WHY WE WANT IT, WHY WE ARE NOT GETTING IT AND HOW TO GET MORE OF IT
“We are neurobiologically wired for connection”
Dr Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, 2018
We will go to almost any lengths to feel connected to something - anything. If our relationships with ourselves and others are unsatisfying we may search for it in other ways – through alcohol, drugs, food (especially chocolate), shopping or social media. The communities that may have traditionally offered us this connection have all but gone. Our neighbourhoods have changed – fences are higher, people are busier, and fear is rampant. Perhaps it used to be the church that offered a sense of belonging, then maybe we looked to corporations to provide that community for us. Now, for many of us, the very human face to face connection we all crave has been replaced by the unfulfilling vortex of social media. On the surface, we are “more connected” than we ever have been, however the flimsy tech-enabled lure of “Instabook” often leaves us feeling more unsatisfied and lonelier than ever. It is no surprise that rates of depression and anxiety are increasing (WHO, 2014), as we become more and more reliant on technology and less and less connected to ourselves and each other.
Working in mental health and wellbeing for over 20 years has been one of the most rewarding and challenging parts of my life. When I reflect on the hundreds of individuals and organisations with whom I have worked, connection has been the most pivotal component in predicting the efficacy of our work together. Our ability to connect with ourselves and each other appears to be one of the most important skills we can learn and something we need to consciously foster in our world if we are to tackle the mental health crisis we are facing.
The concept of connection officially revealed itself to me as I was attempting to efficiently “package up” the clear benefits of mindfulness. I came up with three: Clarity, Calm and Connection. The first two were really obvious and scientifically validated hundreds of times over. Mindfulness helps us to think more clearly, to focus more effectively, to be more creative and to chill out. The Connection piece was more nebulous and less discussed but at the same time, possibly the most profound shift I personally experienced as a result of my own mindfulness and meditation practise.
Connection has two components; connection to ourselves and connection to others. Both are important. Connection to ourselves sounds like it belongs in a sentence with “peace, love and mung beans”, let me flesh it out a bit for you.
Connection to Ourselves
We may as well get to know ourselves (and dare I say, like ourselves), we are with us every day and every night whether we like it or not, it seems wise to spend some time investing in this relationship. The crazy thing is, few of us have any idea how to do it – and, if you are anything like me, we don’t even know that it is an option. This is where our mindfulness and meditation practice can come in. Through our meditation we start to learn and really understand that what makes us “us” is something bigger and more powerful than our thoughts and emotions or even our body, intellect or personality. It is that ineffable part of us that is always there, always steady, always calm. It can become the warm embrace of our very own best friend, there with us all the time.
For many of us, this deeper part within us has been forsaken for others’ beliefs and opinions and sometimes even values and goals. We think the voice in our head is actually our voice but, we may find that it is often that of (often well meaning) primary care-givers, ancestors or even society itself.
The following section of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey” describes this beautifully:
……….but little by little,
As you left their voices behind,
The stars began to burn
Through the sheets of clouds,
And there was a new voice
Which you slowly recognized as your own,
That kept you company
As you strode deeper and deeper
Into the world,
Determined to do
The only thing you could do-
Determined to save the only life you could save
Over our journey into adulthood, we have often so habitually abandoned ourselves, that we don’t even know who we are anymore. We can’t hear our own voice for all the chatter from friends, family and society – all telling us who we should be and what we should have. We chase the next “shiny thing” in the hope that will finally make us happy when in fact it can do quite the opposite, as the goal posts seem to always be changing. Johan Hari, in his excellent book “Lost Connections”, 2018, discusses the tendency many of us have to adopt “junk values”. He argues that it is in fact our pursuit of goals such as wealth, fame and beauty that can contribute to our rising states of depression and anxiety and he suggests that we take time to discover our personal value system, rather than simply slipping on any old one “Instabook” or the Kardashians happen to be selling that week.
Connection to Others
Of course, once we realise that we are not our thoughts (or body or emotions etc.) we may start to entertain the possibility that actually, we are connected to everything and everyone around us. We are an integral part of the hum of the human race, we are one little thread in the tapestry. My breath is your breath – we share this experience of being human. We have evolved as social beings, we need each other to survive – we even have an entire part of the brain dedicated to attachment and relationships. Johan Hari suggests that rates of depression and anxiety are increasing not because we “have broken brains” but because we are “animals whose needs are not being met”. Global levels of loneliness are rising (Brown, 2018) – we must find our way back to each other.
In 2015 I was part of a team to set up a yoga, meditation and fitness studio. We studiously did all of our planning and market research, we knew meditation was the next big thing in the wellbeing space. We created out muse and developed our brand, we fitted out the studio and recruited our team. We thought we were setting up a wellbeing studio – it turns out however, the reception area (where we served complimentary tea and bubbly water) was the most frequented room in the studio – our guests were simply desperate to connect. We had set up a Connection Studio.
Since 2013 I have offered a range of workshops to my corporate clients. At one time – there were three on the “menu”; Clarity (problem solving, decision making & creativity), Calm (stress management) and Connection (leadership, teamwork & compassion). Overwhelmingly, my clients chose the third workshop – even though they did not quite have the words to describe it – they sensed connection was what their organisation was hungry for and they were always right.
Imagine if we could get out of our own way enough to authentically connect with other people in our lives – at work, at home, and in our communities. We could simply start by putting down our devices and looking people in the eye. Consider the positive impact we could have in our pursuits to care for the environment with more wisdom when we really understand, on a deep and personal level that we are living in an intricate and vulnerable system and that our very survival depends on our behaviour.
“Connection” will be the word for 2019/20 – I can feel it in my bones.