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spiritual isolation (transcript of a talk given January 2011)

Everything the Buddha taught boiled down to, in his words, ‘Suffering and the end of suffering.’  He wanted people to understand what suffering is, what causes it, and to provide tools necessary to limit all the needless stress we’re adding to life. After all, we wind up with enough challenges with a human birth, receiving what the Buddha called that the first noble truth: we're going to grow old, experience sickness and and death, we’ll know loss, separation, disappointment, sorrow, lamentation, despair.  All these things happen to everyone;  in life shit hits the fan. The Buddha also referred to such experiences as the first arrows.  

But the goal is, when we are suffering, not to increase our misery by adding more emotional pain and mental agitation to the mix.  For example, using the old example of when we stub our toe: there is the pain, but also the stuff that we add on top of it: we may focus excessively on the pain without being aware of other parts of the body that aren’t injured. There is the resistance to pain that arises in the body, where the stomach gets really tight, the throat gets really tight, the shoulders become tense—such resistance only makes us more uncomfortable.   And then there is all the thoughts: “Shit! What the hell is wrong with me?” or “Who put that wall there!” All the things that we add on to make the inevitable stresses and pains of life far, far worse. 

For all the arrows that the world shoots at our back, we shoot many, many more at ourselves.  And, in a way that’s good news, for if we're the ones who are creating the bulk of our sadness, frustration and anger, then we are the ones who can remove it; if we’re creating it, we can stop.  So it’s a matter of changing what we do.  We start by inspecting our behaviors and thoughts: are they creating needless agitation down the line? For example, when we find ourselves quick to judge others, will that create a comfortable mind in the future? Probably not.
Now there are two kinds of isolation: First, there is physical isolation, a state when there is nobody else around.  People often work from home – I often do – or there's times during the winter when we go through hibernation, or where we are not around as many people.  There can be times when we go through breakups or separations.  
Secondly there’s spiritual or psychological isolation.  This is a form of separation where we can be surrounded by other people but still feel no connection to them whatsoever.  An isolation where we might have tons of people around us at work, but still believe they could never possibly understand how we feel or what we experience.  It's a much more self-centered form of suffering than the physical isolation. 

Physical isolation may be experienced as simply missing people, a sense of wanting to physically be around other people and to hear their voices. Spiritual isolation is one of feeling this extreme focus on self and feeling that there's something extremely different or extremely unique about us.  Something about us that nobody else can appreciate.  Many of us inflated false selves to secure approval from our caretakers in infancy, and as adults we feel an inner hollowness to which no one can relate (or so we believe). 

Each of us experiences both forms of isolation in our lifetime; spiritual isolation and physical isolation. As human beings we require other people to provide us with reliable feelings of emotional mirroring and emotion regulation; if we’ve grown weary or distrustful of others, we’re deprived of essential needs. The Buddha talked about how important it is to have wise, trustworthy people with whom we can share our struggles.  The great lesson he gave his son Rahula in the middle length discourse was: ‘whatever it is you're going through, ask yourself is this thought or action going to cause you long-term peace of mind or is it going to cause you suffering in the long term.  And then once you’ve thought it, see what it does and then talk to somebody about it.’ If we follow this advice, we’re provided the experience of sharing difficult experiences, but also the normalizing sense from a friend "oh yeh, I've done that too, I've thought that way too". So we don’t feel so special, or isolated.  We’re not alone or unique with our thoughts, and that’s essential in reducing the suffering we experience after we make mistakes.
If we don't have people to bounce these thoughts off and receive a fresh perspective, the thoughts become secrets which weigh us down. The longer we hold secrets, the louder and more distorted and painful they become.  There’s a saying that we're only as sick as our secrets; what bounces around in the mind gets louder, the mind contracts around it. 
Eventually our relation to our concealed thoughts, urges and experiences becomes distorted; we become increasingly convinced that nobody else can understand us, as what we’re concealing now feels monstrous.  “How could I have done this?  How could I do that?”  
So spiritual isolation can be very, very dangerous unless we take certain precautions. Most people deal with isolation and loneliness by via distractions.  We get caught up in our work lives, on Facebook, external diversions so that we don't have to feel our sadness.  We can become obsessed with a relationship, so that we don't have to feel that real, underlying thing that is asking for acknowledgement: loneliness or depression or whatever.  All of these emotions are very much a part of the human condition.  There’s a universal sense of loneliness that arrives with the emphasis on individualism in the Western world, and we can only run from it for so long. It’s simply a part of life, and spiritual practice is allowing us to experience this without making it worse.  We don’t wallow in it,  that's not the point.  The goal is to open to the feeling of loneliness rather than run from it or conceal it. 

Finding support sometimes requites letting go of our demands.  We might want love and acceptance from somebody in particular, but very often we have to let go of our pride and seek connection where it is available.  Sharing and disclosing requires taking a chance. Another source of great external support I found is going on in the literally dozens of sites on the internet where Buddhist teachers upload their talks.  These talks can lift us out of the “i’m so unique” mindset and it replace such thoughts with thoughts that are wholesome and rewarding.  

And in meditation we develop a practice where we can observe these isolation producing thoughts, instead of being dragged away into these painful ideations, keeping note, as they arise, on what's going on in the body and mind (not the thinking mind, but the mind that’s aware of other sensations and moods).  Does the mind contract around these thoughts, or can we stay aware of other sensations as well?   

Another practice: if find ourselves lost in our isolation, note how much suffering it produces.  Is this thought helping me in any way?  If not, then we regard such thoughts (“I’m different”) like crazy people we see on the street: we don’t listen or argue or push them away, we may nod hello at most, but then we move on.
One of the most famous stories in the pali canon concerns Kisa Gotami, who lost her child and asks the Buddha to bring her child back to life. She's been from one spiritual teacher to another, and they’ve sent her to the Buddha, rather than telling her the truth which, of course, is that death is universal and unpredictable, denial only puts of necessary mourning.  The Buddha's response was clever a one. He told her to bring him mustard seeds from a family that has not experienced death, then he would help.  Now this might seems like a cruel exercise, but it was actually a solution to her misery, for in going from one house to the next, she learns from the occupants that every family has experienced loss and grief. The point of the exercise was to transform her relationship from “Why am I alone in my grief and loss?” to “Oh, this is universal” and from this perspective she can mourn the loss and move on in life (Kisa Gotami became a great nun.)

So in our darkest hours we can reflect on the universal quality to our experiences. We’re share the same basic emotional palette, yet we still focus on the details of an experience that provide the illusion of uniqueness. Our stories make us feel different, but our moods and emotions unite, so the key is to let go of retelling the story and attend to the emotional.

The moment we don’t relate to these stories as uniquely ours, we gain freedom to decide whether we’re really obliged to give them such attention. Most of our inner chatter actually arises as the result of internalizing  we hear other people saying inside of our heads.  That’s all thought is’s simply imitating what other people are saying and then regurgitating it up in our minds and yet we think that these are our thoughts and nobody else can possibly understand them... but what is something particularly ‘mine’ about these thoughts? Simply because they arise in 'my' head doesn't mean they originated with me or implicate me...they're visitors, passing through. 

The only thing you are doing, much like your body is made up of food that was once not inside of you, your mind is made up of thoughts  that were once not inside of you . So start looking at everything that you have experienced not in terms of ‘that's mine, I own it’ but instead as ‘that's just something that I heard in the past or I’m putting together two thoughts by two people and merging them into one, or whatever it is I am doing, none of this I own. And therefore I'm not obliged in any situation with any thought or any move to follow it.  I have the right to say “wait a second, this thought is not in my best interest, I can actually put it down for a while , and think the exact opposite of whatever its telling me”.  Because in most experience it’s just as likely to be true.   Whatever you're telling yourself about yourself, the exact opposite is just as likely to be true. I like to think that I’m a smart guy but I can be just as idiotic and blind as the next guy.  I love to think at times that I’m funny and I can have my nights when I'm not funny at all – tonight probably(!). 

So no matter what it is I think and tell myself and the thoughts that I pepper myself with, they’re just things that are arising and so long as I don’t view them as me, I'm not obligated to stick around with them like they’re somebody that I'm indebted too.  They’re not.  They’re just strangers popping up and I don’t have to listen to what they say.
Remember to keep the body relaxed, check how you’re breathing, and remember to reflect on the universalism of everything that we’ve experienced and to change or swap whatever thought we have which is causing us stress or suffering with something that we feel will, in our experience – that we’ve noticed when we’ve thought for a while this way – allow us to say ‘wow, I feel better’.  If you don't know which thoughts to change it with, just listen to a talk by a spiritual practitioner or call somebody who specifically you trust.  So those are ways to deal with isolation and loneliness and difficult emotions and I hope you’ve found something of use in it and now it’s your turn to share or ask any questions.  

Thanks for listening. 


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