In the past, I have described myself here as a "lay monk" without bothering to define my understanding of the term. So to give it a go, I can say that I live alone, no spouse and no children, and try to commit myself to living in accordance with the Buddha-way. That's the "monk" part. But I also hold a job, am engaged in community issues, and allow myself the occasional popular entertainment (e.g., sports, movies, television). That's the "layman" part. But sometimes it feels that rather than enjoying the benefits of both worlds, I'm actually just a not-very-devout monk or merely a socially unsuccessful layman.
Setting aside the first part of that possibility, let's consider for now the second. Long-time readers of this blog may have noticed an absence of posts that begin, say, "I got together with a bunch of my friends last night," or "so-and-so came over today," or even just references to "my friend X." Yes, I interact with members of the sangha, my neo-con co-workers, and my neighbors, but none of them are truly friends - there is no one among them whom I would call or see on an evening just to enjoy their company, and I have no idea who I would call in the case of an emergency (other than 911).
But that's part of the price one pays for wanting to be a monk, a recluse, one in the world but not of the world. For the most part, I do not feel lonely even when I am at home alone; however, loneliness sometimes arises when I am out in public or on certain holidays where sociability is the expected norm. But again, that is part of the price I've accepted to live in the way that I do.
However, according to an article in the current Newsweek, social isolation in adults has been linked to a number of physical and mental ailments, including sleep disorders, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of depression and suicide. Studies have shown that loneliness can cause stress levels to rise and can weaken the immune system. Lonely people also tend to have less healthy lifestyles, drink more alcohol, eat more fattening food, and exercise less than those who are not lonely.
And it seems that I am not alone in my isolation. The article claims that Americans today are lonelier than ever. Between 1985 and 2004, the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled. More Americans than ever are living alone, 25 percent of U.S. households, up from 7 percent in 1940.
The connection, however, between single living and loneliness is in fact quite weak. Some of the most profound loneliness can happen when other people are present. This is the reason we isolated individuals feel most acutely alone on holidays like Christmas Eve or Thanksgiving when most people are surrounded by family and friends. Loneliness can also be relative: it has been defined as an aversive emotional response to a perceived discrepancy between a person's desired levels of social interaction and the contact they're actually receiving. People tend to measure themselves against others, feeling particularly alone in communities where social connection is the norm.
As an example, college freshmen may feel incredibly isolated during the first quarter of the school year when their friends and family members are far away. By the second quarter, however, most freshmen have found social replacements for their high-school friends. Unfortunately, as we age, it becomes more difficult to recreate those social relationships. And that can be a big problem as America becomes a more transient society, with an increasing number of people who say that they're willing to move away from home for a job. Having moved myself from Boston to Atlanta to Albany, NY and back to Atlanta again, with a one-year stopover in Pittsburgh, I can attest to how much more difficult it has been to recreate those social relationships with each successive move.
As a young man, I would have never guessed that I would have wound up as a 55-year-old bachelor with no children, but that's the way it went. But rather than feel sorry for myself or lapse into depression, instead I have come to accept the hand that fate and my karma have dealt me and have considered how to play it as well as I can. Okay, if I'm to be alone, I may as well accept it and embrace my isolation, and use it to deepen my practice.
The Buddha insisted that to follow the Way one had to leave home and the family. Over most of history, Buddhism has been practiced in monasteries, or by hermits and recluses for whom the sociability of the monastery proved to be too much. But here in the West, Buddhism has increasingly become a lay practice, although not without exception.
I have left home long, long ago and am trying to live a Middle Way between monastic isolation and worldly entanglement. And the fact that I may not have any choice about it merely serves to deepen my resolve.
With an increasing number of Americans now living alone and the problems associated with social isolation becoming apparent, it is my hope that I may be part of a vanguard showing how Zen can help us not merely to survive but to thrive in this new situation.