"Dear Josh. I have been struggling with a great deal of loneliness and fear of late, and feel the need for some new meditation techniques to get through it. Would love to schedule a meeting with you to gain your insights."
As a Buddhist teacher, mentor and, yes, podcaster (for the last 10 years at Dharma Punx NYC, and a visiting teacher at other spiritual communities) I've received countless emails in a similar vein to the above. The answer, each time is, "Sorry, but that's not possible." The issue isn't my availability or willingness, but rather recognizing the limitations of meditation in and of itself.
Human beings are social beings; its how we're hardwired. Our innate drive to companionship has allowed us to survive, indeed prosper over the ages. Note, for example, that neanderthals were not only bigger than us, they were stronger, faster and even had larger brains. But their gray matter was largely claimed by the regions that process eyesight and body movements; our brutish cousins were far more likely to scrounge for resources alone rather than in cooperative groups.
Our gray matter, conversely, balances toward large frontal hemispheres, which provided the capacities for language and socializing emotions, both of which are necessary for lasting, secure interpersonal connections. Almost all of our friends at one point started out as complete strangers -- indeed, potential adversaries for resources. Somehow we managed to put aside our ingrained suspicions, and engaged our empathetic skills; we managed to slowly drop our defenses and coordinate our plans, developed a willingness to disclose our secrets and empathize with each other's emotions; we relieved our burdens and shared our abundance. So we exercised our great survival advantage, an attribute that has been honed over millions of years. To the degree that human evolution was set in motion with a plan, the underlying goal achieved its fruition when we fire up our empathetic synapses and disclose our sadness, frustrations, joys and fears to each other.
Indeed, while we may like to believe that we are creatures of reason, what we long for is connection. Emotional connection, based on eye contact, reassuring expressions, safe, reassuring embraces, are as essential to psychological health as food and exercise is to the body. Baseline happiness studies, from the esteemed research of Sonja Lyubomirsky, Jonathan Haidt and Roxane Silver, to the World Happiness Report, have demonstrated what is referred to as the "hedonic treadmill": we adapt to changes in financial security far more quickly than we suspect. For example, people who win the lottery, after roughly six months, return to the same level of happiness they sustained before picking the right numbers. But the loss of relationships leave lasting residues in the psyche; this is why those who retire often experience anxiety and depression -- not the loss of income, but the loss of interpersonal connections found at a workplace. Indeed, happiness research shows that the connection with close friends is the single greatest determinant to peace of mind -- and while connection to friends is largely under our control, genetics, alas, is not.
Given the importance of connecting with and caring for others, we might well wonder how can we secure our relationships? Decades of research into relationships by the renowned psychologist John Gottman shows that human links are cemented by the way we respond to each other's bids for attention. Do we put aside texting on our smart phones, look away from Facebook or the television screen and turn our attention to each other and empathize? If so, Gottman's studies show we'll stick together, and be the happier for it. Alas, if we shrug off bids for connection as unimportant, or avoid working through interpersonal conflicts, choosing avoidance rather than communication, then we placing our psychological health in jeopardy, no matter how much money we make or what accomplishments we achieve.
Of course, given how painful experiences of abuse, rejection, abandonment and shaming can feel, how long the wounds can last, its understandable that many of us seek virtually any solution to numb our emotional pain rather than risking new connections. We'll seek pharmaceutical solutions, binge on Netflix, work ourselves into grave before taking on the peril of disclosing our authentic emotions to a friend, therapist, spiritual guide. Yet it is precisely through disclosure that our distress is finally mitigated; this is the nature of the human experience, like it or not.
So when we think of deep spiritual practice, we might visualize a christian renunciate, buddhist monk or hindu yogi sitting in unaccompanied silent reflection, these cultural tropes reveal a widespread misapprehension. Meditative practices performed in isolation can help us recognize and process our emotional states, but true healing lies in those most vulnerable moments, when someone looks us in the eye, sees our pain and provides us with the mirror we so deeply seek.
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