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The Loneliness Epidemic: A Buddhist Perspective

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A recent study by the global health care provider Cigna revealed that most adults over the age of 18 consider themselves to be lonely and that Generation Z (people born from the mid-1990s to early-2000s) is the loneliest of all. They found that a lack of meaningful human connections resulted in negative health outcomes that were equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

SGI-USA Youth Leader Olivia Saito spoke with Amelia Gonzalez, Ryan Hayashi and Lillian I to discuss the loneliness epidemic and the solutions they’ve discovered in working with young people and through their Buddhist practice.

Olivia Saito: Thank you, Amelia, Ryan and Lillian, for speaking with me today. In what capacity do you work with youth?

Amelia Gonzalez: Thank you for the opportunity! I live in New York City, and I serve as the SGI-USA student division young women’s leader, supporting college and university students across the country. I also recently graduated from college myself.

Ryan Hayashi: I’m a high school math teacher in Mesa, Arizona. I’m also the SGI-USA future division young men’s leader, supporting our junior high and high school members.

Lillian I: I’m the program manager at the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue in Boston. I’m responsible for organizing our “Dialogue Nights” event, which is a bimonthly forum that brings together young professionals and college students in Boston to engage in dialogue on topics that they are concerned about. We focus on sharing the philosophy of Daisaku Ikeda with the youth community of Boston.

Tell me about your experiences dealing with what has recently been described as the loneliness epidemic.

Lillian: Boston is a big city with more than 30 universities in the greater metropolitan area. Through our “Dialogue Nights,” I’ve learned that young people are seeking a genuine connection with others and a space where they can be themselves. Based on popular demand, we recently held an event on the topic of loneliness. It turned out to be one of our most well-attended events, which shows how salient this topic is for youth.

One young woman shared how she chose to isolate herself, because it was the safest way for her to ensure that she doesn’t get hurt. While this outlook perpetuates the cycle of loneliness, many young people don’t have the tools to rise above their circumstances.

Amelia: I can totally relate to feeling alone while being surrounded by people and falling into the trap of trying to protect myself by not engaging with others. But I’ve learned through my Buddhist practice that, when I do that, I’m just cutting myself off from the opportunity to develop my humanity. It’s only because of my Buddhist practice and community that I willingly engage with people.

Ryan: I work in a high school that has approximately 2,000 students. When I walk around the campus, most students are looking at their phones or listening to music. Recently, I had to ask a student to take his headphones off in class. He responded by saying that he wanted to tune others out.

The students I teach now are so tuned out of their lives and so tuned in to social media that it negatively impacts their ability to engage with others in a meaningful way. I think that’s the tendency of this generation—to disengage, tune out, avoid and isolate. I can’t imagine living in a high-stress society without my Buddhist practice. My only option might be to tune out, so as not to feel anything.

What do you think are the root causes of the loneliness epidemic?

Lillian: I agree with Ryan that technology plays a large role in people’s lives these days. Many young people only know how to communicate through technology. When young people don’t know how to discover their authentic selves, it’s easy to define themselves based on what they see in social media, for example. SGI President Ikeda says that it is only by interacting with others that we can truly learn about ourselves. When we have less opportunities to interact meaningfully with others, it is very difficult to fully develop skills like empathy or compassion.

Ryan: I see a lot of students also struggling with family dynamics. One student was recently kicked out of her house. She’s been failing class as a result of her challenges at home. It’s common for youth to feel disconnected, even from their own families. If family relationships are fractured, I’m sure that also affects their ability to form healthy relationships with others.

Amelia: When I think about my own experiences in college, I think my loneliness was rooted in the belief that no one understood me, but that was because I didn’t understand myself. My loneliness came from my own lack of belief in my life. My Buddhist practice has been crucial in fundamentally shifting that feeling.

Do you feel that loneliness is related to lacking a sense of purpose?

Lillian: Yes. At a recent dialogue night event, a young woman shared that she feels that there are two types of loneliness: one is related to not being in a relationship, and the other is questioning the purpose of life.

Youth are so aware of what’s happening in the world, and they have a desire to find purpose and to do something with their lives, but those desires are not rooted in a sound philosophy. I met with a young woman in high school and her friends the other day. They love coming to SGI meetings because they get to talk about life, which they don’t do in school. When they were asked what they were interested in talking about, they said they wanted to learn about the purpose of life. I was so surprised by how they are grappling with such deep questions at such a young age.

What do you feel Buddhism offers as a solution?

Amelia: The Buddhist philosophy of human revolution, of inner-directed change, is a wellspring of hope for me. I went to a highly competitive performing arts high school, where I was outwardly social but inwardly felt deeply alone. As I began my Buddhist practice, it wasn’t as if I could pinpoint that I felt lonely or empty. But as I developed a practice for myself and others, I began to chip away at this insecurity that was blocking my path forward. From there, I started to develop a sense of who I was and what kind of person I wanted to be. The friendships I developed from that point on were based on caring for each other’s happiness, which was something new to me. Now, I see human revolution as this constant process of developing myself, and bringing forth the limitless potential I have within me to change my life and the world.

Ryan: When I was in high school, my family moved around a lot, and I didn’t have many good friends. My relationship with my mother, father and sister were not good, either. I lacked the confidence to be myself, and it affected how I interacted with others. Once I started practicing Buddhism in college, however, I began to focus on polishing myself and developing my ability to create meaningful relationships and genuine friendships.

Through taking part in SGI activities, I learned to develop confidence to engage with many different types of people, because our philosophy is rooted in the concept that everyone has a Buddha nature. By challenging myself to introduce others to this practice, I’ve learned to care about people on a deeper level.

Lillian: I was thinking about how lonely I used to feel. Most of the time, I was intoxicated or high. Why did I feel that way? I had many failed expectations. I didn’t have any hope for my life, and I decided nothing would change. At one of my first SGI meetings, I asked why, in addition to the positive functions on the Gohonzon, negative functions were also represented. My friend responded that everything in your life makes up who you are and can have value. I was blown away by that concept.

Through this practice and encountering the Gohonzon and President Ikeda’s words, I’ve learned to embrace all that I am and create value, even from the negative aspects of my life.

President Ikeda says: “When people have a genuine sense that, no matter how difficult their present circumstances, they are not alone but are vitally connected with others and with the world, they can stand up without fail. This is the power inherent in life” (The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 4, p. 105). The SGI’s neighborhood discussion meetings, which take place in 3,000 homes across the country, are spaces where people from all walks of life can come together, free of judgment, and engage with one another heart to heart. A lot of the research around loneliness talks about how human beings are social animals, and it is not natural for us as humans to isolate ourselves. When we attend discussion meetings, we come to realize that we are not alone—we are all interconnected.

Amelia: SGI discussion meetings have provided me an opportunity to connect with others I most likely wouldn’t have met otherwise. It’s an environment that proves world peace is possible. As a child, my mother would host discussion meetings in our home, and I would overhear the experiences of members and guests. I learned through these meetings that even though everyone was very different, it was possible for them to listen to, support and respect one another.

In the Afterword to volume 30 of The New Human Revolution (see sidebar), President Ikeda talks about the principle of “voluntarily assuming the appropriate karma” and names loneliness as a suffering that we decided to take on to help others. What are your thoughts on this?

Lillian: I feel that loneliness is a manifestation of our society. It’s a wake-up call to us that people’s hearts are dying! This idea that we have voluntarily chosen our karma to lead people to happiness is empowering. It gives meaning to my suffering. In the depths of my life, I chose to experience loneliness so I can understand the suffering of others, and help them transform this karma. That’s what gives my struggles meaning. Instead of feeling like I just have to get rid of my problems, I ask myself how I can use them to create value for myself and others. This is the profundity of our philosophy of hope.

From the Afterword to The New Human Revolution, Volume 30

“Teacher of the Law,” the 10th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, states: “These people voluntarily relinquish the reward due them for their pure deeds and, in the time after I have passed into extinction, because they pity living beings, they are born in this evil world so they may broadly expound this sutra.” The Great Teacher Miao-lo of China identifies this passage as articulating the principle of “voluntarily assuming the appropriate karma.”

We have chosen, in accord with our vow as bodhisattvas, to be born into the evil age of the Latter Day of the Law with all sorts of destinies, or karma—illness, financial hardship, family discord, loneliness, low self-esteem and the list goes on—to help guide others to enlightenment. But by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, striving in our Buddhist practice for ourselves and others, and dedicating our lives to kosen-rufu, our vibrant life force as Bodhisattvas of the Earth and the expansive life state of Buddhahood well forth within us. Our lives will brim with the wisdom, courage, strength, hope and joy to overcome every hardship and daunting obstacle that arises. As we bravely triumph over the onslaughts of karma, we demonstrate the validity of the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism and the tremendous benefit of our Buddhist practice, and further advance kosen-rufu. In fact, we have willingly taken on these hardships and sufferings in order to do just that.” (March 2019 Living Buddhism, p. 16)

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