Even before we all had to self-isolate during our current COVID-19 pandemic, more than one third of Americans were already feeling pretty lonely. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem of loneliness plaguing American life with it now rising to greater than 50% of the population, especially among the eldery.
This begs the question: Why is one out of every three Americans feeling disconnected from others when we are more connected than ever?
Despite all of the connections we make through social media and other electronic modalities used within our daily lives, we actually don’t feel as close to each other as we once did. The inventors of Facebook, Instagram, and so on sought to bring people together, and they are, to a certain extent, but they are also pushing people further apart because the virtual interactions have replaced what real-person interactions existed before. There is a fundamental shift in our real social connections.
Sociologists believe we are in a great decline of "social capital," which is the idea of people being connected to each other in ways that enriches them psychologically. In order words, our interactions over apps doesn’t enrich us psychologically and physiologically. For this reason I have clipped together some of my favorite personal stories to hopefully empower all of us to find comfort whenever we are feeling lonely.
I recently listened to an amazing Tell Me More podcast in which a Buddhist monk, a long-distance hiker, and other seclusion-seekers gave their advice for getting by in times of isolation. The podcast was framed around its Main Question: How can you be alone without feeling lonely?
Question to Hiker: If you're hiking by yourself for more than 90 days, how do you keep your mind occupied?
Hiker’s response: You got to be really comfortable just exploring your own thoughts and being introspective. Give yourself a chance to figure out why you’re here. You may or may not have known when you started, but certainly will know by the end.
Everybody's experience is completely different. I would spend the first hour or so each day trying to let my mind go because the more thinking I did about what I was doing, the longer my day was. Instead, just zone out and daydream. Please note that this does take practice.
You definitely have those days where you're just missing home, your friends and family. One of the beauties of being out there on the trail is you have no recourse. I didn't have a working cell phone or any way of contacting anybody. I’d always keep telling myself when I was walking, "Well, yeah, I'm missing home a little bit, but all I can do is keep walking. This is my life right now. Just get used to your new reality."
Question to Hiker: Why were you there?
Hiker’s Response: I think one of the reasons I ended up doing it is to prove that I could do something very difficult on my own. I realized I had an innate talent of being able to easily reach out to people when I needed help and being more open about talking to people. The experience reaffirmed my faith in humanity.
There were so many really generous and altruistic people that I met on the trail while I was walking. People who would pick me up when I was soaking wet and smelly, and drive me into town. Or the time I was in West Hartford, Vermont looking for a place to stay when this couple sitting on their porch saw me walking by and invited me in for dinner. They let me camp in the yard and did my laundry for me. They even sent me off with some extra food. It is moments like this which we remember so fondly. I wasn't out there asking for it. They just called me in out of the generosity of their hearts.
When things became hectic, I would focus only on the singularity of my goal; it was really freeing.
Question to the Self-described “Introvert”: How do you revel in the quiet and solitude of the work in your field?
Self-described “Introvert”’s Response: The thing about wildlife recording is that it's very much a solitary activity. Being still, being quiet, being patient, is something that can be trying for a lot of people. Personally I enjoy it. You settle into a kind of zone where the longer you're in the field, the more dialed in and sensitive you become to the rhythms that are around you, and how they change from place to place.
Part of the journey for me, and what got me into recording and connecting with wildlife, goes back to childhood enthusiasm. Never underestimate what tickles your fancy at the age of four of five years old, and like many little kids, I was interested in animals. I just never grew out of that. Having grown up in a rather privileged situation, being the son of a diplomat, I had the opportunity to move to different places. This wasn't always pleasant as a kid, but in retrospect I'm deeply grateful for that.
I initially grew up in Algeria on the edge of the Sahara Desert, and then spent a good deal of my childhood in Scandinavia, Canada, and Scotland. I didn’t always form friendships, or deep friendships with people because I was often in motion. By becoming accustomed to embracing a sense of isolation in order to identify with all of those places, I also developed a capacity for self-amusement and entertainment.
These attributes supported my personality since I have always been a bit of a loner and an introvert. This doesn't mean that I don't have social skills; it is just that I am perfectly happy being alone. I can still remember as a small kid wandering around the woods, playing by myself, and just feeling connected. ... And yes, the ends of the earth can be remote, but through the eyes of a seven year old, the neighbor's backyard, deep back in the acreage, could also seem remote.
When you think, the Western tradition does not place much value or premium on either silence or being alone. We tend to reward extroverts. We need to fill silence, either in conversation, or by just going to any public space, a restaurant, a shopping mall where music is piping everywhere. You're basically given no acoustic peace within which to sort through and gather your thoughts.
I also recognize for some people, being out in the wild can also be a deeply disturbing experience. The isolation and the silence is not a comfortable place for a lot of people. But for me it's something I truly savor and enjoy; it comes with a sense of inner stillness. A great deal of what I do professionally is a form of moving meditation, or being absolutely still. It comes back to the idea of mindfulness, of being present to what's around you, and to not be distracted.
Question to the Buddhist Monk, Tenzin Gache: What are the benefits of mindful solitude to you?
Response by Buddhist Monk, Tenzin Gache: After I graduated from Tufts University in 2006, I took monastic ordination with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, in Dharamsala, India. His Holiness gave me the name Tenzin Gache which means somebody who makes people happy. Currently I'm staying in Maratika Monastery in the mountains of Eastern Nepal where I can see the Himalayas and Everest, not too far off in the distance.
[NOTE: Gache may have been one of the last people on Earth to hear about the pandemic—when other people were starting to confine themselves to their homes, he didn’t know, because he was already in the middle of a self-imposed seclusion. It wasn’t until he had to hike into town for supplies, and saw everything was closed, that he learned what was up.]
I was in retreat in a small home about a half an hour’s walk up the mountain here in complete isolation. There was no electricity, no running water where I was staying. ... It was a bit of a shock.
Buddhism talks about how one of the virtues a monk should cultivate is taking delight in being alone. So one of my first thoughts about being a monk was coming to terms with embracing solitude. I was deeply inspired and felt deeply connected to a statement by the great Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa, "You have to learn to make loneliness your spiritual consort."
I was also deeply moved by the Christian monk, Thomas Merton. He said, "In solitude, he discovers that he is not disconnected from others, but actually that he is fully connected to them at a deep and mystical level." In both of these cases, I started to see being alone as a way, paradoxically, of connecting more fully with the world.
Question to Tenzin Gache: What are some of your first memories of experimenting with meditation and solitude?
Buddhist Monk, Tenzin Gache’s Response: I think one of the hardest things early on was a sense of feeling ashamed. In our culture, there's a very strong sense of needing to be popular or needing to be accepted by others. And there's a sense that if you're alone, then it's because you failed socially. Coming to terms with that experience took some time before I felt confident being alone.
One of the first major experiences I had was when I went for a three week retreat in the south of France at Plum Village monastery where the famous Vietnamese monk Thích Nhất Hạnh resides. This was a group retreat where we were allowed to talk. It was the first time I'd been away from a lot of things, especially music. I used to like to listen to rock music. I noticed throughout the three week retreat, almost all of the time, I would have one rock song or the other playing in my head.
Question to Tenzin Gache: What happened after the retreat?
Buddhist Monk, Tenzin Gache’s Response: I stopped at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. While sitting inside, I felt present with what was there and was not trying to do anything in particular. When I came out of the cathedral, I noticed that my mind was quiet, a feeling I had never experienced before. This was probably the most powerful experience I'd had in my life up until that point.
I felt like, there's something here I need to connect to. It is going to be a long-term process, but this was the first step, that here I am with quiet, with my own mind, and feeling that this is so important that -- everything else in life seems very trivial.
Being alone is a way of creating space in the mind, it's similar to boredom. So both loneliness and boredom are things that we often see as negative. But the understanding here is that actually the only reason they're experienced negatively is because there's no longer anything to distract us. And when there's no longer anything left to distract us, then we experience our minds, which is uncomfortable because there's a lot of baggage piled up. So one option is just to distract yourself more. But the other option is to start going into that baggage. At first it just feels like discomfort. You might just feel uncomfortable being alone, but after a while things start coming up, you start seeing that you're carrying a lot of different thoughts and emotions that aren't related to the present experience that you're projecting on. Being alone is an opportunity to work with that and to be present with that.
There are a lot of things that are below the surface. Loneliness is just the tip of the iceberg.
To listen to all of these personal stories, check out the Tell Me More podcast. Together, we can pull through tough times with inspiring stories like these.
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