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What Do You Do When You’re Alone?

what do you do when you're alone? Buddhist perspective

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What do you do when you’re alone? When you’re scared, anxious, lonely, or afraid, when you feel strong craving? What do you turn to? In this episode we look at where our mind runs when we feel pain, when we don’t feel balanced or whole. We’ll examine the Buddhist view on this subject that reveals a deep source of strength and support within our own minds accessible to each of us any time we need it.

In this episode, I want to take you through all the different things we turn to when we’re alone, scared, lonely, afraid, or don’t feel balanced or whole. 

From the Buddhist point of view, there are a list of things we’re supposed to turn to, in particular, the teachers and teachings of Buddhist philosophy. A more secular approach to refuge with Buddhism is to look at the mind as refuge–that deep inside ourselves is a limitless source of contentment and even joy.

But in this episode, I want to spend most of the time honestly observing where our bodies and minds actually rush to at times of fear, pain, or craving—where our mind instinctively goes when we’re stressed. I promise we’ll end up in a place of self-acceptance and positive growth at the end. But it’s worthwhile to also take an open-eyed tour through some of the ways we can sometimes fail to nurture ourselves when we’re alone. 

One of the hallmarks of the Buddhist approach we draw from in A Skeptics Path to Enlightenment is this clear-eyed view of ourselves and of reality that leads to much deeper happiness than peppy, positive thinking. We can be gentle with ourselves, we can wholly accept ourselves, while still honestly assessing which of our habits are sources of long-term happiness, and which only bring us more pain.

So, what do you do when you’re alone? When you’re scared, anxious, wound up or afraid, when you feel strong craving, when you feel overwhelmed? What do you turn to?

Take some time to think about this now. You don’t have to tell anyone your answer. They say that what you do when you’re alone reveals your character in a deep and profound way. What do you do when you’re alone? In Buddhism, the term for the place we go when we are challenged is refuge, taking refuge. So, another way of asking this is, “What’s your refuge?”

Why listen to me?

For a moment, though, I think this is a good time to step back and talk about who I am and my approach to this podcast. Why should you listen to me talking about Buddhist teachings? 

I’ve been fortunate to meet and study with highly realized teachers. And it’s important for me to say that I’m not one of them. That could be a good reason to stop listening to this podcast right now and seek out someone who’s a deeply realized spiritual being. There are a lot of them out there.

But, as my teachers told me when I was first asked to lead meditation, the benefit of exploring this path together is that I’m like you.

I wanted to start this podcast for exactly this reason, to give you a peer to learn from, the way that we used to in high school or college; learning from someone with the same level of delusions and inner problems, with the same doubts, a similar education and cultural background, with someone who struggles with the same issues you do around relationships, work, family, and politics. 

Advanced teachers also address these topics, but because of their more highly realized state, they know us through their empathy and compassion rather than the direct experience of being caught up in these delusions that you and I share.

One of my teachers, Ven. Kathleen McDonald, who gave me advice when I started teaching meditation, later contacted me and asked for some advice herself. I was surprised that such a profoundly capable teacher was asking me for help, but when I read her question, I immediately understood why. She asked me,

Ven. Kathleen McDonald
Ven. Kathleen McDonald

“What’s it like to feel hurt?” 

Since she’d been a Buddhist nun for her entire life, the feeling of being hurt—by friends, by colleagues, by lovers—was foreign to her. She’d built a life of satisfaction in doing her best to benefit humanity as a teacher and meditator without asking or needing much at all from anyone else in return. 

I knew right away that I could help her with her question, and wrote her about ten pages back in answer to “What it’s like to feel hurt?” It was like a kind of college essay on my own emotional pain and suffering in relationships, in family, in work—pain that you’re probably familiar with too.

So as someone talking about Buddhism and leading meditations, I consider myself more of a hard-working peer, than someone with genuine realizations. I believe it’s possible to apply sincere effort, an honest admission of where I am on the path, an admission of my own delusions and weaknesses; and to steadily apply the tools to plow through them; to show how the teachings can be applied by an ordinary person in the world who’s experienced cutthroat workplaces, difficult relationships, kids and conflicts and desires, and all the complicated accessories of modern life.

I’m going to go into the different forms of refuge that people take. But as I do, remember that I’m speaking from actually having experienced them to varying degrees. So please don’t take the list moralistically, but more as a guided tour from a friend who has direct, sympathetic experience; someone who’s tasted each of these refuges, from work to sex to entertainment, substances, friends, and teachers. 

Gradually, I’ve found my own way toward refuge in the deeper stillness and caring that it’s possible to find within yourself, qualities of the mind and qualities of the heart.

Work as refuge

girl working at home

So, let’s start with work, a common refuge today, even with a lot of us working from home now. Some of us, when we’re alone, find ourselves diving into work, advancing whatever it is that supports our livelihood, where we make money and interface with the world. 

I’ve certainly been there for huge parts of my life. I’m doing it myself right now as I write and record this podcast. And I’ve always loved the focus and effort of work, which I think helped train the kind of focus and concentration that’s important in meditation. I also love the strong connections work builds with others who share a common goal.

You may find great meaning in your work too. And it’s a natural refuge you go to whenever open time presents itself. Look at your motivation for working, and your state of mind while you’re at work. Your motivation may be extremely beneficial, committed to the mission of your work. Whether it’s cleaning houses, caring for the sick, designing websites, or cooking meals, all of these things benefit others.

As you do your work, if this taste of wishing to benefit others colors your experience, then there’s a healthy sense of meaning that infuses your work, a deep satisfaction that arises from making the world an incrementally better place, even through simple acts like planting flowers.

Your work—the exact same work—can also be done with a motivation to simply support your family, to give them the best life that offers, to keep them safe and healthy. This too can be satisfying, though there’s a danger of justifying harmful forms of work in the service of supporting your family.

So from time-to-time it’s good to assess the impact your work has on the world. And, though the present moment might not be the ideal time, at some point consider changing your job if you find what you do harmful or meaningless. 

I’ve been in this situation a couple of times myself, and I found the psychological damage of working on things that I didn’t believe in quite severe. I found myself pretending to care about work that I thought was meaningless, posturing respect for leaders that I found incompetent or unethical, or feigning passion for products that I knew were harmful. 

This cognitive dissonance resulted in feelings of self-loathing. I vividly remember my feelings of not living up to my own ideals and feeling awful about myself sometimes. I also saw the side effects in deteriorating relationships with my partner and family. And I found myself lashing out or feeling resentful about continuing work that I found harmful or meaningless. Maybe you’ve felt this way sometimes too.

Some people find refuge in their work because they feel anxious or aimless when they’re not working. You can become addicted to work just like anything else, as an external source of soothing distraction, as a way of forgetting your other problems for a while. 

When you’re not working, your mind may move to fears, anxieties, and questions that you’d rather not confront. So, work becomes a kind of drug, drowning out disturbing thoughts and emotions with the physical or intellectual effort that work requires. 

Sometimes what drives us to work is the sheer pleasure of it: solving hard problems, the rush of customers and sales, or of creating something new.

But the pleasures of work can become a form of escapism, avoiding uncomfortable vulnerability with others through focusing on a rational activity which has a clear sense of success and failure that messy human relationships lack.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently harmful or beneficial about taking refuge in work, as Buddhism says about any activity. Many of the most effective, compassionate people on earth are constantly working, constantly advancing their mission to help others. From The Dalai Lama to Bill Gates to Doctors Without Borders, to Björk or Bono, to thousands of noble nonprofits, or major corporations bringing cheap or free communication and products to a greater and greater share of humanity. 

The motivation is what counts most from the Buddhist perspective. Motivation is what determines whether you create a healthy, whole, balanced inner-self, or if you have one that’s at conflict with yourself, that denies or loathes parts of yourself. Your work may be doing good for the world, but with a selfish mindset, you still find yourself dissatisfied inside. 

When your motivation goes beyond yourself and your ego—to the greater good of all—this is generally when you’re most at peace with your work and when your work forms a seamless continuity with your better nature.

Entertainment as refuge

scrolling on social media

Another form of refuge, perhaps the dominant one in our culture today, is entertainment. Our phones have become the portal to instant diversion. And whether it’s music, social media, Netflix, YouTube, Kindle, or The New York Times, entertainment’s a way of filling up your mind with external stimulation. Again, I don’t want to be moralistic. I love movies, music, books, The New York Times, Instagram, and even Facebook.

In another episode I even talk about a more advanced meditation technique called “Universalizing” that transforms any form of pleasure or entertainment into a profound meditation, a spiritual practice. But when I look at my ordinary mind day-to-day, I see varying motivations for seeking refuge in entertainment.

Mostly it’s a habit—lurching to the phone or computer when there’s a free moment—to fill that space with something interesting or funny.

But if entertainment is my constant refuge, I am deprived of the pleasure of getting to know myself, getting to know my own mind.

Becoming aware of what’s immediately around me at that moment, and seeing what’s within myself as I experience unfiltered reality, unmediated relationships. To experience the joy of simply being alive and present to the world inside and around me.

Sex as refuge

Another powerful refuge is sex. Each of us can observe our own motivation for sex. If you can, try to become self-aware when you are feeling strong sexual desire, and probe the space of that experience. Sometimes our sexual desire is entwined with feelings of incompleteness, of need, feelings that were planted at an early age through how our parents showed or withheld affection, or through early traumas. Are you moving toward sex out of feelings of incompleteness, insecurity, or escape?

Sex can be a profound connection with another person, a deeply generous and connecting ritual of the body and mind. But the routine of sex can shade into a mere habit of satisfying an animal desire with a consenting partner; or even to exploitive sex, where our needs feel so great that we’re willing to sacrifice another person’s wellbeing in order to satisfy our urges through coercion or power. 

A lot of pornography has shades of these harms, since many of the pictures and videos online weren’t created through joyful connection, but out of the desperation of the actors and exploitation of the creators. I think it’s a delusion to ignore the suffering behind the creation of exploitive pornography, and our contribution to this suffering as consumers of it.

Even with non-exploitive types of pornography, the act of sex can become disengaged from its purpose of connecting with another human being to become a lonely activity. A trick of evolution makes us respond to a video’s moving pattern of light as if it’s a real partner, a real connection. But, like the super-stimulus of junk food, pornography often leaves a psychological residue of dissatisfaction—increasing, rather than satisfying desire.

Substances as refuge

We all have substances we take refuge in. Coffee is one of the most common, different types of food—especially chocolate—alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs. None of these are intrinsically helpful or harmful. But it’s worth observing our mind as we crave them, as we enjoy them.

The Buddhist approach to eating is one I find quite beautiful. There’s no universal Buddhist blessing, but before eating a meal, you can generate a sense of gratitude for the thousands of people responsible for bringing this food to your plate.

If you’re eating meat, feeling gratitude to the animals who gave their life to feed you their body. You can even think back to the billions of years of evolution that created the diversity of plant and animal life on earth. Then, you make a motivation to eat not just to satisfy yourself, but to healthily sustain yourself so that you can be a force for good in the world, even small good. 

“May this food benefit us, so that we may benefit others” is the shortest blessing that I know of that satisfies this view of interconnectedness and gratitude, without mentioning gods or supernatural elements.

Of course, we can pursue food, drink, and drugs mindlessly, selfishly, compulsively. These substances are huge sources of pleasure, and our brain can trick us into thinking that more and more of these substances will bring us more and more pleasure.

But when you test out this hypothesis, like I have, it doesn’t turn out to be true. I think we’ve all been there with food, drink, or other substances. Overindulging makes you feel physically and psychologically awful. It can break down your healthy sense of self-worth.

And in time, overindulging can even harm our physical health, greatly shortening our precious life that we talked about in one of our first episodes. I notice that when I’m able to wield my self-control around substances, I feel good about myself.

I like the feeling that I have a choice about what to do in life, that I’m not mindlessly driven by my urges. I quite like the view that a teacher once shared with me, that

True freedom is the freedom to refrain from mindless desire, not the freedom to infinitely indulge.

Exercise, adventure, and creativity

Exercise, adventure, and creative pursuits are refuges that have a lot in common with contemplative practice. These are habitual, ritualized activities that connect the body and mind, where you lose track of your worries and plans to become completely engrossed in the activity. 

When combined with mindfulness and a motivation to come closer to your good nature or to others, these can become full-fledged forms of meditation. I have many friends who say their spiritual practice is running or hiking or surfing or painting, activities that get them outside themselves for a while, connecting with their deeper self, a self that goes beyond labels and concepts to simply being.

As we’ve discussed before, the Buddhist perspective says that it’s not the activity itself, but the motivation, that comes into play here. Exercise and art and adventure can become competitive, ego-driven activities, like anything else.

Living in California, I’ve known quite a few people who told me that surfing was their religion, practiced early in the morning, like meditation, becoming one with the mind’s connection to nature through riding the waves. 

black and white surfing shot

But I was once shocked by a surfer friend from Santa Cruz who told me about a treasured surf spot where experienced surfers aggressively tormented newcomers to beat them away from the most beautiful waves.

Friends and family as refuge

For many of us, friends and family are a key source of refuge; they certainly are for me. But it isn’t just spending time together that makes friendships valuable. How you spend that time is also important. When friends support each other, empathize with one another, help each other fulfill their dreams, that’s powerful supportive friendship. But when we just waste time together, or worse, spend time trashing others, or complaining about politics or work, I’m often left feeling unsatisfied. 

Of course, there’s a place for unconditional empathetic listening and support, but ultimately, we need to build meaningful lives. Having good friends that support your values and that bring your life meaning is more important than having buddies just to shoot the breeze. 

There’s a point of Buddhist ethics that at first troubled me, which was to avoid what’s called “bad company,” people that don’t actually nourish your best qualities. The teaching says that

You can still be kind and compassionate to everyone, but the people you choose to bring close—to spend your precious free time with—should be those that bring out your best qualities.

The more time you spend with them, the more you become like your friends, so you want them to have qualities you admire, qualities you want to cultivate in yourself. When something goes wrong in your life, you learn who your friends really are, and that’s when you find that your false friends disappear. Sometimes those liveliest, funniest of friends evaporate when things go south for you.

They were just friends to an image of you: to your status or beauty or wealth or job, or to a shared vice. They weren’t a friend to your deepest self—who has no job or wealth or physical beauty or job—who has only the inner qualities of heart and mind.

Refuge in teachers and bosses and heroes

This leads to the point of who deserves your respect. If you become like your friends, this is doubly true of your teachers and your heroes. 

One of my Buddhist teachers once told me to take great care who I take on as a teacher or boss—even a yoga teacher or a client at work—because you’re always going to become more like them.

If you think about this for a moment, and it may scare you. You become like your teachers, your bosses, your clients. Just as you unwillingly become like your parents. In particular, if you have a boss you don’t respect, and you’re not in financially desperate stakes, you may want to look for a new boss sometime soon.

That power relationship may mold you for the rest of your life. Some portion of him or her will rub off on you forever. You become like your teachers and bosses.

Who deserves your respect?

garchen rinpoche

So, who really deserves your respect? I’ve purposefully left out something on the stages of the path that Skeptic’s Path follows, the topic that traditionally comes at the beginning in the Dalai Lama’s tradition, a topic called Guru Devotion

I did this deliberately because in our culture it can be so difficult for us to find someone worthy of our admiration. And then even when we do, it can be difficult for us to acknowledge when someone is more realized that us, more accomplished, more worthy of respect. 

We have a healthy view in our culture of an equality that says that we each are allowed the equal pursuit of happiness, equal rights. But this has degenerated sometimes—particularly in this currently divisive time—to a belief that we are all also equally deserving of judgment, contempt, and criticism.

This point of Guru Devotion was quite hard for me to absorb when I first got into Tibetan Buddhism, watching people bow down to Jedi-robed Tibetan Lamas, and wondering if I should be doing the same. But I was soon comforted by the Buddha’s advice on respecting teachers. 

The Buddha said that you should examine a teacher for twelve years before taking him or her as your teacher.

For precisely this reason, you become more like your teacher. You must evaluate a spiritual teacher even more closely, and determine whether her words align with her deeds; if she really has the qualities she professes.

Sadly, that’s where I also come up short, and another reason I don’t address this topic in Skeptic’s Path, because I’m not a teacher of such quality. In fact, I don’t think of myself as a teacher at all, but as a friend; a friend who’s sincerely trying to understand this path, applying it where it coheres with my experienced modern reality that you may share.

If you’re at a level similar to me, it’s beneficial to walk together on this exploration toward a secular spirituality that melds the wisdom of Buddhism with the wonder of science and the realities of the modern world. The Buddhist term for students that support each other like this is sangha, our spiritual friends. And another form of refuge is refuge in the sangha, refuge in your spiritual friends, the people walking the path together with you.

I don’t want to beat around the bush though, and emphasize again that just as some people in life are best avoided for their negative influence, some people in this world are more realized than you or me, more accomplished, and more worthy of respect.

You likely know someone like this, one of your heroes in life or work or family or the greater world. People like the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, Desmond Tutu, maybe even Edward Snowden or Greta Thunberg or Melinda Gates. In my personal life, the ones I know are mothers and artists and teachers and inventors and, of course, my Buddhist teachers.

There are some great people on earth that we never hear of until they win the Nobel Prize, like Wangari Maathi, an extraordinary Kenyan woman who led a lifeline struggle to advance the environment, democracy, and human and women’s rights.

Her face holds such profound love and joy that when I first saw it in the list of Nobel prizewinners fifteen years ago, I spontaneously broke into tears. I printed out this picture of her face to help me conjure these feelings of respect and love and purpose in life whenever I need them. And I used to bring this picture to meditation classes to show students when we meditated on Love.

wangari maathi nobel prize winner
A hero worthy of our respect: Wangari Maathi, Nobel Prize winning human rights activist whose joyful face embodies her lifelong dedication to joyfully benefiting humanity.

 If you have someone you admire, someone deserving of your respect, it’s useful to visualize them in conjunction with your daily practice, as a tangible human embodiment of the otherwise abstract qualities of love, compassion, patience, and joyful effort.

And if you don’t, be on the lookout for a hero who could hold this place for you. Think about who you admired as a child. People like Anne Frank or Nelson Mandela. Read the paper, find the few articles about good news and find a hero worthy of respect. You can usually see it right in their face.

So, what do you take refuge in? Food, sex, Netflix, your partner? What do you seek out when you’re in pain? A good book, alcohol, a friend? Or a hero, a spiritual guide, an ideal? Which ones are truly satisfying, and which ones leave you wanting more? Where do you seek your refuge? What do you do when you’re alone?

The mind as refuge

This brings us to the final point of looking at our inner refuge; looking inside ourselves for an always-available source of respect, meaning, joy, and comfort. Like we do at the beginning of meditation sessions, rejoicing in all the good we do in the world, and more deeply, rejoicing in our innate capacity for good—the healthiest roots of self-respect and well-being.

These qualities are natural and adaptive to a human race that mostly lives in harmony, despite the way it looks on newspapers and TV. Living a wholesome, connected life comes naturally to us and is natural to our minds.

The mind’s deepest qualities are ease, openness, and joy. The only reason we stray from our good nature is out of bad habits, thoughtlessness, external conditioning.

These habits can be let go through regularly connecting with ourselves and finding healthy sources of refuge. The fundamental goodness of our minds is an ever-present source of refuge that requires no elaborate preparations, that’s free, and always available.

As we explored in earlier episodes—Mental Cause and Effect, The Mind and Impermanence—the mind presents an inner refuge in its natural clarity and awareness; its openness, plasticity, changeability.

Our mind is always changing, malleable, flexible, open to any possibility. We can take refuge in the fact that we are constantly changing, always capable of change.

Having gone through this episode on some of our habits for refuge, the importance of motivation, and the mind as our deepest source of refuge, you may want to return to the episode of Mental Cause and Effect. By being mindful and purposeful in what we mentally cultivate and what we let go, we can harness that changeability to mold our minds into a source of joy and meaning and purpose and good for ourselves and for others.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Audio mastering by Christian Parry
Marketing Direction by Jason Waterman
Digital Production, Marketing, and Social Media by Isabela Acebal


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