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

OregonCoast

Oregon Rain
photography by Lisa Ernst

As I scrolled through social media 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 gatherings 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 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, aided by meditation and therapy, 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 we see 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.

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

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New Talk – The Dharma of Gratitude: Deepening Connection to Life

The Buddha said these two people are hard to find in the world – the one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful and thankful for a kindness done. When we practice gratitude, we incline our hearts toward generosity and kindness. Gratitude, for both the welcome and the difficult in our lives, also brings us a greater sense of connection, expands our container of awareness beyond the separateness of “I, me and mine” and into a deeper connection with life.

New Year’s Half Day Intention Setting Retreat

The Power of Intention: Clarifying Your Path for the New Year
Tuesday, January 1 2019, 9 a.m. – Noon
Nashville Friends Meeting
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

Start your New Year on the cushion by joining us for a half day intention setting retreat. At the beginning of a New Year, it is customary to take stock of our lives and the world we live in, 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 morning will include instructions, periods of sitting and walking meditation, dharma talk and discussion. Cost is $50 is due by Friday, December 28. Paypal is here. To pay by check, instructions are here. Additional details will be sent in advance of the retreat to all registrants. A reduced fee option is available for those who need financial support. For questions, email onedharmaretreat@gmail.com.

New Dharma Talk: Dharma Lessons from Cloud Mountain

I spent a week at Cloud Mountain meditating and it was wonderful. Yet inevitably, challenges both big and small can arise in the course of deep practice. Some are comical, some poignant. I share a few of these experiences in this talk.