggests “community and family bonds have broken down, as people work endless hours in pursuit of material success and numb their loneliness with drugs, alcohol, TV, and the internet. The shallow interactions of social media do not fulfill our yearning for connection.”

Small talk

While I agree with this in general, I have had some deep conversations on Facebook and shallow conversations in person. We cannot blame the medium for our shallowness or lack of connection – I think it is more about where our interests lie and how deeply we are prepared to think.

small talkSometimes the people I talk with seem entirely uninterested in the real questions of life, even though they affect us all equally, including IMHO:

“Who am I? Where do I come from? Where are we all headed? What happens to me when I die, which will be in a few hundred months, at most? What are the real causes of this suffering we are all experiencing, including all that outrageous ageing and sickness, and how can we get rid of it permanently, especially as politics as usual is never going to be enough? Etc.”

I know the value of small talk, especially if we are genuinely interested in the other person. But if all we ever talk about is the weather, or the job, or where we’re going on vacation, or who has to be voted off Love Island, etc, I confess to finding it a little frustrating and tiring, to be honest, because people are ignoring the elephant in the room and yet that elephant is trampling all over their lives. Finding ways to communicate more meaningfully and with less inhibition seems invaluable if we are to genuinely help ourselves and others. What do you think?

Love is the great protector

We need love. Love cures loneliness. And I am not talking about self-involved attachment for just one person or a few people, but open-love is the great protectorhearted love for everyone we meet, a growing affection and concern for everyone we think about. This positive mind is based on reality and will keep us happy and free from danger.

This month I was walking down a pretty steep hill in Archway, London, when I saw an old woman, bent almost double, slowly walking the other way. She paused to pick up a piece of rubbish and carried it to the next bin. Then as we passed, she looked up and gave me what I can only describe as a radiant smile, accompanied by a cheery Good Morning! Then she carried on up the hill.

A day later I was walking down the same hill at a different time. Once again this old lady hobbled past me, looked up, and said good morning. She was smiling not just from her mouth but from her eyes, and I felt the affection coming off her.

She must be in pain to be bent over like that, her arthritis not only hurting her back and shoulders but crushing her internal organs. Yet she seems happy to be alive, happy to smile at strangers. I don’t know her full story, of course, but it seems she has at least some ability to transform suffering through love.

Buddha calls love “the great Protector.” As Falk puts it, beautifully I find:

At the heart of human experience is a paradox: We are each trapped inside the boundaries of our flesh, alone with our histories, our wounds, our brokenness. Yet our isolation is an illusion — a constriction of perception. All the great spiritual traditions teach the same truth: We are connected in a fundamental way to everyone and to everything. 

How can we help?

Someone who works with suicide victims wrote an interesting comment on the first article about suicide, and I quote a bit here:

While there are many people more qualified than me to discuss the determinants of suicide, a common thread I see seems to be a patient’s strong belief in their separateness; and so while I can’t necessarily help all beings yet, I can be kind. I can choose to extend myself a little further in my conversation with others to give them time and space to be heard. I can cultivate a genuine interest in their experience so that the possibility of connection can begin to outweigh that of separateness; so that the possibility of relationship can become more appealing than that of severance. I certainly pray for this.

Kate SpadeWe need to be alert, to look a bit more deeply, to remember that:

Outward impressions of people’s lives are often wildly off-base. ~ Time

Back to my thoughts on Denis at the time … 

Our friends in retrospect are saying “If only we could go back 24 hours and find him!” But we can’t. There are many things we want to say to him, but we can’t. We will do the Powa he requested, obviously, we would have done it even if he hadn’t requested — we will do our best to get him to the Pure Land, but his self-cherishing has not made it easy. It is lucky he has made friends in high places. Venerable Geshe-la said he was doing prayers and Powa for him. Denis did create a lot of good karma, so there is something there for the Buddhas to work with.

This may be what the Buddhas think about us — we will do our best to help you, but your self-cherishing does not make it easy. Still, they never give up and this has strengthened my determination to never give up as well. I really appreciate this precious human life right now, and what we can do with it, including the transcendence of all suffering. Right now, at least, I don’t want to waste another day.

One more article coming up about ways to cope with others’ suicides, including doing transference of consciousness (Powa).

Over to you. There were some great comments on the first article, and I value any more comments, stories, or other feedback that might be helpful to other readers. Thank you.

Related articles

A brother’s suicide  

Happiness from the inside out 

Feeling lonely? 

What can we really know about anyone? 

Can ageing be worthwhile?

Carrying on from where this article left off.

The power of the Bodhisattva’s mind 

When a Bodhisattva experiences pain, they regard this pain as an example of the pain experienced by countless other living beings. They do not possess the pain or identify with it. Ordinarily, pain destroys our happiness because we grasp it tightly as our own and it is all-consuming for us. But for a Bodhisattva, their pain induces more compassion for others. Strong compassion, in turn, lessens the feeling of pain, mentally for sure, and also physically. Therefore, a Bodhisattva has nothing to fear from pain.

kindness of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

If a Bodhisattva experiences a moment of loneliness, for example, they observe it in their mind. They don’t think, “I am so lonely”; instead they think, “Here is an example of the loneliness experienced by countless other beings right now.” Understanding directly how horrible this is, they decide, “How wonderful it would be if I could help alleviate the suffering of loneliness in this world.” Bodhisattvas transform their experience of any sickness or pain into a positive spiritual realization.

We can see examples of this in everyday lives. If parents lose their children to incurable diseases, they sometimes establish foundations in their children’s honor that are specifically dedicated to helping find a cure for this disease, and in doing so find meaning and relief. Or consider Lance Armstrong – whatever you may think of his cycling “performance”, his experience of the pain of fighting and surviving cancer led to his creation of the Livestrong Foundation and the ubiquitous yellow wrist bands that have raised so much awareness and money for a cancer-cure.

love is all you need in Buddhism

As we get older, we tend to experience more physical pain. If instead of focusing on our own pain and thereby making it feel worse, we can manage to think of others who are suffering in a similar way and generate strong compassion, this compassion helps protect us from our pain and fears and motivates us to help others.

My dad had to undergo some very uncomfortable medical treatment last year. He told me that he was feeling sorry for himself in the hospital one day, when something made him notice the other people around him. Focusing his attention on them, he realized that they were in a worse way than he was, and he felt very sorry for them. This totally took his mind off his own painful predicament, and for the first time, but not the last, he felt strangely all okay again.

It might be a good idea to start training in this now!

Growing old gracefully

Do you agree that being confident and being attractive are closely related? When people find a way to retain and cultivate their inner confidence, their engagement with others, their ability to laugh at themselves, they don’t cease being attractive whatever age or however doddery they are. I think a lot of confidence comes from having a clear sense of who you are, what you love, and a zest for life. My Grandfather loved life until the day he died aged 100, and so he was always fun to be with.

growinggracefullyAs our physical enjoyments and reputations diminish through ageing, instead of getting bitter or nostalgic we can increase even further the value we place on our experience of inner peace. If we become more peaceful, positive, and even blissful in our mind, people will enjoy hanging out with us, regardless of our age. This is certainly the case for my friend Eileen, who I’m visiting next weekend 🙂 Buddhist meditation practice can engender great self-confidence.

Upon turning 80 last year (on the same day as my teacher!), my quasi father-in-law wrote to me:

I must admit that yesterday I woke up with a sense of amazement. Wow! I had thought it was only other people that get old, and an octogenarian is old. One is treated with a certain reverence (though whether this might be covering a degree of pity and disdain, I don’t know). Physically, I feel ancient. I used to boast a degree of dexterity but for some years I’ve felt clumsy. I’m learning to be more careful but I dropped and broke the lid of one of P’s casseroles the other day. Walking has become more of a thought-about action, particularly since I slipped on the ice early this year. My memory is getting very poor. There are embarrassingly long pauses in my speech as I search, not for the right word, but for any word that will do! I’ve also lost a little confidence in walking and driving. 

However as far as attitude is concerned, I haven’t felt much change. I am OK as long as I feel I’m still in control of how I’m reacting to what is happening around me. I can visualize a time when this may not be so any more. As long as I find my absent-mindedness amusing, I’m happy. I imagine that most thinking geriatrics feel something similar to this. The sad thing is when one of us “wrinklies” does not notice the control slipping away and they drift into senility. Then all their bold statements along the lines of, “I don’t want to lose my dignity, to become dependent on others; I’d rather die with my independence intact,” and so forth, count for nothing.

Senior-MomentAs our body starts to let us down, we are compelled to rely more deeply on inner resources. Even if we do become more forgetful of words and phrases and where we left our keys, and our brain is seizing up, we can still feel love and compassion in our heart-mind, especially if we have started our training in this. In the end, the journey within is the most interesting journey we can ever take, and ageing is a constant motivator to travel it well.

Your turn: Do you have inspiring examples of people you know who aged or are ageing well?