Practicing with Loneliness

Practicing with Loneliness

Discussion date: Thu, Oct 20, 2022 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

In October of 2020, my husband and I and our golden retriever Daisy climbed into our fully-loaded car and drove away from Ellicott City, Maryland, our home for twenty-one years. We drove cross-country for five days, finally arriving in a small town in central Oregon, and moved into a small-ish house, just the right size for a retired couple and a dog. We knew exactly four people in this town: my cousin and his wife and our realtor and her husband.

We made this move in the middle of the covid pandemic. The numbers of covid cases were rising in Oregon when we arrived and would stay high until the following spring. Schools and many businesses were closed. I waved to our new neighbors and chatted a little at a distance, but people were staying home and not getting together in person.

I felt lonely — lonely for the friends I had left behind in Maryland, for my sangha friends, for my sisters in Texas, and most of all for my two daughters. You could say that for the past two years I have been practicing with loneliness.

In the book Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, a collection of Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) talks and writings, there is a section entitled “Keep Your Loneliness Warm.” Thay writes:

You feel lonely because you have not seen the connection between yourself and other beings. You have not seen the connection between you and the air, the sunshine, the water, the people, the animals, the plants, and the minerals. You are lonely because you believe there is a separate self. The insight of interbeing can help solve the problem of loneliness.

Thay has emphasized that interbeing is not just an idea but a reality that we can touch and observe in our daily lives. How can we encourage and nourish the insight of interbeing?

During the years I’ve been practicing meditation, I’ve noticed over and over again that mindfully walking outside helps me handle difficult emotions and situations. Where I live, there are many beautiful places to walk – along the river or on trails where I can see the mountains to the west. The air is usually delicious to breathe, and I enjoy the warmth of the sun on my body, the blue sky. I walk, I notice the beauty of the plants and trees, different from the ones in Maryland, and I feel connected to the Earth. The insight arises that I am part of the Earth and the Earth is supporting me in numberless ways.

The Earth is not only the plants, trees, and the ground under my feet. It is also all the peoples who live on Earth, in their great diverse and various manifestations. Lama Dawa Tarchin Phillips, a Dharma teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, has written about his spiritual journey of reconnecting to the earth and all of humanity (see his essay “Belonging” included in Pamela Ayo Yetunde and Cheryl A. Giles’s book Black & Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us about Race, Resilience, Transformation & Freedom.) He uses the metaphor of amputation to describe the feeling of being cut off from planet Earth and all its peoples, who are actually parts of himself. He writes:

Like an amputee, I, too, was walking this earth without any sense of genuine connection to the planet and to humanity as my own body, and without any real intimacy or love for where I was physically.

In an effort to heal his disconnection, he began to lead global pilgrimages to different parts of the world, spending time with different groups of people, deeply listening and learning. Through these experiences, he gained a sense of wholeness and belonging. He asks us:

Can we overcome the experience of being a tourist in this life, entitled to taking whatever we want from our experience and leaving only trash behind, and instead transform into pilgrims on a sacred journey, traveling in life to reconnect with all our amputated parts until our sense of wholeness is fully restored?

I have found that the practice of metta, or sending lovingkindness to myself and others, nourishes a feeling of connection with other people. It’s easy to send lovingkindness to my loved ones, the wish that they may be happy, healthy, safe, and they may have strength to meet whatever arises in their lives. Sometimes it’s harder to extend that same kind of care and concern to all beings. During sitting meditation, I scan my body and release tension in my body. I send loving and healing energy to my body; then I send loving and healing energy to all bodies: to everyone who is dealing with cancer, to people who are suffering with covid, to all beings in need of healing. I think of people who are suffering mentally and emotionally: my sister who is grieving the death of her youngest daughter, a friend whose son is being detained in China, and people all over the world who want their children to be safe. Then I go wider, sending loving and healing energy to people who are suffering in situations of war like in Ukraine, in famine as in Somalia; people who have lost their homes to hurricanes, floods, and wildfires; people who are suffering from racism and inequity. Going along in this way, envisioning all these living beings who are suffering, I feel my heart expand to hold them all. I am connected to all these beings; my happiness and suffering are not separate from theirs; we inter-are.

Thay writes in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:

We have an idea of happiness. We believe that only certain conditions will make us happy. But it is often our very idea of happiness that prevents us from being happy.

If I’m convinced that I can only be happy if I’m living near my daughters or friends, I will miss opportunities for happiness here and now. Now that covid has abated, I’m able to be out in the community more, meeting people, talking casually and laughing with them. These simple human ​interactions buoy me up. They give me a sense of belonging to the human family again, after a long time of isolation. I notice happiness arising in me, and I am grateful.

This Thursday night, we’ll have some time to reflect on our own experiences of loneliness and how we have practiced with it. Some questions we might consider:

  • When in your life have you felt lonely? What were the inner and outer conditions that gave rise to your loneliness?
  • What practices have helped you alleviate the suffering of loneliness?
  • What has loneliness taught you?

We hope you can join us. Below is an excerpt from Thay’s Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet.

With gratitude and appreciation,
Connie Anderson


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Keep Your Loneliness Warm
By Thich Nhat Hanh, from Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet

You feel lonely because you have not seen the connection between yourself and other beings. You have not seen the connection between you and the air, the sunshine, the water, the people, the animals, the plants, and the minerals. You are lonely because you believe there is a separate self. The insight of interbeing can help solve the problem of loneliness.

Everything is there for you. That is the truth. The sunshine is there for you. If there is no sunshine, there is no life on Earth, and you couldn’t be here. So, you have to see the deep connection between you and the sunshine. You are made of sunshine. Is the sunshine lonely? The water, the air, Mother Earth, the stars, the moon—they are all there for you. You can train yourself to breathe, walk, and sit in such a way that you can get connected with the stars, the trees, the air, the sunshine.

Life is a wonder, and your body, your feelings, are also wonders. And, if you know how to connect yourself with all of these things, you will not be lonely. The sunshine has the power to love. And we human beings also have the power to love. If the sunshine loves us, then we should be able to love the sunshine back. If the trees love us, then we should learn how to be able to love the trees. And, if we know how to love, we don’t feel lonely anymore.

To feel sadness, loneliness, is not something bad. All of us feel sad or lonely from time to time, and we can learn to come back to ourselves to embrace our loneliness. It is a wonderful practice. Sometimes you can feel very comfortable embracing your loneliness, keeping your loneliness warm. You don’t have to push your loneliness away. Your loneliness is there, and you accept it. You breathe in and out to be truly there and you embrace your loneliness. Sometimes we want to be alone and hold our loneliness. We feel we can be there for ourselves, and we don’t need anyone else to help us. We have the capacity to take care of ourselves.

The teaching on true love is very clear. To love means to be there and listen deeply to see the suffering and loneliness of the other person. Once we feel there is one person who can understand us, our loneliness disappears. You are lucky if there is someone who can truly understand you, your suffering, difficulties, and loneliness. You are receiving a gift from them, and that gift is the power of understanding. And you have to offer the same gift in return. You can ask, “Do I understand you enough? Please help me understand you.” Love is a gift that can make the other person not lonely anymore.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Oct 20, 2022


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