loneliness

What to do when you feel unloved

lonely tree

Someone recently wrote to me, saying that she was lonely and felt unloved, and wondering whether the metta bhavana practice (the meditation for developing kindness) would help. I thought I’d paraphrase and expand on what I’d said to her.

The metta bhavana practice can certainly help with feelings of loneliness. In particular, self-metta and self-compassion — showing ourselves the same kindness, support, and encouragement that we show to others that we care about — would be helpful.

Think about that thought, “No one loves me.” You might say things like that to yourself, but would you tell a friend who was lonely, “No one loves you”? How would that make her feel? Would it help her? I’m guessing the answers are “no,” “terrible,” and “of course not.”

So why do this to yourself? When you’re lonely, why not treat yourself as you would a dear friend who was experiencing the same thing. What might you say to such a friend? Perhaps you’d say things like, “I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. It sounds really painful. I just want you to know that I’m here for you, and that I care about you.”

How might that make you feel? Better?

Treating ourselves with kindness and compassion reduces our suffering. It doesn’t necessarily make it go away—nor should it—but it makes it more bearable. And in the case of loneliness, this helps free us up to connect more with others, and to care more about them. And that can replace our sense of loneliness with a sense of connectedness.

Going further, cultivating kindness for others and then putting it into practice through acts of caring and kindness (without expecting anything in return) will help you to feel more connected. For example, we could express appreciation or offer support when someone feels down. If we take a genuine interest in that person’s wellbeing, then we’ll be more emotionally connected. If, however, we do those same things with the assumption, “I’m doing something nice for them, so now they should do something nice for me, and then I’ll feel good about myself,” you’re still acting in a self-absorbed way, and you’ll perpetuate your loneliness.

Breaking out of self-absorption is painful, because part of your brain thinks that obsessively telling stories will help you, and it therefore sees dropping the story as a threat. So if it feels uncomfortable when you try to take a genuine interest in others, that’s OK.

My main teacher, Sangharakshita, said that when we feel unhappy, we should do something for another person. Most forms of intense unhappiness are self-absorbed; we get so caught up in our own suffering that we don’t make an effort to connect with others. And when our suffering comes from loneliness, we end up exacerbating our isolation by withdrawing our interest in others. Our suffering isolates us. The way we respond to our suffering isolates us more.

The solution to loneliness is not as simple as “getting out more.” Most people who are lonely feel that way even when they’re surrounded by other people. Loneliness is being emotionally disconnected from others.

My correspondent said that she “felt unloved.” “Unloved,” however, is not a feeling, but a thought or story. A feeling is a sensation in the body. When we’re lonely, we have sensations such as heaviness or an ache around the heart, low energy, etc. “No one loves me,” or “I am unloved” is not a sensation, but a story. It’s something we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our feelings.

It’s vital to distinguish between actual feelings and stories that we use to explain those feelings—because our stories can either reinforce or reduce unpleasant feelings. You might feel lonely or sad or hurt, but you tell yourself that you are unloved, that no one cares, etc., and this makes you miserable. Becoming aware that you’re telling these stories, and that they’re unhelpful because they make you feel worse, is a valuable practice, because whether we take a thought seriously is something we have a choice over. We can also deliberately cultivate more useful thoughts, such as the self-kindness and self-compassion thoughts I suggested earlier.

We need to accept feelings of loneliness. One of the stories we tell ourselves is that if we’re lonely, there’s something wrong with us. We’re defective. But in feeling lonely, you’re showing that you’re a perfectly functional human being! We’re social animals. We’re designed to feel pain when we’re not connected in a web of empathy. Your feeling of loneliness is just a signal that your mind is sending, telling you that you need to connect. Feeling lonely is normal.

Being caught up in thoughts actually prevents us from really seeing our feelings of loneliness. When we drop the story and turn toward our feelings, what do we find? We find sensations in the body. We find sensations that we experience as emptiness, darkness, heaviness, and so on. Maybe the feelings are painful, but also beautiful, warm and intimate. Maybe they’re tender. Maybe they’re tingling, like twinkling energy in space. Maybe they’re mysterious and intriguing. Maybe they’re no longer scary, but contribute to a sense of our aliveness. Can you say “yes” to these feelings? Can you allow them to just be?

Empathizing with ourselves in this way opens the way for us to empathize with others.

If loneliness is a lack of felt connection with others, then perhaps we need to connect with ourselves in order to move past feeling lonely. Connect kindly and compassionately with your loneliness, and it will connect you with others.

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Fighting loneliness and disease with meditation

Amanda Enayati, CNN: Anyone who sees meditation as a hippy-dippy endeavor has found his or her view increasingly challenged by science in recent years.

Meditation and other contemplative practices are continuing to claim their place at the table of mainstream medicine.

This is true for a slew of reasons: chief among them, the recognition that hordes of us are stressed out, that stress wreaks havoc upon our bodies and that the practice of meditation has significant and measurable stress-reduction properties.

In a recent study led by J. David Creswell, assistant professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences …

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Mindfulness meditation reduces loneliness in older adults

For older adults, loneliness is a major risk factor for health problems — such as cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s — and death. Attempts to diminish loneliness with social networking programs like creating community centers to encourage new relationships have not been effective.

However, a new study led by Carnegie Mellon University’s J. David Creswell offers the first evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces loneliness in older adults. Published in “Brain, Behavior & Immunity,” the researchers also found that mindfulness meditation — a practice that dates back 2,500 years to Buddha that focuses on creating an attentive awareness of the reality of the present moment — lowered inflammation levels; inflammation is thought to promote the development and progression of many diseases. These findings provide valuable insights into how mindfulness meditation training can be used as a novel approach for reducing loneliness and the risk of disease in older adults.

“We always tell people to quit smoking for health reasons, but rarely do we think about loneliness in the same way,” said Creswell, assistant professor of psychology within CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “We know that loneliness is a major risk factor for health problems and mortality in older adults. This research suggests that mindfulness meditation training is a promising intervention for improving the health of older adults.”

For the study, the research team recruited 40 healthy adults aged 55-85 who indicated an interest in learning mindfulness meditation techniques. Each person was assessed at the beginning and end of the study using an established loneliness scale. Blood samples also were collected.

The participants were randomly assigned to receive either the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program or no treatment. The MBSR program consisted of weekly two-hour meetings in which participants learned body awareness techniques — noticing sensations and working on breathing — and worked their way towards understanding how to mindfully attend to their emotions and daily life practices. They also were asked to practice mindfulness meditation exercises for 30 minutes each day at home and attended a daylong retreat.

The researchers found that eight weeks of the mindfulness meditation training decreased the participants’ loneliness. Using the blood samples collected, they found that the older adult sample had elevated pro-inflammatory gene expression in their immune cells at the beginning of the study, and that the mindfulness meditation training reduced this pro-inflammatory gene expression, as well as a measure of C-Reactive Protein (CRP). These findings suggest that mindfulness meditation training may reduce older adults’ inflammatory disease risk.

“Reductions in the expression of inflammation-related genes were particularly significant because inflammation contributes to a wide variety of the health threats including cancer, cardiovascular diseases and neurodegenerative diseases,” said Steven Cole, professor of medicine and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine who collaborated on the study.

While the health effects of the observed gene expression changes were not directly measured in the study, Cole noted that “these results provide some of the first indications that immune cell gene expression profiles can be modulated by a psychological intervention.”

Creswell added that while this research suggests a promising new approach for treating loneliness and inflammatory disease risk in older adults, more work needs to be done. “If you’re interested in using mindfulness meditation, find an instructor in your city,” he said. “It’s important to train your mind like you train your biceps in the gym.”

In addition to Creswell and Cole, the research team included UCLA’s Michael R. Irwin, Lisa J. Burklund and Matthew D. Lieberman and the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology’s Jeffrey Ma and Elizabeth Crabb Breen.

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Elizabeth Appell: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”

Elizabeth Appell (aka Lassie Benton)I sometimes think that my life has proceeded by way of a series of breakdowns and reconstructions. Such episodes haven’t exactly been frequent in my life, but they have represented important turning points. There have been three times I can recall where I’ve hit emotional bottom, learned something important about myself, and found a release that led to significant growth taking place.

In each case there had been a long period of holding on to some pattern that had been causing me pain (usually unacknowledged). I’d been a tightly-closed bud. This was followed by a catalyzing event (in each case it involved being on retreat) in which I became fully aware of the pain I’d been causing myself. The pain of remaining closed became too much. Then there was a grand finale of emotional release and a spiritual awakening into greater wholeness and well-being. The bud opened, albeit painfully. Elizabeth Appell (aka Lassie Benton)’s quotation* — “…the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” — seems to perfectly encapsulate that process.

  …to my surprise, I found myself overcome by emotion. I’d try to say something and the words would get stuck in my throat, turning into inarticulate sobs.  

I realized how important friendship was to me a few years after taking up Buddhist practice. I was on a retreat which had the theme of spiritual friendship (coincidentally the theme of last month’s blog). As part of the retreat we studied a series of talks on the theory and practice of friendship, or kalyana mitrata, and we also spent time with each other, as we do in my tradition, getting to know one other and developing friendships. (It’s not like that in all Buddhist traditions — sometimes retreatants are not allowed to talk to each other or even to make eye contact). All of that was great — the part of the retreat I was anxious about was where we were going to talk in small groups about the spiritual friendships in our lives.

Basically I thought that it just hadn’t happened for me — that spiritual friendship just wasn’t a significant part of my life. I mentioned the word anxiety in relation to this part of the retreat, but it wasn’t the terror of public speaking or the nervousness one experiences about revealing oneself to relative strangers that I was experiencing, it was more a kind of embarrassment at not having anything to say, while everyone else (I imagined) would.

The evening arrived when it was my turn to “share” and I started off by apologizing that I wasn’t going to be able to say much. But there were a few people who had helped me or attempted to befriend me, to various degrees of success, and I thought that I should at least say something about them. And to my surprise, I found myself overcome by emotion. I’d try to say something and the words would get stuck in my throat, turning into inarticulate sobs. I’d collect myself, let the emotion subside to the point where I could speak once again, and the same thing would happen again. And again.

Loneliness became my defense against loneliness.

I realized a number of things. I’d remained tight in a bud. I’d come to Buddhist practice because of painful experiences in which I’d lost friends and experienced loneliness and suffering. Those experiences revealed the world to be an unreliable place, and I was looking for a spiritual tradition that emphasized looking within for happiness. I thought that with Buddhism I’d found a way to close myself off from the world. A famous Buddhist saying was “Fare lonely as a rhinoceros horn.” And inspired by this kind of thinking I’d been resistant to opening up to friends. I was guarded and wary, and suspicious of looking outside of myself for happiness and wellbeing.

The isolation I was imposing upon myself created a deep sense of loneliness, but I managed to avoid acknowledging those feelings. After all I didn’t want to take the risk of developing and losing friends again. Loneliness became my defense against loneliness. So remaining tight in a bud was painful. But not painful enough to make me change.

It was in the very act of communicating with others that I came into a more intimate contact with myself.

It took two weeks spent on retreat, reflecting upon friendship — and more importantly experiencing friendship in the form of the small group in which we were sharing our stories — before I could really start to experience the pain of the closed bud. I always think it’s very significant that it was in the very act of communicating with others that I came into a more intimate contact with myself, that the moment in which I started to open up to others was the moment in which I opened up to myself and acknowledged my pain.

But the bud was now opening.

Difficult though it was to experience the pain that I’d managed up to that point to avoid, there was also a sense of the light finally making its way into the heart of the bud. I experienced gratitude towards those who had been kind to me in the past and who had tried to be a friend to me. And I could see how I’d limited myself, and how I could no longer keep doing that. I’d seen the risk of remaining tightly closed, and it wasn’t a risk I was prepared to take. I’d been stuck, but now (for a time at least) I was unstuck, free, an open and opening bud.

And in that moment, as I sat in a circle, I realized that I was being fully accepted. No one was judging me. No one was thinking less of me for having been a closed bud, or for having shown my vulnerability. Instead they were quietly and compassionately being there for me. We were a circle of opening buds, all of us having decided that the risk of remaining closed to each other was greater than the risk of opening up. We were open to each other, blossoming. And the reward of that was more than worth the pain of having opened up.


* This quote was originally attributed to Anais Nin, but it appear that these words are not found among her works and that the quote was actually composed by Elizabeth Appell (aka Lassie Benton). You can read the story here.

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