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Shining, Radiant Tenderness

photo by Charles Blackhall

photo by Charles Blackhall

On Loneliness and Society
by Dawa Lhatso, Gampo Abbey

I recently read a newspaper article entitled, Why Are We So Lonely? In it were statistics about the growing reports of loneliness and isolation within all age groups from surveys conducted in Canada and the U.S. It pointed to all kinds of causes, such as how our economic system promotes self-absorbed individuals to how our cities, towns, and institutions are structured, to the superficial connections created through social media networks.

After reading the article, I felt a certain longing for all our Shambhala centers to be places of refuge for those of us who are stuck in our frozen towers of loneliness. I definitely feel that the Shambhala teachings possess immense potential for melting these icy barriers we erect around our hearts, thereby isolating ourselves from others. So how do we travel from our lonely island to enlightened society? Your guess is as good as mine, and the path will be different for each of us. However, what follows are a few reflections I feel inspired to share.

First of all, I think it might be helpful to make a distinction between loneliness and aloneness, which I’ve often heard in our tradition. There are many beautiful poems and songs of realization by great masters which evoke sadness and aloneness, and it seems that in this sense, there is peace with the fact that we can’t get away from our own existence just the way it is. Aloneness, although it may contain sadness, is gentle, quiet, and calm. On the other hand, loneliness usually implies a sense of anxiety and pain, which is the kind the aforementioned article was talking about, and which I’d like to explore.

What is it about loneliness that makes us suffer? I don’t think it is the mere fact of being alone. We all know that this is the age of communications, and we have never been more connected at that level. So why all the reports of incapacitating loneliness and isolation? I think it boils down to a deep-seated belief that we are completely separate from everyone and everything: in other words, living in the “cocoon”. After all, didn’t the Buddha say that the root cause of all our suffering is the belief in a separate self?

photo by Charles Blackhall

photo by Charles Blackhall

The other day, someone was reading aloud from a book and came upon a sentence which said: “You are life itself.” I felt a strong reaction and heard myself in reply saying, “No! I’m not good enough – I don’t deserve that.” The more I practice and journey on this path, the more I realize there is this deeply-rooted, very subtle, yet oppressive sense of being bad, of continually doing everything wrong, of not being worthy. I am beginning to see, in spite of my hopes for a quick fix, how mostly unconscious this sense of inadequacy is, and how much of a tight clutch it has on my entire being, my entire world. It runs my life without my consent, and it makes me feel cutoff from others and from this world. Where does this feeling come from? Who decided that I was not good enough? How can I be free from this tight, anxious, fearful grasp on my being? I guess the usual instructions apply: lean in, feel the fear, go towards it. Gentleness is our greatest weapon. And I have to say that practices such as Shambhala meditation, the Shambhala Sadhana, and the Shambhala teachings in general, are nothing short of revolutionary, at least for me, in pointing the way to this freedom. (No, I was not paid to say that!)

Perhaps in part because of this sense of inadequacy, it seems that many of us feel like we cannot be ourselves in society. I have certainly felt like this my whole life. Because we feel that we wouldn’t be loved or accepted as we are, we put up a front, and we go along with other people’s fronts, and because of this exhausting pretense, society becomes something to put up with. Sadly, this seems to be the norm. Because we’ve gone along with this pretense for so long, we seem to have completely forgotten about basic goodness – something in us which is profoundly simple, free, natural. We have lost confidence in basic goodness. It is said that “goodness is the ground of all.” Having lost our trust in this ground, we experience anxiety, doubt, and fear.

I notice more and more how much fear there is, whether coarse or subtle, in almost everything I do, especially when it involves other people! When this fear goes unnoticed, I fall into habitual patterns, spinning further strands in the web of cocoon, isolating myself more. However, as I become more aware of the presence of fear and tightness in my being, I can take the opportunity to be brave, feel, and allow myself to relax and open. Then maybe I can connect in a genuine and meaningful way with another being. One incentive for this bravery is remembering how short and precious life is: when, exactly, will I allow this longing be real with others, if not now? Words from my favourite Neil Young song, You and Me, come to mind:

“Open up your eyes
See how a lifetime flies
Open up and let the light back in
Open up your heart
Let the lovin’ start
Open up and let the light back in”

A friend recently shared a quote by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, “Irritation is the vanguard of the Great Eastern Sun.” To be honest, I don’t really know what Great Eastern Sun means, but I think this quote means that when irritation comes up, it is a precious and powerful opportunity to allow ourselves to be blown open – a sign that something in us so innocent, so fresh, so warm, is longing to communicate with another. Irritation might want to put a lid on that radiant tenderness, but as warriors, we know that to allow this genuine, tender heart to shine through is the way to create good human society. This can be overwhelming, but we can allow ourselves to let it shine little by little. Perhaps in time we will have enough trust and bravery to let it shine all the time. Perhaps just like the Grinch, our small heart will grow three sizes in one day!

As I write this, it is snowing beautifully and abundantly at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. I’ve been struck lately at the many analogies the Sakyong has used in comparing basic goodness to the natural world. I often wish I were as natural as water, as simple as a tree, as open as a flower. Elements in nature exist – seemingly separate, yet undeniably connected – harmonious in life and death, order and chaos, simplicity and complexity. Of course, I am not a tree or a flower, I am a human being, making friends with both the pain and the beauty of that. Nonetheless, this longing to be like water, like a tree, like a flower, inspires me to feel and be my own genuineness – my humanness.

DawaIn the end, the answer to the title of the article “Why Are We So Lonely?” seems so obvious: we are simply afraid. However, since the path is not so obvious, let us encourage each other with kindness, patience, and understanding on our mutual journey from our hard, icy loneliness to genuine human connection. I, for one, know that I am a tough potato, and I ask my fellow warriors to not give up on me on my journey of tenderizing. All I want is to be part of this delicious human soup, and I am learning how to be brave and let go little by little. I really do believe we can create an enlightened soupiety. I mean society. Aren’t we so hungry for it? Isn’t it time? We’ve got the inspiration and the ingredients – let’s jump in the pot together!

~~
Dawa Lhatso is a nun in the Shambhala Monastic Order living at Gampo Abbey. She serves as the kitchen manager and representative for the Shambhala Office of Culture and Decorum. She is currently enjoying the arrival of winter, and she enjoys making soup for her fellow brothers and sisters at the Abbey.

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7 responses to “ Shining, Radiant Tenderness ”
  1. Cheers to ‘Enlightened Soupiety’. And thank you for such heart-felt and beautiful writing.

  2. Jan 6.2014
    Jan 6, 2014
    Reply

    I read the same article… and pondered it briefly /in amazement. I am delighted at your in-depth response to it. I wish you would submit it to The Globe and Mail… so your profound reflections can be of benefit to many people (ncluding the author of the original piece!)

  3. susan allen
    Jan 6, 2014
    Reply

    Thanks for this, Dawa.

  4. Kelly Phillips
    Jan 6, 2014
    Reply

    Poingent, beautiful and definitely true.

  5. this is a simple and clear expression of humaness in all its loneliness!
    what delightful prose!

  6. Lovely article! Thank you for sharing your heart and practice with us.

  7. A wonderful reminder for me this time of year. Thank you.


Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.



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