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How to Connect to Strangers

December 19, 2019

You can practice most things; even things that most people don't think you can practice. You can practice optimism, kindness, and compassion. You can even practice how to make meaningful connections with people that you don’t know.

This practice is simple. It's something you can do most days, without having to adjust your schedule or make time for it. You most likely do it every day subconsciously.

Before we delve into the practice, I think it is important to talk about feeling lonely.

Loneliness

The feeling of being socially isolated is something I have dealt with all my life.

One of my earliest memories is of kindergarten in Kuwait where I was bullied. As I grew up, things did not improve. Being one of the very few people of colour at primary school made me a target of physical bullying. This experience encouraged me to learn how to defend myself and most of it had stopped around the time I was 15 while attending a more racially diverse school.

Although the physical torment had stopped, he feelings of social isolation and the sense of being alone continued to stay with me.

Years later, these feelings still remained in my life. At the darkest points of my depression, so much of my writing revolved around loneliness. Loneliness, for me, was not about whether I was surrounded by people or not. It was a sense of apartness;a distance. Sometimes being with people actually felt worse. At least when I'm physically alone I have a reason to be lonely. To feel loneliness in a group of people seems without reason. Trying, and failing, to connect felt worse than choosing not to try. When these feelings got to be too much I would react by doing all I could to isolate myself. I would turn off my phone; I’d stop going on social media; I’d stay at home whenever that was an option. I would hide.

After a decade of struggling, I realised that hiding was not the healthiest way of dealing with these feelings of loneliness. There isn't one thing we can do to "get better", but there are a few things we can do that help. When we do enough of these smaller things, the light of connection at the end of the tunnel doesn't seem so distant anymore.

Practicing connection

The practice of connection I wish to talk about is a variation on a form of meditation called 'Metta' meditation. It is also known as loving-kindness or compassion meditation. In traditional practices of this meditation, you sit or lie down, and repeat some mantras in a specific way.

This particular variation below is something you can do on the go. You can practice this anywhere and everywhere you interact with people.

  1. Start by noticing another individual.

    This could be a stranger in line at the grocery store. Or it could be someone you see whilst walking in the street. Acknowledge them as an individual, not just another face in the crowd. This is a person you see. They have family, friends, and loved ones. They have hopes and aspirations, struggles and successes. They are human beings trying to navigate this mad world just like you and just like me.

  2. Next pick one of the following mantras, and silently direct it at them. Repeat the mantra in your head for as long as you can see this person.

    Here are the mantras:

    • May you be happy
    • May you be healthy
    • May you be safe
    • May you live with ease
  3. When you repeat the mantra try to feel the words as much as you can. Try to want the person to be happy. Imagine how important it is for that person that they be safe. Consider how much positive impact it has on their life that they be healthy.

  4. Find another individual, and repeat.

Feeling the words as you say them takes practice. It's not something that will happen all at once or straight away. The more you practice this, the better you'll be at genuinely wanting the strangers you see to be happy. The same is true for other loving-kindness practices.

Does it work?

The science suggests it does. It has also been my experience that my sense of connection to people increased. Of course I always knew that everyone has their own shit to deal with, but now that awareness and consideration is on my mind more often. I find myself being more understanding when people wrong me. Of course I can still feel annoyed, sad, or disappointed when it happens. But a part of me will understand and forgive, because I now find it easier to imagine what might have lead them to doing what they did. I find it easier to imagine what might lead me to do the same.

Now when I'm walking down the street, I'm not surrounded by a faceless crowd. These are individuals, figuring out their lives. Individuals just like me.

And now, sometimes, I don't feel so alone.

Ibby EL-Serafy

Ibby EL-Serafy

Hey, I'm Ibby, a human being living in Sheffield