Despite what you may see on social media, many people are feeling lonely this pandemic holiday season, writes Lisa Ernst. She shares how the dharma can help us hold both connection and loneliness in our hearts through difficult times.
As I scrolled through social media the day after Thanksgiving, I saw many photos of people celebrating the holiday. I shared their joy as they basked in the warm glow of their dearest loved ones, marveling at their sumptuous holiday spreads. Yet I couldn’t forget the people who had not posted — those who were either alone or lonely.
People who share their holiday moments on social media have no ill will or intent to arouse jealousy. Their photos are often meaningful to distant family and others who appreciate seeing their friends in joyful times. However, the people who are lonely, or choosing to avoid holiday gatherings during the pandemic, are less likely to share. This allows a false picture to emerge. We 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 this holiday season.
I started to open my heart to grief and see it as part of love, not a problem to escape.
In Buddhist teachings, mudita, or sympathetic joy, is the capacity to appreciate the success and good fortune of others without reservation. When I scroll through social media and see happy, fulfilled faces of friends and relatives with their loved ones, mudita arises in me. But if you are alone or feeling lonely, as I was for many years, it’s not so easy to summon sympathetic joy. With its easy access to images of happy gatherings on the screen, social media amplifies feelings of disconnection— even though these images don’t paint a true picture. 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.
I spent many holidays alone when I was younger. I became quite intimate with the seasonal pressure to be joyful and connected. It’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, I immersed myself in the spirit and excitement of the holidays growing up. 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. But as the day progressed, she fell into grief for what she had lost: her only child and her husband. She got drunk, and I spent the rest of Christmas alone in my room, feeling ashamed and devastated.
I can feel both connection and loneliness in the fullness of my heart.
This pattern would repeat itself for years. At its core, my disappointment reflected a deep grief and loneliness I couldn’t yet face. I unconsciously hoped that the warm promise of the holidays would wash away my pain, but this yearning only intensified my loneliness. It extended well into the grey, wet Tennessee months of January and February. Relief came only when the longer, sunny days of spring finally arrived.
After struggling with loneliness and depression for many years, I started to open my heart to grief and see it as part of love, not a problem to escape. Meditation was an essential ingredient in this awakening. In my early years of practice, I sat many sustaining Zen retreats with Trudy Goodman in New Mexico, and came to trust her deep dharma. I also sat my first loving-kindness retreat with her a few years later. The heart and wisdom practices of the dharma imbued my loneliness with a much-needed compassionate presence. This initiated a deep unwinding, giving me space to fully open to the grief as the walls of loneliness began to crack. I felt an infinite heart connection to all that is present, or as Zen Master Dogen put it, “intimacy with all things.” I also found a loving partner, new friendships, and started a meditation community, One Dharma Nashville. Slowly, the holidays were far easier to bear.
This pandemic season, I’m grateful for my husband, loved ones, and friends — even if I can only see a few of them in person right now. I also appreciate that our beloved dharma communities remain available online. Their power to sustain and connect us helps transcend the physical limitations that keep us apart. Even so, 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. I also remember that, despite the images I see on social media, many 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.