Mindfulness in the age of disconnection

The West is experiencing an epidemic of isolation, disconnection, and loneliness.

In 2004, when Americans were asked how many confidants they had that they could turn to for help or to share a joy, the most common answer was ‘None’.

In 2016, the census found that nearly one in four Australian residents was living alone.

Last year, the Australian Institute of Health published that one in ten Australians aged 15 or over reported lacking social support, and one in four said they were currently experiencing an episode of loneliness.

This year, with the arrival of COVID, the issue of disconnection and isolation has taken on a whole new dimension. Borders are closed. People all over the world are locked into their little cells in self-isolation or quarantine; thousands are dying cut off and alone; and meetings are often not humans coming together and sharing a space but a number of faces appearing on a screen, each inescapably confined to its own little rectangle.

How symbolic of contemporary life in the West. Of all the creatures in the world, nobody resembles us more than other humans, but our fundamental connectedness is easy to forget in a world of international competition, where, burdened by a ‘self as portfolio’, we seem to be set against each other and strive to develop that competitive edge that sets us apart from the rest. Many families today are spread over continents. Working ever longer hours, we have less and less time to be with our partners, children, relatives and friends; and moving restlessly from home to home, and from one job to another, we no longer connect with neighbours and colleagues the way people used to do.

But we are not just cut off from each other. As Johann Hari describes in Lost Connections, there are many ways in which modern life in the West has been isolating and disconnecting us since long before the arrival of the virus, and it’s leaving us anxious and depressed in ever increasing numbers. According to Beyond Blue, one in six Australians is currently experiencing depression or anxiety or both, and WHO declared depression to be a leading cause of disability worldwide and a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.

Worldwide, people are turning to mindfulness for help. But how can closing the door of our little cells to sit down on our meditation cushion and turn our attention inward possibly address the problem of disconnection? If so many causes of psychological suffering today are systemic, isn’t any attempt at healing that centres on the individual not just doomed but making matters worse by keeping us focused on our inner and private world? Does the mindfulness industry just help people to cope with a sick situation, when what we really need to do is to get up and change that situation through social and political action in the external world?

And what has mindfulness, i.e. the awareness that arises when we pay attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally (Kabat-Zinn) to do with connection anyway?

A lot actually.

First of all, paying mindful attention is an act of connecting. In fact, it is the very basis of connection.

Often, when we feel lonely and disconnected, it seems as if we are trapped in isolation and have to wait for others to come and release us from our prison by connecting with us. But this is not how connection works. Rather than something we’re either deprived of or lucky enough to receive, connection is something we do. Surrounded by family, colleagues, or friends, we will still feel excruciatingly lonely and cut off, until we actively and genuinely make contact with others. If we are hiding inside instead, perhaps because we feel we wouldn’t truly be welcome, we’ll be stuck in our solitary confinement, even if someone makes friendly contact with us. Their invitation to connect won’t lead to a real sense of connection unless we start doing something for this connection ourselves. And whatever form this act of connecting may take, it will be based on attention – to the other person, ourselves, and what is happening between us in the moment.

The word attention is based on the word attend, which originally meant to ‘apply one’s mind or energies to’. It is derived from the Latin attendere, a word made up of ad ‘to’ and tendere ‘stretch’. Paying attention to what is happening right now, we’re stretching our minds and energies out to meet whatever is here in this moment. In other words, we connect.

And if we are serious about practising mindfulness, we’re going to do this not just on our meditation cushion but throughout the day.

Mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh points out that if we ‘look deeply’, we will see the cloud in our cup of tea – the cloud that brought the rain which nourished the tea plant. And if we keep looking in that way, we may see the people who planted and harvested the tea, and how they live. We may notice how we treat ourselves and others; what, how, and why we eat and consume. And as we pay more attention to our experience, the world, and how we relate to and act in it, we will develop greater awareness of how the things we do affect our body and mind, the natural world, and other people, and how we in turn were and are affected by the world. We will come to see the dense and complex web of interconnections that our life is embedded in. We will notice the many ways in which we are connected, even when we’re feeling isolated and alone. And seeing connections we haven’t been aware of before may inspire and allow us to participate in our life and world in new and more engaged ways.

For example, if we pay attention to the present moment, we may, instead of getting lost in worries or daydreams and doing our shopping in sleepwalk mode, actually see the sales assistant who serves us at the checkout register and notice that she is tired. As a result, our thank you and smile may be more genuine; perhaps we may even want to say something like ‘Wow, quite busy today!’ to make her feel seen. As a result, a moment that would’ve just been two people on autopilot looking past each other may turn into a moment of connection.

Thus, the practice of mindful attention, by allowing us to become aware of our lives as part of the bigger picture, may make us want to participate in life more consciously and more in line with our values.

And just as paying attention in the moment and nonjudgementally allows us to see and create connections between us and the external world that might’ve gone unnoticed and not recognised as opportunities otherwise, mindfulness practice also means connecting with ourselves.

By paying mindful attention, we connect with our bodies, for example. Practising the body scan and movement meditations, many people who attend a course such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) discover a whole new way of relating to their physical selves that transcends the constant judgement and demands which characterise the relationship to the body for so many of us.

But of course the body is not the only aspect of ourselves that we tend to disconnect from. We may routinely avoid difficult emotions by bingeing on Netflix, ice cream, work, sex, drugs, drink, or shopping. However, mindfulness practice means paying attention to these avoidance behaviours as well, to the fear that drives it, and to the feelings and thoughts we’re running from. That way we’re reconnecting with cut off parts of ourselves. Anger, shame, anxiety are then no longer all that is but something that arises, changes, and dissolves within a bigger whole.

And as we hold our feelings of loneliness in our awareness, knowing that we share this with our fellow humans across the world, this loneliness is not so cut off and lonely anymore.

© Gesa Brennan 2020