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Noticing What Makes Us Joyful and Strong

“With awareness, we can make conscious choices, instead of letting our habitual thoughts and patterns run the show.” – Tamara Levitt, Canadian mindfulness instructor

Yesterday I was paying close attention to June (also known as me). She is “up” – up as in a good mood, not having just a momentary positive emotion, mind you, but a pervasive, wide and deep, happy mood.

June has also done something brave. Something she has never had the courage to do. (This detached way of observing "June" is a method I sometimes use to increase mindfulness).

Curiosity sets in. How did June get here to this upbeat, strong state?

Was it the joke shared in the morning? It did bring a laugh, but it was short-lived. How about the twenty minutes of scrolling through different news sources?

Learned that British Prime Minister, Liz Truss, had resigned after only six weeks on the job throwing the UK into turmoil. Pandemic, also some Ukraine and Russia updates.

No, for sure, nothing in the news could account for my mental strength and bliss out. In fact, that so called "doom scrolling" made the very idea of living in a good, safe, flourishing world appear harder than climbing Mount Everest in a blinding snowstorm.

After examining the various possibilities, I landed on two very likely sources of my enthusiastic mood and mental hardiness. It was related to something I read (after the news) and my social situation.

What I read was the transcript of a conversation between Dr. Vivek Murthy and Father Gregory Boyle. Murthy served as surgeon general of the United States under Obama, Trump, and Biden. He’s the author of the book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connections in a Sometimes Lonely World.

In his book Murthy argues that loneliness is the basis of the current crisis in mental health and is responsible for the increase in suicides, the opioid epidemic and more. Murthy claims that Americans are suffering from a lack of human connection and its affecting heart disease, dementia, sleep, depression, anxiety, and premature death (In fact he says people with weak social relationships are fifty percent more likely to die early).

Then the good part. The way out. Murthy's prescription for getting well.

Spend time with people we love – at least fifteen minutes a day really connecting with those we care about. Focus on the other, forget multi-tasking. Build a stronger connection with yourself by finding ways to enjoy solitude with music, nature, art for example. Help others and let others help you.

As I mentioned, this transcript I was reading was a conversation between two people. The other one , Father Gregory Boyle, though I have never met him in person, is my superhero.

Boyle is a Jesuit priest. He founded and operates the largest gang rehabilitation program in the world – Homeboy Industries. I have loved reading each of his three books – Tattoos on the Heart, Barking To The Choir, and The Whole Language. He’s funny and he’s the “real deal” as one of my friends describes him.

Boyle has been able to create a culture where people from rival gangs embrace each other both figuratively and literally. Though these “homies”(as he calls them and they call themselves) have come from indescribably horrible situations, they are able to connect with each other – human being to human being.

Much of the wisdom Boyle shares (as well as the humor) comes from the homies themselves. One of his mantras learned from a homie, went something like, “If you’re humble, you won’t stumble.”

Boyle says It reminds him to be authentic, open, vulnerable about who he is. Boyle recounts a time when he told a homie that he loved him, but sometimes he was a pain in the ass. The homie assured him that the feeling was mutual.

Peeking into these men’s minds, hearing their wisdom and humor buoyed my spirits. Thinking about what they are bringing to the world gave me hope and set me up for feeling good and feeling strong.

After reading the transcript of the conversation between Murthy and Boyle, I went downstairs to connect with four family members. These are people I love and care about. People who accept me and value me. The very folks Murthy mentions in his prescription for getting well. We are all staying at the family cabin at Lake Wenatchee.

I did think about the fact that we are in the woods by a lake – in nature. Forest bathing as the Japanese call it. It is known to positively affect our emotions. Fore sure being in nature certainly helps renew me. But I have never noticed that it makes me feel...strong, courageous.

Okay, so what did I do yesterday that was so brave? I share it at the risk of embarrassment in hopes of helping us learn how to deal with ourselves more effectively.

Brace yourself and try not to laugh….I went for a walk. I know, I know, I am a big girl. Going on seven decades now.

Full confession now. In all these years, even though I have wanted to, I have never gone for a lengthy walk ALONE in the woods of Lake Wenatchee.

Why not? Well, don’t you realize there could be bears, cougars, loose dogs and possibly psychos roaming around the woods? These sorts of worries (coming from the lizard brain), realistic or not, are what keeps June from doing a thing she would love to do.

(Ok, step back a moment here. Instead of judging June as a wimp, switch it up. Dig down inside yourself. See if you can find your own worries and fears. It will help you be more empathic, understanding, AND possibly receive a useful takeaway.)

But guess what? Yesterday, after spending a little time with Murthy and Boyle and her own dear family, before she even realized it, June (yes, rest assured I do know this is me) was out the door. Walked for miles.

She was enjoying the brilliant colors. The smoke seemed inconsequential as she tuned in to the the soothing sounds of water, wind, and falling leaves. She reminisced about her Tennessee childhood when she played all day in the woods without a care in the world.

Yesterday was a powerful learning for me around mindfulness, noticing what affects me and how it affects me. What I put into my head, who I hang out with can and do powerfully impact me. Impact not just my mood, mind you, but what I can do, achieve.

It reminds me of the fascinating research done at the University of Virginia some years ago. The researchers taught people to estimate the incline of various hills quite accurately. Then they started messing with them and their perceptions.

What happened when researchers put packs on people's backs? That hill suddenly appeared much steeper.

What happened when researchers put another person beside the person estimating the incline of the hill? Strangely and miraculously, the incline of the hill shrank. Looked more like a molehill. Think about that!

Wrapping it up. If we want to journey together to the good life, we may want to be more mindful, notice where we put our attention – pay attention to what we are reading and listening to for example.

We can observe ourselves, see if where we are putting our attention is messing with our perception, creating a metaphorical pack on our backs. Is what we are attending to making our hills look incredibly steep? Once we become more aware, we can be more intentional, shift our gaze to more useful and elevating sources.

We may also want to be more intentional about connecting with people we love and who love us. That can shrink our mountains down to manageable molehills too.

…AND along the way, we can learn a bit more from the real deals, like Gregory Boyle and dedicated doctors like Vivek Murthy, about how to bridge divides, build community and healing cultures of connection, belonging, and love.

How might we journey together to The The Good Life as human beings…mindful, intentional, vulnerable, connected, strong, and joyful?

(I am eager to hear your stories, questions, and comments. You can email me directly. Soon I hope to have the comments section turned on as well, love, June)


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