Learn these mindfulness skills now before a lonely winter

I’ll always remember my dad warning me about yellow jackets. I was 7, maybe 8, and he’d just swatted one away as we threw a football in the front yard. “They get more aggressive in the fall,” he said. “They’re about to die.”

It turns out, he was half right. According to a Washington Post interview with an expert beekeeper, yellow jackets become more aggressive because they’re hungrier. Their food sources — other insects — begin dying off as the weather cools. In other words, they’re hangry.

I can relate to the little yellow and black flying monsters. The other day I went for a walk and noticed a familiar feeling this time of year. The temperature was perfect — 75 degrees with no humidity. I was excited about the coming fall — with its sweater weather and football.

But there was also a touch of dread. My chest fluttered as my heartbeat sped up. My mind churned anxious thoughts: I’m going to feel so alone this winter. I need to get some things on the calendar. I’m so bad at making friends.

Summer turning into fall always makes me crave connection. Like yellow jackets, I get more aggressive about booking camping trips and planning dinner parties. At times, it feels like I’m going to die if I don’t have enough things on my calendar. That’s how afraid I am of being alone in the winter.

In years past, when not in a romantic relationship I would succumb to what’s become known as “cuffing season” — the urge to couple-up as the weather turns. I’d find myself going on more dates anxiously trying to find a partner for the coming lonely nights of Netflix and chilly air.

This year is different. I have a partner, and I sort of know what to expect from another pandemic winter. But there I was circling my neighborhood like a hungry yellow jacket.

I reminded myself that I’m in a great relationship, that I have plenty of friends, that I often enjoy alone time. But logically reasoning with myself didn’t work. My mind wouldn’t stop worrying about the future.

Instead, what worked was mindfulness. I remembered a fall meditation retreat years ago that had made me feel terrifyingly lonely. I remembered the silent hours meditating in the cold retreat center and walking outside under the browning trees. I remembered those same anxious thoughts: I’m going to be so alone this winter. I need to get some things on the calendar. I’m so bad at making friends.

But I also remembered a moment with a meditation teacher that had made me feel a little better.

“Where is it showing up?” she asked, motioning towards my body.

I’d just told her I felt so alone that I might leave the retreat early. I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths, and noticed what the interior of my body felt like.

“My hands — they’re so heavy. It feels like they can’t move,” I said.

Normally, my hands feeling like 1,000-pound boulders would’ve scared me even more. But instead, I laughed. Happy tears welled up in my eyes. Hours of meditation and my teacher’s compassion had helped me see that my heavy hands were just a fact. Not good, not bad — just what was happening in the moment.

My loneliness was just a fact too. I didn’t have to make it go away or wrong or a sign that I’m not good at making friends or anything at all. I didn’t have to resist it — I could let it just be, and eventually it would pass.

Having remembered the retreat, I stopped walking and stood still. I closed my eyes and breathed slower and deeper. I felt the air in my nose and throat. I noticed the softness of the socks on my feet and the solidity of the concrete below. I listened to the breeze wafting through the maple tree’s leaves above me.

After a few breaths, I realized I was yet again thinking, worrying about the weekend, figuring out which friends might be free to get together. It was like I was standing back looking at my thoughts — like watching a movie.

I let go of the thoughts and brought my attention back to my breath. I noticed my stomach was tight, so I let go there too. Opening my eyes to keep walking, I spotted a beautiful bright blue door on a house I’d never noticed before.

That’s what mindfulness is — ”awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” as the pioneering scientist who developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it.

Our shoulder itches, we hear a bird chirping, we think about that email we need to send, we start worrying about being lonely. Sensations, sounds, thoughts, whatever — if we slow down and watch, all of them come and go like clouds in the sky.

If we stay present, we’re less caught up in worries about the future or judgments about the past. We’re more here, now.

Sometimes it might seem like the loneliness, anger, anxiety, sadness will last forever. When we’re in the middle of an emotional storm cloud, we lose sight of all the good things in our lives.

But sooner or later, just like a real storm, the clouds pass and the sun comes back out again. Mindfulness skills — like pausing and noticing the breath or softening tension in the body — can often help the storm pass a little quicker and easier.

That last word in Kabat-Zinn’s definition — “non-judgmentally” — is significant. It’s important to not let our judgements keep us stuck in the storm’s chaos.

When we’re caught up in an emotion, we usually feel some sort of way about it. Walking the other day, I beat myself up inside about feeling lonely. I turned it into evidence that I’m no good at making friends. All that did was add fuel to the fire. It made me feel even worse and took me even further away from the present moment’s richness — the breeze, the birds, the bright blue door.

When we’re mindful, we accept any and everything, even our unconscious, snap judgements about whether something is good or bad, right or wrong. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

This doesn’t mean we should try to be some Zen meditation master with no expectations or opinions. I should probably spend some time intentionally thinking about what I can do this fall and winter to stay connected with friends and family. I should make some plans and let people know I want to see them.

It just doesn’t have to be so urgent and intense. It doesn’t have to feel like I’m going to be alone forever if I don’t have plans this weekend. And if it does, I can use mindfulness skills to calm the intensity.

In fact, mindfulness can help us make better decisions. Research shows that mindfulness meditation can make us less emotionally reactive and more intentional with our thought processes.

Most of us don’t have time to practice meditation for hours on end. But that doesn’t mean we can’t cultivate a little mindfulness here and there throughout the day.

The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, tense, or stuck, try pausing and taking a few deep breaths. Feel the air in your throat and chest. Notice your feet on the ground. Listen to the sounds around you.

When your mind wanders to what to make for dinner or that text message you need to send — which it inevitably will — let go of the thoughts and come back to feeling, smelling, hearing, and tasting the moment. Make sure to be easy on yourself. The storm will pass — it always does.

Hi, I’m Jeremy, a writer, meditation teacher, therapist-in-training, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. Subscribe to my weekly email on how to be more mindful at your job, in your relationships, and when it comes to politics here.

Download my free ebook on how mindfulness can decrease your anxiety and transform your life.

Photo by Niq Scott.