Friday, October 19, 2012

Loneliness: A Jewel of Discontent

I wrote this reflection in June of 2012. I hesitated to share this because I feared people would judge me. They would think I'm pathetically lonely. They would feel sorry for me. And yet, as I pondered it, I realized that my unease and dissatisfaction with the present moment is not specific to me. Loneliness, if that is what I am experiencing when I have these overwhelming moments of existential dissatisfaction, is universal. Maybe you're not experiencing loneliness but you're experiencing some other form of suffering—depression, anger, fear, betrayal, rejection. And so, by writing this and sharing it with you, I hope I can help you as I have helped myself. That is the essence of a community of people seeking to help each other.    

Things are better now in October 2012 when I post this.  I've worked through a lot of emotions-thoughts-attachments-expecations I had surrounding being alone.  I've enjoyed my solitude for almost two months.  Two weeks in Utah taught me a lot about myself and life.

So here it is:
It's never happened before.  It happens when I least expect it.  And yet, now that it's happened three times within the last month, I've realized when I should expect it.  It happens when I have a chunk of time and nothing to do and I'm alone. 
I'm alone a lot since I'm single and live by myself.  I'm use to the solitude.  In fact, for the majority of the time, I want the solitude.  I enjoy the solitude.  So that this feeling/thought has happened surprises me, and in a subtle way, scares me. 

What is it I'm feeling?  I feel lonely.  I feel alone.  I feel unhappy with my life.  I feel bleak.  It's what Ezra Bayda, head teacher at Zen Center San Diego describes as “the anxious quiver of being.”  It's not  a panic attack.  I've never had a panic attack but from what people who have one have described it as I know it's not a panic attack.  It's an uneasiness, an unpleasantness, a desperate want to change the current situation and the life I'm living that produces this moment. 

It's what in Buddhism we understand as suffering although suffering is a word we've translated from the word dukkha and suffering doesn't really capture what dukkha means.  Yongey Mingpur Rinpoche states in his book Joyful Wisdom: Embracing Change and Finding Freedom, states that dukkha means “the pervasive feeling that something isn't quite right: that life could be better if circumstances were different; that we'd be happier if...”    

My anxiety starts out small: I wish I had something to do or someone to spend time with right now and it spirals into something big, something out of control: I'm too much of an introvert, I dislike my life, I dislike the choices I made that led me to this moment, I want another reality. I'll never get that reality, I'm stuck, it's going to be like this for the rest of my life.  When I have this loneliness, this anxious quiver of being, this existential awareness of self, I dislike the moment.  I want the moment to stop.  I want another moment, a moment where I'm happy and content and with people or with myself and at ease. 

That's when I tell myself to stop.  Stop telling myself the story that isn't true.  That's when I tell myself to breathe.  That's when I tell myself to just be here with this, to stay at home, and live through this. 

Robert Frost said, “The best way out is always through.”:  So I become mindful. I become aware.  I notice what I'm feeling and thinking..  I tune it to what I'm experiencing.  I befriend the uneasiness.  Not always easy to do.  In fact, I think these thought and feelings are anything but a friend.  They are the enemy.  I think I shouldn't be feeling/thinking this.  Where did this negative thought come from?  I want to get rid of it as soon as a I can. 

And yet, I remind myself that even though I consider myself a Zen Buddhist that doesn't mean I will only and always be content, peaceful, or happy.  In fact, after almost fifteen years of considering myself a Zen Buddhist I am only now understanding that being a Zen Buddhist doesn't mean that you are always in a state of equanimity and equilibrium.  I am first and foremost a human being and I will, even as a Zen Buddhist, experience the full spectrum of emotions and thoughts.  All Buddhists do. Being a Zen Buddhist is not like being a Star Trek Vulcan who suppresses all emotions and uses logic in all situations. 

Enlightenment isn't living in a constant state of bliss and serenity, as I first assumed when I began studying and practicing Buddhism.  Rather, enlightenment means to be constantly mindful of what I am thinking, feeling, doing, and saying at all times.  It doesn't mean that I will always think, feel, do, or say the “right” or “positive” thing but it does mean I bring awareness to those four realms and return to what I know is “right” or “positive.”  Enlightenment is a constant reminder to be compassionate with myself and with others. 

That's when I ask myself: what can this moment, this dukkha teach me about myself and about life? That's when, in addition to being mindful, and living through this unease, and asking myself what I can learn from this anxiety, I also change my situation.  I do something to quell the discontent.  I call a friend or family member.  I spend some time with someone.   I connect with people. By doing this, I remind myself that I am not alone.  I reach out and connect with someone I knew.  Or I leave the house and get groceries.  I take a walk.  I get out of my head and get into the physical world. I remind myself that I have things I can do and I did them.  

Perhaps most importantly, I stop the story going on in my head.  In his book End Your Story, Begin Your Life: Wake Up, Let Go, Live Free Jim Dreaver states that “suffering is when you don't like what you're feeling or what is happening and that makes you unhappy.”  He goes on to say that “all forms of discontent and unhappiness are always the result of resisting what is.  Resistance is causes by holding onto  beliefs, judgments, and expectations and pictures about the way things are or should be.  It comes from fabricating in your mind some story about what is happening.”
So what do we do?  What do I do to quell this anxious quiver of being?  As Dreaver's story suggests, we end the stories about our past, present, and future that don't contribute positively or realistically to our lives right now as they are.  We wake up.  We live fully and mindfully in the present moment, in our lives as they are without the story.  We let go of our expectations of what our lives should have been in the past, should be in the present, and should be in the future.  As Jim Dreaver says, “We let go  of the thoughts that are the source of the resistance, the story, and simply be present with what is.”  Not always easy but that is our practice.  We approach it wholeheartedly, knowing that when we do, we will receive gifts of the dharma—joyful wisdom and ease of mind. 

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