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Lions Roar : November 2019
IN 2001, I CONTRACTED what appeared to be an acute viral infection. I have yet to recover. Imagine the aches and pains that accompany the flu—that’s how I feel every day, just without the fever. It has forced me to trade an active work and social life for the relative isolation of being mostly house- bound. Because I’d always enjoyed being alone, I was caught off-guard when loneliness accompanied me into this new life. I longed for the companionship of others and to be able to share adventures with friends and family. I also felt a strong aversion to this new feeling of loneliness, and this added to my suffering. All in all, it was a dark period for me physically and emotionally. During that time, I was reading Ann Packer’s novel, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, and came across this passage: “Lonely is a funny thing. It’s almost like another person. After a while, it will keep you company if you let it.” Immediately, the Buddhist practice of metta came to my mind. Metta is often translated as loving-kindness, but I prefer the more modern translation—friendliness. (This is also a more accu- rate rendering because metta is derived from the word mitta, which means “friend.”) Packer’s words suggested to me that it was possible to change my reaction to loneliness from aver- sion to friendliness. Metta is one of four brahmaviharas, along with compas- sion, empathic joy, and equanimity. The brahmaviharas are referenced in several early Buddhist texts, including the well-known Kalama Sutta, and are called many names: the four immeasurables, the four sublime states, and the divine abodes. Traditionally, they’re understood as the highest spiri- tual abiding. I think of them as “the four awakened states” and consider them to be the heart of the Buddha’s teachings— four practices I can turn to for help whenever I’m troubled. With Packer’s words as an initial guide, I discovered that cultivating one or more of the brahmaviharas was a healing antidote for loneliness. The Friendliness of Metta If I were going to let loneliness “keep me company,” as Ann Packer suggested, instead of continually trying to force it out of my mind, which never worked anyway, I had to start greeting it with openhearted warmth. Doing this uncovered a profound sadness beneath the aversion. Allowing myself to feel sad attenuated my negative reaction to loneliness. After a week or so, instead of seeing it as an enemy, I began to see it as an old friend who’d shown up uninvited. Just as you wouldn’t turn away an old friend, I stopped turning away in aversion from the feeling of loneliness. I came to view it as one of the myriad emotions that come and go in the mind. I didn’t have to love feeling lonely, but hating it was only tight- ening its grip on me. Over the years, I’ve learned that treating any painful emotion with friendliness takes away its sting and lessens its intensity. The Soothing Balm of Compassion Treating loneliness with friendliness revealed to me that I’d been blaming myself for feeling lonely, as if it were proof of mental weakness on my part. “You shouldn’t need the com- pany of others in order to be happy,” I’d lecture myself in a harsh tone. “Stop this stupid ruminating and do something constructive.” The antidote for this kind of self-talk is compassion, the second brahmavihara. A compassionate heart responds with care and kindness in the presence of suffering. Self-blame is the antithesis of self-compassion. While cultivating metta toward feelings of loneliness, I also began to change my self-talk from words of blame to words of compassion: “Sweet Toni—it’s not your fault that you’ve become mostly housebound. Of course you’re sad about many of the changes it’s led to, including isola- tion from others. Be as kind to yourself as you’d be to a loved one who came to you for help with his or her loneliness.” Speak- ing words of compassionate understanding to myself in this way alleviated the self-blame. A particularly powerful compassion practice in the face of loneliness is tonglen, from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Tonglen is a two-for-one practice because you simultaneously cultivate compassion for yourself and for others. Here’s how it Alone Together How do we take the sting out of loneliness and feel more connected to others? TONI BERNHARD suggests practicing with the classical Buddhist teachings on friendliness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. TONI BERNHARD’s books include How to Be Sick: A Buddhist- Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. Her blog, Turning Straw into Gold, is hosted by Psychology Today online. LION’S ROAR | NOVEMBER 2019 45