Yesterday, I was on a drive with my husband. He turned his head towards me with a quizzical look and said, "What do you think is the biggest problem people face?"
What a loaded question, I thought. On first blush my thoughts went to racism, classism, sexism, poverty...
But then I settled on the thing that I hear most often in the context of the therapy office:
Isolation and loneliness.
In a time where we are are more connected than ever (at least on a superficial level), we find ourselves more disconnected than ever.
Loneliness and isolation are not reserved for singles.
Perhaps more painful than being single while desiring a partner is being in a relationship where you are left feeling emotionally alone. No person and no relationship, no matter how healthy, is immune to the very real human experience of loneliness.
So of course, the next question my husband asked was, "How do you treat loneliness?"
If I had an easy solution, I'd patent it and likely not be driving a car with 220,000 miles and a temperamental check engine light.
And while I don't have an easy solution to combatting loneliness, I have identified a few common threads shared by a handful of individuals who live what some would consider "isolated" lives, yet appear to not struggle with feelings of isolation in the least.
Perhaps the most notable example are monks. Regardless of the tradition, the writings of those engaged in monasticism over the past several hundred years often reveal individuals engaged in a seemingly isolated experience who in the midst of their daily lives feel a deep connection to others, to their higher power, or to the universe.
I also think about the people I know who are engaged in satisfying relationships; the kind of relationships that seem to flow, with each partner independent in their own way, recognizing one another's strengths and vulnerabilities while offering support and unconditional love. There is no jealousy, there is no loneliness.
I like to think my partner and I have this kind of relationship, and in many ways we do. I'd be remiss, however, if I didn't share about a recent brush with loneliness within the context of our relationship.
I had spent the weekend up north visiting my family. My homesickness consistently reaches a peak after these visits home. I spend 6 hours alone in car driving back to where we live, thinking about how nice it was to spend time with family.
I arrived home to a husband and pup who were so excited to see me. They were affectionate and warm. We intentionally spent time together before my husband had to return to studying for a comprehensive exam. He's in the midst of graduate school and spends most of his waking hours engaged in study.
The next day, we both arrived home late and he was fully engaged in preparation for his Tuesday test. I understood this, but couldn't help but feeling extra lonely. It's rare that this happens, but I felt like we kept missing one another. The days prior to my trip he was engaged in study and projects and I was engaged in work that kept me from getting home at a normal time. I felt alone and I started to withdrawal.
I thought about friends who I haven't seen in a while. I started feeling anxious about navigating the distance from family when we (hopefully) have children. I mentally started going down the rabbit hole of isolation and feeling sorry for myself. Not a great place to be.
This all came to a head while I was cooking dinner. My husband is a very sensitive guy and can read me like a book. He gave me his undivided attention and asked what was wrong. My feelings of loneliness (which I thought were absurd) came tumbling out, and he did exactly what I needed in that moment. He enveloped me in a bear hug and let me cry and talk about how I was feeling.
Suddenly, I wasn't lonely. Compassion and connection are balm to the soul.
I share this story to point out that no matter how wonderful a relationship, no one is immune to the human condition. I'm incredibly lucky to have a partner who is emotionally attuned to my needs. Many of us are not so lucky, and being in a relationship can make us feel even more lonely because it makes the absence of emotional connection more noticeable and frustrating.
So what is it that the desert monks have? What is the thing that drives away loneliness?
Connection. Connection is the opposite of isolation, and I think it can come in more ways than we think.
It is possible to feel connection to others when we are physically removed from them. It's possible to feel a deep connection with the living world around us.
If I think about the things that fueled my sense of loneliness last week, the chief culprits included:
Looking at social media threads of close friends and seeing them spending time with people, and creating a story in my head about not being thought of or cared about by them.
Letting my anxiety and fears about the future take me out of the present moment.
Not being present with those in front of me, and lamenting the past about missing those who I had just left.
There is nothing wrong with being homesick, just like there's nothing wrong with feeling lonely. It's a very human problem to have.
However, with nearly triple the deaths by suicide in the last decade and increasing gun violence by individuals who feel isolated and misunderstood by our society, loneliness is quickly becoming the number one public health issue we face.
So, how do we fight it?
We can start with practices that build connection. The first way to do this is by cultivating presence. As you can see from the example I gave, my isolation was heightened by reflecting on the past and worrying about the future. I was not spending time in the present. If I had been, I could have appreciated the excited spins of my dog when I got home and the giant grin on my husband's face. Using our 5 senses to get grounded and be truly present is one easy way to do this.
Cultivating connection is the biggest task in reducing loneliness. I challenge you to rethink the idea of connection. Limiting our ideas of connection to in-person connection with another human can increase those feelings of isolation if we are not in an environment where that's possible.
Instead, there are a few exercise to increase your sense of connection to yourself, others, or the world around you. Powerful ways to increase your sense of connection include:
Being in nature
Below is one guided meditation you can try to increase this felt sense of connection. Try to notice how you feel both before and after:
Take a few moments to notice your breath as you inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
Allow yourself to settle in by gently bringing your attention to any sensations you are noticing in your body.
Thoughts may arise. Simply acknowledge the thought and let it float on.
Gently shift your attention to notice the spot where your feet meet the floor. Begin to feel the connection of your feet to the Earth. Begin to feel the connection of your body to the chair or wherever you are seated, and notice its connection to the ground.
Reflect on the connection of the floor to the building you are in and its connection to the dirt of the earth farther below.
Allow yourself to notice how it feels to be supported by the Earth below you.
You are safe. You are supported.
Notice how the earth rises to hold and embrace you. There is nothing you need to do, no chores to attend to, only noticing the warmth of the earth below you and the strength that it offers.
Call to mind a time that you felt held or supported in this way. Perhaps it was by someone you love, perhaps it was a sense you had while connecting to a religious figure like Budha or Christ. Or perhaps you had this sense of love and compassion when snuggling with a favorite pet.
Allow yourself to experience the warmth and sense of support and safety you felt in that moment.
Imagine supporting someone you care for in that way, a friend, a loved one, perhaps someone you've never met - offering them a sense of love and support.
Reflect on how the Earth holds all beings, whether they are acquaintances, strangers, or difficult ones—with no bias, no discrimination, no separation.
Reflect on how this earth holds all beings, forsaking none—whether they be small or large.
Reflect on how this earth does not exist in a vacuum, that it is connected to a solar system and vast universe.
We all are interconnected. Our bodies and the earth, the sun and the stars, are composed of the same matter—the same basic particles, joined in different ways.
Feeling into that sense of connection and interconnection that we are all made of stardust. Feeling that sense of being home within your body and mind with a true sense of belonging and connection.
Return your attention to the breath. Just breathing in and out, feeling the grace of this universe—no isolation nor separation, feeling that sense of connection and interconnection and being at home in your being.
Nothing more you need to do, go, get, or push away.
Imperfectly perfect as you are, resting in the heart of this universe.Let well-wishes form. May all beings here and everywhere dwell with peace.
- Adapted from Calming the Rush of Panic, by Bob Stahl PhD, Wendy Millstine NC.
Loneliness can feel inevitable, but starting to practice ways to ground and connect yourself with the world around you is a wonderful place to start.