(Photo above by Mikotoraw / Pexels)
Sometimes, it’s easy to feel like no one really sees us. It’s almost as if we’re astronauts in our daily lives—observing others from the periphery but not feeling like we’re a part of things. We may think we’re losing touch, or not grounded in reality.
After sheltering at home for close to a year, we can be so occupied by our inner thoughts that they become loud, deafening at times. Though many felt lonely long before the pandemic, it has accelerated what public health experts call the “loneliness epidemic.”
Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy writes, “We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.”
Loneliness also comes with serious health risks. Murthy explains:
The body’s stress response from loneliness can be very helpful in the short term. But when those stress states become chronic, they begin destroying the body.
Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy
Many studies have shown prolonged loneliness poses the same danger as smoking 15 cigarettes each day.
So, what can we do to combat loneliness? Here are a few ideas from Buddhism that can transform even the deepest sense of loneliness.
1. Chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo
When we’re alone, cut off from the feedback and grounding we get from human relationships, it’s easy to give in to doubt and fear. I’m alone because no one wants to be with me. I’m not the type of person people want to be friends with. Sometimes we even feel ashamed of being alone, which puts up further walls between ourselves and others.
Buddhism is a teaching for overcoming delusion. One of the benefits of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is to see through our doubts and awaken to the reality of our lives: that we are people of unlimited compassion, wisdom and potential. Chanting grounds us in this truth and opens our eyes to the wonder that is our life. Chanting also brings out our courage to break through the awkwardness and hesitation that sometimes comes with reaching out to others and opening up to them.
2. Do Something for Others
Our focus is predominantly on ourselves when we’re lonely because we feel threatened. Service shifts our focus away from ourselves to another person within the context of a positive interaction. It also boosts our self-esteem because it reminds us that we have value to add to the world. That’s why I refer to service . . . as a ‘back door out of loneliness.’
Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy
When we are lonely, we typically focus on ourselves, but we can break through that downward spiral by doing something for other people. Sending a friend a supportive text, checking in on a family member, contributing to a worthy cause—all are ways we can move from being consumed by our own problems to seeing our real connection with other people.
As Buddhist teacher Daisaku Ikeda shares,
The practice for benefiting others is one and the same with the practice for benefiting ourselves. . . . Our lives and the lives of others are ultimately inseparable.
3. Connect with your neighborhood Buddhist community.
Experts see the deterioration of communal spaces, such as the town square or public house, as a primary cause of the sense of alienation people feel in our world.
When we are lonely, we typically focus on ourselves, but we can break through that downward spiral by doing something for other people.
Buddhism, however, has always aimed to build community. SGI, for example, is made up of over 3,000 neighborhood discussion groups across the U.S., where people of diverse backgrounds come together to share how they are applying their Buddhist practice to their lives. It’s a place of zero judgment where people learn from each other as equals. Though these meetings now temporarily take place virtually due to the pandemic, they still can help break through any spell of loneliness.
The first thing is to take one small step. It may help us realize that we’re not alone—that we’re all interconnected and there’s support when you need it.
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