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.

 filterheart

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

-Basho

 

Meditation or Medication?

“Allow dark times to season you.” Hafiz

25 years ago I took a hesitant step into a psychiatrist’s office. My boyfriend at the time was worried about my mental state and urged me to seek help. My grandmother had just died, preceded in death by my mother and my father. My grandmother was my last close family connection and I felt utterly alone. I had no idea what was happening to me as I sunk further and further into a dark hole of despair.

The psychiatrist said I was clinically depressed and wanted to prescribe anti depressant meditation. This threw me. I had been living with depression for so many years it seemed like an irreparable part of me. I had come to accept that I was chronically depressed and perhaps always would be. But as we talked, and I assessed my mental state more objectively, I knew in my heart that I couldn’t go on this way any longer. At that very moment I decided I would try meditation. I let the shrink know I would not be taking him up on his offer of medication, but I did agree to begin seeing a psychotherapist to help me deal with childhood trauma and grief from my losses. This was a vital step for my mental well being. But I knew therapy alone wouldn’t be enough. In fact, my new therapist was very supportive and encouraging that I had begun a meditation practice.

Taking up meditation was an easy decision for me. Looking back, I have no idea why I was so confident. 25 years ago there wasn’t nearly the volume of information on meditation and the brain that there is now. But I had always been inspired by Buddha’s emphasis on meditation as a part of the path to freedom from suffering. Intuitively I knew meditation was for me, but I also knew I would have to commit myself to the practice with my whole heart.

As a meditation teacher I frequently meet people who are seeking relief from stress and depression through meditation. Often they’ve read encouraging studies and scientific papers and they hope to see the same results. But it works for only a few. Its not that meditation isn’t effective; what I’ve consistently observed is that only a small number of people truly commit to the practice wholeheartedly. If relieving depression is the only reason to meditate, most people will become impatient and doubtful too soon to experience any significant change. Others will practice only sporadically, yet still expect results. This won’t work.

For some, meditation isn’t the right path, at least not initially. Certain mental illnesses need to be treated clinically and sitting in the midst of grief and depression may overwhelm or intensify anxiety. Some may combine medication with meditation initially. Longer term, meditation can be a wonderful way to further steady the mind and begin to see and relieve the roots of human suffering, of clinging and aversion.

When I began my meditation practice, I committed to sitting a minimum of 30 minutes each day. I gave myself no leeway at all on this. No matter what, I meditated daily. Sitting through grief, anxiety and fear, along with joy, equanimity and bliss. The practice itself stabilized my mind enough that I could stay present in my experience without being overwhelmed. As Thich Nhat Hanh explained, “when we go home to ourselves with the energy of mindfulness, we’re no longer afraid of being overwhelmed by the energy of suffering. Mindfulness gives us the strength to look deeply and give rise to understanding and compassion.”

I quickly forgot about whether meditation was helping with my depression. I became so interested in the process itself that my mental state actually took a back seat. Not that it was unimportant, but it wasn’t my primary focus. Studying and seeing my mind, as well as the world around me, in such an intimate way each day fascinated me. Those moments when I broke through a barrier to deeper insight into my heart and mind had a liberating and profound effect on me.

Gradually, almost without even noticing it, my depression lifted and I became less isolated and lonely. Even today, daily meditation is a foundational element of my mental health even though it isn’t the primary reason I’ve continued to practice.

Some people will take up a serious meditation practice at a very dark and desperate time in their lives and it works – they begin feeling better and slowly their meditation practice falls away. Maybe it was all they needed and they had no further aspiration with this form of practice. Personally I’m glad I didn’t stop. I so appreciate the clarity that arises when I witness and experience the myriad manifestations of thought and emotion I encounter. Most of all, this path has helped me deepen compassion for myself and others, to pierce the illusion of a separate self, which allows me to be more kind, open and receptive to life in its ever changing forms.