Physical Distancing, Loneliness, and Spiritual Intimacy

Note: the following is a transcript for a Unitarian online presentation.  (Apologies for the less than professional recording, and for the mistake I didn’t notice in the first line: I said “a social situation” instead of “social isolation.”  It still works, and I didn’t want to go back and do the whole thing over – in a single take.)

hile dealing with social isolation, a man went out to the mailbox to get his mail. He noticed his neighbor speaking to her cat. He went back inside and told his dog what hed just seen, and they both agreed that she was going nuts.

I feel that’s a cute story that illustrates subtle differences in the ways we connect. But we do need to connect. We might ask ourselves why the man didn’t wave or shout out a hello to his neighbor. But then there would be no joke. Or was this a teaching story? A month in solitude could cause a person to reflect. 

At the core of what it means to be human is a shared history of perhaps a million years of biology and social development into what we call the human condition. We all have an instinct to connect with other humans and the various forms of life. And we have an innate drive or desire to experience something larger than ourselves which could be called the Sacred or Mystery. If we want to live a full life we cannot bypass the human condition and go straight to Mystery. According to the psychologist Carl Jung, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” In other words, if we ignore what pulls at our attention we can either recognize those unmet needs or cut them off. On the other hand, again according to Carl Jung, if you ignore the Sacred, you lose: “The privilege of a lifetime to become who you truly are.” All life is connected. When we live with interbeing we can experience the mysterious forces that give rise to vitality and communion with All-That-Is. According to biologist E. O. Wilson, we all have an innate desire to connect with nature, what he calls biophilia. When we lose that connection, we lose a part of ourselves.

Early on, I intuited this viral pandemic as a painful wake-up call, an opportunity to prioritize what is really most important for our species to thrive going into the future. I am not alone in this observation. We are being given the opportunity to slow down in order to evaluate our habits, consumption, lifestyle, and relationship to all beings. We may need to slow down in order to connect more fully and intimately with our inner selves and with our outer environment. We may need to slow down in order to nurture our discomfort just as we celebrate our joy.

That’s the ideal – solitude as a bringer of wisdom. But for many, rather than finding comfort or insight in solitude, social isolation brings varying degrees of loneliness. The longer we need to enforce social distancing, the more likely people are going to become lonely. On a podcast recently, I heard a woman state that she could remember her last hug vividly, because she worried it might be her last.

Prior to the coronavirus, loneliness was on the rise, estimated at 60% of the population. Sociologists agreed that loneliness correlated with the rise in social media as a substitute for actual contact. And now, with isolation more the norm, many people are relying on electronic devices for much, if not most, of their social contact. That electronic contact may be a balm for loneliness, or it may be a false refuge that keeps us from exploring our unmet needs. And when we are challenged with difficulties, we can easily get lost in the sense of being a separate self. That feeling of separation can bring a measure of existential loneliness.

Perhaps because of that shared sense of separation, the poet Hafiz wrote: Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly. Let it cut you more deep. Let it ferment and season you.” Why would he write such a thing? I don’t believe he would want us to just stare at an open wound. Better, perhaps, to engage in healthy distractions. But his goal was to get past distractions, allow our discomfort to guide us from the separate/alienated self toward becoming interconnected with all life – to inter-be with All-That-Is. The poet Rilke also had a response: “I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough to make my life sacred… I long to belong.” Loneliness is a biological, social, and spiritual urge to connect. That urge to connect is a bit like the urge to find food when we are hungry – it’s woven into our nature.

On the most basic level we evolved to belong to a tribe or group. But today’s loneliness can go deeper: we want people to get us, to understand who we are – the values and beliefs that are important to us. We long for kinship. Carl Jung wrote: “Loneliness does not come from having no one around, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.”

When I was 21-years-old, I recall canoeing with a small group of friends deep into Quetico Provincial Park in Canada, just north of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. I felt a deep and mystical connection with Nature, the mystery of interbeing. This felt delicious in my solitude as my friends were out fishing. But when the wave of feeling subsided, I felt loneliness because this sacred thing could not be articulated or shared with my friends. To try and do so would have been alienating. Most of us have come across variations of that, when people don’t connect with what is important about us or to us.

Physician and professor Rachel Naomi Remen writes: “The spaces where we are seen and heard are sacred.” We want to be seen and heard for who we are. We want to share the gifts of our being. We want to be honest without the fear of being ignored, judged, or condemned for our honesty. Sometimes it seems easier not to take the risk of exposing our innermost thoughts for fear of being rejected.

And sometimes it’s the outer world which makes us feel vulnerable, because the world seems flat-out frightening. We may feel alone and unsupported as we stream inflammatory information. We may feel both disconnected and afraid. We may worry about both the probable and the improbable, and forget that there is a difference. Its like the Mark Twain quote: My life is filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened. And by the way, Mark Twain borrowed this quote from 16th century French philosopher Montaigne. Montaigne developed much of his philosophy while spending 6 months in quarantine avoiding the plague. He had a Buddhist perspective without ever having heard of Buddhism. He wrote: “Rejoice in the things that are present; all else is beyond thee.” He was referring to living fully in the present moment. And Montaigne also wrote: “He who fears he will suffer, already suffers what he fears.” After all, there is nothing to fear but fear itself, that, and running out of toilet paper (surely that would mean the end of civilization). Fear constricts awareness. But we still need to be aware of things that might make us afraid.

Theres a joke about a man who took his son for a walk on the beach, and they came across a dead seagull. The boy asked what happened, and his dad said, well, the seagull died and went to heaven. The boy was puzzled and said: Did God throw him back? When we dont feel confidant with basic honesty, when we keep our attention constantly away from the inevitable stress of unpleasant experience, we may develop strategies of resistance or denial. Those things that we deny become things we can no longer see. There is a balance to be found between staying open to new information and the need to protect ourselves from the intensity of too much informationa way to approach the world both awake and connected to our shared essential Source. We need to understand each other at the basic level of our shared humanity.

In the poem A Ritual to Read to Each Other the poet William Stafford wrote:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world,
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Stafford is urging us to be clear, open, and understanding with each other, to be awake with an honest respect for the mutual, connected, life that we share. There are tricksters whose agendas thrive in the unconscious dark.

There are so many complications these days, as we witness the compounding difficulties. And these worldwide difficulties are nothing new – from weather created tragedies to human produced trauma. But this time the whole world is participating at the same time. It takes a noble heart to hold authentic hope. But the truth is we all, inherently, have a noble heart. That, too, is innate to the human condition. We may need to train ourselves to see it, to nurture it, and to bring our noble heart bravely into the world.

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron writes: Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

Following are suggestions for accepting the impermanence that Pema Chodron is referring to, acceptance with enough room for healing, relief, and joy. These are also suggestions for loneliness.

1. Commit to a group that values compassion, love, and kindness. Create sacred spaces and kinship together. Find and honor fellowship.

2. Intend to connect with the world in ways that matter – with insight and intimacy.

3. Spend time in nature. We’ve probably all heard this one, but it’s worth repeating. Really be present, as if each tree or bird or cloud is family. Allow nature-force to fill you. Intend to give back – make it a two-way relationship. To quote Mary Oliver: My job is loving the world. And, I might add, to have gratitude for all the beauty and diversity still alive in the world.

4. Connect consciously on social media with an intention to reinforce community and to be a creative and positive voice. If you choose to inform or educate, try to do so without inflammation. There is crazy news we may need to share, try to inform with equanimity.

5. Acknowledge strangers you may pass in your travels. We are all in this together. Wish them well.

6. Understand that impermanence applies to everything, including the coronavirus.

Former surgeon general Murthy shared that he formed an online group that met twice a month on Zoom. The guideline was that they had to talk about what was really going on with them – they had to be real/authentic even when it made them uncomfortable. Buddhists have loving-kindness groups that also share personal challenges. Meditation teacher Tara Brach talks about having a gratitude buddy, someone to whom you can email your gratitude, and they to you. The suggestion is that we not reply to the emails. We just know, in sending our email and expressing our gratitude, that someone is listening.

We all encounter the world and its circumstances in unique ways. I know I could be pretty happy just sitting outside communing with Nature and deepening my ongoing connection to interbeing. But I also have an innate urge to connect with others, to be lifted while gathering words, and to hope those words inspire or comfort others.

Before I end this talk, lets take a moment to experience deep and caring connections in widening circles. Let’s start with your family, wherever they are, feeling caring connections and sending your love. (pause) Next, feel connected with your close friendships and people of support, wherever they are, feeling caring connections and sending your love. (pause) Next, a group or community with which you affiliate – kindred spirits – feeling connection and sending your love. (pause) And finally, to all beings in every direction, feel caring connections and send out your love. (pause)

If you did not feel there was enough time to adequately feel your connections and express your love, please take some time to complete your intimate embrace with those alive connections, perhaps when this talk is complete, or at your convenience.

I’d like to end with a poem of my own, titled:

Outstanding Love

An isolated beach has become my confidant.
I feel like a Buddha without hands.
There are ten thousand
unresolved disagreements,
more love required than I can find to give.

Water speaks with stones.
Waves kiss the shoreline.
The sky’s passion links the horizon.
Discomfort slowly passes.

I cannot heal The Thousand today.
So instead I love all the motions of water.
And breezes not yet blown
breathe into the edges of life.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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1 Response to Physical Distancing, Loneliness, and Spiritual Intimacy

  1. Jim says:

    If you listened to the MP3 recording, I’m inviting feedback. Does the recording enhance the online presentation, or would the blog be enough. I feel on a home computer, the written word might be enough, but I don’t know how that translates to people who just have smart phones — maybe the recording makes it easier to engage (?).

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