When you first wake up in the morning, you check your phone to see if anyone liked your Facebook post from last night, and you feel somewhat dejected by the small response. Standing in line at the grocery store, you scroll through Instagram, admiring the photos of other peoples’ lives and ignoring the people around you. On the elevator at work, you take a second to check your work email so you don’t have to make small talk with the people on the elevator with you.
It is one of the modern age’s greatest ironies: the more that technology offers us the opportunity to connect with others online (like, say on a personal blog), the less “connected” people seem to feel. When we want to know what our friends are doing, we log into Facebook and check our feed. When we feel the need to collaborate with our team, we buy a monthly subscription to an online collaboration tool. Connectedness is one of the false promises of technology–while it can trick us into thinking we’re connecting with people, it can’t make us feel like we’re connecting to people.
It is only by mindfully fostering connectedness and compassion that we can feel like we’re not quite so alone in this big scary world.
Connecting With the Everyday
Irritatingly enough for those of us who are bad at it, it seems to be generally accepted that the first step to solving all of life’s problems is mindfulness–being aware and present in the moment and calmly accepting the world as it is. Rather than ignoring the people around you and focusing on your smart phone, you’re much more likely to feel a sense of connection if you–oh, I don’t know, make eye contact and have a conversation?
And I don’t just mean “have a conversation” as in make small talk. Too often, we tend to look at the people around us as marionettes moving through the background scenes of our own lives. Instead, try to look at everyone around you as a real person with a family and hopes and dreams. Imagine those marionettes are like Pinocchio at the end of his story, “real people” who exist on this world in ways that don’t directly impact your life. Acknowledge the vastness of the lives of the people around you.
Beyond helping avoid eye strain from staring at a tiny screen all day, connecting with the people around you in a mindful way also helps you acknowledge what the Buddhists call interdependent co-arising (the interconnectedness and mutual necessity of all of existence). If you become aware of how other people are important to your life in both small and large ways, you’re more likely to feel that you’re important to their lives in both small and large ways.
Incidentally, if you do this, you’re also more likely to come across to others as someone who cares about them and is valuable in their lives, increasing your own impact on their lives. Think back to the last person you felt looked at you and actually saw you. Remember how that person made you feel, and try to make others feel that way. Pretty cool. 🙂
Compassion’s Role in Connectedness
Ultimately, compassion is at the heart of this effort. Here’s what the Dalai Lama says in The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living (emphases mine):
My basic belief is that you first need to realize the usefulness of compassion. That’s the key factor. […] If you approach others with the thought of compassion, that will automatically reduce fear and allow an openness with other people. It creates a positive, friendly atmosphere. With that attitude,you can approach a relationship in which you, yourself, initially create the possibility of receiving affection or a positive response from the other person. […] So if you wish to overcome that feeling of isolation and loneliness, I think that your underlying attitude makes a tremendous difference. And approaching others with the thought of compassion in your mind is the best way to do this.
Actively engaging with the people around us–not just “our” people, but everyone–is key to feeling less lonely in this world. After all, if you feel connected to everyone, it’s impossible for you to feel disconnected..
This is waaaaaay harder than it sounds. We live in an age when it’s more valued to be clever than to be compassionate, and many of us would prefer “being right” to just extending compassion and kindness to others. Living compassionately means extending compassion to people we barely know at work. To that jackass who cut you off in traffic, to your coworker who undermined you in a meeting, to people who walk slowly in front of you in the grocery store. It means to actually see the people moving through our lives and offer them compassion and kindness regardless of what they offer us.
A Meditation on Compassion
Tara Brach suggests a specific way of fostering compassion in Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With The Heart of a Buddha: extend empathy to others you do not personally know who are in your specific situation. Have you gone through a breakup? Lost a good friend to cancer? Live in an empty nest now that your kids have moved out? Those are very real, very difficult and very sad situations to be in… and there are 6 billion people on this planet, some percentage of whom have gone through the exact same thing as you.
Try this: close your eyes and imagine all of the people around the world who are all sad in the exact same way you are. Imagine other people who are home alone after a breakup feeling like no one cares about them. In your mind, offer those people who are hurting the empathy and compassion you would like someone to offer you.
I find that this exercise has several benefits:
- Self-compassion – I’m forced to offer myself compassion first (which is important to well-being)
- Community – it aligns me with a “community” (albeit one I cannot see) which I can approach compassionately (and group identification has been proven to be a key proponent to satisfaction in life)
- Connection – it fosters an awareness of interdependent co-arising (something I’m still working on)
This is just one small easy way to try to approach others with compassion.
Thank you for reading this post. In many ways, this blog is my way of reaching out to others who may be like me, so it means a lot that you’re here. Remember, very often you don’t even notice the many ways that you may influence others and how that influence may ripple out. So thank you for having a positive impact on my life just by being you and being here.
This post is the second in a series on loneliness and connectedness:
- The Difference Between Aloneness and Loneliness
- On Fostering Connectedness
- Feel Lonely? What to do When Loneliness Comes Calling
Do you have other tips on compassion and connectedness? Please feel free to share below – Lindsay