Connection to Ourselves and Each Other

WHY WE WANT IT, WHY WE ARE NOT GETTING IT AND HOW TO GET MORE OF IT

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“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 Now, for many of us, the very human face to face connection we all crave has been replaced by the unfulfilling vortex of social media.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.

Mindfully Mum

FINDING CLARITY, CALM AND CONNECTION WITHIN THE CHAOS OF MOTHERHOOD

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Originally posted 2016

Becoming a mother was one of the most exciting and challenging roles I had ever accepted.
The job ad read a little something like this:

“Are you in your 30s, in a serious relationship, already have a dog and looking for the next step?
Join our growing organization and find your real purpose!

We are seeking capable, intelligent and loving women to join our flourishing group. You will have some prior experience with children and relatively strong pelvic floor muscles.

You will be rewarded with long, warm snuggles, unconditional love and affection and a sweet smelling sleepy baby. You will enjoy shopping for cute baby clothes, knowing smiles from strangers and compliments on the cuteness of your offspring.

You will experience satisfaction from your new role and will feel fulfilled and challenged. Working hours are flexible and uniform typically consists of yoga pants and baggy t-shirts.

Apply at applications@mummeup.com.au”

And for some women, the reality of the role may, in fact be very close to the job ad. For me, they were quite different…… Yes, there were (and still are) occasional long snuggles and some shopping for cute baby clothes and there are absolutely elements of satisfaction and intense meaning that this role has brought to my life. However, the flexible working hours did not turn out to be quite as flexible as originally promised and my manager (the child, not the husband) seemed to be very unpredictable, totally incapable of taking accountability for his actions and very unsure of what he really wants! Not to mention the tears (from everyone) and the feelings of loss of identity, loneliness and life focus. Questions like “who am I now that I am a mother?” “when will I ever have time for myself?” “How does she manage to do it all and I can barely manage a shower?” and “Am I doing this right?” made regular appearances in the chatter of my mind. Thank goodness I discovered mindfulness, just in time. Just as I was becoming completely disengaged and a little resentful, mindfulness reached out and tickled my curiosity. It may have just saved me from losing all of my marbles…

MIndfulness - The definition

The formal definition of mindfulness is “Moment to moment, non-judgmental awareness” (Jon Kabat-Zinn) but I quite like to think of it as “being open and curious to what is actually happening, rather than what we think is happening”. As mothers we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about what is happening, rather than taking part in what is happening. It is this constant chatter of our very busy minds that can get us into trouble and distract us from engaging wholly in our own lives.

Mindfulness is a skill that can be learnt by anyone. It is nurtured simply by paying attention with an open and accepting approach. It involves removing our judgment (black and white thinking – good mum/bad mum etc) and applying the compassion and acceptance we may typically reserve for other, to ourselves. Sounds simple hey? And it is but simple doesn’t mean easy.

Nurturing this skill takes practice and commitment as we are literally rewiring our brain. We are gaining insight into our thought patterns and habits and deciding whether they are useful for us now in our current lives and in our current roles. Through this process we introduce the element of CHOICE to our experience and bring a greater degree of clarity, calm and connection into our existence.

Our mindfulness skills can be developed through formal practices such as meditation, yoga or relaxation exercises or informal practices such as simply paying attention to what we are doing. We can fold laundry mindfully, we can brush our teeth mindfully, we can listen and engage with our kids mindfully, we can even wipe their little butts with awareness! Research tells us “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind” so our task is to reign in this wandering animal and use it for good rather than allowing it to use us for evil (such as freaking out because the nappy is not on perfectly straight!).

So how does performance in the motherhood role look when we approach it with a greater degree of mindfulness? By simply bringing awareness to both our internal (thoughts and feelings) and external (behaviors) experiences, we can examine them with more clarity and make the executive decision as to whether they are contributing positively to our existence. Are they enhancing our relationships or slowly destroying them? Are they boosting our self-esteem or stripping them? And ultimately, are they contributing to our happiness?

Tips for finding more clarity, calm and connection

1 The “Now What?” Meditation Inspired by Denise Roy (Momfulness)

You know those times you are trying to get your kid in the car, running late for a meeting and still trying to eat your toast and your kid decides he would prefer to sit in the front seat rather than his seat in the back? It is during these times that this practice is particularly useful. All it takes is three mindful breaths.

1. First Breath – connect with your internal strength and ground yourself (stop the crazy spinning thoughts!)
2. Second Breath – tune into your kid – what is going on for them? Are they tired, hungry, not wanting to go to school today?
3. Third Breath – Ask yourself – now what? How do I need to be in this moment? What is going to help me here?

2 R . A . I . N

This is a handy practice to use when you feel like you have lost many of your marbles and would quite like to gain a little more clarity and perspective in a situation you are finding stressful. It is a four-step approach and uses the acronym R.A.I.N:

R – Recognize your experience (“ah…I am feeling anxious”) Where am I feeling it in my body? how do I know I am anxious?
A – Allow it to be (“hello anxiety my old friend”) Can you breathe into it and allow more space for it to be there? can you let go of any belief that this feeling is bad or wrong?
I – Investigate the possible learnings (“what are you telling me anxiety?”). This stage is REALLY important, it may be here you gather more information about your values or even your own personal childhood traumas that have triggered you. This is not just a “head thing”, we are not just thinking about it, we need to tune into our body here. This takes practice and meditation is a great place to do that.
N – Non-attachment and Nurture (“I know I am feeling anxious but it is just a feeling and it does not need to overwhelm me as I know it will pass”) and then we show ourselves some loving attention: “I know this is hard darling, I know you are trying your best”, this can be facilitated by stopping, breathing deeply (especially elongating the exhalation) and putting our hand firmly but softly on our heart area (giving ourselves and our body a little loving snuggle).

Hopefully these tips will bring more clarity, calm and connection to your role as a mum. It is a wonderful job and we are incredibly lucky and blessed to have been successful in our application and as long as we don’t let our minds (and all of the expectations, worries and irrational beliefs) run the show – I believe we can continue to find meaning, satisfaction and fulfillment, even in the sleep deprived chaos of it all!