Millions are now faced with enforced solitude, while others, in the crush of families together all day, realize how much we needed that time alone we took for granted. The essence of meditation is getting to know yourself alone, without social stimulus, entertainment, or reputation—what we truly are deep inside ourselves. There, we can find in our mind a place of satisfaction that’s equally at ease when we’re alone or when we’re with others.
I’m your host Scott Snibbe, and in this week’s episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment we’ll look at two problems familiar to most of our listeners at this time of the Coronavirus lockdown, problems that are polar opposites: some of us feeling lonely in enforced solitude, while others are crushed in with their families 24 hours a day with little time for solitude at all.
We’ll take a nourishing approach to these challenges, through a guided meditation that explores a deep source of strength and support accessible to each of us any time we need it, whether alone or with others, a support we can always find in our own mind.
From the Buddhist perspective, this topic is called Refuge. This week we’ll explore our inner sources of refuge, primarily through a meditation that brings us closer to our deeper, subtler, ever-present, nourishing aspects of mind. And next week we’ll look at some of the outer sources of refuge that we turn to, both nourishing ones and the ones that sometimes cause us harm.
Some of us are lonely, and some of us wish we were alone
Right now, half the world is under some sort of lockdown. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to stay at home, who aren’t required to be out in the world working now-dangerous jobs, we’re paradoxically faced with either a lot of newfound time alone, or none at all.
There are the people who are with their families, like me, suddenly with little or no time alone, serving as teacher and playmate to their kids, cook to the family, and head of health and security for the home.
For those of us in that situation, moms, dads, children, and roommates, we may need to imagine what it was like a few short weeks ago when we had time to ourselves. This is a time we’re realizing how important our alone time was, and how much we miss it.
Then for others, without kids or immediate family at home, you’re now finding yourself alone all day. Some of you are desperately lonely. Phone and video calls help, but there’s no substitute for a real person’s presence, the feeling of seeing and being seen, the comfort of physical touch in hugs and held hands.
But being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. Science shows the benefits of healthy alone time to include increased empathy, productivity, creativity, mental strength, and, the one we focus on at Skeptic’s Path, coming to better understand yourself through self-reflection.
What you do when you are alone is important, it determines whether this time nourishes your happiness and mental stability or feeds your fears and delusions. In next week’s episode we’ll explore the variety of objects we turn to for support, objects we call “refuge” in Buddhism. But for today, we’re taking an inward, self-nourishing approach, offering some antidotes to both loneliness and feeling overwhelmed with the constant presence of others.
The Mind as Refuge
The very first meditation we did together was on The Mind, and we’re not really done with that topic (see Episode 6: What is the Mind? and Episode7: Guided Meditation — What is the Mind?). In fact, we won’t ever be done with that topic, since from both the scientific and the Buddhist perspective, that’s all there is! Our personal psychological experience is all that any of us experience directly, whether interpreting sense phenomena, or generating our own inner reality of thoughts and feelings.
While earlier we talked about the mind as a beautiful, boundless inner place to explore, today we’re looking at the clarity of our inner awareness as a refuge you can turn to in times of pain and difficulty, equally applicable in times of loneliness or feeling overwhelmed with the presence of others.
When you become accustomed to the mind as a place of inner strength and natural ability, it’s always there for you. But depending on the difficulty you’re facing, you may find different meditative approaches be more or less effective.
Meditation, as it stems from the Tibetan Tradition (read more in What is Meditation?, Analytic Meditation: Story, Thought, and Emotion, and The Meditation Session: A Playlist for the Mind), isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, but more one of fitting the suitable treatment to whatever’s causing you pain.
Today we’ll focus on two topical sources of mental distress, side-effects of our global lockdown: on the one hand, feeling lonely; and on the other, feeling overwhelmed with the constant presence of others. And we’ll do this now by moving into a meditation.
If you’re in the crush of your family, hopefully you can find some short stretch of alone time right now: by putting in some headphones and finding a spot to hide, or maybe going out for a walk.
And if you’re in the opposite situation, on your own, it should be easy to find a calm place to meditate undisturbed.
So, find a quiet corner to sit and meditate, either cross-legged on the floor, or in a chair, legs straight out and down, feet flat on the ground.
Elevate yourself on a cushion if you’re on the floor. And place your hands in your lap, palms up, or on your knees. Relax your shoulders, your neck, all the muscles in your face. Tilt your head down slightly, and half-close your eyes. Slightly open your lips and place your tongue at the roof of your mouth.
Focus on the Breath
For a minute, bring your focus to your breath, the air coming in and out of your nostrils, cool as it enters, warm as it exits; without changing the way you breathe in any way, simply observe your breath. It’s okay if it’s fast and shallow. It’s okay if it’s slow and deep. But, it’s likely to slow as you settle into relaxation, and if this happens, just notice this too.
If other thoughts come up as you meditate—other feelings, perceptions, memories, or plans—just let them pass by, like clouds in the sky. Your mind is like the clear sky, an open space, aware and knowing, and your breath is the object it returns to.
So for one minute, focus on your breath.
(silently meditate for one minute on the breath)
Refuge in the mind when you’re alone
Now, from this calmer state we’ll look at these different cases of life under lockdown, the difficulties of people nevertheless more fortunate than many others, those of us without illness, loss of income, or a dangerous job, those of us who are simply trapped at home. We’ll look at these two situations of either being alone, and feeling lonely; or being crushed with family, feeling overwhelmed.
And as you meditate on the situation that isn’t the one you’re currently living with, it’s not something to skip, it’s still useful. Try and use that meditation as a way to feel compassion. Start with people you know, and then expand to people you don’t. Imagine the family, friends, and neighbors who are in the opposite situation of yours: lonely or overwhelmed.
In this way we can transform the part of the meditation that doesn’t address your particular situation into a meditation on compassion, on love, on feeling close to others.
We’ll start with the situation for those that are alone. If you’re one of these people, bring to mind what’s been hard for you being alone. And if you’re not alone, but at home with family or roommates, use your memory and imagination to reflect on those people in that situation of being alone right now, those who are feeling lonely. For many of us it’s our parents or grandparents, locked down even from going to the grocery store or out for a walk.
Feeling lonely is the most obvious pain of being alone. Missing others, craving their company. And loneliness has its offshoots: feeling unsafe, feeling bored, feeling cravings that grow and seem to demand satisfaction.
You can notice that all these feelings have a flavor of not being comfortable with your situation. And since your situation is alone, there’s an element of not being comfortable with yourself. You can accept these feelings without judgment, while also applying this critical analysis, understanding your feelings, seeing them more clearly.
In How to Love, Thich Nhat Hanh says that happiness comes from what he calls “a home inside” that is found by accepting yourself, learning to love and heal yourself. Learning how to practice mindfulness that creates moments of happiness and joy for your own nourishment by simply being present and aware.
Let’s take a moment to get to know ourselves in that way. This doesn’t mean pushing away our pain or our suffering. It’s not denial. It’s quite the opposite. When we come to know and accept and understand our own pain, paradoxically, through this process, we can find a calm and a stillness and a joy that underlies all mental experience, even loneliness, anxiety, and fear.
Try now and steer your mind inward now, without wishing to change your mind in any way. Allow thoughts to appear, but find some distance from these thoughts. Notice that you can observe your thoughts. You can watch them arise, watch them take center stage in your consciousness, and then watch them fade away.
We’ll try and do this now for a minute, simply watch your thoughts, whatever they are. Accept your feelings, there’s no need to push away any fear, any loneliness, just accept it, observe it.
And as you do, see also that your heart can open, that observing your thoughts almost as if they are someone else’s, you come to understand them better, you see the cause and effect that brought them to your consciousness.
And you also can come to feel love and compassion for yourself, to understand your own pain better.
Then, with careful observation, you see that your mental states are impermanent, changeable, that your mind has a constant capacity to transform, and that is a natural source of strength.
Meditate like this for a minute. Observe and accept your thoughts and feelings without judgment. See them intertwined within an endless web of cause and effect. See how your feelings don’t last, how they appear and change and disappear. This changeability itself is a comfort, that even as you hurt the most, those feelings are already fading away. Do this now, for one minute: observe your thoughts and watch them change.
(meditate silently for one minute)
And now, with this distance from your thoughts, see that there is a deeper part of yourself that’s always there beneath the thoughts, that’s hard to put into words. Steer your mind away from those grosser thoughts and feelings, your fear and loneliness, and see that is a deeper, ever-present part of yourself that has a different quality: the qualities of clarity, of being unobscured; that allows anything—thoughts, feelings, perceptions—to arise within it, without itself being disturbed.
Just as science shows that unobstructed space itself underlies everything that sits within it, so is there an open, unobstructed aspect of our mind underlying all mental experience.
That the deeper part of your mind is like a mirror. And, like a mirror, there’s a certain beauty to it, regardless of what it reflects at any moment. It’s impossible to see a mirror directly. You only see it through what it reflects. But the mirror has this capacity to reflect. It’s a quality of the mirror. And your mind has this capacity too, this quality of clarity and reflection.
There’s also a feeling of knowing in that deeper, subtler part of the mind, of directly experiencing, one that goes beyond words and even beyond concepts. And that knowing, experiencing has a quality to it, a kind of wisdom, that, if you probe it, can feel joyful. It embraces even your most difficult thoughts and feelings. Those difficult thoughts and feelings are made of that same awareness, that same profound quality of clarity and knowing that underlies all mental phenomena.
Try now for a minute to connect with that deeper part of yourself. The part of yourself that you can usually find only when you are quiet and alone. It may take some time, and it may take more than one session.
Feel free to pause the recording if you want to explore for more than one minute—for ten, or even twenty or thirty minutes. The extra time you spend may reward you with experiences you’ve never had before.
(meditate silently for one minute or more)
And now, you may feel, or at least you may feel the possibility, of a comfort in being alone. An inner joy. You might have felt this at other times alone: when you were reading, or cooking, or listening to music, or creating something, out for a walk, or working quietly alone.
But the point in meditation is to distill that happiness and joy and stability in being alone, in being your own best friend, away from any activity at all; that it’s a joy to be with yourself, to know yourself, at that deepest level. The particular activity isn’t what makes you happy, the activity is a pathway to finding an inner happiness that’s always there within you.
Meditation becomes a path to consistently find this happiness of connecting with yourself, in ways that food, and music, and even friends and family don’t stably, don’t always bring about.
Try and see how the joy and comfort you find in others is really a reflection of your own capacity to be present and aware, a capacity that’s always with you, always accessible to you. They say the greatest gift you can give another person is your attention. And that’s the greatest gift you can give yourself as well.
Being alone isn’t a lonely waystation between meetings with others, or a stopgap before you get to the next busy project. Being alone in meditation is enough in itself. The more you meditate like this, the more you realize that you need nothing else to be happy than a little space and time and peace and solitude.
Refuge in the mind when you’re overwhelmed by family
And now, consider those of us feeling overwhelmed by our families right now: by too much of a good thing; the things you might have worked your whole life to attain: a partner, children, a nice home.
But now you’re craving time alone to work, to reflect, to relax, or exercise, or simply to think. Maybe you now have a 16-hour workday as teacher, playmate, cook, nurse, and head of security for your home.
And if you’re not in this situation of a packed home full of family or roommates, use this part of the meditation to empathetically connect and feel compassion for those that are.
Now you’re realizing the power, the value of time alone for you. That itself is beneficial, perhaps something you can carry away after this crisis ends: how important it is to deepen that connection with yourself on a regular basis.
So that’s one benefit of this difficult time: we often only realize how much we treasure something when we lose it. When I finally get back my quiet time, I’m not going to take it for granted. I’ll try and use it purposefully, taking some of that time each day to connect with myself through meditation.
But how do we deal with the crush of those around us at home right now?
If you already have a meditative practice, it can help to recall the nature of your mind in meditation, its boundless spaciousness, and the experience of realizing that you aren’t your thoughts, perceptions, and emotions.
They say your practice really begins when you get off the cushion. So, this is a chance to practice what was only theoretical on the cushion.
If you’re new to meditation, though, this can be difficult. Without the practice of reflecting on the mind in solitude, it can be hard to be mindfully present and aware in the chaos of a busy life.
There’s a practice of learning to stay with whatever is happening inside you, not feeling like you need to run away: from your family, or from yourself. Simple acceptance of your situation instead of feeling frustration or self-pity.
As someone’s asking for your attention, as chaos surrounds you, one way to practice is ask yourself, “What is going on in my mind?” If you’re close to lashing out or losing your patience or temper, being still is a useful practice. You can feel so good about yourself by simply not lashing out, not becoming impatient, when you know you’re on the edge of doing so. That alone can transform your mood. Feeling proud of yourself that you held it together.
And then watching, labeling what’s going on in your mind, acknowledging the thoughts and feelings passing through your mind without letting them take over your speech and body, thinking, I’m feeling frustrated. I want some time alone. I’m sick of saying the same thing over and over again, having the same problems again and again. I’m feeling impatient.
It’s okay just to accept all these feelings and thoughts, thoughts and feelings that aren’t you, but that are passing through you.
See if you can hold still, perhaps step away and tell your family you need a few minutes to yourself or go out for a walk and just watch your mind. Become aware of what’s going through your mind. Label and accept these disturbances of the mind without feeling bad for having them, without even pushing them away.
And paradoxically, by accepting them, by labeling them but not trying to change them in any way, these feelings change and often diminish, simply because it’s their nature to diminish. Do this now, for one minute: observe your thoughts and watch them change.
(meditate silently for one minute)
You need to actively feed your delusions, actively hold on to them, otherwise they simply disappear on their own. When you let go like this, soon you gain some perspective, even a sense of humor, laughing at yourself, at how you were feeling moments ago. What seemed so important or powerful is now fading away, and now it’s gone.
If you recall our last two topics, they’re relevant right now, and the reason we meditate on them is to have them at hand for times like this.
Impermanence (Episode 9: Embracing Impermanence, Episode 10: Guided Meditation — Embracing Impermanence) means that things are always changing. If I’m at peak annoyance, I can know that the direction my mind will move is toward feeling less annoyed, forgiving, and later, to calm. It’s inevitable. No one stays angry forever. It takes effort to remain angry.
And then there’s cause and effect to consider too, the topic from the last two weeks (Episode 11: Mental Cause and Effect, Episode 12: Guided Meditation — Mental Cause and Effect). The way I react didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s part of my conditioned behavior, patterns with my partner and family, ones I had in prior relationships, ones learned growing up, or through society, through evolution. You can even follow the endless chain of cause and effect back to the birth of the universe, how your interconnection to everything that exists has lead you to this moment of feeling frustrated and angry and overwhelmed right now. A sense of perspective and even wonder like this can transform your self-focused feelings of anger and isolation into one of vast interconnectedness.
Another powerful approach that leverages a bigger view is through compassion. You can use your disturbances to think about all the other people feeling the same way right now. We’re all in the same boat. This is the last, powerful antidote, that fast-forwards beyond where we are on A Skeptic’s Path, which we had a small taste of in Episode 8: Combatting Coronavirus Fear with Compassion.
I can use my disturbing feelings to feel compassion for so many others who are feeling the same way. And these feelings can lead me to compassion also for those who are worse off: big families packed into vast apartment complexes in Italy, in China, in New York; immigrant families here in America who’ve lost their jobs and have no way to earn money for food, rent, or medicine; people who’ve lost their health insurance, people who’ve lost their jobs; people feeling the same as me, people feeling worse. We’re all in the same boat, and I couldn’t feel as close to them without this taste of suffering that helps me better understand theirs.
The answer is getting to know yourself
Through these meditations, we’ve approached both of these challenges of ordinary people at home during this Coronavirus crisis: both feeling lonely and feeling overwhelmed by our families.
It’s interesting to see that both problems can be addressed through getting to know yourself better, through accepting yourself and learning to stay with whatever’s arising in your mind, diving deeper into your psyche to understand who you are beneath your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Coming to know yourself better, to love yourself, to be your own best friend.
It’s something you can do in meditation. And, if you remember, you can do it also during the day as you interact with others: silently as you’re in a difficult situation, or stepping aside for a few moments to reconnect with yourself in this way.
Coming out of these phases of self-reflection, you then find more energy for others. With deep, consistent practice, you’re happy when you’re alone. You’re happy when you’re with others. You’re happy when life brings you good news, and you’re happy when problems arise. Happiness comes from deep inside us, and meditation’s a path to consistently find a stable calm and joy that’s not dependent on other people, on possessions, on the TV or social media, or anything outside ourselves.
How to Love, Thich Nhat Hanh
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio
Photo illustration by Kanchi Rastogi