We share this planet with over seven billion other people. Yet many of us still find ourselves feeling lonely. It is no wonder that in a year of lockdowns, quarantines, and severe travel restrictions, people are feeling more isolated than ever.
According to a survey from last year – even before the pandemic - more than three in five Americans reported feeling lonely. We are social creatures after all. Feeling lonely is a natural part of longing to experience our shared human connection.
The irony of loneliness is that you can feel lonely even if you are in a crowd of people. Perhaps you sometimes feel misunderstood, or as if you’re the “odd one out.” When we feel like no one understands us or that we’re going through things on our own, that sense of loneliness is deepened. So what are some ways to move through these feelings into a greater sense of connection and meaning? The first is to understand where loneliness stems from.
One of the reasons why you may sometimes feel overwhelmed by loneliness is purely biological. Your brain is wired to connect with others as part of its survival mechanism. Just think back to the days of our ancestors living in the cave.
If they were part of a tribe, they were more likely to have access to a stable food supply and be protected from predators. When our attention is on the feelings of loneliness, our brain believes that our survival is at risk. This triggers the body’s stress response – part of the reason why loneliness can shorten one’s lifespan as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
We are social creatures. A feeling of belonging and connection is one of our natural needs. It is through our relationships and interactions with others that we get to express ourselves. When we feel happy and don’t share the joy with others, we don’t feel it as fully. When we feel sad and aren’t able to talk to anyone about it, these feelings get stuck inside and rob us of our own energy.
Our natural instinct is to move away from loneliness - or any negative feelings for that matter. But rather than moving away from it, we can take the feeling into our meditation and uncover the root cause. When we sit quietly and observe our thoughts without judgement, we may notice how our own mental chatter causes us to feel isolated or disconnected.
Perhaps we may believe that nobody is really interested in hearing us out. In order to avoid feeling judged by others, we don’t take the steps to reach out to them first. We don’t want to be vulnerable. Yet this vulnerability is also where a greater sense of connection lies.
Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön suggests a new perspective on dealing with loneliness by using those feelings as an opportunity to connect with our own humanity:
“When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart? The next time you get a chance, experiment with this.” - Pema Chödrön
Meditation can help you start opening your heart so that you feel ok with expressing your true authentic self. When you acknowledge those feelings of loneliness as part of the humanity you share with others, you naturally start feeling more compassion.
Meditation has been found to cool that part of the brain that becomes overheated when we experience loneliness and social isolation - the parietal lobe. As Dr. Newberg describes from his studies on the change in the brains of Tibetan monks, meditation blurs the brain’s sense of a boundary between self and other.
Feeling a sense of oneness helps to cancel out the effects of loneliness. Your heart knows you are always connected to everyone. But your conscious mind doesn’t always remember this. It’s always seeking to fill any sense of emptiness with other things.
Next time you meditate, notice how your mind is consistently seeking to be elsewhere: doing something else, feeling something else, or being with someone else. By bringing your attention to your breath, you anchor yourself in the present moment. You start noticing that it’s ok to be right where you are...and it’s ok to be exactly who you are right now, to be feeling whatever you are feeling. Because underneath these feelings, there is a quiet space where you know that you are not separate from anything around you - including other people and nature.
The more you notice that you’re not the only feeling lonely, the more you notice opportunities to become a light for others. You can recognize that you can be the cause of helping them overcome their own perception of loneliness.
Who in your life can you think of that is probably feeling lonely right now too? Think about people who may not know how to use Facebook Messenger, Skype, or Zoom. Perhaps you could brighten their days by spending some time on the phone with them (or in person if you can) and helping them set this up.
Maybe you have a group of friends that you haven’t connected with in a while. And while it sometimes feels like they are too busy to get in touch with you - they might be feeling the same way. So why not be the one who makes it happen? Rather than waiting for others to reach out to you, you can become the “connector” and help bring your friends together.
Perhaps you’ve been wanting to learn a new craft such as painting or a new skill such as a new language, yoga, or meditation. It’s 2020 and there is no shortage of online classes and communities around whatever subject you’re interested in.
To overcome feeling lonely, connect with those who have an interest in the same topics as you do. Do a quick Google search or ask a friend and start connecting to communities that resonate with you.
At first you may feel like you won’t be able to connect as deeply when you join a virtual group. And while personal interactions can never be replaced, you may be surprised to see how close of a bond you can have with someone you’ve only met online. The more you interact with new people who have a shared interest, the more you get to know them and deepen a sense of connection regardless of physical distance.
Now is the time to move past loneliness together. Because if you’re reading this and feeling lonely, chances are that there are countless others feeling the same way.
At Anchor Meditation, we’re all about helping to end the feelings of loneliness though connection and support. Come join us to experience how meditating with others can help you connect to something larger than yourself. Take advantage of our special year-end offer here to become part of our meditation community and get our 10-day Intro to Meditation course for FREE!