Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

How to Ease the Pain of Isolation During the Holidays

Three simple practices can help you feel less alone during the holidays.

It's that time of year. The media is filled with stories about people traveling to be with loved ones. Holiday decorations are going up and yummy recipes abound. But the holidays can be a difficult time of year. Many people face isolation, either because they're unable to be with others at all due to health or financial limitations (which often go hand in hand), or because they're participation in those gatherings is severely limited by health difficulties. I fall into each category, depending on the holiday in question.

For those with health problems, sometimes attending holiday gatherings is harder than skipping them. Here's how it usually goes for me. Initially, I'm so happy to see everyone. But soon, unless I've talked to people ahead of time, I have to start managing their expectations about what I'll be able to do. This is stressful and exhausting. (I wrote about managing others' expectations in Head-Off Holiday Stress by Educating Loved Ones About Your Health Limitations.)

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To make matters worse, I always start the festivities with a burst of energetic socializing, convinced—despite over ten years of illness—that I'll be just fine throughout the whole gathering. But it never happens. (I think that burst of socializing is a reaction to the fact that I spend so much time alone.) As I talk about in my book, How to Be Sick, one of the bitterest pills for me to swallow when I became chronically ill was that suddenly the very activities that brought me the greatest joy were also the activities that exacerbated my symptoms. Prolonged socializing is one of those activities.

The hardest challenge for me is coping with the isolation I feel when I leave the gathering and retire to the bedroom. It's the hardest because, invariably, it comes right at the time that the socializing has become easygoing and mellow. It's not unusual for conversation to be polite and stilted when people first gather. But once they "break bread" together, they become relaxed and congenial. It's a stretch for me to sit through dinner, so as soon as it's finished, I have to muster the self-discipline to excuse myself. I retire to the sounds of warm conversation, spiced with peals of laughter.

It's the very time I want to be with everyone.

When I get to the bedroom, I think, "If only the party had started right at this moment so I could be a part of it." I still sometimes cry as I hear the sounds coming from the front of the house. But the tears are short-lived because I have some tools to help alleviate the pain of being isolated from others. These tools can be used by those of you who can attend part of a gathering (that's me at Thanksgiving) and by those of you who are unable to be with others at all (that's me during the Christmas season because in order for me to be with my family, I'd have to be able to travel).

Self-Compassion. 

As I settle onto my bed, I don’t try to deny that I’m sad. Pretending that I don’t feel sad or frustrated or any other painful emotion just strengthens it. So, the first thing I do is to gently acknowledge how I’m feeling. Then I speak to myself compassionately about those painful emotions.

If you’d like to try this, I suggest you pick phrases that fit your particular circumstance and repeat them silently or softly to yourself: “It’s so hard to leave the gathering just when the conversation is getting good”; “I’m sad to be alone in the bedroom.” Repeat your phrases, maybe stroking one arm with the hand of the other. Stroking my arm or my cheek with my hand never fails to ease my emotional pain.

If speaking to yourself in this way brings tears to your eyes, that’s okay. They’re tears of compassion. To quote Lord Byron, “The dew of compassion is a tear.”

Feeling Joy for Others. Sometimes I practice what's known in Buddhism as mudita. It means cultivating joy for others who are happy. I think about the good time everyone is having and try to feel joy for them. If I feel envy instead, I keep practicing. I imagine their smiling faces and the sound of their laughter. After a time, I can't help but feel happy for them, even if I'm still sad. And sometimes, I even start to feel joy myself, as if everyone is having a good time for me.

Tonglen. My most reliable practice for easing emotional pain during the holidays is tonglenTonglen is a compassion practice from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It’s counter-intuitive, which is why Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says that tonglen reverses ego’s logic. Here’s why it’s counterintuitive. We’re usually told to breathe in peaceful and healing thoughts and images, and to breathe out our pain and suffering. In tonglen practice, however, we do just the opposite. On the in-breath, we breathe in the suffering of others. Then, on the out-breath, we breathe out whatever measure of kindness, compassion, and peace of mind we have to offer them, even if it’s just a little bit.

Here’s how I use tonglen when I’m overcome with the pain of isolation at holiday time. I breathe in the sadness and pain of all those who are unable to be with family and close friends. Then I breathe out whatever kindness, compassion, and peace of mind I have to give them. As I do this, I’m aware that I’m breathing in my own sadness and pain, and that when I breathe out kindness, compassion, and peace of mind for them, I’m also sending those sentiments to myself. I like to call tonglen a two-for-one compassion practice—we’re not only cultivating kindness, compassion, and peace for others who are alone, we’re cultivating them for ourselves.

When I practice tonglen, I feel less alone because I experience a deep connection to others who, like me, can’t fully participate in holiday festivities. Sometimes my eyes fill with tears as I breathe in other people’s pain and sadness surrounding the holidays, but I know these tears are “the dew of compassion”—for both them and for me.

If you find it difficult to breathe in other people’s suffering, then modify the practice. Rather than taking in their suffering on the in-breath, just breathe normally and call to mind others who share your circumstances. Then, in whatever way feels natural to you, send them thoughts of kindness, compassion, and peace. You need not breathe in others’ suffering in order to feel connected to them or in order to enfold both them and yourself in your heartfelt wish to ease the suffering of being isolated during the holidays.

© 2011 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

In my two books, I write in more detail about the practices in this article. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. You can also subscribe to my blog (see the choices below my picture). I’m active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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