On Loneliness and Interdependence

The following excerpt is a short writing on loneliness by H.H. the 17th Karmapa, the current head of the Karma Kagyü lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.

This writing hit home for me in so many different ways, as it takes a lot of courage to speak one's truth despite the social and political consequences. It is also very rare for the head of a Tibetan Buddhist lineage to be so publicly vulnerable.

I have personally struggled with long periods of loneliness and self-imposed social isolation. The strong emphasis on self-reliance in the modern West is a slippery unexamined belief that causes a lot of harm. Personally, I feel like I am just beginning to understand the damage this has done to me, and the healing work it really takes to be fully human again.

We all need each other desperately, and to pretend that we don't only further waters the seeds of suffering. As H.H. points out, there is more to blame than just social media. Hyper-individualism is a long held social structure in the West. It's emphasis forms the very basis of our fundamental values. When we examine this carefully we see that not only is such an emphasis unnecessary, but it is harmful. If we want to be happy, and we want to raise healthy and happy children, we must shift our value structures and reclaim our interdependence.

His Loneliness - Social Media and the Projected Identity 

By H.H. 17th Karmapa

I know what loneliness feels like. Many people use the title His Holiness to refer to me, but I sometimes joke that His Loneliness would be more accurate. In my own case, although I do not connect to people online, I do have lots of people surrounding me all day long, supporting me in different ways, as well as other people coming to see me. It would seem I should never be lonely. However, I am seen as the reincarnation of a 900-year-old historical figure. In traditional Buddhist terms, the Karmapa is a lofty figure, on a par with the Buddha. People who view me in this way expect me to be a mind reader, a miracle worker, and perfect in every way. When they look at me, this is quite often what many people believe they are seeing. Forget about being on a pedestal, I am practically expected to float in the sky!

For so holy and exalted a personage, it is a little complicated to go about finding friends. Who wants to be friends with someone who is considered to be not entirely human? In terms of social media like Facebook, I am a public figure. This means I can have only a following and likes, but I cannot have friends. In any case, someone else maintains my presence on social media. If I wanted to connect with my friends on social media, I would need to use a pseudonym, which would be unethical for me. In any case, posing as someone else defeats the whole purpose of a real friendship.I know that my life situation is unusual, to say the least, but we all have to deal with unrealistic expectations that others project onto us. Such projections can leave us feeling isolated and prevent us from being seen for who we really are.

Sometimes consciously but often not, we ourselves actively project an illusory online self onto social media and other virtual platforms. It is more typical for people to post pictures or stories of themselves when they are happy than when they are feeling distressed. The virtual world does not generally encourage us to share our vulnerable side. Since everything we post is judged by the number of likes and retweets or shares, we are selective in what we expose of ourselves. Even when we post about our problems, we might do so in a way that leaves us free of apparent responsibility for those problems, so we can appear as victims and elicit sympathy. We learn to market ourselves. As a result, the electronic version of ourselves is a distorted and packaged self. This is another significant obstacle to authentically connecting with others through electronic media.

Loneliness is not solely a product of our use of technology. There are many other conditions, inner and outer, that contribute to our feeling that way. With such heavy emphasis on being self-reliant and standing on our own two feet, people resist leaning on others and can end up feeling very lonely. The fact is, we all rely on others in different ways. Why should we deny it? We place so much value on individuality and independence, it seems as if wanting to be close and feel connected to others is embarrassing or an insult to one’s dignity.

One difference I have observed between Tibetan and Western contexts is that people raised in Western cultures tend to be less comfortable acknowledging that they need help. If an elderly Tibetan is having a hard time standing up, he or she warmly appreciates being lent a hand to get up. In fact, not to do so might be considered impolite or selfish. In the West, if you reach out to help, you run the risk of embarrassing or insulting the elderly person, as if you were implying that they are incapable of getting up on their own.

When people are urged to see themselves as autonomous and independent, loneliness is more common. Learning to live as an interdependent human being can help overcome your sense of loneliness. When you are emotionally aware of your interconnectedness, you will know you are never truly alone.

Loneliness is not just a result of your outer physical or social situation. If mentally or emotionally you feel alone, it does not matter how many thousands of others flock to you, as I know from personal experience. Nor is the experience of loneliness the result of a single cause or a single condition but of numerous ones. Therefore it cannot be completely resolved by one single cause or condition. But accepting the undeniable fact of your own interdependence, and learning to work with it, is a powerful condition that can help bring about a shift.