I can’t remember a more contradictory time in my life. I’ve never felt so lonely. For the past month, I’ve been living alone on my family’s farm in rural Southern Maryland. It’s been part “Walden,” part “Joe Dirt,” part “The Blair Witch Project.” Days go by without seeing another human.
But I’ve also never felt so fearless. Unlike when I’ve traveled solo or had nothing to do on a Friday night—which is when I want company the most —the fact that I’m lonely hasn’t bothered me.
What I’ve been practicing is sometimes called the “two wings” of mindfulness: awareness and compassion. Just as a bird needs both wings to fly, we must see reality as it is and hold our reaction to it with compassion.
The first wing, awareness, is hard to achieve but easy to understand. It’s what most people think mindfulness is, the moment to moment focus that comes from meditation practice. It’s seeing clearly and feeling fully the flow of body sensations, thoughts, emotions, and sounds happening right here, right now.
Compassion, though, is hard to explain and even more difficult to put into practice. It’s allowing whatever is happening in our experience. It’s accepting rather than critiquing our gut reactions.
Our default way of thinking is the opposite. We ignore our feelings by drowning them out with distractions, like Facebook and alcohol. We critique ourselves for how we feel—I shouldn’t feel lonely. I’m weak.
Meanwhile, we forget our inner freedom, what existentialist psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl described as our ability to choose our attitude in any given set of circumstances. We’re on autopilot, whipped around by our thoughts and emotions.
Compassion sounds like rolling over and letting the world step all over you, but it’s not. We can speak up, name our wants and needs, and set boundaries with other people while still knowing that everything is ultimately out of our control. Everything except how we relate to our experience.
The spiritual teacher David Deida tells a story about a teacher of his feeling jealous at a party. Deida sees the teacher’s wife across the room enjoying a conversation with an attractive man and asks his teacher, “Aren’t you jealous?”
“Yes, but the fact that I’m jealous isn’t bothering me,” his teacher responds.
In other words, the teacher was aware of how he was relating to his jealousy. Instead of making it a problem, he was allowing it to just be. He could decide to intervene or discuss the situation with his wife after the party. Or he could decide not to. Either way, his decision wouldn’t be distorted by his self-criticism. If he did choose to speak with her, he could speak honestly and without shame.
So, how do we cultivate compassion? We have to find a tactic that works for us and practice it until we become skillful.
Compassion isn’t some flowery or wimpy positive thinking exercise. Like awareness, it’s a muscle that must be strengthened through action.
I’ve heard of different tactics over the years. There’s finding a phrase that feels soothing when silently whispering it to yourself. Something like, I’m enough or I’m loved. There’s placing your hand on your chest or shoulder to calm your body down.
I like to imagine younger version of myself feeling an overwhelming emotion. I imagine my current self comforting that younger version, just being with him as he feels all the feelings.
The other night I was feeling lonely and imagined myself at five years old sitting beside me on the couch. Just this acceptance of my loneliness and being with it rather than trying to hide from it or change it made me feel less alone.
I didn’t care that I hadn’t seen anyone that day or that I didn’t have plans for the weekend. I heard the wind in the leaves outside the window and smelled the rice I had cooking on the stove. I felt fully alive, at ease, and the opposite of alone, i.e., connected.
If you meditate or practice mindfulness, you’re only halfway to the inner freedom you’re capable of. Search for a compassion practice until you find one that works for you. Try RAIN, Tibetan tonglen, and lovingkindness. Find a therapist who uses reparenting or Internal Family Systems (IFS).
As meditation teacher and therapist Tara Brach writes, “Both wings together help us remain in the experience of the moment, just as it is. When we do this, something begins to happen—we feel freer, options open before us, we see with more clarity how we want to proceed.”
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