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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Hard Relativity and the Gateway to Freedom

A few days ago I saw a social media post by a Zen teacher, commenting on a video in which CEOs revealed that meditation was their secret to success. The dharma teacher jokingly observed, “I’ve been doing this shit for 30 years. How come I’m not successful?” He went on to write a blog post about the conflict inherent in materialistic, idealized definitions of success related to meditation. The video showcased how meditation helped CEOs focus and overcome fear. One CEO said she spent her meditation time thinking about the goals she wanted to achieve. The narrator never mentioned how living a life of compassion, generosity and non-harming were also cornerstones to success, something that is integral to the Buddhist path of meditation. Without these qualities most people are hopelessly caught in the craving self that is never satisfied with wealth, fame and achievement. Meditation only becomes a means to an end, a way to strengthen our competitive muscles and along with it, our entrenched, relative sense of self.

Much of the time we define and experience our lives in the relative, conditioned realm. In this world we are tempted to focus on “myself” and how I am fairing against a yardstick that defines whether I am successful, attractive, healthy, having a good day or week, and generally living up to my (and our culture’s) ideas of the perfect life. This focus on me and my ideals in relation to others creates a barrier to experiencing the open space of awareness that is free from self identification, which can be all but forgotten during a busy day of running from one activity to the next, or trying to alleviate anxiety and boredom through social media, television and other distractions.

Out of this near exclusive focus on the conditioned world, a sense of restriction arises, a lack of space, a feeling that there’s always something else we need to do, another place we need to reach, a better “I” that needs to be built. But of course wherever we go, whatever we do, the relative self always feels incomplete and continues seeking fulfillment through yet another scheme or activity. A simple moment of coming back to this moment, seeing this endless loop of striving, can help us remember that when we define ourselves only through this lens of self, we are stuck at the very root of dissatisfaction or dkkha.

I think of hard relativity as the time I spend lost in the whirlpool of activity and craving, when I’ve completely forgotten what available to me right now, the mind that is open, unconditioned and spacious. When the balance tips so far into conditioned awareness and activity that nothing else seems to exist, I feel hopelessly lost. Yet with a moment of remembering, of waking up from the illusion, it becomes clear that I’m not as stuck as I thought. In fact, I’m not stuck at all because who is stuck?

Why do we so often forget and get lost in this “hard relativity?” We can easily flip that question to, “why do we suffer?” Take a moment to reflect: how do you define yourself? Are you frequently trying to alter and make your sense of identity other than what it is in this moment? Who are you without your goals, your achievements, all the ways you define yourself? What if you began to reflect on this question more often in your daily life?

I’m not suggesting we let go of our heartfelt aspirations to excel or achieve. These have their place. Without some ambition, not much in this world will get done. Instead, I’m suggesting we create an intention to find ways to include spacious awareness of the unconditioned in our busy days and not only when we meditate. It sounds simple, but we tend to make it complicated: relative and unconditioned are not mutually exclusive even though they seem otherwise. They are two sides of one coin. Unconditioned, open awareness is always accessible, even when we feel caught in the vise grip of our activities, wants and self-driven cravings.

As a wake up call, you may want to pay more attention to those moments when you feel pressured to get to the next thing, be the next better version of yourself, squeezed and lacking in any space. See if you can create an intention, like a mindfulness bell, to take a moment to remember and reconnect with the open space of unconditioned awareness. Here’s a simple, yet profound Zen koan you can ask yourself to open this up: “What is my original face before I was born?” The answer is right here and nowhere else.

An Owl’s Perfect Song

This moment of joy is an owl’s perfect song

Again and again each time the same

How does it know to sing just this way?

The thought like the owl can’t be caught and held

It drifts on its way but the joy remains.

An open heart leaves nothing outside

receives all yet holds none

so owls can sing and then fly away.

– Lisa Ernst