It is amazing to me how different the states of solitary peace and loneliness are. The gift of mindfulness is the ability to bring compassionate awareness to them both.
While moments of transcendent peace can show us our belonging with all that is, a study found that mindful wisdom can combat the common human experience of loneliness with all its devastating effects.
We face a global epidemic of loneliness. In a 2017 article in The Atlantic, loneliness expert John Cacioppo was reported to say, “When you look across studies, you get levels anywhere from 25 to 48%.” Loneliness is gaining attention in the media as research demonstrates its serious adverse health effects which have been found to be as bad as smoking.
But just as we do not intuitively grasp the health threat from loneliness, we tend to have no idea how much we have to give and receive by tapping into and drawing upon our fundamental interconnection.
Traditional farmers needed close social coordination to raise animals and grow crops. Large families meant more helping hands. Elders taught grandchildren important skills and wisdom while their parents were engaged in the demanding physical labor necessary for survival.
Now the majority of humans live in urban settings. Packages magically arrive at door steps. Many of us spend long hours working at computers. Family members can, and often do live far apart from each other.
The incredible popularity of social media demonstrates how much we long for connection. But a recent study found that negative comments on social media can lead to felt social isolation. But with no negative comments, social media did not increase participants’ sense of being connected with others.
Fortunately, we are not powerless in the face of the rising tide of loneliness. Caring interaction provides our species with vitality, resilience, joy, creativity and hope. Our brains provide neural rewards for generosity. Supporting others provides significant health benefits not only for the person receiving the support but the person giving it.
The Arlington, MA Council on Aging (COA) offers many opportunities for social connection. During my internship there while working on a Masters in Mindfulness Studies at Lesley University, I realized many elders are naturals at mindful connection. With time more precious, perfection and things matter less. What does matter is time spent together. They understand that deep listening and honesty support the kind of heartfelt aware connection that amplifies wellbeing.
As I learned, many of the 200(!) or so Arlington COA volunteers are elders themselves. When asked what they were most grateful for, a number of volunteers told me it was the opportunity to support others. I found that quite moving. That understanding is both rare and badly needed. It should not take a natural disaster or realizing there are few years left for us to understand we have the tools to honor each other’s dignity in ways that are mutually supporting.
My experience offering mindful tea and dialogue workshops to elders confirmed my sense that they might be well positioned to create and promote opportunities for the caring connection that is so badly needed in these increasingly lonely times. During these tea and dialogue sessions, I observed: (1) caring support, (2) appreciation that deep listening powerfully benefits both the speaker and the listener, (3) growing trust and openness, (4) delight in sharing natural objects and stories (5) playful and joyous creativity, and not least (5) satisfaction from being able to support each other in ways that truly matter.