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Lions Roar : November 2019
works. On the in-breath, breathe in the suffering of others. On the out-breath, breathe out whatever kindness, compassion, and peace you’re able to offer. I practice tonglen whenever my old friend loneliness pays a visit. These visits tend to coincide with events I’m unable to participate in. One year, my family gathered at our house for a long holiday weekend. I spent most of the time in my bedroom, listening to the sounds of laughter coming from the front of the house. The louder the laughter, the more intense my loneliness became. Then I remembered tonglen practice. I breathed in the sadness of everyone in the world who was too sick or in too much pain to be with family on a special occasion. Then I mustered whatever kindness, com- passion, and peace I had within me and, on the out-breath, sent it to all those people. As I did this, I was also sending those soothing states of mind to myself because I was one of those people. One reason that tonglen is such a powerful practice is that it connects you with people everywhere in the world. Like many others, I have a tendency to focus solely on my own troubles. On this particular family visit, I’d been acting as if I were the only person in the world who was lonely. Opening my heart to others who were suffering in the same way took me out of this self-focused thinking. The Joy of Mudita Mudita is the third brahmavihara. No one English word cap- tures its meaning. Empathetic joy comes close because empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. When you cultivate mudita, you work on feeling joy for others who are happy. I noted earlier that loneliness is a complex emotion, often accompanied by self-blame. It’s also often accompanied by resentment. A few years ago, my entire family traveled from dif- ferent parts of California to Disneyland so they could spend the day together. There are eight in our immediate family, but only seven were able to go on this special trip. Having learned to cultivate friendliness and compassion whenever loneliness paid a visit, I thought I’d made peace with it. While my family gathered at Disneyland, I planned to spend a quiet day at home, enjoying the solitude. So I was sur- prised when I began to not just feel lonely but “angry lonely.” It didn’t take long for me to realize that this anger stemmed from resentment. “It’s not fair that they get to go and I don’t,” I kept repeating. To ease my suffering, I decided to focus on tonglen prac- tice. I breathed in the suffering of everyone who had to stay home while family and friends were off on a fun outing. It helped, but the “angry loneliness” lingered, so I turned to empathetic joy. I thought about the good time they were hav- ing by picturing them enjoying each other’s company and going on my favorite rides. It took time, but eventually my loneliness and anger subsided and I felt genuinely happy for them. Then something magical happened. I began to feel as if they were at Disneyland for me. Suddenly, I wasn’t just feeling happy for them; I was happy myself, and the loneliness and resentment vanished. The Peace of Equanimity Equanimity is the fourth brahmavihara. It refers to a mind that is calm and at peace in any circumstance, including in the pres- ence of painful emotions. After practicing friendliness, compas- sion, and empathic joy, cultivating equanimity became the icing on the cake for me in the face of loneliness. I’d begin by calling to mind the first noble truth, in which the Buddha set out a list of painful experiences everyone can expect to encounter at some point in life. At least two items on that list pertain to loneliness: getting what we don’t want (the feeling of loneliness) and losing what we cherish (the company of others). To make peace with these unpleasant and painful experiences, I turned to equanimity. I began by reminding myself that life is always a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. The Buddha’s list of painful experiences told me it’s okay to feel lonely at times because unpleasant experiences come with the human condi- tion. This means that loneliness is not due to some flaw in my personality; the conditions of my life are ripe for it to appear, so it does. When I accepted without aversion that I couldn’t always get what I wanted or feel the way I wanted, my heart opened and made room for loneliness. Then I’d calmly and patiently wait out this unpleasant emotion until it passed. I NEVER KNOW WHEN LONELINESS will pay a visit. I do know, however, that the best medicine for it is to cultivate whichever brahmavihara(s) fits the circumstances that triggered the loneliness. The good news is that each time you commit to cultivating a brahmavihara, it comes more naturally. As the Buddha said, whatever you “frequently think and ponder upon becomes the inclination of your mind.” So, for example, each time you respond to loneliness with compassion, you’re inclin- ing the mind to respond that way the next time you feel lonely. With dedicated practice, friendliness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity can become your natural responses to this painful emotion. This has been true in my life, and I’m confi- dent it can be true in yours. ♦ PHOTO©MAXKÜTZ/STOCKSYUNITED LION’S ROAR | NOVEMBER 2019 46