How to ease the pain of isolation 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 and yummy recipes abound. But for many people, the holidays are a difficult time of year. This piece is for those of you who face isolation during the holidays, either because you’re unable to be with others at all due to health or financial limitations (which often go hand in hand), or because your participation in those gatherings is severely limited by your 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. See if this sounds familiar. 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 recently wrote about managing others’ expectations.)

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.)

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 sadness 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 Hanukkah and at Christmastime because, in order to be with family, I’d have to be able to travel).

Compassion. Sometimes, I speak to myself compassionately about my sadness. I recommend that you pick phrases that fit your particular circumstance and repeat them silently or softly to yourself: “It’s so hard to leave the Thanksgiving gathering just when the conversation gets good”; “It hurts to be alone on Christmas.” 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.

Mudita. Sometimes I practice mudita—cultivating joy in the joy of others. 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. When all else fails, my “go to” practice for alleviating the sadness and pain of isolation during the holidays is tonglen. Tonglen is a compassion practice from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It’s counter-intuitive, which is why the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says that tonglen reverses ego’s logic. 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—we breathe in the suffering of others and breathe out whatever measure of kindness, serenity, and compassion we have to offer them.

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 others. Then I breathe out whatever kindness, serenity, and compassion 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, serenity, and compassion for them, I’m also sending those sublime emotions to myself. I like to call tonglen a two-for-one compassion practice—I’m not only cultivating kindness, serenity, and compassion for others who are alone, I’m cultivating them for myself.

When I practice tonglen, I feel a deep connection to others who share my circumstances and that eases the pain of isolation. Sometimes my eyes fill with tears as I breathe in other people’s pain and sadness surrounding the holidays, but they’re tears of compassion for them and for me. And I know those tears are good for me because, after practicing tonglen for a while, I no longer feel alone.

Toni Bernhard was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. She is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their CaregiversHer forthcoming book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. She can be found online at her self-titled site, Toni Bernhard.

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