Alone in Chicago

On Thursday evening I made my way to an event called The Anatomy of Connection at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. The focus of the discussion was on the lack of connection and the epidemic that is loneliness as we become ever more connected via the devices in our hands (or pockets or purses or on the table… whatever – stop nitpicking).

Loneliness has been linked to higher rates of mortality than air pollution, drinking, and obesity. In one of the longest longitudinal studies of health and wellness, loneliness at age 50 had a higher predictive power of death than high cholesterol. It can suppress our immune systems, lead to depression and anxiety, and in severe cases, suicide. It’s such a problem that the United Kingdom appointed a Minister of Loneliness.

Here in Chicago, a researcher had morning commuters do one of three things: engage the people around them in conversation, specifically avoid conversation with the people around them, and just go about their business as they would normally. At the beginning of the study, everybody who was tasked with talking to people thought, “Ugh, I’m gonna hate this!” By the end, those folks reported the highest amounts of happiness as compared to their counterparts.

The problem is that we all assume nobody wants to talk to us, so we don’t engage. We isolate ourselves in order to self preserve, then our empathy decreases as our defensiveness increases, and we start interpreting ambiguous social cues as negative. Moreover, it can be contagious as we all collectively avoid each other out of fear that we’ll get a weird look for saying hello or asking how someone’s doing today.

I know I’m guilty of this. I am a commuter in Chicago, and I certainly wouldn’t say I go out of my way to strike up conversations with people. I wouldn’t even say I go in my way to converse, given that folks are often pressed right up against me on crowded buses or trains. So, then what? Are we all just doomed to a life of self-perpetuating loneliness? Not if we put in the fucking effort!

M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and author of A Road Less Traveled, said that “mental health is dedication to reality at all costs.” The therapist giving the presentation noted that we have to practice what he called, “radical acceptance.” We don’t have to approve of our state of loneliness, but we have to accept that things just aren’t right in order to go about fixing any of them.

I lost my phone a couple weeks ago, and I just haven’t replaced it. There are financial reasons involved, sure, but honestly I just don’t want a phone. I find my quality of life to be higher right now. Sure, there are parts of my day where I wish I could call an Uber or text a friend right when a thought comes up, but do you know what I do? I write that shit down, I take that note home via public transit, and I reach out when I get there.

As a result of my phonelessness, I’m more connected to the situations I’m in. I’m not constantly wondering how many Instagram followers I’ve gained in the last ten minutes since my post, I’m not wondering about any event updates for that thing coming up this weekend, I’m not fretting over an unexpected phone call (most of which I just let go to voicemail even when I do have the phone). It’s relaxing. As evidence of how fucked up I was as a result of having my phone in my pocket all the time, I occasionally think I feel my notepad buzzing in my pocket. Guess what? It is not.

On Thursday night, I walked away by myself, but in my heart, I knew that I wasn’t alone in my loneliness. I think more of us are lonely than we’re willing to acknowledge (or accept to stick with the vernacular). So do me a favor, if you see me on a train or on a bus or in an airport, say hi (and buy me a drink if we’re at the airport, as I’m likely at the bar). Talk to me about your day, and I’ll talk to you about mine. Wake me up from the dream state proliferated by the screen in front of my face or by the endless stream of what-if’s I’ve got running in my head. We can do this. Together.

We’re all gonna die someday, but if we chat about it with a little more frequency, we lower our chances that that day is tomorrow. Sláinte!

Sitting and Breathing: Day 23

I skipped over Lovingkindness Meditation for Caregivers because, well, I’m not one. So today’s practice was a Meditation On Seeing The Good, which I honestly feel like I do much of the time already, but I felt like it couldn’t hurt to have some dedicated time for it in my day. As evidence of my regular use of this tactic, I was able to come up with multiple examples for each of the types of person I was to focus on (I’m not sure if that’s what I was supposed to do, but it’s what I did).

First up was me, and some of the good things I did for others yesterday. I didn’t really go anywhere or do anything outside of my home yesterday, so I mainly focused on things like taking the trash out, cleaning my apartment, taking my dog on a longer walk than usual, and doing this whole meditation and writing thing.

Next up was a benefactor. The obvious candidate was my mother, who regularly helps me both as a financial safety net and confidant when I’m angry or sad or happy about something. My focus flitted around to some of my other family members – suffice it to say, I get a lot of help from my family, so it was easy for me to come up with some names on the quickness.

Next on my Lovingkindness To-Do List was a good friend. Three names came to mind almost simultaneously (well five, but I focused on three): Greg, Bryan, and Monica. All of them took time out of their busy schedules to help me edit, revise, and rewrite a recent short story I submitted for a contest, and provide meaningful and insightful feedback. I think that’s why they all came to mind at once, but there are a litany of other ways they’ve been wonderful people to me, and I was happy to spend time today sending some positive energy in their direction. Between this bit and the benefactor bit, I was feeling a lot of gratitude today.

“Someone you know who’s having a difficult time” and “someone you have a bit of difficulty with” were the same person for me today: my aunt. She’s had a lifelong struggle with addiction (the alcohol and heroin kinds, mainly), and as a result, I’d say she isn’t the easiest person to deal with. It’s hard to know when she’ll be where and if what she’s saying is true or not. But! My grandmother recently passed away, and while I haven’t checked in with her personally, I can’t imagine she’s having the easiest time in dealing with that.

I’m not going to pat myself on the back for sending her lovingkindness today because I think I’ll need a few more sessions with her as the direct object of my meditation before I’m ready to cross that bridge and reach out to her. I can, however, now see that that is a bridge I must cross sooner than later because who knows how much longer it’s going to be there?

Aaaaand then my focus was back on me and a difficulty I had in my day. Specifically, I got mad at my dog on our walk yesterday which resulted in some leash jerking. I’m not proud of it, but I also don’t know how to deal with his unmitigated energy expulsion when he sees a squirrel or another dog or a human in winter clothes or some shit blowing in the wind. I spend some time focusing on how that was only a moment in time, and it has passed, and I love my dog and I always will (the adorable bastard).

Finally, I sent some lovingkindess to everybody like this, All beings want to be happy, may all beings be happy. I inhaled deeply on the first part, taking in the weight of the desire of all beings to be happy, then exhaled on the second part, pushing my positive energy out with the breath.

I finished early and my mind did some wandering. I got mad with myself for not being able to stay with the breath right when my alarm went off. I couldn’t help but laugh, because there I was, sitting in a meditative pose, huffing and puffing, pissed about not being able to focus on the good for just 20 minutes, RIGHT when the soft bird chirping and water noises that I have for my alarm started in. That’s just funny.

Week 4 involves practicing 6 out of 7 days, so we’ll be back for more tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 17

Prime numbers, amiright?! Today’s meditation was the flip of day 15, in that I was to call up positive emotions instead of negative ones, then focus on the sensations that those feelings begat.

Pretty much the moment I hit center and was able to focus on my breathing, my dog popped into my mind. My mind conjured an image of him hugging me, and of him holding his head against mine while I pet him. I felt my love for him and his for me in that moment. Warmth radiated out from my center and I felt my face contort in that kind of weird smile people do when they’re overwhelmed by happiness (it bares some similarities to sadness in that everything pulls back and you get teary-eyed).

Then I mentally meandered for a while, trying to imagine this thing or that thing to illicit the positive emotions I was shooting for. My mind flitted through the various women I’m currently interested in, and I imagined being with them, around them, near them, etc, but honestly most of the things I imagined were just daydreams, and not actual events from my past, so I feel like those didn’t count.

I tried thinking of different words for happiness. My usual self-speak kicked in, and I was reminded of my many failures recently and farther in the past. Finally I remembered that I made a bar for myself! I felt awash with accomplishment. It had a similar radiating warmth, and I felt myself sit up straighter, and a smile pulled itself onto my face.

I refocused on my breathing, and found myself putting a lot of mental attention on my alarm and when it would be going off. When I tried pinpointing the reason for my shift in attention, I realized I was anxious about it going off. I was worried that if it went off right then (or in the immediate future), I wouldn’t have really done today’s session right. I wouldn’t have maximized my Good Feels Meditation Day because I how could I? My life is largely in shambles and so on and so forth.

I caught myself before getting too far down that rabbit hole, then took a moment to be happy about that. It wasn’t elation, necessarily, but should elation be the standard for positive emotions? I don’t think so. I think that there’s a whole range of small pleasures worth paying attention to, and if you’re looking for them, you’ll find plenty peppered throughout your day. If I’m looking, they tend to be there.

Back to breathing. And this fuckin’ itch that wouldn’t go away on the left side of my face! I caved and scratched it, which was serendipitous in that it reminded me I just got a tattoo I’ve wanted for almost a decade! I felt giddy! Again, radiating warmth, but also the smile that pulled itself onto my face was tighter than the other ones. My shoulders hunched up and my hands clenched, and I rode the feeling back to my breath.

My alarm went off, and I was largely pleased with the way today’s practice went. I veered off course a few times, but I was able to bring myself back, which is the whole point. After my meditation, I was reminded of a number of other reasons why my life isn’t so bad right now. I’m doing a lot of things that I absolutely love, and I’m doing them with a passion I haven’t had in a while. This blog is a fine example of that, as are the subjects of my happy thoughts for today.

Pleasantness in its many forms sits around us all day just waiting to be noticed – we just have to be looking. I’m gonna look harder.