A Phantom and A Dream: Social Media, Connection and Loneliness During the Holidays

As I scrolled through my Facebook feed the day after Thanksgiving, I saw numerous photos of people celebrating the holiday with family and friends. I shared their joy as they basked in the warm glow of their loved ones. Yet I couldn’t forget the people who had not posted, some who were either alone or lonely.

For the most part, people who share their holiday moments on social media have no ill will or intent to arouse jealousy. Often these photos are quite meaningful to distant family or others who appreciate seeing their friends in joyful times. But because people who feel less fortunate are unlikely to share, a false picture emerges. We can easily overlook that these feeds hardly represent the full spectrum of human experience  – we may forget to extend compassion to those who need our kindness or to simply acknowledge that not everyone is celebrating.

Mudita, or sympathetic joy, is the capacity to appreciate the success and good fortune of others without reservation. When I scroll the feeds and see happy, fulfilled faces of friends and relatives surrounded by loved ones, mudita arises in me. But if you are alone or lonely, as I was for many years, it’s not so easy to summon sympathetic joy. Social media can amplify feelings of disconnection with its easy access to images of warm, happy clans on the screen, even though not all of these images paint a true picture. In fact, this is a good time to remember Buddha’s teaching in the Diamond Sutra that this fleeting world is but a phantom and a dream.

Having spent many holidays alone when I was younger, I became quite intimate with the seasonal pressure to be joyful and connected. That’s partly why I’m sensitive to those who may not communicate their loneliness or feelings of detachment during the holidays.

Although I wasn’t raised Christian, growing up I immersed myself in the spirit and excitement of the holidays. When I was 13 my mother died in the fall and I moved to Nashville to live with my grandmother. Even with my mother gone I prepared for the season with great anticipation. It would only be Granny and me, but that was enough. When Christmas finally arrived, we started the day with Gran’s whipped cream topped custard and presents. As the day progressed, however, she fell into grief for what she had lost: her only child and her husband. She began drinking heavily and I spent the rest of Christmas alone in my room, devastated that the day didn’t live up to my expectations.

This pattern would repeat itself for years.  My disappointment, at its core, reflected the grief and loneliness that I couldn’t yet face. I unconsciously hoped that the warm promise of the holidays would wash away my pain. When my father died from alcoholism a few years later, my holiday loneliness only intensified and extended well in to the grey, wet Tennessee months of January and February. Often relief came only when the longer, sunny days of spring finally arrived.

After struggling with loneliness and depression for many years, I started to address my losses, which helped me untangle from my holiday gloom. The shame of being alone slowly lifted. During meditation, I began to feel a deep heart connection to all that is present, or as Dogen put it, intimacy with all things. In my daily life I cultivated friendships and relationships that nourished me. Slowly, the holidays and those dark grey winters that followed were easier to bear.

These days I’m grateful to have loving people in my life.  Yet my heart still touches that deep loneliness from time to time. Mostly I have room for it now; I can feel both connection and loneliness in the fullness of my heart. And I remember that, despite the images on social media, some people are lonely and grieving this year. If you’re one of them, may your heart find peace. May you know that you are not alone.

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Winter solitude –
in a world of one color
the sound of wind.

-Basho

 

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Lightning

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A haiku:

How admirable,
He who thinks not, “Life is fleeting,”
When he sees the lightning!

-Basho

From the Buddha:

So you should veiw this fleeting world a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.

New Years Half Day Retreat

The Power of Intention: Clarifying Your Path for the New Year
Friday, January 1, 9 a.m. – Noon
12 South Dharma Center
Led by Lisa Ernst

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“One of the Buddha’s most penetrating discoveries is that our intentions are the main factors shaping our lives and that they can be mastered as a skill.” – Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Join us for a half day intention setting retreat at the 12 South Dharma Center. At the beginning of a New Year, it is customary to take stock of our lives, to review the previous year and set our intentions for the upcoming twelve months and beyond. Bringing this evaluation onto the cushion, to look with fresh eyes and an open heart, can help us refine and clarify our direction and to live from the truest part of ourselves.

Led by meditation teacher Lisa Ernst, the retreat will include periods of sitting and walking meditation, dharma talk and discussion. Cost is $40.You can pay through Paypal here.  Instructions for paying by check are at this link. Be sure and include your email address. For questions, email onedharmaretreat@gmail.com.

Mindfulness Study

Want to take part in a brief online mindfulness study? Sara Eckstein, who has participated in a number of One Dharma workshops, is doing her PhD dissertation on mindfulness and has created a research questionnaire. She needs people to participate — if you’d like to help, here’s the info:

When you take a moment to slow down and smell the roses, you are engaging in mindfulness. Mindfulness can be defined as intentionally focusing on what you are feeling, thinking or doing in the present moment. When practicing mindfulness, you simply allow your experience to be exactly as it is, rather than judging it or trying to change it. Research has shown promising results about mindfulness being very helpful in stress reduction, pain management, and even ADHD symptom alleviation.

The present study invites you to complete a 10-15 minute online survey related to your thoughts about mindfulness. Participants will be entered into a drawing to win a $25 VISA gift card. This study hopes to assess what individuals in the modern world think about mindfulness so we can better understand reasons why people may be more or less willing to practice it. This research is important because it can help inform a variety of mindfulness-based treatments so they are more effective for a diverse range of individuals with unique preferences.

Eligibility: The only requirement for eligibility is that you must be an American adult. No prior knowledge of mindfulness is required.

If you are willing, please click on this link to complete this brief, confidential survey. Feel free to share this link with others so they can also complete the survey as well. If you have additional questions or concerns contact Sarah Eckstein, M.S., at seckstei1134@gmail.com.