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 Dharma Talk: Closing the Gap by Stepping In

In this dharma talk, Lisa explores the gap between expectation and reality, perception and direct experience. Through minding the gap and stepping in, we release our ideas of how things should be and find freedom and intimacy with life in its essence.

Mindfulness Meditation Workshop for ADHD and/or Anxiety

Saturday, July 29, 2017, 9 a.m. – Noon
Nashville Friends House

Lisa Ernst, meditation teacher and founder of One Dharma Nashville, and Terry Huff, LCSW, psychotherapist and author specializing in adults with ADHD and author of Living Well with ADHD, will offer a workshop on meditation and ADHD and/or anxiety. The workshop will include lecture, practice, and discussion and will address the following:

1. Why meditate for ADHD and/or anxiety?
2. Basics of practice
3. Different practices for
a. selective attention (focusing)
b. open awareness (expanding)
c. compassion (for self and other)

Research shows that mindfulness practice improves concentration, attention regulation, self-observation (of mental activity), working memory, and emotion regulation.

The workshop will be held at The Nashville Friends House, 530 26th Ave N. Cost is $60 and is due by the July 21 registration deadline; after $70. A reduced fee is available to anyone who can’t afford the full fee.

Payment can be made by check or paypal. For paypal, go here and enter the amount due in the “price per item” box. To pay by by check, instructions are at this link. Please include your email address.

Contact ernst.lisa@gmail.com or tmhuff@comcast.net to inquire. Terry’s book is available at terrymhuff.com.

Dharma Talk: Delusion and Enlightenment are Not Separate

This dharma talk explores the intersection of delusion and Buddha Nature, how the awakened heart/mind is always available, even in the most difficult moments.

Half Day Compassion Retreat: Heart Practices for Challenging Times

Saturday, June 3, 2017, 9 a.m. – Noon
Nashville Friends Meeting
Led by Lisa Ernst

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Please join us for a half day of sitting and walking meditation. Compassion and wisdom are the two wings of practice that bring our hearts to liberation. But how do we consistently practice compassion and kindness toward ourselves and others in challenging times? How does our wise heart lead the way? In this silent retreat we will explore several lovingkindness and compassion practices that refresh our hearts and open us to our innate freedom and kindness.

Led by Lisa Ernst, this retreat is suitable for newer and more experienced meditators. It will include periods of sitting and walking meditation, instructions and dharma. Cost is $45 and is due by Monday, May 29. A reduced fee spot is available, please inquire. Paypal is here. If paying by check, instructions are here. Please include your email address.

Additional details will be provided to registrants in advance of the retreat. For questions, email onedharmaretreat@gmail.com

Delusion and Buddha Nature Are Not Separate

One recent morning while meditating, I was reflecting on the nature of delusion. 2017 started off as a difficult year for me, and having struggled with a multiplicity of challenges, I felt at times as if I were drowning in delusion. Then, a moment of remembering and I was at peace: the awakened mind is nowhere but here, right in the very midst of seemingly impenetrable delusion.

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This is my reflection:

Delusion and Buddha Nature are not separate. Our human nature includes delusion and clarity. When delusion is fully seen and known, this is enlightenment. What allows this alchemy? Letting go of identification with a fixed “self.” A simple shift in perspective and the seeming duality of delusion and enlightenment dissolve.

When we think we have a self that we need to endlessly polish, hone and improve, we get caught in the illusion that awakening is elsewhere. Yes, we need our practice to help us remove what clouds the clarity of mind. As Suzuki Roshi said, “Enlightenment is an accident. Practice makes us accident prone.” Yet in the very midst of delusion, if we see it fully, we are free.

How does this happen? As the mind and heart become still, desire and grasping fall away and there is only this moment and no one needing to do anything, change anything or even see anything. Here there is no self to fix , no self to enlighten. Here is the place of peace. I’m reminded of a quote from Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy.”

Shortly after I wrote this reflection, I vaguely remembered this teaching from my very early years of practice in the Zen tradition. At that time, my understanding of this teaching was beneficial to me, but it only occasionally extended beyond my meditation practice into daily life. A google search brought me to Dogen’s Genjo Koan. Here’s a short piece:

“Delusion and enlightenment are originally inseparable. What is called delusion is as it is and what is called enlightenment is as it is. Delusion should not be detested and enlightenment should not be devoured. They are as they are and they do not get in the way at all. They are inseparable. This is what is reverberating beyond words and you should not overlook this.

If Buddhas recognize themselves as enlightened there is polarization of self and other. This is not enlightenment. You realize enlightenment through delusion and you are deluded through enlightenment. At the place of seeing, knowing perishes and the mind is stilled.”

Balancing the Three Legs of Practice

Blue Heron

I often think of dharma practice like a tripod, with three legs that create balance. On one leg there’s meditation, including daily seated practice and retreats; on another is mindfulness in daily life; the third is sangha practice.

Let’s start with meditation. For many, establishing a consistent daily seated meditation practice is quite challenging. It requires making a commitment to carving out time to disengage from the ingrained distractions and patterns that inevitably arise in daily life. When people say they don’t have time to meditate, I find in most cases that they aren’t prioritizing the time, which may otherwise be used to watch television or engage in social media and other such activities. Consider that in 24 hours there are 1440 minutes. If we can’t find 10 – 30 minutes a day to meditate, which comprises about .07 to 2% percent of that time, its worth examining how we are using our time and what our true priorities are.

Meditation requires that we face ourselves, including all of our imperfections, leaving nothing out. Sometimes our sitting may be lovely and restful, even transcendent, at other times challenging and wobbly. But the key to a consistent practice is the willingness to receive all that arises in our awareness with an open and compassionate heart. This isn’t always easy, but its how the fruits of practice begin to ripen and transform our lives.

For the committed practitioner, meditation retreats are not a luxury but a vital part of deepening their practice. Concentrated time spent away from daily distractions allows access parts of our minds and hearts that are otherwise out of reach; retreats help us contact our deepest evaded realities. If your life situation prevents you from traveling afar or carving out chunks of time for retreats, take advantage of daylong retreats as often as you can and shorter residential retreats that only last a weekend. But do make them a priority.

Practicing mindfulness in daily life is also vital to waking up. As the popularity of mindfulness has grown, some people have mistakenly concluded that seated meditation and mindfulness in daily life are interchangeable practices. This is simply not the case. For a truly balanced practice, both are essential; we need to align what we learn in our seated practice with activities in our daily lives. One of the best ways to bring mindfulness into daily life is practicing mindfulness of the body. This is a deceptively simple yet deep practice: Buddha said that mindfulness of the body leads to enlightenment. We’re so often caught up in our busyness, our activities and thoughts that we lose our connection with this moment. Our bodies are always right here, ready and available to serve as an anchor for our present moment awareness. Bringing mindfulness to your body is an uncomplicated yet powerful practice you can do throughout the day to root your awareness in this moment and disengage from reactive patterns and habitual thoughts. You can still plan, think and carry out your activities, but you can do it all from a foundation more firmly grounded in presence and awareness.

Sangha comprises the third leg of the tripod. Sangha helps us create a stable support in our lives as we derive strength in our practice through sharing it with others. There is a notable, almost mysterious vibrancy that arises from meditating in a group setting. The collective energy of our concentration bolsters the individual and group simultaneously, allowing us to go deeper into our practice than if we only do it alone. Sangha practice also provides ample opportunities to practice generosity by contributing what we can to support the community of practitioners. We begin to break through the illusion of separation and realize that our practice isn’t only for ourselves, but for all beings. We also have an opportunity to view our habits, biases and aversions in the context of a group. The renowned Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn likened sangha practice to cooking a pot of potatoes. He said that you could wash potatoes one by one or you could put numerous potatoes in a pot and stir them all together: they all rub up against each other, each getting clean in the process and rounding out the rough spots.

When our dharma practice is balanced it includes all three legs of this tripod. If we only focus on only one or two, we expend energy trying to maintain balance without a stable foundation. With our tripod in balance, however, we create the conditions for our practice to fully ripen and transform our lives.

Summer Retreat at Southern Dharma

Intimate with All Things: Awakening with Breath, Body, Heart and Mind
July 8 – 12, 2016
Southern Dharma Retreat Center, Hot Springs, NC
Led by Lisa Ernst

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Please join me in a beautiful, rural location in the North Carolina Mountains for a four night summer meditation retreat. Southern Dharma is located in Hot Springs, North Carolina, a picturesque four hour drive from Nashville and Atlanta. Full information and registration are here.

Today in Trumpland and Dharmaland

In the days and weeks after the election, I wrote a number of articles and gave several dharma talks that reflected my own response, as well as the ways in which I see the dhrama path as a resource during such uncertain and difficult times.

The holidays came along and my time and attention turned to other commitments and writing went on the back burner. Today I’m back for this article. As the news and actions of our new president have become more and more disturbing to me, I continue to look into my heart for what’s true for me right now and to find the best ways I can respond and to be involved. As many of us know, there’s a fine line between constructive action and emotional overwhelm at this time.

In this era of social media and online information, it’s easy to become inundated with one rattling headline after the other and social media posts loaded with fear and divisive anger. There’s nothing wrong with fear and anger per se, they are human emotions and certainly are not unreasonable responses right now. Channeled constructively, they can even be driving forces for good. A skillful relationship to these emotions and what we do with them counts. This is where dharma practice can make a big difference.

When we allow ourselves to lose touch with the love in our hearts and respond from divisiveness and separation, we become lost ourselves. But how in the world do we maintain an attitude of love and kindness for all while actively resisting dangerous and destructive acts coming from the new administration? On the positive side, social media provides a ready-made resource for organizing and connecting constructively. But if we haven’t also found a source of refuge in our own hearts, burnout and despair can easily take us over. We may slide down the slippery slope of the dark side of social media while also losing touch with our own inner guide.

As dharma practitioners, I believe it is vital we remember in our hearts that this isn’t about “us against them.” This is what we’ve all been practicing for, we’ve cultivated a great resource that can help us not lose ourselves in the frenzy.

If you do fall short and get caught in the whirlwind, as I have at times, just start again with kindness and compassion, let go of the judgment. Remember your heart’s true intention and align yourself with that. Most of us who practice the dharma care deeply about the welfare of all beings, and when we see so many people who are vulnerable and unable to defend themselves being targeted, we feel a strong urge to act. Let’s do it while also remembering to keep our hearts and minds nourished and awake. Lets not turn those we oppose out of our hearts even as we stand against many of their policies and actions. When we personally feel attacked and vulnerable, this is even harder work, but it’s a central element of how dharma path can help us maintain a global awareness of our humanity and interconnection.

For me, this capacity to remember and reconnect means taking time out to meditate and to retreat, to find a home in the great nature of heart/mind, where I access timeless wisdom of interconnection and compassion for all. In fact, I’ll be off grid soon for my own weeklong retreat as my weary heart is much in need of this extended time to repair and restore.

– Lisa Ernst