Monday, September 30, 2019

Loneliness, Listening, and the Gift of Presence

I recently offered these reflections as part of a discussion on the causes and impacts of loneliness in the United States. They are lightly edited. 
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In preparation for our discussion today, I began catching up on current research on loneliness. The largest recent study I could find was published in May 2018 by Cigna. They surveyed more than 20,000 adults in the USA and found that 46% of Americans reported to feeling lonely, and 27% “rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.” They also found that: 

  • “Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent). 
  • “One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people (20 percent) or feel like there are people they can talk to (18 percent). 
  • “Only around half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.” (https://www.cigna.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/new-cigna-study-reveals-loneliness-at-epidemic-levels-in-america
These are high numbers – high enough that it is statistically likely that a significant amount of us gathered here today can find ourselves in these figures. We all have our own reasons, struggles, stories, anxieties, and fears. And more than a few of us feel isolated, cut off. We may have even tried to reach out, only to feel more misunderstood and alone. 


There’s a lot that goes through my mind when I think about these things, but I want to focus in on how it relates to community. In particular, I have been thinking about the practice of of intentionally and mindfully offering our presence to ourselves and to those with whom we spend our lives, and to do so with kindness. If only about 53% of Americans feel like their social interactions are meaningful and 27% “rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them,” then this simple offering of presence, of human attention, can change lives. 

This sounds like a simple request, but it also means that we are learning the skills to be present with ourselves and each other in this way. Our days are filled with a multitude of opportunities to feel irritated and angry, lonely and despairing, exhausted and burnt out. We have to be intentional about learning the skills to navigate this world. When it comes down to it, human connection requires more than shared outrage. We need to be able to authentically, deeply, communicate with each other. We need to be able to listen with equanimity and love. 

The Buddhist chant that honors Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, describes this kind of offering: 
“We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and open-heartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice. We will sit and listen without judging or reacting. We will sit and listen in order to understand. … We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.” (https://www.mindfulnessbell.org/archive/2015/03/invoking-the-name-of-avalokiteshvara
And the fourth Mindfulness Training also offers practical ways for us to reflect on and intentionally offer this kind of speaking and listening: 
"Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and to relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering.  I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small." (http://dharmateacherorder.org/practice/the-five-wonderful-precepts/ )
Learning to listen deeply and speak mindfully are some of our most pressing needs. Community building and peace work need to intentionally include a commitment to offer to ourselves, one another, and our communities this gift of listening in order to understand. 

I know it is hard work to offer our true, mindful, kind presence, but it is work that has to be done, and it can be done. It can change our lives, and it can change our world.