Christmas is a time of joy and celebration but is also not without its difficulties and challenges. In this three-part series, we ask senior Plum Village Dharma teachers about how to mindfully navigate some of those challenges.
Because there is so much emphasis on being together with family, Christmas can be a very lonely time for people who are estranged or separated from family members, or living abroad, far from their families. What can we do about feelings of loneliness at Christmas?
We may want to start living each day as best we can, by appreciating the beauties that are always there in the present moment. Look at the sky, the trees, the clouds and whatever nature is manifesting before our eyes and ears. In this way, we are training our mind to practice appropriate attention and connection, being present with awareness, and noticing that there are many elements in life that are already there, and that can nourish our happiness and belonging. We inter-are with Mother Earth. We belong to her and she is part of us.
When we are living this way, we are strengthening the energy of mindfulness in us. With our practice of connection with what is available to us in the here and now, we do not have to feel lonely, isolated or estranged.
For example, the trees stand courageously tall, alone or in a forest. They lose their leaves in the fall, but they still have their roots. Your ancestors are your roots, and they are always present in you, in your genes and the depth of your consciousness. Discover your roots and also your interconnectedness with others who nourish you and bring you happiness. Find and create connections with loving friends, sanghas and other people, for example, the lonely and elderly in nursing homes, children in foster care homes, orphanages, and even pets. This way you can create your family for the Christmas season, a “Christmas Family”.
We know that time spent with our “biological family” may not always a happy experience. There may be different values, lifestyles, and even unresolved conflicts from the past, with certain family members. There may not be as much mutual understanding and respect of some differences in diverse family members. Reflect on the possibility of creating a “Christmas Family” for yourself, where there is more mutual understanding. appreciation, and love.
Sister Thuận Nghiêm
Millions of people are estranged overseas or in other provinces, cities because of their work or even in their own countries due to the pandemic. At the end of the year, Plum Village practice centers around the world organize either online or in person retreats for people of all ages and from all walks of life. These retreats are designed for the needs of people. In the setting of the retreat people in general feel the warmth and support so they don’t feel so lonely as they stay at home. They connect to the human family which is not necessarily their blood family and find comfort and concerns for one another. You are invited to attend one of these retreats according to your geographic distance.
If you couldn’t attend any retreat then try to find a local group or online group to volunteer your time and energy to be with the orphans, homeless or elderly. There are always people who need our care and concern. In the cold and dark winter, we need warmth of human contact and light of friendship.
If you are not able to do the above suggestions then rearrange your living space and inner space so you can be at home both physically and spiritually. You can enjoy a dharma talk on YouTube. Listen to relaxing music, read an inspirational book, do some sitting meditation or walking meditation, write a love letter to your beloved ones.
For me there is being alone and feeling lonely or feeling connected. Being alone and feeling lonely for me are two different things. We can be alone and not feel lonely and we can feel lonely and be with a lot of people and the difference for me is feeling connected. When I am alone, and I feel connected, with myself first of all, and with other people even though they’re not physically there, I don’t feel lonely. But if I’m not very connected to myself and there is something I’m not looking at or I’m avoiding so that I’m not really with myself, then it’s also very difficult to feel connected to others. Then there’s a sense of loneliness, even when there are people around us. Loneliness can be sharper and more poignant while being in a crowd than when we are alone.
The first thing I would like to mention is not to wait until Christmas (maybe for this year, it’s a bit late!) So throughout the year to look – are we present for ourselves? Do we have self-acceptance? And from where do we reach out to other people? Do we reach out, out of a need? Do we reach out because we can offer something?
The best thing we can offer is our own presence but for that, we have to be able to be with ourselves. It’s very much about what is the relationship we have with ourselves. Connecting with ourselves is much easier when we accept ourselves. I’ve looked into how I accept myself. Sometimes I am happy with how I am, how I stand in the world, and what I offer, and sometimes I’m not so happy with how I am. Then it is not so easy to offer something because not feeling happy with myself there’s not much I have to offer, or at least that’s what I feel.
Sometimes the difficulty in accepting myself has to do with a particular situation: I’m not happy with the way I was in that situation. So I take that situation and look at how was I. First of all, how was my physical health, was I in good health? Did I have enough sleep and not too much on my plate workwise and not too many worries? Was I happy with the way I stood in life, so to speak at that moment? And if I see, no, I’m not so happy, I look into why am I not happy. I might see that I have expectations I cannot live up to.
When I looked into myself, I see that I always do my best. Whatever the situation is, however I respond to that situation, it is the best I can do at that moment, considering my physical health and considering my mental well-being. For example, do I have worries about something? When I have a worry, I cannot really be present, not even for myself as I’m carried away by my worry, but definitely not for others. Do I have a regret? Regret is also something that means I have no self-acceptance and therefore I think the others will not accept me either.
It helps if we look into ourselves and see that considering all the causes and conditions of that moment, we’re doing our best. With the inner and outer conditions, it is the best we can offer at that moment. We can do better, but at that moment, it’s the best we can do. By accepting ourselves in that situation, saying, “OK, this is the best I can offer right now”, then I can accept myself. When I understand that this is the best I can offer, there is acceptance and compassion, I can accept myself. Then, there is no sense of loneliness, because the loneliness, I have noticed, is when I cannot accept myself for one reason or another and so I cannot be in my own company. When I cannot accept myself, I’ll feel lonely in a group because there’s no connection. If there’s no inner connection, there’s not going to be an outer connection.
What I like to use as a way of becoming more at ease is to look at everything I’m grateful for, you starting with myself. There may be parts of my body that are hurting or not in good condition, but then I go through my body and I look, what is in good condition? Is my eyesight in a good condition? Good enough. My hearing? my sense of taste? How about my movement or how about my heart? How about my stomach? How about my intestines? My liver?
I go through my whole body and see what is in a good condition. Then I also bring up gratitude for all the parts of my body that are functioning well. When I have then that gratitude and also a little bit more energy, if there’s part of my body that is not well, I send my energy of compassion to that part of my body. To give a concrete example, when I sit, I focus first on my abdomen, and then on my in-breath, I kind of pull up the energy from my abdomen to the eyebrow, and from there, I send it to the part of my body that I feel needs love, needs care. If I do this a number of times, I actually can feel a stream of warmth, for instance, going through my hands (they tend to be very cold in winter).
I then do it with people in my life. I bring the closest people in my life to mind and I ask myself the question, and how are they enriching my life? Maybe they’re enriching my life because they opened my mind to an aspect of life I wasn’t so aware of or to a way of looking at something that I myself was not looking at. How does their presence in my life enrich my life?
It’s also a nice thing to do later then maybe to express that gratitude to those in our life, especially the ones who are very close to us, we can take them for granted. It is not until something happened and we’re not together that we realized the role they played in our life. Why wait until something drastic happens? We can do it now.
It’s a little bit like the practice we have in Plum Village of watering flowers and where and we have a flower in the center and we take the flower towards us and then we express our gratitude or we water some positive characteristic of the other person that we appreciate? We don’t need to do it like, “OK, darling, I heard about something called flower watching from Plum Village, so please sit down, here’s a flower. I’m going to water your flowers.” They may get a little bit of a shock. Just say, “I’d just like to tell you how much I appreciate your presence in my life. I know I can turn to you when I need a hug, I know I can turn to you when I need a listening ear.” Or something like that. That is very connecting and gratitude connects.
So when we are in a group and everybody’s talking to everybody else and we just happen to be not part of any conversation, we have ourselves. If we already have this connection with ourselves, we’re not alone. We are with ourselves and at ease with ourselves. I think that’s very important, so we can be present. Situations usually change very quickly but can seem very long, if we think “nobody’s talking to me, why not? Why don’t they like me?” This kind of thinking makes it feel is ages before somebody turns to us but if we sit there quite happily, we are at ease. Also, it’s this energy of at easiness that we radiate and that will invite other people also to come towards us and engage, or we will feel at ease to go and join another conversation. We will see when a situation seems to be open and feel at ease to go and join them. In order to do that, we need to have this self-acceptance and self-love otherwise we think, “Oh no, they haven’t invited me, and I’m only going to interrupt them and I’ll probably get to one of those looks like, what are you coming to do here?” It’s all based on our own thinking and on this view we have of ourselves.
I think loneliness has a lot to do with how we view ourselves. If we practice and come to enjoy our own company, then we can be anywhere.