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 Reduce Holiday Stress by Educating Others About Your Health.)
When I leave the gathering to go lie down in my bedroom, it's difficult to cope with the isolation. It's already been a stretch for me to sit through dinner, so as soon as it's finished, I know I'm going to have to excuse myself. I retire to the sounds of warm conversation, spiced with peals of laughter. It's hard.
At first, I'm overcome with sadness as I listen to the sounds of socializing coming from the front of the house. But over the years, I’ve developed some practices to help alleviate the pain of being isolated from others. Here are three of them.
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).
As I settle onto my bed, I don’t try to deny that I’m sad. In other words, 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 hurts to leave a gathering before it's over”; “I’m sad to be alone in the bedroom.” 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.”
Sometimes I work on 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.
My most reliable practice for easing emotional pain during the holidays is tonglen. Tonglen 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.
Note: In my three books, I write in more detail about the practices in this article.
© 2011 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of three books:
How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (2015). The theme of this article is expanded on in this book.
All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes.
Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information and buying options.
You might also find this helpful: "Surviving the Holidays when You're Chronically Ill."